A Unified Theory of Maureen Dowd
by Jim Miller
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd is a puzzle. She almost never writes about policy. The only exception I can think of is an occasional mention of some chip-on-the-shoulder feminist issue from the sixties. She rarely writes about the accomplishments, or lack of them, of any public figure. She is not even much interested in the horse race aspects of politics, unlike nearly all her journalistic colleagues. One can not imagine getting her attention by asking which party will win the Senate this year.
What she does write about is mostly gossip. This was true before the Times made her a columnist. She had a front page article passing on a nasty slur about Nancy Reagan from Kitty Kelly, and she later wrote an amusing piece on the ties worn by the members of the first Bush administration. And, it is true now. Whether she is writing a column about Al Gore or George W. Bush, her approach is the same, nasty putdowns are important, policy questions are not. For her, like many gossips, if it is amusing, it doesn't matter whether it is true. Last year, for example, she wrote that the Bush administration wanted to "spike" the water with arsenic, that is to add arsenic to the water. That this was untrue did not seem to matter to either her, or the Times.
Others have notice these patterns to her work. Some American students at Oxford even developed, with some help from other bloggers, the "Immutable Laws of Dowd" to describe her columns. This inspired me to try to find a unified theory for her work. As it happens, she has given us some hints. Though she turned 50 last January, she often refers to herself—and to other women— as girls. So, in trying to understand these patterns, we would do well to look at our middle schools and high schools.
What we find in those schools, among the girls 12 to 18, is not a pretty sight, if the reports of psychologists and sociologists are to be believed. These schools are ruled, at least on the girls side, by a few socially dominant girls, who are variously termed "alpha girls", "Queen Bees", or, most frankly, "really mean girls". The alpha girls set the standards for many other "beta girls", or "wannabees", who hover around them, hoping to be noticed and accepted. There are also, thankfully, some "gamma girls", who are outside this hierarchy and seem to be relatively decent people.
The world these alpha girls build for themselves is two thirds Hobbesian; it may not be short, but it is definitely nasty and brutish. They exercise control with some of the cruelest tactics this side of totalitarian governments, using exclusion, slurs, and outright lies. Deception is a standard part of their repertoire. Many alpha girls like to have a three way conversation, either by email or on the phone, with one of the other two girls not knowing that the third girl is listening or watching. One example struck me as especially dismaying. An alpha attacked another girl by leaving a message on her parents' answering machine, asking about the results of the girl's pregnancy test— a test that had never occurred.
They do all this for power, and, I suspect, to control access to the most attractive boys. (The boys seem mostly unaware of all this; in fact, if they are present, the alpha girls will not use some of their nastiest tactics. Many, including myself, think that women civilize men; perhaps we sometimes return the favor.) Their power is considerable; for example, one girl explained to a New York Times reporter how she and her clique set dress standards of amazing rigidity. If either the schools or the parents tried to do the same, they would face open revolts. The alpha girls seem to accept this power like the monarchs of old, as theirs by divine right.
Now then, which of the three types, alpha, beta, or gamma, is Maureen Dowd? She's a classic alpha girl, obviously. Just as she probably did in middle school and high school, she tries to control the social hierarchy with nasty gossip, not worrying much about whether it is true. Like the other alpha girls, she takes it as her divine right to rule. Think I have gone too far? Then read this Dowd column (scroll down), in which she complains that alpha girls are not running the United States. Others look at the alpha girls and think how awful they are; Dowd wonders why these little monsters can't continue their control. The next time you read a Dowd column and wonder about it, just imagine a junior high girl wreaking havoc, and seeking power, with her gossip.
Let me end with three questions worth pondering. What does it say about the good grey New York Times that it finds this alpha girl suitable, first as a reporter, and now as a columnist? And, why did the Pulitzer committee find this kind of work worthy of their highest prize? Finally, will Maureen Dowd ever grow up?Copyright © 2002, James R. Miller