December 22, 2005
The Lady Vanishes
I'm sitting between the two most different women imaginable here at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills: a matronly lumpish type who is well past her 50s, unmade up with short, graying hair and long triangular earrings -- her only testament, of sorts, to fashion; and on the other side of me, a plasticized lady of the same indeterminate age, wearing a black leather miniskirt and crocodile skin yellow boots and an expression on her face -- if one can call the pearly botoxed look an expression -- of disbelief and shock.
We three strangers are sitting in the way back of the temple, in that second room they open up only for special occasions like the High Holidays or this Writer's Block event featuring Maureen Dowd, who is being interviewed tonight by Aaron Sorkin, "West Wing" creator and more relevantly, for this evening, Dowd's ex-boyfriend.
Thousands have turned out on this late November evening to hear the redheaded New York Times columnist talk about her new book, "Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide" (Putnam), which had been recently excerpted in The New York Times Magazine.
About three-quarters of the people in the audience are women -- for the most part, women in their late 30s and older; in other words, not the generation of women Dowd is writing about in this book when she says they are turning back the clock on feminism, reverting to traditional gender roles, rejecting all that the women generations before them -- probably like the women in this audience -- had fought for.
It's an odd setting for this type of discussion: Hanging over the stage are the two tablets of Moses bearing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. My eyes rest on Lo Tin'af -- Thou Shalt Not Covet (thy neighbor's wife) -- as Dowd and Sorkin, flanked by the Israeli and American flags, talk about matters far from holy.
Well, talk is an exaggeration. Spar is more like it. Sorkin, an expert TV writer ("he's the guy who put the president we wish we had in the White House," as he was introduced) is self-admittedly no expert interviewer. But still, he cannot get Dowd to straightforwardly answer many questions about her book. Actually, he can hardly get a word in edgewise.
In person, Dowd is like her columns: a coy, witty one-liner queen.
"That's why I wrote this book," she explains. "Because when you cover the White House, you never get to write about sex."
She says how Bush Sr. didn't know what a bikini wax was and our current president didn't realize "Sex and the City" was a TV show. But beyond these witticisms, it's hard to get at the depth of what Dowd is trying to say.
Each time Sorkin tries to ask her a question -- Does she think men aren't necessary? Is feminism really over? -- she, Jewishly, answers a question with a question, and interrupts with a question of her own. Why is Sorkin one of the only men in Hollywood who can write a strong woman character (like C.J. Cregg on "The West Wing"), Dowd wants to know. Why are there never any compelling roles for women on the screen, she asks. Compelling questions, for sure, but not ones we've come for tonight. Nor is Sorkin getting what he wants, as he tries to turn the interview back on the subject herself. Yes, we're in Hollywood -- OK, Beverly Hills -- but just for once could we not discuss the industry? Can we discuss Karl Rove and Presidents Bush and the topic at hand, "Are Men Necessary?" and its subtext, "Is Feminism Over?"
But Dowd practically won't let that happen.
Which leads me to question her original theory, that men don't like smart women, that men only want to marry their secretaries and assistants, that men want to go back to the 1950s. Maybe men don't like women like her. Women who interrupt. Women who talk over them. Women who have to prove how smart they are in the most succinct way possible. Women who make mean and snarky comments -- women who are more than challenging: These are women who need to win. Always.
That's why the woman next to me -- the plastic surgery one, the one who probably looks less like a feminist than the plastic surgeon who recreated her, is shaking her head in frustration. Her manicured nails are tapping her folded arms, a defensive posture as she nods her head, tsk tsk tsk. We don't speak but we catch eyes, and then I turn to my right and see the short-haired woman with the same expression on her face: We are all united in our antipathy, three women of different generations, economic backgrounds and certainly fashion sense. We thought we'd be united here tonight in a rallying call to revive feminism, to get back in touch with our values, to take back the night, to be empowered, but instead it's just another celebrity event, interesting but insubstantial, a possible role model -- oh how we wish Dowd could be who we hoped her to be -- fallen from on high.
Sure, at the end of the Q & A -- where many Qs are asked and not many As are given -- there will be a line snaking out the door of the temple to sign books and get a smile from the famous columnist. Sure, many women on their way out are glad they got to eavesdrop on such a private public conversation. But right now, in the middle of the event, the three of us are all crossing our arms, tapping various parts of our bodies. That is, until Ms. Beverly Hills stands up, pulls down her leather skirt and excuses herself past us. She's leaving in the middle, and barely glances at the stage -- Dowd, Sorkin, Ten Commandments and all -- on her way out.