Why Can't a Woman Be More Like a Man?

January 20, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — The sexes, already at daggers drawn about so many things, now have something new to scrap about. It is Michael Crichton's novel ''Disclosure,'' number one this coming weekend on the New York Times best-seller list, with about one million copies already in print and the movie rights sold for $3.5 million.

Its subject is sexual harassment of an employee by his boss. A woman boss. Batten down the hatches.

Mr. Crichton has sold more than 100 million books worldwide -- 30 million in the United States in the last 18 months alone -- because his raw material (the adjective is just right) touches anxieties of the age. These include menacing science (''Jurassic Park''), menacing Japanese (''Rising Sun'') and now women who are menacing because they are as libidinous as many men are and powerful enough to behave as badly as many men do.

What do you call a steamy novel that is like those novels known as ''bodice-rippers,'' but with the sex roles reversed, a novel in which what gets ripped is a man's shirt? Whatever, Mr. Crichton has written one, with a political pamphlet embedded in it.

A young executive anticipating even greater glory at a high-tech Seattle corporation, DigiCom, is disappointed when a woman with a high ratio of political skills to technical knowledge gets promoted over him by the corporation's CEO, who is ''progressive'' about promoting women.

She is not only a former lover of the disappointed executive, but treats subordinate men as sex objects. Her first day in power she summons her former lover to an evening meeting, makes extremely aggressive advances -- ''He felt dominated, controlled and at risk'' -- and when he spurns her they both file sex-harassment complaints.

Here we go again: He says . . . she says. Who will believe him? His lawyer, that's who. The lawyer is a woman named Fernandez, which scrambles the calculus of political correctness. She says:

''Harassment is a power issue. And power is neither male nor female. Whoever is behind the desk has the opportunity to abuse power. . . . About 5 percent of sexual-harassment claims are brought by men against women. Its a relatively small figure. But then, only 5 percent of corporate supervisors are women. So the figures suggest that women executives harass men in the same proportion as men harass women.''

Mr. Crichton's premise -- that there is no difference between the sexes regarding abuse of power -- may or may not be true. But it certainly is a provocation to ''victim feminists,'' whose premise is that the world would be pretty much perfect if it were scrubbed clean of all vestiges of patriarchy.

With so many perfectionist dreams, from Rousseau's to Marx's, thoroughly discredited, it is late in the day for serious people to believe that something straight can be made from the crooked timber of humanity. But there always is a supply of credulous people, and one of Mr. Crichton's useful purposes in ''Disclosure'' is to annoy them.

So when a young female associate of Ms. Fernandez says, ''I just HTC can't believe a woman would act that way. So aggressively,'' she replies: Suppose this were a case of conflicting claims about, say, money -- about a contract. ''Would you assume that the man was lying because a woman wouldn't act that way?'' The associate says of course not, and Ms. Fernandez asks, ''So you think women are unpredictable in their contractual arrangements, but stereotypical in their sexual arrangements?''

Mr. Crichton's novels are not deathless literature but they are terrific thermometers measuring social fevers. ''Disclosure'' is symptomatic of the fact that many men evidently feel set-upon and eligible for a slice of the status of victim. Hence the broadside delivered by a Crichton character against affirmative action:

''Look: When I started in DigiCom, there was only one question: Are you good? . . . Now ability is only one of the priorities. There's also the question of whether you're the right sex and skin color to fill out the company's HR [human resources] profiles. And if you turn out to be incompetent, we can't fire you. Pretty soon, we start to get junk.''

In the 1930s a didactic, even preachy kind of novel called ''socialist realism'' was all the rage among novelists on the left. But the world turns and today Mr. Crichton has produced a work of what can be called ''conservative realism,'' presenting the world the way many conservatives want readers to see it. ''Disclosure'' is a better broadside than novel, but between you, me and the lamppost, the pamphlet in the novel is a good thing for a few million readers to run into.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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