Dumb and Dumber: An Essay and Its Editors

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By Katha Pollitt
Friday, March 7, 2008; 6:30 AM

I've never watched Oprah Winfrey's show, bought a Celine Dion CD, read "Eat, Pray, Love," or fainted at an Obama rally, although he is my preferred candidate. According to Charlotte Allen, that makes me an "outlier," an exception that proves the rule that women "always fall for the hysterical, the superficial and the gooily sentimental." But uh-oh: I used to watch "Grey's Anatomy" from time to time, and I even shed some tears when Denny died. Maybe being female has turned my "pre-frontal cortex into Cream of Wheat" after all. Maybe I'm just another "kind of dim" female, a charter member of "the dumber sex."

In a casual essay of 1,700 words, Allen manages to stir together a breathtaking mishmash of misogynistic irrelevancies and generalizations. One minute she's mocking women who bake cookies for their dogs; the next, she's castigating Hillary Clinton's campaign as "stupidest" partly because she fired her "daytime-soap-watching" Latina campaign manager too close to the Texas primary. (Note to Allen: Hillary won Texas with a flood of Latino votes.) She wonders why "no man contracts nebulous diseases" of possibly psychosomatic origins. (Note to Allen: Actually, they do.) She asks why women have more driving accidents. (Note to Allen: See below.) Could it be because women are mentally inferior, as proved by men's greater ability to mentally rotate three-dimensional objects in space? Unless it's a cute little puppy, that is, or maybe a cookie.

The upshot: we ladies should focus on what we're really good at -- interior decoration and taking care of men and children.

Oh, gag me with a spoon. Sure, girly culture can be silly -- but what does that prove? It's not as though men spend their evenings leafing through the plays of Moliere. Susie whips up doggy treats, Mike surfs porn sites; she curls up with the Friday Night Knitting Club, he watches football. Or maybe the two of them watch "Grey's Anatomy" together -- surprise, surprise, about half the show's audience is male. If you go by cultural preferences, actually, you could just as well claim that women are obviously smarter than men -- look around you at the museum, the theater, the opera house, the ballet, the concert hall. Women read more than men, too, especially fiction, which men tend to avoid. (A story about things that didn't happen? How does that work?) Women even read fiction by men and about men, further evidence of their imaginative powers -- while men, if they do pick up a novel, make sure it's estrogen-free. Who's really the dim bulb, the woman who doesn't see the beauty of "Grand Theft Auto," or the man who thinks Tom Clancy is a great writer?

For Allen, it's definitely the woman: her brain is just too puny. She cannot mentally rotate three-dimensional objects in space -- and that, as we all know, is the very definition of smarts. Funny how that definition keeps changing, as women conquer field after field that was supposed to be beyond them. In the 19th century, physicians insisted women couldn't cope with college: studying would send rushing to their brains the blood that was needed for the womb. Back then, nobody credited women with the superior verbal abilities and memories Allen says scientists now find women to possess.

True to form, she dismisses these as minor talents that only helped her "coast" through school and life. But back when the experts were explaining why women couldn't be lawyers or professors or poets (at least not very good poets), nobody said verbal skills and memory were trivial; they only became trivial when women were found to excel at them. Now the sexists diss women as inferior mental-object-rotators. I have no idea whether this is true, and whether if so it's unchangeable, but you have to admit this is a very narrow scrap of turf on which to plant the flag of manly superiority.

Oh, but I was forgetting driving, a crucial skill. Allen claims that the misogynist canard is true: thanks to their superior visuospatial abilities, men (although maybe not gay men?) are better drivers, with 5.1 accidents per million miles compared to women's 5.7. "The only good news," she adds, is that because they take fewer risks, women's accidents are only a third as likely to be fatal. That's a very interesting definition of ability behind the wheel: the better drivers are the ones who take more risks and are three times as likely to end up dead.

Why did Allen, by accounts a good reporter on religion in a previous life, write this silly piece? It's tempting to say she wrote it because she exemplifies the dimness and illogicality she describes -- after all, this is a woman who cheerfully claims not to be able to add much beyond 2+2. But I suspect that Allen, who works for the right-wing anti-feminist Independent Women's Forum, is just annoyed that so many educated middle-class women are cultural, social and political moderates and liberals. Democrats, in other words.

Girls swooning for Obama, Elizabeth Gilbert leaving her "perfectly okay husband" to eat, pray, love and write a huge best-seller, Meredith Grey and Dr. McDreamy smooching between surgeries, Hillary Clinton running for president instead of spending the rest of her life apologizing for her marriage -- it does indeed make a picture. But it isn't one of women's unique "stupidity" -- raise your hand if you think Hillary Clinton has a lower I.Q. than George W. Bush. What bothers Allen about this picture is that these women reject, with every fiber of their latte-loving beings, the abstinence-only, father-knows-best, slut-shaming crabbed misogyny of the Republican right.

A far more important question is this: Why did The Post publish this nonsense? I can't imagine a great newspaper airing comparable trash talk about any other group. "Asians Really Do Just Copy." "No Wonder Africa's Such a Mess: It's Full of Black People!" Misogyny is the last acceptable prejudice, and nowhere more so than in our nation's clueless and overwhelmingly white-male-controlled media. I can just picture the edit meeting: This time, let's get a woman to say women are dumb and silly! If readers raise too big a ruckus, Outlook editor John Pomfret can say it was all "tongue in cheek." Women are dingbats! Get it? Ha. Ha. Ha.

Here's a thought. Maybe there's another thing women can do besides fluff up their husbands' pillows: Fill more important jobs at The Washington Post. We should be half the assigning editors, half the writers, and half the regular columnists too (current roster of op-ed columnists: 16 men, two women). We've got those superior verbal skills, remember? Drastically increasing the presence of women isn't a foolproof recipe for gender fairness -- Allen is far from alone in her dislike of her sex -- but I have to believe a gender-balanced paper would reflect a broader view of women than The Post does at present.

A male editor with a lot of women colleagues on his level might think twice before proposing a sweeping denunciation, humorous or not, of "women." Ideally he would have come to respect women as equals from working with them -- but if he were just afraid of being seen as a total caveman, that would be okay too. And maybe this kind of editor would have flagged as tired cliches references to Oprah and Celine Dion; would have looked up the studies Allen claims prove women have the I.Q. of a bowl of cereal and found they don't say anything like that; would have wondered if more women bake doggy treats than subscribe to Scientific American or run marathons, and how does the treat-baker come to stand for all women?

And then, after all this, and seeing that Allen's piece still didn't ring even vaguely-kinda-sorta true, our imaginary editor would have asked a question. "You know what I think of this article?" a good editor would have said. "I think it's really stupid."

Katha Pollitt, a poet and essayist, is author, most recently, of "Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories."


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