Susan Faludi is the author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991) and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Her previous work dealt with the magnitude of men’s resistance to women’s struggle for equality and independence. This work starts with the query, “Why do men resist women’s gains?” but quickly shifts focus to explore the new nature of manhood in a media-driven age.
Faludi introduces her subject with an allegory of a father-to- son inheritance: an artificial star, or satellite, appearing in the heavens before the joint gaze of the father and son (out of the reach of the mother in the kitchen), marveling at the newest frontier to master. It appeared that these World War II “fathers had made their sons masters of the universe,” passing on an ethic of community responsibility, loyalty to job and family, and a clear set of skills to the sons. In the days of World War II, the real heroes were the ones honored in journalist Ernie Pyle’s dispatches from the front (where he was killed by enemy fire shortly before the war’s end). They were not the glamorous “flyboys” with silk scarves posing by fighter plane cockpits, but “little guys” who rose to acts of magnificent courage in the service of a common goal. By century’s end this image of masculinity had morphed to a media-induced “ornamental culture” which valued only celebrity, the appearance of masculinity now defined by name recognition rather than by skilled production, and devoid of any larger social purpose.
Faludi chooses her definition of masculinity from a mix of New Deal social responsibility and the paternal mentoring of apprentices in the skilled trades, combined with a healthy mix of community participation, or, as one of my male friends put it, a female’s ideal of what men should be. And, it should be clear from the outset, Faludi is in no way repudiating her feminism, or her critique of male and media attacks on women’s modest gains in the workplace and the family. Rather, she is turning her journalist’s skill to defining the experience of “the other side,” that is, men, who certainly do not feel powerful or secure in their positions.
The bulk of this book consists of her interviews with selected men, which serve to illustrate the corruption of the masculine image, but they seem almost randomly chosen. Why, for example, has she devoted 70 pages to the story of loyal fan Big Dawg’s despair at the Cleveland Browns leaving Cleveland in 1995, prefaced with a thumbnail sketch of economic indicators like the continued downsizing, corporate restructuring, and drop in men’s real wages during that period? Or why has she chosen the young men of the Spur Posse (a gang-type group of Los Angeles youths whose claim to fame was their violent sexual exploits) to show the hollowness of “the sons’” aspirations? She pairs this exploration of American youth with the cadets at the Citadel (the all-male military academy in South Carolina that was forced to admit a young woman), whose violent, sexually charged sadistic hazing of junior classmen had already become a symbol of perverse masculinity run amok. Both groups spoke of loyalty and the dependency of the individual on the group as a prime virtue, but Faludi disavows their predatory behavior as a valid exemplar of masculinity. In Backlash, she noted that the prevailing definition of masculinity until the 1980’s had been “good family provider,” which was even then being undermined by economic facts of life: plant closings which put blue collar men on unemployment lines and then in service sector jobs paying only a fraction of their former wages. By the mid- 1980’s, another group of discontented, angry younger men had emerged in the pollsters’ sights, men who were angry about their economically precarious position, and who blamed women for it. In Backlash, she handily debunked the claim that men’s shrinking ability to be the good provider was attributable to women’s taking “men’s jobs”; women’s gains were mainly at the lower-paid, female end of the labor force, and women were victims of these same economic shifts. Women became the scapegoats onto which society projected all of its fears.
In Stiffed, by contrast, she appears to blame “culture” for men’s ills. Culture in this sense is a protean concept that seems to have no clear boundaries. The United States has changed, she states, from “a society that produced a culture to a culture rooted in no real society at all.” The connections among this culture, economic forces, and social-psychological dynamics of father-son malaise seem ill- defined. Although she never loses sight of economic forces, they are “only surface symptoms,” masking a...
(The entire section is 1939 words.)