Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1939
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 deeper “crisis at the core, the need for a guiding father.” The “fathers” to whom she refers are the fathers of the World War II generation, who could not prepare their “sons” for the transformation from a utilitarian to an “ornamental” culture where media image has become reality, usurping the role of real accomplishment, of making something tangible. Women have long been objectified by the culture, and the women’s movement’s response was to challenge it. Men now also are expected to present the appearance of masculinity, defined by a consumerism that depends on display. Men are not used to this, however, which has been associated with femininity, and have no way of naming or confronting it.
Faludi is at her best when she is telling these men’s stories: members of the Christian Promise Keepers, the soldier present at the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, who refused to participate in the killing, a male porn star who was turning softy, actor Sylvester Stallone. However, she sets the scene for each of these personal histories in such overwhelming detail that it becomes difficult to see the relevance of each to her overall thesis. These oral histories seem to be used as epigrammatic of her theme rather than as evidence for it, and her historical vision goes back only as far as World War II. Pervading her description of each of these men’s lives is an overwhelming sense of longing for a past (even one less than a decade ago), when things were different and they could feel pride in their crafts and their place as men. If one goes back to the late nineteenth century, however, Thorstein Veblen’s scathing social commentary in The Theory of the Leisure Class(1899) made the distinction between productive and useful activities of industry and the conspicuous consumption and uselessness of the upper class. Veblen valued the “real work” of the engineer and the craftsman, who actually created something, and mercilessly mocked the foibles of the rich, whose only purpose was to show off their wealth. Faludi shares his nineteenth century disdain for ornament, and his notion of “real work,” but not his link with an upper class as the basis for them. Rather, she extends the concepts to our entire culture, drawing on the pervasive drive for name recognition via the mass media.
The one group of men that epitomizes her ideal of the true masculine ethic of production is the Long Beach, California, naval shipyard workers. She provides readers with images of the immense machinery and utilitarian function of producing the great carriers of World War II, which buoyed a masculine identity based on the builder, not the warrior. These men (and now, some women also) were a mixture of racial and ethnic backgrounds; they referred to their relations on the job with father-son metaphors, and their loyalty to the job and the shipbuilding enterprise was betrayed by a mix of post-Cold War policies and private sector political clout that resented their productivity. As the shipyard closed, these men clung to their pride in workmanship. These “utility men” she then contrasts with men at McDonnell Douglas Aerospace, who also experienced layoffs in the early 1990’s, but who, she contended, lacked the sense of utility that came from “real” production. The men she interviewed there were middle managers, who seemed unsure of what their real function had been. With the layoffs, they were consigned to reporting to the Outplacement Center, where they hung out all day as if they were still working. Some reported that they had not even told their wives they were not working; others were facing divorce. Men described their shame at not being able to support their families, at not being able to feel like men any more, of feeling castrated, emasculated. Faludi contrasts the frequently racist attitudes of these men, which “buttressed a masculinity based on exclusion and privilege,” with the Long Beach shipyard workers’ “ethic of inclusion and community.”
The betrayal to which Faludi refers, however, is not the betrayal by a corporate class that used its workers, both blue and white collar, and then abandoned them when they became unnecessary to profits. Nor is it the misdirected scapegoating she amply documents (and deplores) that drives the homophobia and misogyny of the cadets at the Citadel. Rather, it is the loss of the “good father,” who was a teacher of important skills, and who gave the sons opportunities to develop their own abilities. The refrain that she picks up is the men’s plaint that their own fathers had somehow let them down—even when their fathers did play sports with them, they somehow felt empty— but the fathers of many of the men she interviewed had been simply absent, or even violently abusive.
For feminists of her era, she stated, it was easy to find “the enemy” and to work for change because the injustices were palpable to them. On the other hand, men were supposed to be privileged, the dominant group, in control of things. Yet men do not feel dominant or in control. Men in the domestic violence counseling group Alternatives to Violence certainly did not feel in control, except when they were abusing their partners. The downsized, the men rendered irrelevant, whose stories she chronicles here, certainly felt loss of control over their lives. For men now, however, there is no tangible enemy to fight. The men whose fathers did show them by example “how to be a man,” were the ones who did so by “leading a meaningful life,” such as by struggling against racism and social injustice. Although Faludi is an articulate opponent of race-based discrimination, and disapproves of the homophobic and antiwomen views many of these men expressed, she is less willing to name class as a cause of men’s (and women’s) desperation, despite all her talk about downsizing. For her, too, naming a problem is being well on the way to taking action to change it.
She takes issue with what represents only one strand of the feminist movement, which sees men as the enemy, and which she then disputes to show that men also are victims of a culture that denies them a socially meaningful identity. For many feminists, however, the problem lies not with men per se, but with a society supporting inequality based on class as well as on race and gender. Faludi’s larger purpose here is to enlist both men and women in pursuit of a common goal. In places she almost names it: to bring about social transformation, based on an ethic of caring and social responsibility, which transcends gender.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (September 15, 1999): 194.
The Economist 353 (November 13, 1999): 5.
Library Journal 124 (October 15, 1999): 90.
Maclean’s, November 1, 1999, p. 70.
New York 32 (October 4, 1999): 53.
The New York Review of Books 46 (October 21, 1999): 25.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (October 3, 1999): 8.
Publishers Weekly 246 (September 13, 1999): 69.
Time 154 (October 4, 1999): 100.