Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Susan Faludi 1959-

American journalist and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Faludi's career through 2000.

An award-winning journalist and feminist critic, Susan Faludi received much attention with the release of her debut book, Backlash (1991), a massive polemic in which she identifies a wide array of reactionary cultural trends aimed at repressing the gains of the women's movement. Compared to Betty Friedan's The Feminist Mystique (1963), Backlash rejuvenated feminist discussion in the media and established Faludi as a leading spokesperson for women's issues. In a follow-up book, Stiffed (1999), Faludi seeks to understand the motivations of contemporary American men. She finds that they are understandably alienated and resentful due to their own set of social, economic, and personal betrayals.

Biographical Information

Born in New York City, Faludi was the first child and only daughter born to Steven Faludi, a Hungarian Jewish photographer, and his wife, Marilyn, a writer and editor. As a young person Faludi exhibited skills as a dogged investigator—such as when she surveyed her fifth grade classmates on contentious subjects like abortion rights and the Vietnam War; or when, as the editor of her high school newspaper, she wrote articles critical of, and detrimental to, the religious meetings being held at the public school. Faludi attended Harvard University, where she was managing editor of the Harvard Crimson and continued to address controversial topics, including sexual harassment taking place at Harvard. Faludi graduated from Harvard summa cum laude in 1981, with majors in history and literature. She received the Oliver Dabney History Award for her senior thesis. During her years at Harvard, she worked for Staten Island Advance and the Boston Globe. Upon graduation, she worked briefly at the New York Times, then moved on to the Miami Herald and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In 1985 the Georgia Associated Press awarded Faludi first prize for both news and feature reporting. After moving to California in 1985, she wrote for Mother Jones, Ms., California Business, and was also a staff writer for the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News. Faludi won additional awards from a variety of professional organizations, including a Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Journalism Award citation. From 1989 to 1991 she served as an affiliated scholar with the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University. In 1991 she won both the Pulitzer Prize and a John Hancock Award for Excellence in Business and Financial Journalism for “The Reckoning,” an expose about the 1986 leveraged buyout of Safeway Stores, which appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal on May 16, 1990. The next year, Faludi produced Backlash, which quickly became a bestseller and received the National Book Critics Circle Award for general nonfiction in 1991. With the success of Backlash, Faludi and Gloria Steinem appeared together on the cover of Time, and Faludi, hailed as a new generation's spokesperson for feminists, appeared on numerous television talk shows. She continues to write for a variety of periodicals and is a contributing editor at Newsweek.

Major Works

Faludi's Pulitzer Prize-winning article, “The Reckoning,” reported the devastating human cost of a leveraged buyout of Safeway Stores. Based on more than one hundred interviews, the acclaimed piece exposed the contrast between shareholder gain and human loss in the wave of mergers and leveraged buyouts that swept the corporate world in the 1980s. Layoffs, reduced wages, and workplace pressures that resulted from the 1986 takeover of Safeway Stores by Kohlberg, Kravis, Roberts, and Company led to at least one suicide, numerous stress-related health problems, and attendant family crises in Texas and elsewhere. The inspiration for Backlash, Faludi's first full-length volume, grew out of a sensational 1986 Newsweek cover story about the bleak prospects for single, professional women in America. Backlash maintains that the Newsweek article is just one of many insidious media creations that prey upon the fears and insecurities of liberated women. The extensive documentation and cogent anecdotes of Backlash suggest that the gains toward equality, earned by the women's movement in the 1960s and 1970s, were systematically eroded in the 1980s. Faludi singles out the regressive influence of advertising, the film industry, politicians, academics, the religious right, the men's movement, the news media, and conservative “pro-family” organizations whose resistance to social change has undermined women's independence. Faludi concludes that the gains made by the women's movement are fragile and easily lost; however, through a unified and concerted effort, and armed with a healthy skepticism toward the media, the rights won can be preserved and extended. Stiffed grew directly out of Backlash. Curious about why many men so actively resist equal rights for women, Faludi began conducting interviews among a variety of men, including laid-off longshoremen in Long Beach, down-sized aerospace workers in Los Angeles, Citadel cadets, and gang members. Faludi contends that postwar men have been betrayed on two fronts: first by their fathers, who promised them that they would be in control and that loyalty would be rewarded in both corporate and governmental arenas; and second, by the growth of celebrity culture, which promotes and celebrates excessive consumerism, money, and physical beauty. In her interviews Faludi repeatedly found men longing for absent or remote fathers and affirmative role models, and many men confessed to feeling useless and unimportant to society. Taken together, Backlash and Stiffed examine how both men and women have been negatively affected by the enormous cultural and societal changes of the last half of the twentieth century. In particular, both works criticize the rise of a marketing and consumer state that reduces individuals to market niches and rewards physical appearance and superficial status symbols—a trend that she has termed “ornamental culture”—instead of personal achievement and community service.

Critical Reception

Faludi's journalistic skills have earned her a number of awards throughout both her scholastic and professional careers. Most critics acknowledge her superb interviewing abilities and her use of anecdote to illustrate a point or support a thesis. However, despite the evidence she accumulates, even sympathetic reviewers note that her work often lacks balance, failing to give voice to competing views. Critical response to Backlash ranged from praise for its thorough, hard-hitting reportage to charges of superficial and misleading argumentation. The work was criticized for omitting portions of arguments that undermine its premises or that illuminate the negative effect of the women's movement on some women's lives. Stiffed was praised for drawing attention to the negative aspects of celebrity culture, but criticized for treating men as victims without control over their own lives and decisions. In addition, Stiffed confounded many feminists with its empathic portrayal of abusive, misogynistic, and self-serving men. Both works were criticized for focusing on a narrow subset of the population: middle- and upper-class white women in Backlash, and marginalized working-class white men in Stiffed. Faludi's two books are seen by many critics as offshoots from the same argument, one that arises from the feminist movement and Faludi's own sense of grievance over social injustice. Several reviewers noted that Faludi seems to have transposed and adjusted the feminist arguments in Backlash and applied them to men in Stiffed, which is generally regarded as the least persuasive of Faludi's first two books. A large number of readers identified with Backlash, an important critique of gender relations and the state of the women's liberation during the late-1980s.