Civil Liberties

Vagina Dialogue

Do conservatives really know what all women want?


A century ago, the original vagina monologuist, Sigmund Freud, threw up his hands and famously asked: What do women want?

We now have the definitive answer, thanks to a recent Harris Interactive poll and a telling April 7 analysis provided by the conservative newspaper The Washington Times. The survey, commissioned by that peerless researcher of America's sexuality, Dodge Trucks, asked 1,000 men and 1,200 women about their preferences regarding the opposite sex.

The main finding, according to the Times–a paper owned by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, who has orchestrated more marriages than Elizabeth Taylor, Billy Bob Thornton, and Zsa Zsa Gabor combined–is that it's time for all you sensitive men to sell those quiche futures.

"Manly men are back," crows the subhead over the story, which notes that "a full 61 percent of women surveyed said they would rather see a man's hands rough and working hard than well-manicured, a slap in the face to the extreme-makeover, suave-guy crowd. Ninety-two percent of women said dependability is a desirable characteristic in an ideal mate. Only 16 percent chose 'fashionable,' while 62 percent chose 'strong' as a desirable characteristic." Nearly half of women said their hypothetical "ideal man" spends his dough on "electronics," and only 9 percent said their dreamboats should buy "designer clothes."

This poll–or at least the Times' reading of it–stinks worse than a freshly opened can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew. Note, for instance, the implied opposition between "dependable" and "fashionable," as if moussing your hair and watching Queer Eye for the Straight Guy leaves no time for a fellow to take out the trash or finish that goddamned deck. Dependability and fashionability simply are not mutually exclusive categories, any more than "sensitive" and "man" are (cf. Alan Alda and Phil Donahue).

Then there's the use of anti-feminist author F. Carolyn Graglia as the voice of Athena. "A good husband is one who is strong, dependable, is going to accept the burdens which he is going to bear in the workplace," she tells the Times. "And he doesn't have to buy his own shampoo, because I do all the shopping. He doesn't have to do anything but go out to work and win the bread."

Sorry, boys, Mrs. Graglia is taken (by late-'90s campus speech cause c?l?bre Lino Graglia, who roughs up his hands as a University of Texas law professor). There is more to Graglia's take on post-Flintstones-era gender roles than her insistence that grocery stores remain female-only empowerment zones. In a Reason review of Graglia's 1998 book Domestic Tranquility, which makes June Cleaver look like Gloria Steinem, Contributing Editor Cathy Young noted that conservative commentators had applauded Graglia as "a courageous thinker." Wrote Young, "I suppose it does take courage to argue that it's not good for women to think too much, or to suggest that female genital mutilation is just a slightly too 'draconian' way to achieve the worthy goal of curbing female sexual assertiveness and affirming male mastery in sex."

None of this is to deny that some women want "manly men" who don't know where the shampoo aisle is in the supermarket. But is it really that threatening to conservatives to live in a world that delivers on the promise implicit in the old Irish Spring ads? That you can be manly, yes, but still take an active interest in your hygiene?

More to the point: We live, thankfully, in a world that allows more ways of being male (and female) than ever before. The argument that there's only one way of being desirable to women is limper than the wrists of the designer-clothing-clad metrosexuals who doubtless populate the nightmares of Graglia and company.

Which isn't to say Graglia's wrong. Or that any woman can ever be wrong. Had Freud bothered to consult Chaucer's Wife of Bath, he wouldn't have been so stupefied. At the end of her tale, she delivers a bit of wisdom that has yet to be improved upon: When it comes to love, "A woman will have her will."