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In 2004, E. Jean Carroll promised to help you land a man. Now she’s asking if you need one.

E. Jean Carroll’s oeuvre shows us how dramatically the way we talk about women’s pain has changed.

E. Jean Carroll at her home in Warwick, NY on June 21, 2019.
E. Jean Carroll at her home in Warwick, New York.
Eva Deitch/Washington Post/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Beloved advice columnist E. Jean Carroll’s new book asks a simple question: What Do We Need Men For? But 15 years ago, Carroll took the importance of men as a given. She even had a suggestion for women trying to meet more men: Why not go on a man-themed road trip?

“Grab a friend, load up the car, roll back the roof, throw a kiss to the local lads, and hit every burg between Clarence, New York, and Maxwell, California, named after a man,” Carroll advises in her 2004 book Mr. Right, Right Now!: Man Catching Made Easy. “If you do it right and stop by the baseball game in Gary, Indiana, and the Fireman’s Breakfast in Hannibal, Missouri, you won’t even make it to wherever you were heading. You’ll be engaged to three different men before you hit Cecil, Pennsylvania.”

Thirteen years after Mr. Right was published, Carroll embarked on the exact inverse of the journey she’d previously suggested. In 2017, she set out to travel across the country, determined to stop at every town with a woman’s name between Tallulah, Louisiana, and Eden, Vermont.

Carroll made the trip into a man cleanse. She listened only to music performed by women, wore only clothes designed by women, read only books written by women’s and ate only at restaurants with women’s names. (Or in a pinch, an Amy’s frozen meal, in keeping with the theme.) And everywhere she went, she asked the locals a single question: What do we need men for?

That road trip is now the basis for What Do We Need Men For?: A Modest Proposal, released July 2. In the new book, Carroll posits that men are at the root of all of the problems she has been called on to solve for women in her role as Elle’s long-standing advice columnist, and as an illustration of sorts of the problem of men, she offers readers a running tally of what she calls “The Most Hideous Men of My Life List.”

Reading What Do We Need Men For? alongside Mr. Right, Right Now is a study in contrasts. The two titles make clear just how dramatically the culture has changed in the past 15 years — and how much pain and anger was always lurking just below the surface of the giddy, gotta-catch-a-man discourse of the 2000s.

What Do We Need Men For? finds no convincing answer to its question

Most of the press coverage of What Do We Need Men For? has been devoted to Carroll’s Hideous Men List, on which the last man named is President Donald Trump. Carroll accuses Trump of having attacked her in the mid-1990s in a dressing room at New York’s Bergdorf Goodman department store; the passage describing the alleged attack went viral when a version of it was excerpted in New York magazine earlier this month. Although Carroll doesn’t use the word herself, the attack she describes meets the legal definition of rape. (Trump denied the allegation in a press release, saying “she’s not my type.”)

But Trump is just one of many men on the Hideous Men List. (“I assure you that I have been attacked by far, far better men than the president,” Carroll says.) He’s No. 20, and there are 19 more, ranging from children who Carroll says sexually assaulted her when she was very young to the ex-husband who she says choked her to a man who yells obscenities at her from his car to Carroll herself. (She puts herself on the list for flashing a male college professor during a lecture.)

All of this listing and cataloging of offenses sounds grim, but What Do We Need Men For? is in actuality a bit of a romp. It’s a whimsical book, a book that approaches its high-concept road trip with tongue firmly in cheek. Carroll peppers her sentences liberally with bubbly asides to her readers, whom she always addresses as Ladies: “I can tell you, Ladies, without reserve, that in normal circumstances, I would be riveted to the ponytail, as I am a great ponytail aficionado and can rank the greatest ponytails I’ve seen in my life,” she confides, upon spotting a particularly exemplary high ponytail in Anita, Indiana.

She shows us photographs of her car, Miss Bingley (named for the mean girl in Pride and Prejudice), which she has hand painted with polka dots and frogs. When a girl in Elnora, Indiana, tells Carroll that “we [women] run things here,” Carroll celebrates by filling her grocery cart “to the brim with Amy’s! Amy’s! Amy’s! Amy’s! Amy’s!”

But What Do We Need Men For? is also sincerely horrified by all of the Hideous Men Carroll has experienced in her life, by all of the casual violence and disdain and misogyny that our society has allowed to flourish. The book is a romp mostly because it will be damned if it’s going to let those Hideous Men keep it from romping, and when Carroll suggests that all men should be sent off to reeducation camps, her tone suggests that she’s only half joking.

As for the answer to her titular question? Carroll hears plenty of possible responses. She ticks them off at the end of the book, and then dismisses them roundly: “‘Support!’ ‘Encouragement!’ ‘Companionship!’ ‘Comfort!’ — all traits that can be supplied by a Maine coon cat.”

Mr. Right, Right Now doesn’t bother to ask why we need men. It takes them as a given.

2004’s Mr. Right, Right Now is also a romp, but it’s a much more determined one. It’s a romp with a mission: Carroll is going to tell her readers how to find a man.

Why? Well, because you want a man. Obviously. Otherwise why else would you ever have picked up this book?

Mr. Right, Right Now came out in the era of The Rules, with its fervent strictures against women ever calling a man first or suggesting that they were seeking a commitment. And although Carroll dismissed The Rules and its ilk with a wave of her hand as the work of “charming dingbats” and advised her readers firmly to ask men out on dates and call first if they wanted to, there was more than a hint of the Rules ethos in her philosophy.

Carroll’s most central piece of advice in Mr. Right is that the most important thing a woman can do to land a man is to stop caring about men — not because men are inessential or unimportant, but because men are in fact deeply important, and if they think a woman doesn’t care about them they go wild for her! Just wild! Carroll calls this attitude the Man Catcher way.

“You know those scraggily gorgeous Swedish girls you see backpacking across Europe with their dusty Tevas and ice-blue sunglasses … the girls who pull jugs of Chianti out of their rucksacks and, tossing back kilometers of blond hair, gaze up at the sun and smile?” Carroll writes. “Well … that’s the kind of nonchalant, casual brain wave a Man Catcher is on, Doll.”

It’s the kind of description that, had it been published in the 2010s, would have become the subject of a thousand think pieces about the Man Catcher as the new Cool Girl or French Girl, a description that falls neatly into the trap of nearly all romantic aspirations sold to women. The idea is to be beautiful, but not to let the labor that creates your beauty show; to be carefree, but never messy; to be rich enough to casually backpack across Europe with bottles of wine but not rich in a way that seems high maintenance or snobby. It’s a fantasy built around the idea of being gazed at by straight men, and it disguises itself with platitudes about how what’s really important is to be yourself and not care what anyone else thinks.

But buried underneath that fantasy is a whole separate concern; namely, how deeply tiring and uncomfortable it is to live out such a fantasy. The work required to do so is so involved that a full book is required to walk the reader through the process, and it’s work you have to do less out of sincere desire than sheer obligation.

“Whatever else is going on, on the other stars and planets and Wiffle balls in the universe,” writes Carroll, “here on Planet Man Catcher, everything, whether obvious or oblique, is about females bewitching males and creating the next generation.”

In Mr. Right, Right Now, everything in the world is about bewitching men! Queer people do not seem to exist! Children are mandatory! It’s an exhausting idea. It’s also one that Carroll clearly does not personally espouse.

The main thing that changed between 2004 and 2019 is that a lot of hidden pain became unignorable

In What Do We Need Men For?, Carroll writes that since her encounter with Trump in 1995 or 1996, “I’ve never had sex with anybody ever again.” Mr. Right, Right Now came out in 2004, nearly a decade later.

Read in this light, Mr. Right, Right Now is not only exhausting, it is heartbreaking. All this effort, all this labor, all this single-minded focus on landing a man, and for what? What even is the point of it all?

But it’s not until What Do We Need Men For? that Carroll articulates that question out loud. And what happened in between wasn’t that she discovered new wells of pain or anguish that she hadn’t known about before, pain that made men seem optional rather than obligatory. Carroll’s Hideous Men entered the picture early and stuck around for a long time. She knew all about them and the pain they could cause when she wrote Mr. Right, Right Now.

What changed was that the #MeToo movement declared that women did not have to ignore the pain that they had experienced. They could talk about it, they could commiserate over it, they could decide that it mattered to them and did not have to be shoved to the side as unimportant. Pain does not have to be ignored because obligation to catch a man overrules everything else.

Instead, Carroll seems to have included, a woman can decide that she doesn’t need a man in her life at all. She can get by just fine with a Maine coon cat.

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