Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2045
SOURCE: “Bad News, Good News,” in Women's Review of Books, Vol. IX, No. 1, October, 1991, pp. 1, 3-4.
[In the following excerpted review essay, Rapping finds shortcomings in Backlash's dogmatic feminist agenda and superficial analysis of complex, and often contradictory, social trends. According to Rapping, Faludi's book is “ill-thought-out, badly argued and way too often simply erroneous or uninformed.”]
Is it the best of times or the worst of times? Have we come a long way, baby, or are we systematically being beaten back to ground zero by the right-wing goon squads? On any given day, depending on the headlines or my phone messages, I’m likely to believe either one. The times are certainly a-changing, but who’s on first? The horrors of the Reagan-Bush era—increased feminization of poverty, terrifying threats to reproductive rights, reported increases in sexual violence—certainly chill the blood. And yet, there’s no denying the amazing gains made by women, particularly white middle-class women, for which second wave feminists can take much credit. Many young women can, and do, expect to live lives of far greater independence, choice and realizable ambition than did my generation.
The authors of these two angry, militant books [Faludi's Backlash and Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth]—both in their twenties—certainly don’t suffer from my sense of middle-aged muddle about things. They are absolutely certain that things couldn’t be worse for women, that all we have struggled for is in danger of going down the drain as we speak, that there is a monster loose upon the land which looks, acts and talks very much like a full-blown conspiracy of powerful woman-haters whose boots are already in our faces.
It would be easy, and gratifying, to give both these books glowing reviews. It’s encouraging and exciting to find such signs of renewed passion and urgency on the part of the twenty-somethings in these days of waning feminist activism, of so many young women who have reaped the bounties of the second wave retreating nervously from the very term “feminist.” And it’s hard to disagree with their main thrusts. Who hasn’t felt a sense of panic at the threats against our fragile gains, of rage at the cruelty of the ascendant right-wing misogynists, of sorrow at the suffering that so many of us still endure daily? And yet, while my first response to both books was exhilaration, as I read on, in both cases, I became gradually more irritated and even bored.
Susan Faludi’s book is the more ambitious and less interesting of the two. Faludi is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who blew the lid off the sloppy statistics of the infamous Harvard-Yale study—the one that attempted, with the help of a mainstream media blitz, to scare women to death with its dire predictions about our chances of “catching a man” as age and education level increased. She has parlayed that coup into a full-length study/exposé of similar terror tactics on the part of individuals and institutions—in league with the main culprit, the media—across the culture. From film and fashion, to Washington politics and think-tank ideology, to national policies on work and reproductive rights, Faludi finds an almost uninflected landscape of hostility and intentional injury toward women on the part of those in power, as a response to the threat of feminist gains.
Her “theory” is based upon what she learned from investigating the marriage scare studies: that the media are eager to print almost anything anti-feminist without much checking for authenticity, while almost equally unwilling to print material which challenges or disproves such stories. In other words—and who could doubt it?—the media are inherently sexist.
It’s not that she’s wrong, exactly. In fact, women new to feminist thinking may well find much of the book informative. It covers so many areas of life and it ferrets out—often anecdotally—so many horror stories and shocking numbers. My own less than amazed response, however, was largely due to the fact that I was aware of virtually everything in the book. Much of it, in fact, is very old news indeed. The misogyny of Fatal Attraction; the new pro-family vogue; the woman-hating of George Gilder and Allan Bloom; the radical right anti-abortion movement; the Robert Bly “New Man” cult—these and similar bits of bad news make up her quite long list of quite short, superficial chapters.
That these various items are fairly old news is of course no reason to deny their importance. Books are long in the making and they are supposed to synthesize and analyze large amounts of material in ways that give us the kind of perspective and insight daily or weekly journalism can’t provide. But Faludi doesn’t really do that, and therein lies the problem of this book. It’s ill-thought-out, badly argued and way too often simply erroneous or uninformed. She indulges in nasty personal slurs of the Kitty Kelley variety. She lumps large amounts of material together under generalizations that don’t work. She misrepresents things to make her points. She oversimplifies and distorts complex theoretical positions.
The book starts out well enough. Two introductory case histories of media misogyny—the first a retelling of her exposé of the Harvard-Yale study—arouse the proper indignation. She goes on to chart the pattern of backlash following periods of women’s gains. This is her strongest chapter, because, unlike the rest of the book, it places the backlash phenomenon in the historical context of dialectical interplay with progress. The tendency to polemicize and make exaggerated, out of context claims is diminished.
She makes some nice points, too, about the inconsistencies of so much media hype. On the question of marriage, for example, she notes that on the one hand we are supposed to be returning to an age of traditionalism. More and more women, according to the media, are having traditional weddings and marriages and there is, we all know, a new “baby boomlet.” And yet the media harangue us equally often about the horrors of the new single woman, lonely and unable to find a man, who blew it all for a shot at the glass ceiling and has lived to regret it.
Of course, the reason this section works better than others is that it acknowledges that the media are less monolithic than Faludi’s organizing theory presumes. In this case, of course, both trends are anti-woman. In others, where being similarly even-handed would force Faludi to admit that the media sometimes don’t conform to her assumptions, she chooses not to see contradictions. Her world is as black and white as that of her right-wing adversaries, and it gets that way, unfortunately, by similar methods.
To take the example of pop culture: Faludi would have us believe that virtually all eighties movies and TV series (except Murphy Brown) were misogynist. But she mentions only films like Fatal Attraction and Overboard and includes in her list some films which are open to far more complex and contradictory readings. The War of the Roses, for example, can easily be seen as anti-marriage rather than anti-woman. Of course we can disagree about movies, but that’s just the point. She gives so little attention and time to her readings—her sections average less than ten pages each—that they don’t hold up against questions from anyone, friend or foe.
And when it comes to actual subtleties in media politics, she is hopeless. She complains, for example, that the AIDS story-lines in so many soap operas all portray women as the victims, and calls this sexism. In fact, while the soaps have been particularly commendable in their quick response to the AIDS crisis, their homophobic fear of presenting gay male characters was responsible for their uniform portrayals of AIDS victims as white, middle-class women. The focus on women, then, is anti-gay, not anti-women.
Faludi’s often slapdash, irresponsible judgments are most dangerous in her section on individual thinkers. In a typically injudicious move, she assigns the serious, if controversial, feminist Carol Gilligan, with whom she disagrees, to the same antifeminist camp as the viciously sexist and racist philosopher Michael Levin. Putting Gilligan on the “enemies list” is unfair to her ideas—and to the complexities of current feminist debate. Feminists certainly disagree (more than Faludi seems to realize), but distinctions between colleagues and enemies can’t be thrown out in the interest of proving a totalizing thesis. …
In fact, what most troubled me in these books was that they seemed so out of touch with the mass of women—especially, young women—in their dogmatic puritanism, as to turn off readers to what’s really valuable in them. There are reasons, both theoretical and pragmatic, for feminists to back off a bit from this kind of ultra-correct rigidity. Because these are hard times, economically, politically and emotionally, and the feminist revolution dreamed of in the sixties is still not on the horizon, women have good reasons for making certain kinds of compromises in their personal and professional lives. The media are not entirely wrong about some of the “trends” they report, and to say they always are, as Faludi does, is to risk credibility and possibly scare a new generation of women who are hurting and confused away from feminism.
The same is true of our relation to fashion, cosmetics and even pornography. Most women get pleasure from adorning themselves. They do not, in fact, feel pain or numbness when dressed fashionably. They feel a whole lot of different things, I suspect, which they are not willing to give up for an abstract revolution. Many use pornography in ways they feel fine about and which, in any event, many feminist theorists interpret very differently from Wolf and Faludi.
More and more such “yes, but’s” jumped into my head as I read these books. In a truly weird and surprising way, by the time I finished reading, I felt better about women’s situation than I had in a long time. True, I thought mostly about more privileged women, like my own daughter, who is of Wolf and Faludi’s generation and whose professional and personal life—not to mention her mental health—are so far superior to mine at her age that she could be a walking ad for the results of the second wave. If we are so much more aware and so much more outraged over what’s left to be done, it’s at least partly because our expectations have risen almost from zero to infinity.
How was it possible for these two women to write books so oblivious to the ferment in feminist theory, so locked into an ideologically dated world? At least one possible reason strikes me as particularly relevant to academic feminists. In the years since the second wave began, a troubling gap has developed between academic and public discourse. So much of the important work on sexuality, fashion and popular culture, for example, which should have informed and enriched the analyses of these two young writers, appears in esoteric academic journals and in language accessible only to initiates of theory-talk. Among the many contradictions of the current age, one of the most depressing perhaps is that women have gained power within the academy even as our involvement in the larger public battle diminishes.
Backlash will probably be widely read and discussed. The Beauty Myth has already made an explosion in the media; Naomi Wolf has been on more than a handful of talk shows that I’ve seen and her book has had plenty of publicity. She is perceived as speaking for feminism and, in the vacuum left by the rest of us, she has a right to that title. I think we need to think about that some. Second-wave feminism began in the sixties with a public agenda and a political project—to transform the world. That project is still our primary responsibility—or should be. Faludi and Wolf, to their credit, have taken on that challenge, at a time when few of us seem to be thinking in those terms. But they are going to need a lot of help in order to get it right.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1276
SOURCE: “Selling Sugar and Spice,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 20, 1991, pp. 1, 10.
[In the following review, Showalter offers a positive evaluation of Backlash.]
Every successful movement for women’s emancipation has been followed by a virulent backlash threatening women with the loss of love and health as the penalty for freedom. Following the admission of women to Oxford and Cambridge in the 1880s, a professor warned one young woman: “If you compete with us, we won’t marry you.” In the 1920s, after the passage of the suffrage amendment, ex-feminists recanted in the pages of popular magazines, explaining that managing a job and a family was much harder than they expected. After World War II, when veterans came home to reclaim their jobs, psychiatrists led the way in proclaiming that modern women had become the lost sex, troubled by emotional discontents caused by too much independence.
The current attack on women’s rights is thus only the latest phase in a familiar cycle. But no backlash before has had an analyst as trenchant and witty as Susan Faludi. Her passionate and lively book should be an eye-opener even for feminists who thought they understood what has been going on. Backlash is the right book at exactly the right time.
Faludi covers the “undeclared war against American women” on several fronts. She zeroes in on the way the media, advertising, TV and movies are pushing the mommy track, and shows in powerful detail how women still are underpaid, underpromoted and harassed in the workplace. Most of all, in a stunning opening section, she exposes the slanted “statistics” and distorted “facts” behind recent headlines about women’s lives: the man shortage, the high-cost divorce, the infertility epidemic, and women’s career burnout.
What these scare stories turn out to share is a dearth of evidence and a maximum of hype, and Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist with great skills as an interviewer, gets at the hypocrisy and cant behind the headlines. Much more than a polemic, the book also is a black comedy of American life and values in the 1980s, the Bonfire of the Vanities of the backlash business.
And business it surely is. There’s money to be made by exploiting women’s anxieties, and a slot on Oprah or the Today show for the backlash stars. Faludi sketches a parade of con men and women, publicity hounds and hucksters worthy of Nathanael West.
Here is “Dr.” Srully Blotnick, the self-styled expert who loudly trumpeted the miseries of American career women in the pages of Forbes until his credentials and data were exposed as bogus; Randall Terry, who barely got by as a part-time minister and burger flipper until he hit on the idea of the anti-abortion crusade Operation Rescue, and the millionaire plastic surgeon, “the Breast Man of San Francisco,” who travels the men’s-club lunch circuit showing slides of the women whose looks he has improved, including his own wife—but who would never have a nose job on his own less-than-classic schnoz. Here’s Allan Bloom, a lifelong bachelor who berates women for their reluctance to marry; and Warren Farrell, the former “Gloria Steinem of Men’s Liberation,” who cashed in on feminism when it was hot but turned to bewailing the plight of men when Donahue stopped calling.
Faludi is particularly effective in highlighting the contradictions between the backlashers’ sweeping condemnation of the women’s movement and the real—and positive—effects of the movement on their lives. On several occasions, the feistily feminist or wistfully underemployed wives of her male interviewees spoke up with their own ideas. The working wife of the adman who developed Good Housekeeping’s “New Traditionalist” campaign called the ads “kind of sexist.” The CBS vice president who rejected Cagney and Lacy as too abrasive and hard-boiled has a wife and a lawyer daughter who are big fans of the show. Behind the scenes, even staunch anti-feminists have made successful accommodations in their personal lives to support their wives’ aspirations.
Gary Bauer blasted day care in a White House report that called day care a Marxist institution in which selfish mothers subjected their children to long-term damage. Yet he had sent his own daughters to day care for nine years (without any ill effect) while his wife held down an important job in Washington. In one horribly hilarious scene, Michael Levin, a philosophy professor who wrote a learned volume to explain why women, but not men, are genetically programmed to nurture and cook tries to fend off the loving hugs of his 5-year old son and to hush up the older son who is making spaghetti as the amused reporter looks on.
Of course, men are not the only profiteers of backlash nor the only targets of Faludi’s satire. Levin’s wife Margharita, who teaches the philosophy of mathematics at Yeshiva, longs for the couple “to become the most famous feminist bashers. I’d love it if we were on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.” Then there are fast-track industrialists such as Faith Popcorn (nee Plotkin), with her visions of a homey future of cocooning—for other women, professional anti-feminists like Phyllis Schlafly, Connie Marshner and Beverly LaHaye, getting ahead in politics with back-to-the-home messages; and such strange bedfellows of the New Right as Camille Paglia, whose obsessive rants against feminism and megalomaniac boasts of her own “vast learning” and prodigious culture seem straight from the pages of Dickens or Twain.
Women have been badly served too by the cheesy pop psychology of gurus like Robin Norwood, whose best-selling Women Who Love Too Much featured “case studies” of patients who were actually fictionalized multiple versions of her own experience.
Is Backlash perfect? No. While she sharply questions why women who “choose” abusive men have so many abusive men to choose from, Faludi doesn’t really explore the sources and effects of escalating male violence against women, the terrorist side of the undeclared war. She spends too much space on easy targets such as Christian LaCroix and the fashion industry, or Robert Bly and the men’s movement, and too little following up on the most significant insights of her book: the economic bases of the attack on women’s liberation. For American men, a recent poll reveals, masculinity means primarily being a good provider. Yet the recession has severely exacerbated the restructuring of the work force, with millions of traditional male blue-collar jobs disappearing just at the time that married women were entering. Male anxieties about changing gender roles are thus combined with economic decline—a sure-fire formula for the backlash.
Backlash contains much that is discouraging and troubling about the resistance to social change and to women’s full equality. Nonetheless, it should give heart to the millions of men and women who have been frightened away from feminism not only by the scare tactics of the New Right but also by the subtle propaganda of apparently solid academic studies.
Despite all the obstacles, American women are not giving up and going home. They continue “to postpone their wedding dates, limit their family size, and combine work with having children”: and they are happier and healthier for doing so. Furthermore, even those men who seem most aggressively lined up against these changes have made compromises in their own marriages for the sake of women they love.
When women are united, unapologetic and assertive in their demands for rights, Faludi concludes, they have been highly effective agents for public and personal change. Love and freedom are not impossible goals, but women will have to continue to work together to win them.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1993
SOURCE: “Phony War,” in Reason, Vol. 23, No. 6, November, 1991, pp. 56-8.
[In the following review of Backlash, Young finds shortcomings in Faludi's “selective treatment of facts” and distorted conclusions about the current state of women's liberation.]
While watching the recent PBS rerun of I, Claudius, I was struck by the extent to which our notions of history are shaped by the writings of inevitably biased contemporaries. If our civilization were to perish like the Roman Empire, and if Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women were one of the few books to survive from the late 20th century, our descendants would think of the 1980s and early '90s as a dark age for women, “one long, painful, and unremitting campaign to thwart women’s progress.” They might wonder how we ever survived.
Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Wall Street Journal (which should not be taken as an indication of her politics), sees signs of the backlash everywhere. The news media, says she, “went on a rampage” to denigrate single women and working mothers; TV and film showed women as contented June Cleaver clones, neurotics, or grasping bitches; corporations and the Reagan administration conspired to deny women good jobs. “The backlash watchtowers flashed their warning signals without cease, and like high-security floodlights they served to blind women.” This is scary stuff. Most insidiously of all, the creators of the backlash ascribed it to women’s own alleged disillusionment with the fruits of liberation.
In fact, argues Faludi, the backlash came from male fears and anxieties about rising female independence: “While the effects of the women’s movement may not have depressed women, they did seem to trouble many men.” This is partly because many men still see the provider role as the essence of masculinity and are threatened by female competition in the job market. Moreover, liberated women tend to shun the bonds of matrimony (“The more women are paid, the less they are eager to marry”) and make their own decisions about childbearing, leaving men—the ones who really need marriage—feeling miserable and left out.
There is surely some truth to this, but Faludi weakens her case by refusing to grant any validity to the opposing view: that women’s progress has come at some cost, that some women feel cheated by feminism and would welcome a return to traditional roles. I strongly disagree with them, but that doesn’t make them figments of the media’s imagination. They do exist. They write letters to editors and occasional columns, some of which Faludi mentions without pausing to examine what they say—mostly to cite their very publication as proof of the backlash. (She scoffs at those who accuse feminism of quasi-totalitarian tendencies, but one gets the sense that her brand of feminism, at least, tolerates no discussion of any possible downside to the breakdown of old gender roles.) Faludi invokes a host of polls to minimize female ambivalence about the women’s movement; buried discreetly in the epilogue is the revelation that not only men but almost as many women still “identify the breadwinner role as the leading masculine trait.”
She also refuses to admit that men who are not opposed to equal rights may have reasons to worry about certain aspects of the women’s movement. As one man told Faludi, “Every move a man made could be misconstrued by feminists. I didn’t see why I had to walk on eggs.” It does not occur to her that he might have a point. Indeed, her own tone, often reminiscent of the old “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” line, could give men just cause for alarm. Though professing occasional sympathy for beleaguered males and support for harmony between the sexes, Faludi sounds almost gleeful when she describes the miseries of single or divorced men and reports that “the biological father increasingly [does not] have … much of a say at all” in a woman’s reproductive decisions. She regards poll findings that most women approve of single motherhood by choice and that nearly 40 percent think “the man involved should not even be consulted” about an abortion as an unequivocal sign of progress. (Ethics aside, is that a wise attitude to take if we want men to be more involved in child rearing?)
At times, Faludi makes strong and thought-provoking arguments. She punches holes in many popular stereotypes, such as marriage-hungry women vs. uncommitted men, and offers a convincing challenge to sociologist Lenore Weitzman’s much-trumpeted statistic that women’s living standards plunge by 73 percent after divorce while those of men rise by 42 percent. (Two scholars who did a much more extensive study of the effects of divorce on income, and whose methods Weitzman claimed to have used, found only a temporary 30-percent drop in women’s incomes and a 10- to 15-percent improvement for men. Weitzman was strangely evasive when they asked to look at her data.) Faludi’s pithy account of the media’s handling of several major stories affecting women is a useful reminder of the need for healthy skepticism toward “trends” and “crises,” based as they often are on shaky figures, celebrity anecdotes, or dubious logic—such as a return to homebody values deduced from higher sales of oatmeal breakfast cereals.
What is far less convincing is the contention that such media-made crises as the infertility epidemic or the “marriage crunch” for career women over 30 stemmed from something just short of a deliberate conspiracy to scare women back into dependency. The media rarely let the absence of reliable data stand in the way of a good crisis, whether the story is heterosexual AIDS, plastics in our trash, or the 3 million homeless.
As Faludi unmasks the iniquities of the fashion industry, advertising, radio psychologists, relationship seminars, and so forth, one gets a sense that she was determined to cram everything into her extensively annotated opus. When she notes that “an exhaustive study of women’s occupational patterns in the '80s would be outside the scope of this book,” one is relieved to know something is outside its scope. Yet Backlash may be most remarkable for what it omits. Faludi’s discussion of the pay gap between the sexes does not include the factors of age, marital status, and children. She decries the barriers faced by women in blue-collar trades but never acknowledges that in the '80s, feminists shifted their emphasis from helping women get into traditionally male occupations to legislating comparable pay in traditionally female jobs. She chronicles setbacks to the advancement of women yet ignores such developments as the increasing acceptance of the “battered woman’s syndrome” legal defense.
This selective treatment of facts becomes especially frustrating when Faludi advances her argument about creeping antifeminism in the media, meticulously listing articles and TV reports that have questioned the wisdom of employment for mothers of small children or the joys of the single life. What about the numerous pieces of journalism about the new fatherhood, the benefits for girls of having working mothers, women in business and nontraditional jobs, the future of the women’s movement, even female body-builders? (Time’s fall 1990 special issue, “Women: The Road Ahead,” did not bother to quote so much as one woman unhappy with the goals and results of feminism.) What about the ratio of feminist to antifeminist columns in any major newspaper or magazine?
Sometimes, the omissions become distortions—which is all the more ironic since Faludi constantly pounces on misuse of data by authors whose conclusions she dislikes. A 1984 Newsweek story is presented as an anti-day care diatribe that glorifies women who give up careers to raise their kids. In fact, it ends with the assertion that day care is now “a basic family need” and calls for quality day care; the sidebar about mothers at home emphasizes that the women have not abandoned their careers but put them on hold or merely cut back on work.
It’s more of the same with TV and film. In making her case that post-1980 movies have been overwhelmingly retrograde (this was written before Thelma and Louise), Faludi misrepresents some films (Working Girl, House of Games) and conveniently forgets about others (Compromising Positions, in which a suburban mom triumphantly returns to work as a reporter over her stuffy husband’s objections; Legal Eagles, where the smart, tough attorney played by Debra Winger ends up winning her case and Robert Redford; Aliens with its warlike yet maternal heroine, and so on). Listing all the inaccuracies in Backlash might take nearly as hefty a tome. Suffice it to say that anyone who can attribute right-to-life sympathies to the mainstream media must be spending a lot of time vacationing on Mars.
And that’s a shame, because Faludi does have important things to say about the recent threats to women’s autonomy, particularly the assault on abortion rights. (Even here, she cannot resist her penchant for fitting facts into the procrustean bed of theory: Intent on seeing the anti-abortion movement exclusively as a frightened male reaction to “the speed with which women embrace sexual and reproductive freedom,” she ignores not only polls in which men are slightly more likely than women to favor unrestricted abortion but also the research of pro-choice sociologist Kristin Luker showing that traditionalist women are the mainstay of the pro-life movement.)
Faludi also targets the addiction and “codependency” industry and the campaign to control the behavior of pregnant women, listing genuine horror stories of babies snatched by the state from mothers who took a few Valiums or failed to observe a proper diet during pregnancy. Her focus on the “backlash,” however, prevents her from seeing these disturbing trends in the larger context of the therapeutic state and the social paternalism that threaten the liberties of all Americans, male and female.
To do Faludi justice, she is at her best when exercising her reportorial skills, whether interviewing spunky working-class women or male and female antifeminists of the right. Her profiles of the latter make for fascinating reading—particularly as evidence of the extent to which some feminist ideals have pervaded the unlikeliest segments of society. Michael Levin, the ideologue of male dominance, and his wife, Margarita, a successful philosopher and mathematician who ostensibly shares his antifeminist views, present a model “dual-career household [where] child care duties are routinely divided in half.” The formidable champion of masculinity, last seen wearing an apron, cuts a rather pathetic figure. Even women of the religious New Right, such as Beverly LaHaye, have been “quietly incorporating [feminist] tenets of self-determination, equality and freedom of choice into their private behavior.”
But is it really self-determination and freedom of choice that Faludi champions? In the epilogue, she admits that the backlash did not succeed in putting women back in their place. She believes, however, that it has set them back, and laments, above all, the fact that women have been trying to achieve their private goals on their own: “To instruct each women to struggle alone was to set each women up, yet again, for defeat.”
Faludi points out that when women did mobilize, as in the surge of pro-choice activism in 1989, they scored big victories. Yet perhaps the example is instructive. An attempt to ban abortion is a political act that warrants political action with a clear purpose. When it comes to career choices or child-care arrangements, most women, I think, still regard these decisions as essentially private—and rightly so. Susan Faludi and Eleanor Smeal may wax rhapsodic about what would happen “if women all got together on the same day, on the same hour,” agitating, of course, not just for equal opportunity or reproductive freedom but for “a real governmental investment in social services.” Those of us who cherish true diversity, who believe that women have rights as individuals and not as a gender, can only say: Please, ladies, start the get-together without me.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 917
SOURCE: “Have We Come a Long Way, Baby?,” in Washington Post Book World, November 3, 1991, pp. 3-4.
[In the following review of Backlash, Clift commends Faludi's “reportage” but finds weaknesses in her analysis of contemporary feminism and the costs of women's liberation.]
Young women today do not like to be called feminists. For them, the word conjures up images of bra-burning “women’s libbers.” Even Ms. magazine, the bible of the women’s movement, began avoiding the feminist label in its copy after a series of focus groups confirmed women’s negative attitude. The National Organization for Women, once a powerful force in presidential politics, is derided as a fringe interest group, its call for a third party not taken seriously. Dumb blonde jokes are back in, and conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh entertains millions by mocking feminism as “mainstreaming” for unattractive women.
Against this background, no wonder the overwhelmingly male Senate was stunned at the outpouring of women’s rage over its initial dismissal of allegations of sexual harassment by Judge Clarence Thomas. The feminist movement was supposed to be dead, a relic of the '70s. In the first of the post-post feminist books [Backlash], Susan Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Wall Street Journal, argues that feminism never died. It just faded from the front pages and television sit-coms. After reading Faludi’s angry analysis, you will never again watch for an ad for blue jeans or read about infertility without wondering about the hidden message. Chapter after chapter, she overwhelms the reader with facts and statistics that document the backlash against women, especially working women. From day-care demons and fears about a man shortage to the insistent ticking of the biological clock, the collective message to women over the last decade has been to go home—you can’t have it all.
Faludi began her prodigious research after a 1986 Newsweek cover story declared that single women in their thirties “are more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to marry. The story, based on a now discredited Harvard-Yale study, prompted mass hysteria among singles in the workplace. And it accelerated the media’s search for the trends of tomorrow, with “the Mommy Track” and “Cocooning” only two of the most obvious back-to-the-hearth spinoffs. The only trouble, according to Faludi, is that these catchy trends are not borne out in real life. Women are in the workplace to stay; and their biggest regret is that they don’t get paid as much as men. As for marriage, studies show men need it for their emotional well-being more than women, Men, not women, dominate dating services.
Faludi believes that women are being systematically punished for the modest gains they made in the '70s. She blames the media, the religious right, the advertising industry and Hollywood—and stops just short of charging conspiracy. Of the press, she says: “Like any other large institution, its movements aren’t premeditated or programmatic, just grossly susceptible to the prevailing political currents.” Explaining why this backlash occurred is a bigger challenge, and one that Faludi doesn’t really answer. Her strength is in reportage, not visionary analysis. She offers historical parallels reaching back to the last century when a Harvard professor decried the “brain-womb” conflict of college educated women. And she rehashes the Archie Bunker theory that the male identity of “good provider” is threatened by a working wife. (The U.S. Census stopped declaring men the head of household in 1980.) She notes that the male leaders of Operation Rescue, the most radical anti-abortion group, come from the most threatened lower-income brackets.
Several years ago, writer Nora Ephron declared that the Dutch treat was the most visible result of the women’s movement. Ephron was no doubt joking, but where Faludi’s thesis falls apart is in her apparent inability to see any downside to the women’s movement. You don’t have to be a tool of the Reagan-Bush Republican Right to understand there are some real costs for women trying to have it all. (Sleep is the first!) Some of the trend stories she ridicules deserve to be lampooned. But as a correspondent for Newsweek, I couldn’t help but notice she let her own employer off the hook even though the Wall Street Journal ran the marriage panic story on its front page before Newsweek did its cover.
I was also troubled by Faludi’s canonization of conservative women, whose own lives belie their traditionalist rhetoric. Among them is Beverly LaHaye, founder of Concerned Women for America, and the Heritage Foundation’s Connie Marshner. “Even those women who helped build the backlash levees were simultaneously trying to surge over them,” Faludi writes. The truth is these women have made careers out of telling other women to stay home.
A measure of Faludi’s outrage is that she takes on Betty Friedan, the mother of the women’s movement, for adding her voice to the revisionist din of the '80s. Friedan's book, The Second Stage, published in 1981, chided feminist leaders for ignoring the maternal call. There is no more burning question for young women today than the balancing act between family and career. For them, Faludi’s book will be as eye-opening as Friedan’s classic of the '60s, The Feminine Mystique, was for their mothers. Just as Friedan first gave voice to “the problem that has no name,” Faludi has come along to rescue feminism from the trash heap of history.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1836
SOURCE: “Myths that Men (and the Media) Live By,” in Columbia Journalism Review, Vol. 30, No. 5, January-February, 1992, pp. 53-5.
[In the following review, Bennetts offers high praise for Backlash.]
I came away from Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women feeling not only that it should be required reading for all Americans, but that every representative of any media organization in the country should be locked in a room until he or she has finished the last page. The unrelenting series of revelations provided by Susan Faludi’s explosive and exhaustively researched new book is galvanizing enough for any citizen, let alone female; but for a journalist, Backlash is one long epiphany.
Faludi’s analysis of the unthinking and utterly irresponsible contributions of the mass media to the aforementioned war is enough to make any journalist’s blood run cold. There are precious few among us who are not guilty of buying into at least some of the unquestioned and, as Faludi makes clear, almost entirely erroneous assumptions the sheep-like herd has been purveying for lo these many years. On subjects relating to women, the performance of the national media during this period has all too often been a disgrace.
If Faludi’s book were merely a polemic, however eloquent, one might disagree with such conclusions. But Backlash is a stunning work of reportage, complete with eighty pages of footnotes (including, I regret to say, one citing a story by this reporter), and the sheer accumulation of facts makes many of its arguments virtually unassailable. Particularly shocking are the author’s case studies of how the media played several important and emblematic stories about women and their lives. If she demonstrates in excruciating detail the extent to which lazy practitioners of the worst kind of trend journalism failed to do their own homework, no one can say Faludi didn’t do hers.
The most famous case in point is the notorious Harvard-Yale study on women’s marriage patterns, word of which hit the front pages, network news programs, and talk shows of America like a bombshell in 1986. The thrust of the study was that women who failed to marry young could basically kiss off their chance for marrying at all: the so-called “man shortage” was allegedly so severe that, as Newsweek so memorably put it, by the age of forty an unmarried woman was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to find her way to the altar.
The numbers provided by the study, which was both unpublished and unfinished, were chilling indeed. The only problem was that they weren’t true—something that virtually nobody managed to report, although a single telephone call to the U.S. Census Bureau might quickly have indicated that something was amiss. Even a cursory check of population charts reveals that there were substantially more bachelors than unwed women in the age groups in question. “If anyone faced a shortage of potential spouses, it was men in the prime marrying years,” Faludi notes. When a Census Bureau demographer named Jeanne Moorman recalculated the study’s figures, she found that at the age of thirty, a college-educated woman who hadn’t yet married had three times the chance posited by the Harvard-Yale report; at the age of thirty-five, her odds of getting married were seven times higher than those predicted in the study; and at forty, her shot at wedlock was twenty-three times higher than the study had indicated.
Unfortunately, no one seemed to want to hear that the study was wrong—and when Moorman started talking to the press, Reagan administration officials clamped down and ordered her not to discuss the marriage study because it was “too controversial.” (She was told to work instead on a study “about how poor unwed mothers abuse the welfare system.”) However, Moorman completed her own analysis of marriage patterns and released it—but, as Faludi notes, “The media relegated it to the inside pages, when they reported it at all.”
Within the field of demography, the Harvard-Yale study received so much criticism about its methodology and conclusions that by the time it was finally published three years later its authors had decided to leave out the infamous statistics about the “marriage crunch.” But by then, of course, the damage was done: the perception of a bleak and lonely future facing the millions of working women who had foolishly delayed marriage in favor of career was firmly established in the national consciousness. As Faludi demonstrates, the media had succeeded not in reporting the news but in making it. Before the Harvard-Yale study was publicized, most attitudinal surveys found a high level of contentment and little anxiety about marriage among single women. But within a year of that terrifying blast of publicity, the proportion of all single women who feared they would never marry had nearly doubled, according to one yearly indicator, the Annual Study of Women’s Attitudes. The barrage of warnings had succeeded in inspiring a tremendous level of distress among women who—until they found themselves assailed at every turn by dire pronouncements that they had made a terrible mistake and might already have ruined their lives forever—had been quite happy with their choices.
Equally instructive is Faludi’s comparison of the difference between the way the media played the work of two social scientists—one overtly hostile to women’s independence, the other sympathetic. When Shere Hite published the results of her national survey on sexuality and relationships, Women and Love: A Cultural Revolution in Progress, she was immediately ripped to shreds by the press, which seemed more interested in “attacking Hite personally,” as Faludi puts it, than in any evenhanded treatment of her findings. To be sure, the results of Hite’s inquiry were guaranteed to make many men uncomfortable: she found that most women were upset about the refusal of the men in their lives to treat them as equals, and about the domestic friction that resulted as they sought some respect. “Hite’s findings were largely held up for ridicule, not inspection,” Faludi states.
The treatment was very different for a man with opposing views. “At the same time the press was pillorying Hite for suggesting that male resistance might be partly responsible for women’s grief, it was applauding another social scientist whose theory—that women’s equality was to blame for contemporary women’s anguish—was more consonant with backlash thinking,” Faludi continues. Dr. Srully Blotnick, a Forbes magazine columnist and self-appointed media “expert,” concluded that success at work “poisons both the professional and personal lives of women.” His survey was widely and favorably reported by the national media. No one questioned his methodology, in contrast to the ferocious attacks on Hite’s approach. This was unfortunate because, although Blotnick claimed his was a groundbreaking twenty-five year longitudinal study, he would have been only seventeen years old when he purportedly began his data collection. The “Dr.” title he had adopted “turned out to be the product of a mail-order degree from an unaccredited correspondence school,” Faludi reports. When a U.S. News & World reporter finally investigated Blotnick’s credentials, it was discovered that “almost nothing on his résumé checked out”—but U.S. News never published that story. It was only after New York State launched a criminal fraud investigation against Blotnick that Forbes finally discontinued his column. News of Blotnick’s fall from grace, however, was almost completely ignored by the press. As with the Harvard-Yale marriage study, the flaws in Blotnick’s argument were never publicized, his conclusions never exposed as propaganda rather than legitimate social science. Because his “findings” confirmed pre-existing negative biases about working women during the backlash era, the media never bothered to check out their validity or his credibility.
An even more egregious example of media malfeasance was provided by the treatment accorded a French study on what seemed to be a sudden and dramatic epidemic of infertility among women over thirty. The New York Times played the story on page one, praising the report as “unusually large and rigorous” and “more reliable” than previous studies that had indicated a considerably later onset of fertility problems among most women. The alarmist new study spawned not only the familiar round of national media attention but also a subsequent onslaught of books about women’s “biological clock,” not to mention a steady escalation in the fearsome statistics. “A self-help book was soon reporting that women in their thirties now faced a ‘shocking 68 percent’ chance of infertility—and promptly faulted the feminists, who had failed to advise women of the biological drawbacks of a successful career,” Faludi reports.
However, the scare stories conveniently omitted a few salient facts. The patients used in the French study were all married to completely sterile men—hardly a representative sampling of the population—and were trying to get pregnant through artificial insemination in a process using frozen sperm, which is far less potent than fresh sperm. The study also pronounced as infertile any woman who was not pregnant after only a year of trying—a ridiculous cut-off, since it takes even newlyweds a mean time of eight months to conceive (and another study found that fully 80 percent of couples who failed to conceive after one year eventually succeeded). Indeed, although the national media had given the French study their uncritical approval, experts in the field debunked it so thoroughly that its own authors finally announced apologetically that they “never meant their findings to apply to all women.”
But as usual with such sagas, it was too late. As Faludi observes, “Neither their retreat nor their peers’ disparaging assessments attracted press attention.” Nor did a nationwide fertility survey of 8,000 women later released by the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, which found that infertility had actually declined slightly, not only among women in their thirties but even among women in their forties. Thanks to the shoddy performance of the press, American women had once again been needlessly terrorized by a grossly flawed report that, because it confirmed a reactionary stereotype that the punishment for uppity women who delay childbirth was the probability of forfeiting it entirely, received virtually no critical scrutiny whatsoever.
It would be comforting if examples like the ones cited above were the exception rather than the rule, but Backlash is full of them. And even in the sections dealing with the offenses committed against women by institutions other than media outlets, the press often played an important role in helping to promote those offenses. Susan Faludi has laid it all out in sickening detail. Now that she’d done the hard work of ferreting out the truths that battalions of her peers had failed even to look for, it will be instructive indeed to see whether the major media organizations repeatedly cited in her reporting actually do anything to improve their coverage on such politically charged subjects as women’s rights. Judging by past performance, I wouldn’t bet the ranch.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1008
SOURCE: A review of Backlash, in Christian Century, February 19, 1992, pp. 198-99.
[In the following review, Rebeck offers a positive assessment of Backlash.]
A recent article in the “Style” section of the Chicago Tribune exemplified the power of the backlash. The article reminded readers that “a couple of years ago … newspapers claimed a single woman had more chances of being kidnapped by a terrorist than getting married.” Now, the article went on, the statistics have turned around.
Not exactly, Susan Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the Wall Street Journal, would say. In fact, the statistics never indicated such dire odds for single women seeking marriage. This “news” item that was widely picked up by newspapers, magazines and television and radio shows was based on a very flawed preliminary study reported offhandedly in a Valentine’s Day article in the Stamford Advocate in 1986. Though sociologists who examined the study pointed out its errors (e.g., Census Bureau statistics showed there were about 1.9 million more bachelors than unwed women between the ages of 25 and 34 and about a half million more between the ages of 35 and 54), few news media would publish their comments, and certainly not with the fanfare that accompanied the initial reports. Newsweek highlighted the dubious study on its cover and added the breezy line that single women of a certain age “are more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to get married. That comparison may not have been intended to be taken seriously, Faludi generously allows, “but the terrorist line got repeated with somber literalness in many women’s magazines, talk shows and advice books.”
Debunking the marriage-study hoax constitutes merely the opening of Faludi’s report on how politicians and the media delivered biased and overwhelmingly negative pictures of women during the '80s. Faludi reveals [in Backlash] how the news media, marketers and legislators have engaged in what I call pink journalism—ferocious but unsubstantiated attacks on the modest gains of the women’s movement. By drawing a pathetic portrait of the lonely single working woman (despite polls in which a vast majority of single women register great satisfaction with their lives), these folks laid the foundation for a campaign to discourage women from competing with men for jobs.
Faludi finds politicians, advertising, the news media, marketing advisers, movies, books, television and academia touting a regressive image of the ideal or fulfilled woman. Single women are unhappy; they want to marry, bear children and “cocoon” (a verb coined by market researcher Faith Popcorn, who admits, “It was a prediction. … It hadn’t really happened”).
The message cut women with a double-edged sword. Single women were told not only that they had lost their chances to wed, but that they would never be happy unless they found a husband. Women do not want responsible, challenging work, the message was; they want to stay at home and serve their husbands, whom they want to assume authority. (Women who have made careers promoting this ideal include religious-right activist Beverly LaHaye, the talented, powerful ruler of her own lobbying empire. Concerned Women for America, and Reagan appointee Connie Marshner, who as the highest-ranking woman in the new-right Washington establishment in the '80s spoke for the president on the “new traditional woman.”)
The ideal of the stay-at-home mother was extolled primarily in regard to white women, of course. Black women on public aid were still encouraged to get jobs and birth control. Marketing executives asserted that today’s woman wants to dress more provocatively in order to please men; fashion designers dictated shorter, tighter skirts and restrictive lacy underwear (though American women almost unanimously rejected this costumery).
Women joined the workforce in the '70s and '80s not only to exercise their skills and gain personal satisfaction (the reasons why LaHaye and Marshner did). Many of them needed the money to support their families. Despite Yankelovich Monitor surveys that found that by far the most common definition of masculinity offered by American men and women was being a “good provider for his family,” the economy made it impossible for many American men to fill that role. Meanwhile, divorced men who did earn adequate paychecks were enabled by male divorce-court judges to avoid paying child support. The claims of sociologist Lenore Weitzman to the contrary, no-fault divorce laws—which, since they apply in only half the states and only as an option, do not constitute a “revolution” in divorce law—have not harmed divorced women’s economic standing. Rather, Faludi points out, the Office of Child Support Enforcement is collecting only a fraction of the billions that divorced fathers owe; 35 states in 1988 weren’t complying with federal child-support laws, and judges interpreted statutes in such a way as to grant women one-third rather than one-half of marital assets. A federal advisory council concluded in 1988 that if pay inequality between the sexes were corrected, “one half of female-headed households would be instantly lifted out of poverty.”
Faludi considers the '80s backlash against feminism part of a cycle. When women make gains—suffrage in the 1920s, job opportunities in the '40s, reproductive choice in the '70s—counter-efforts surge in an attempt to return women to their second-class status. (She notes that the Miss America beauty pageant was established in 1920, the year women won the right to vote.)
Faludi’s daunting exposé, which closes with 81 pages of supporting documentation, is both enraging and hopeful. It contains three lessons. First, Americans should be more suspicious of the media, whose goal is to attract, not inform, an audience. Second, the achievements of the women’s movement are easily stolen by politicians and opinion-shapers. Women can feel duped by the messages the popular and news media authoritatively promote. They will be heartened to learn, however, that the surveys suppressed in the backlash show that the vast majority of women support reproductive freedom and equal pay for equal work—both long-held goals of feminism. Thus the third lesson is that with skillful organizing, women can achieve great advancements in status and rights.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057
SOURCE: “Exit, Stage Back,” in National Review, March 30, 1992, pp. 41-2.
[In the following negative review of Backlash, Gallagher attacks Faludi's feminist perspective, particularly her support for divorce and her unwillingness to admit the importance of children and family for many women.]
Pity poor Susan Faludi. Just when she thought she had everything—a high-status job as a Wall Street Journal reporter, the joys of single life, power breakfasts, the right to an abortion, even a Pulitzer Prize—suddenly, sometime in the Eighties, she began to feel unloved. Legions of women, instead of following—or at least envying—women like her, began to do unspeakable things: like vote for Reagan, or don miniskirts, or have babies. How to account for this inexplicable backsliding? Why was feminism losing its hold on women at the moment of its (and Miss Faludi’s) greatest triumph? Suddenly an answer came to her: It must be a media conspiracy.
Backlash is her attempt to stretch that threadbare argument into a five-hundred-page manifesto on the glories of hard-core feminism, and for a surprising number of supposedly sophisticated women, it works. Seldom has a book received the kind of unalloyed worship heaped on Backlash. Ellen Goodman sounded a common note by praising Miss Faludi’s careful handling of evidence “debunking the studies, experts, and trend stories.” To top off the praisefest, Backlash was recently nominated for the National Book Award.
Listen carefully to the roar of applause for Backlash: it is the sound of feminism committing suicide.
For a decade feminist leaders have striven mightily to throw off the reputation they earned in the early Seventies, to convince American women of the existence of a kinder, gentler feminism. Feminism, they said, is ready to enter a Second Stage devoted to helping women balance the needs of family and work and improve relationships between the sexes. Real feminists, they told us, do not burn bras, hate men, or dislike babies.
Susan Faludi is having none of it. Betty Friedan’s Second Stage is just “a call for a murkily defined new order that is heavy on old Victorian rhetorical flourishes.” If women are losing faith in feminism, it is because we are being brainwashed (poor things) by a male-dominated media conspiracy into believing certain ridiculous myths. Thirty- and forty-something career women like her aren’t having trouble finding mates, they just love long hours, lonely nights, and whipping up microwave dinners for one too much to even think of relinquishing their freedom. Divorce doesn’t impoverish women or damage children, and the sudden emergence of silk bustiers and pouf skirts is proof that evil men are out to demean and control women.
Evidence is not Miss Faludi’s strong point. In fact, while she prides herself on (and has been widely praised for) uncovering errors in other people’s statistics, misreporting data appears to be something of a personal hobby with her. On numerous occasions, when she quotes a study or poll with which I happen to be familiar, she seriously distorts the results, and in ways so blatant as to suggest more than mere incompetence at work.
Sometimes she outright misquotes data. For example, to dispute the man shortage, she cites a 1986 government study to the effect that one-third of unmarried women are living with a man; the actual figure is 4 per cent—although the study did note that one-third of currently single women have cohabited at some point in their lives.
At other times, she more subtly misconstrues. She cites a 1986 Newsweek poll as “proof” that 75 per cent of working mothers want careers; in fact, according to the poll, only 13 per cent of full-time working mothers wanted to work full-time—a plurality (34 per cent) preferred part-time work, and the rest were divided between wanting more flexible hours or a home-based business, and wanting to be full-time housewives.
The reality that Miss Faludi, like most other feminists, willfully refuses to face is that mothers—even working mothers—overwhelmingly choose to make caring for children their first priority. According to Census Bureau data, almost two-thirds of married mothers either don’t work or work part-time. And according to a 1990 poll, even a majority of working mothers now want to go home.
But by far her most common tactic is simply to ignore the voluminous evidence that contradicts her point of view. Her preferred strategy is to pick one study, find some (often trivial) error or methodological quibble, and airily dismiss the whole argument as a media invention. She is convinced, for example, that media revisionism is responsible for Americans’ growing reservations about a 50 per cent divorce rate. Lenore Weitzman’s famous figures—that women’s incomes drop 73 per cent after divorce—are wrong, Miss Faludi maintains: women’s income drops “only” 30 per cent after divorce. Anyway feminists can’t be responsible because they didn’t promote no-fault divorce reform, she says, conveniently ignoring that feminists certainly did heavily promote divorce.
And she remains one of divorce’s biggest cheerleaders, despite the mounting evidence of its disastrous economic effects on women. Single mothers are six times more likely to be poor than married mothers, and one-third of all divorced women end up on welfare. None of which bothers Miss Faludi in the least. As for the pain divorce inflicts on children—well, she just isn’t interested. Judith Wallerstem, whose Second Chances reported that five years after the divorce one-third of the children involved remain clinically depressed, “never bothered to test her theory on a control group” Miss Faludi says, and, having “disposed” of just one of the thousands of studies pointing to the traumatic effects of divorce on children, she quickly drops the subject.
Backlash is an ignorant, nasty, little book, for all its 552 pages and pseudo-scholarly footnotes—small-minded, crafty, conniving, a disgrace even to journalistic standards, and an insult to women. Feminism, Faludi style, ultimately fails because it cannot come to terms with women’s unaccountable desire not only to have babies, but actually to spend time raising them, in intact families, with men. Hard experience has taught a growing number of women that the biggest danger facing us today comes not from discrimination in the workplace but from the collapse of the family—a disaster which feminism partly engineered, loudly applauded, and, as the reception of Backlash proves, does not know how to disown.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 735
SOURCE: “The New Avengers,” in New Statesman and Society, April 3, 1992, pp. 44-5.
[In the following excerpted review-essay, Wheelwright commends Faludi's effort to put feminism back in the media spotlight, but finds shortcomings in her monolithic portrayal of feminism in Backlash.]
To university students across North America, Marilyn French’s novel The Women’s Room was the feminist bible for the 1970s. French’s portrait of a housewife who trades a claustrophobic marriage for graduate school was confirmation that our mothers were suffering from a similar malaise. The mad/angry wife, the tortured female intellectual stuck with “shit and string beans” and the parade of selfish males became symbols of what women were fighting against. The personal had, with a vengeance, become political.
Since its publication in 1977, French’s novel has sold more than a million copies, and her reputation as a feminist scholar rests largely on this success. Ironically, in the same week that French hits the hustings to promote her latest non-fiction offering, The War Against Women, it is overshadowed by Susan Faludi’s Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women. While both address the campaign waged to discredit feminism in the past decade, nothing could better illustrate the generation gap that divides them.
Faludi, whose book is already a bestseller in North America, last month received the media’s ultimate accolade when she and Gloria Steinem shared the cover of Time magazine, “sound[ing] the call to arms”. Yet Faludi has jettisoned conspiracy theories in order to examine how conservative politicians, academics and the media worked to peddle an anti-feminist backlash in the 1980s. She tracks down the pundits responsible for such media-created myths as the “infertility epidemic”, the “man shortage” and working women’s “great emotional depression”. The evidence for these crises, she discovered, was “distorted, faulty or plain inaccurate”.
In unravelling the media “feedback loop” that perpetuated these manufactured problems, Faludi unmasks glib punditry and exposes an agenda to send working women back home. Since statistics became “prescriptions for expected female behaviour”, she employs the US Census Bureau and other accredited sources to counter the new backlash orthodoxy. The Yale/Harvard study that claimed single women aged 35 had only a 5 per cent chance of marrying was, for example, based on an untried method for predicting behaviour and was contradicted by several statistical surveys. Yet the story circulated round the globe.
Faludi, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the Wall Street Journal, is at her best in interviews, where she demonstrates a sharp eye for detail and a talent for coaxing subjects into divulging their contradictions. New Right “pro-family” campaigners such as Barbara Lahaye and Connie Marshner, who built high-powered political careers while advocating women’s return to domesticity, sent their kids to crèches and relied on their husbands to keep house. And anti-feminist guru Michael Levin, who believes men are innately superior at maths, is married to a mathematical philosopher with whom he shares a strict child-minding rota. The man who claims women are genetically programmed for housework waved Faludi goodbye from his home, wearing an apron.
While she expertly documents a reaction against feminism, Faludi provides few explanations for it beyond the perception that such social change spelled men’s “own masculine doom”. The tantalising insight that a “New Traditional Woman” like Marshner offers in rationalising her high-profile career as “exceptional” also goes no deeper.
In opposition to this neo-conservatism, Faludi suggests the existence of an almost monolithic feminist movement, rather than diverse and often warring factions. Equally, differences are overlooked when British examples of the backlash are grafted onto a largely American text. An analysis of Margaret Thatcher’s impact is noticeably absent.
But Faludi’s work deserves the attention it has received, and the tremendous breadth of her research soars far beyond the simplistic answers offered elsewhere in the media. …
Many of those university students who once clutched French’s novel have moved on from the raw outrage of the 1970s to produce a more sophisticated understanding of women’s oppression, mitigated by a host of factors. French’s global overview, however, contributes little to current feminist debates, while insisting that women resume the posture of victim. Faludi offers more hope and, despite the limits of her analysis, her greatest accomplishment may be in forcing the media to put feminism back on the agenda. For those of us who believe that it never went away, it seems about time.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5052
SOURCE: “Women Beware Men,” in London Review of Books, July 23, 1992, pp. 3-8.
[In the following excerpted review essay, Doody offers a positive assessment of Backlash and further confirms Faludi's assertions about the insidious cultural and economic assault on women's liberation.]
The appearance of these two books [Faludi's Backlash and Marilyn French's The War Against Women] marks a new epoch in our social history. Although first published in the United States, both books deal with England and other countries. Susan Faludi extensively revised her 1991 American edition for the 1992 British edition. This version, with a Preface by Joan Smith, includes information regarding the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. Marilyn French deals with Southern and Eastern countries, including the ‘Third World’—a term which she thinks passé and dishonest. Both books are contemporary and well-informed, and both announce by their very existence that the Nineties are going to be a different era from the Eighties. One of the pleasures of both works is that they analyse the previous decade with knowledge and pungency. The word ‘pleasures’, it is true, is unlikely to occur very often in discussion of either book. To some, these writers will appear to be among the Monstrous Regiment of Women who are responsible—as women always are—for the Death of Civilisation as ‘We’ Know It. To other kinds of reader, these books will be too true to be good, painful indeed, as they clearly render acts of brutal injustice which women may expect to encounter as they live their lives. But for some of us the announcement of the truth after an era of lies and fictions is itself a pleasure—the mind, as Dr Johnson indicated, delighting to rest on the stability of truth. Both writers appear to have a strong sense of the paradoxical—or perhaps it is merely that the paradoxes that appear in the investigation of men’s treatment of women demand recognition.
Susan Faludi is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist now aged 32. That Susan Faludi writes as she does is itself an encouraging symptom that the very strong movement which she analyses, the Eighties endeavour (in Britain and in the United States) to declare that we now lived in a ‘post-feminist’ era, has not succeeded. We who are older have now some reason for optimism, for a belief that the young have not had their spirit broken nor their minds unhinged by coming of age in the Reagan-Thatcher era. Susan Faludi discovered her topic, as she tells us in her prefatory Acknowledgments, when she began work on a ‘magazine story on the Harvard-Yale “man shortage” study’. That Harvard-Yale ‘study’ provides clues and metaphors for Faludi’s entire book.
In 1986 researchers at Harvard and Yale produced a highly-touted study of marriage, which ‘claimed that a college-educated unwed woman at the age of 30 has a 20 per cent likelihood of marriage, at 35 a 5 per cent chance, and at 40 no more than a 1.3 per cent chance.’ The ‘study’ was an immediate hit. It was discussed in newspapers, on television news and talk shows, and in movies, magazines, advertisements and greeting cards. The message was clear. Educated women were to feel humble, anxious and concerned about their marital status. For good measure, a 1982 study by French researchers claiming that professional women become infertile was added to the bad ‘news’. Women become clocks, always ticking away, like the crocodile in Peter Pan who had swallowed the alarm clock. Women must marry and have children immediately, skipping the attractions of further education or interesting careers. There were no men and yet it was every young woman’s painful duty to try to find and hang onto a man.
Faludi does an excellent and jovial job at deconstructing the Harvard-Yale ‘study’. In what is evidently a revision of her original magazine essay (or essays) she investigates the investigators and points out the extremely flawed and suspect sources of their data. The whole ‘study’ could not inelegantly be called a lie.
The real statistics indicated some trends quite other than those the Harvard-Yale study (or the talk-show hosts, or the magazines) wanted young women to believe:
In all the reportorial enterprise expended on the Harvard-Yale study, the press managed to overlook a basic point: there was no man shortage. As a simple check of the latest census population charts would have revealed, there were about 1.9 million more bachelors than unwed women between the ages of 25 and 34 and 54. (The 1986 Census for England and Wales bears these figures out—in the two age groups there were, respectively, 464,000 and 275,000 more single men than single women.) In fact, the proportion of never-married men was larger than at any time since the Census Bureau began keeping records in 1890. If anyone faced a shortage of potential spouses, it was men in the prime marrying years: between the ages of 24 and 34 there were 119 single men for every hundred single women.
A glance at past Census charts would also have dispelled the notion that the USA was awash in a record glut of single women. The proportion of never-married women, about one in five, was lower than it had been at any time in the 20th century except the Fifties, and even lower than the mid-to-late 19th century … In Victorian England, one-third of the female population could anticipate a single life, whereas today the figure is fewer than one woman in 12. If one looks at never-married women aged 45 to 54 … the number of unwed British women in 1985 was, in fact, smaller than in 1891, and smaller even than in the marriage-crazed Fifties.
Faludi’s research is careful and she likes deploying statistics in argument. One might call her work ‘scholarly’, but a member of the academic community like myself must wince in recognition of the fact that the ‘scholarly’ world (the Harvard-Yale world) is often part of the problem. Faludi’s independent study and her journalistic training and curiosity impelled her to keep digging at the problem she had discovered. Not the ‘problem’ of the poor women who couldn’t get married (because in fact there were few of those), but the problem of the big lie, the impressive creation of fear. What lay behind it? It was in answering and continuing to ask that question that her sense of the Backlash evidently came into being.
The Harvard-Yale study (and its collaborators) expressed, while at the same time concealing, a very real fear on the part of men that women might depart from marriage. Or rather, a fear on the part of men of the upper and professional classes (white men, very largely) that women of the same classes might depart from marriage and not reproduce them. The feminism of the Seventies and certain concomitant social and economic changes (requiring high levels of office worker, manager etc) had given women (some women) economic resources other than matrimony. Various surveys, scientific and casual, of about the same time as the Harvard-Yale study indicated that women were far from being desperate for marriage. A study carried out by the Battelle Memorial Institute in 1986, collating 15 years’ worth of surveys of ten thousand women, found that women were intentionally delaying marriage or even ‘dodging the wedding rings’, as Faludi puts it, while ‘Cosmopolitan in the UK reported in 1988 that “a whacking majority” (81 per cent) of their readers surveyed enjoyed being single.’ Women had not necessarily sworn off men, or taken up celibacy. According to Faludi, ‘the cohabitation rate in Britain tripled between 1979 and 1988.’ Some had boyfriends but preferred to live on their own, and were even purchasing their own houses. ‘The more economically independent women are, the less attractive marriage becomes,’ a Princeton demographer worried in 1986.
Marriage is certainly not in general a boost for a woman’s morale or her spirits. Mental health studies show most impressively that the real gainers from marriage are men. Single men have nervous breakdowns and depressions, are twice as prone to suicide as married men. But the most cheerful group of women, the least prone to mental problems, are the never-married. This is of course not the view promoted in the media (past or present), which have been quick to apply to the unmarried or not yet married woman (as to the divorced or widowed female) the symptoms of mental distress, melancholy and trauma. The data cited by Faludi bear out the warning uttered by Jessie Bernard in 1972: ‘Marriage may be hazardous to women’s health.’ This wording ought perhaps to be attached to the marriage licence.
As Faludi describes and analyses the utterances, the hype and the statistics (and the cooked books), she very convincingly creates a portrait of powerful cultural elements engaged in a very serious ideological putsch. Advertising, films, news programmes, and scientific pseudo-studies of the mid-Eighties, were all devoting themselves to an onslaught aimed at altering one particular group: women. The Backlash phenomena are attempts to re-feminise women. The immediate objectives were to ensure that females became eager to marry, and uncomplaining about supporting their children, their households and themselves, while consoling and strengthening their husbands. At the same time, such ‘good’ and ‘feminine’ women would eschew any turn towards power, authority or control for themselves. Women thus could be got to police themselves out of any desire to compete with men for the higher kinds of job, as out of any will to take legislative or other control of their lives and fortunes, and the lives and fortunes of their children. It was not that the Backlash Empire really wanted to get all women out of the workplace, at least in the UK and America. In fact, supporting a family in middle-class style increasingly demands two paychecks. The point was to ensure that women carried on with the low and middle jobs and carried on deferring to male authority and entitlement. Part of the Backlash included unpunished physical assaults on women taking jobs that some men regarded as ‘theirs’—that is, male jobs.
The Backlash Empire was striking back, but not in an era of prosperity. The work-force actually became more sex-segregated, with many women stuck in what Faludi calls ‘many low-paid female work ghettos’. Women’s wages declined: ‘by 1986 more working women would be taking home poverty-level wages than in 1973.’ At the same time, we were given the picture of dangerous feminists or tough career women taking over the boardroom and the law court, the operating theatre and the marketplace. Women were warned that their femininity had suffered permanent damage from this dangerous and unnatural ‘equality’. Yet the inequality even in the professional world became more rather than less marked. In the UK, most appointments made to important government departments are men, and though there are eminent female QCs, there are ‘only two female High Court judges out of 83’, and only 18 women serve as directors of British companies, according to a survey of 1991. (Some of these women serve on more than one board, which makes the statistics look a little brighter than they actually are.)
There was really no need for the scare movie Baby Boom, which showed a bright career woman giving up her unnatural, highly-paid working life in the boardroom, brought to her senses by having to take charge of a baby. The author of the film (who had written Private Benjamin ten years before) had already run into trouble (as Faludi recounts) in trying to tell a story about a waitress who becomes politically intelligent—and a shrewd diplomat: the movie eventually made (Protocol with Goldie Hawn) became the story of a ditzy sweetiepie ‘cheerleading for the American Way’. The studio had warned that they didn’t want to see anything that could look anti-Reagan. As Faludi comments, ‘a woman who thinks for herself, apparently, could now be mistaken for a subversive.’ In Backlash films like Working Girl and Baby Boom, the women were being re-educated to know their place. These films were aimed at the ‘yuppie’ woman, the one most likely to have education and ambition, and, perhaps, to have run into feminist theory in some form or other. She needed re-education, constructive self-criticism. But women of all classes watched these films, and they could all get the message.
Films are much more likely to be overtly macho and misogynistic than television programmes. Men dictate what films they, their girlfriends and their families will see. Television must, however reluctantly, go some way toward meeting women’s demands to be entertained, because the majority of television watchers in certain households are probably female, and the advertisers must reach them since women purchase the humble necessary and incessant domestic products, like the famous soap of soap opera. But television’s producers, directors and others in authority are overwhelmingly male. In the UK, according to a 1989 Institute of Manpower Studies report, ‘74 per cent of broadcast employees were male, and in some key grades such as camera, sound and light more than 86 per cent were men.’ The interesting reluctance to portray interesting women in positions of strength can be related to this fact. But beneath this simple fact is the deeper cultural desire that gives rise to both facts—i.e. the avoidance of strong women in TV dramas and the preponderance of males in broadcasting. The cultural desire is perhaps experienced as a need, a deep need to ensure that the social messages created and passed on tell women plainly what they are to be and to do. Even when a woman is the apparent centre of a television drama in the Eighties, her real role is customarily to represent female fecklessness and feminine lack of authority. A salient case in British television would be Butterflies. A talented actress played a married woman in a dull marriage who did absolutely nothing (she could not even cook) save dream wistfully of adultery with a preposterous rich smoothie who at first seemed like a figment of her imagination. This lady was like Madame Bovary on Marmite. Women watching the programme could see themselves amusingly displayed in their wistfulness, lack of assurance, uselessness, and lack of direction. (The family didn’t seem able to educate its lunkish sons, although the father was a dentist—why didn’t the wife get a job?) To the Manor Born offered a replay of old Tory values in an era of new Whiggism calling itself Tory. Penelope Keith’s character rejoiced in both assurance and widowhood. Yet she was merely a charming eccentric at bottom, one of those comic ladies, like Margaret Rutherford playing Miss Marple; Keith’s character, like that of Addison’s Sir Roger de Coverley, was there to inform us of the harmlessness and ineffectuality of a defunct class represented by this posthumously lively personality.
Helen Mirren’s portrayal of a female police chief in Prime Suspect was a new departure on British television in showing a woman seriously engaged with her profession, and in exhibiting the backlash experienced in the workplace. The message was certainly sombre: your marriage will suffer and you won’t be popular if you get involved in your work. The respect for the character and her activities, however, marked a new departure, and is another refreshing signal that the Nineties are not as the Eighties. It should be noted, however, that Prime Suspect was a mystery story and that the ‘mystery’ field has been a refuge for women (writers, readers and characters) decade after decade. Detective fiction of the Eighties gave us the works of Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton, who created strong heroines—how much better-off are women who read detective stories than those who attend only to magazines, to serious self-help books, or to Allan Bloom! But Disney studios made a mess out of trying to make a film about Sara Paretsky’s heroine, as they could not really believe in or approve of her.
Television in the United States is almost universally under the control of advertisers, and the advertisers’ interests must take precedence over the imagination of writers, director or actors. To the extent that British and European television is supported by advertisement, the same must be true. Unfortunately television is either the organ of big business directly (through its advertisers) or of governments, and both business and government occasionally fret about the need for even more control than they already have. But television advertisers in the US (and in England) do very well at ensuring that ‘entertainment’ programmes dovetail with advertisement. Advertisers feel at their happiest when the women in the ‘show’ appear to be suitable and unthreatening types who make good consumers of their products, and do not voice or represent difficult attitudes or positions that might a. offend viewers or b. engage viewer interest so deeply that the advertising becomes painfully irrelevant and irritating. Theoretically, the objective of an advertising-supported programme is to reach a wide, defined and devoted audience in a high consumer range. Yet success is no guarantee of favour.
The police series Cagney and Lacey about two female cops had a wide and devoted audience of young women, including students, career women and high-purchasing ‘homemakers’. Yet CBS was upset by the character played by Sharon Gless—Cagney was a single woman who had occasional sexual encounters, wasn’t too worried about not being married, but was seriously ambitious about her job. Faludi tells us of CBS’s programming chief worrying that Cagney wouldn’t be a ‘positive role model’; another executive explained their anxiety over the fact that it was ‘difficult to portray her as being vulnerable’. Women (especially pretty blondes) are supposed to be ‘vulnerable’: Gless played tough but humorous. One episode that we have never seen dealt with the Equal Rights Amendment, and Gloria Steinem was supposed to appear briefly; the network not only banned her appearance but cancelled that episode. The popularity of the programme itself did nothing to assuage the executives’ discomfort with it. CBS cancelled Cagney and Lacey in 1983, but had to restore it after fans snowed them under with letters. The programme went on to win five Emmys. Nevertheless, by pulling it from its time slot in autumn 1987, CBS made sure they could get rid of it. Before they did cancel it, they had worked over the Cagney character, making her stressed-out, anxious and alcoholic. They pushed the character into the desired ‘vulnerability’, and tried to get female viewers to forget her courage and zip. Sharon Gless herself, incidentally, has plenty of courage. Some British readers may remember that during the Gulf War when America got the heebie-jeebies about flying, Gless was brave enough to fly to England—unlike Sylvester Stallone, who plays all those macho heroes in the movies.
One might wonder why CBS was so anxious to tone down or even sabotage a show that was doing well. But it is a mild and passing wonder compared to the bewildered amazement one may feel on considering the gyrations of the fashion industry in the Eighties. In her chapter ‘Dressing the Dolls: The Fashion Backlash’, Faludi offers a cogent account and analysis of the activities of designers. In what Faludi calls ‘the High Femininity year of 1987’, Christian Lacroix unveiled his ballooning little bubble skirts. Less material was used than formerly, but dress prices went up some 30 per cent. Of course, Lacroix hadn’t anticipated that his display would hit New York a few days after the 19 October Stockmarket collapse. Advertisers, designers, stores still went at it hammer and tongs, proclaiming the Year of the Dress, advising women that everything else was outmoded and had to go. Women were told that dressing like men, as they were thought to have done, was an error that had landed them in an identity crisis and they were now to return to the feminine. The fashion designers wanted to dress women like little girls. Designer Decree had worked famously with Dior’s long feminine New Look in the late Forties and in the Sixties the mini had been a real hit and had knocked out all the longer lines. This time, however, the designers and their entourage couldn’t bring it off.
This was more than a mere miscalculation, as Faludi points out. The fashion dictators kept it up through 1988 and 1989: ‘By 1989 Lacroix’s design house was reporting a ＄9.3 million loss.’ Despite the softening-up afforded by the 1986 marriage study, and other anxiety-provokers, American women were not really willing to go into the baby-doll look. In the Sixties the Baby Boom generation was young (teens and twenties): by the Eighties the women in that large group were working at jobs where they needed to be taken seriously, and the better-off among them were working in professional and managerial jobs which this ‘look’ did not suit. I remember the Mayor of the town of Princeton, New Jersey, saying that she disliked fashions that infantilised us, and that we should stand against them. So she did, many of us did, and even the women who bought one puffball for an evening weren’t going to change their day wear. So—fashion designers took huge losses, and department stores reeled, and some stores went out of business and some clothing operations in the US are still suffering from the results of the sulky determination of the late Eighties that fashion—and men—would dress women and make them look the way they ought.
Now this is a most interesting story, and the phenomena here entailed touch on many matters beyond fashion—even if we recognise, as Faludi does, that ‘fashion’ goes beyond clothes to ‘style’, as reflected in Ralph Lauren’s nostalgic country-house decor, and the various forms of Victorian kitsch and notional ‘cocooning’. Victoria’s Secret and designer sheets based on the Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady are aspects of the same Eighties period, although those operations have been much more successful, as they did not cast practicality altogether aside in making underwear and sheets. But if we fasten our attention on the fashion dictators, especially Lacroix, and the advertising and marketing industries that went along with them, we are confronted by a fascinating possibility. The determination of the designers exhibits motivations beyond the mere making of money. We have tended to assume (both on the right and on the left) that on its own terms, capitalism is an essentially rational—if brutal—game: that all the activities of its players, when seriously playing, are explicable on the basis of money-making—the famous Market. We presume that advertisers create the beer or car advertisements the way they do because that makes them money. We assume that firms get rid of skilled workers and lower-paid unskilled workers because that saves them money. Could we imagine that capitalism of that ‘pure’ kind might be a secondary consideration—at least in the individual case? Faludi’s book repeatedly illustrates what look like instances of crazed short-sightedness on the part of money-making entities. For instance, American Cyanamid hired 36 women for production work in the mid-Seventies. ‘In the pigments department, in the first year that the women joined, both the quality and quantity of production increased dramatically—a fact begrudgingly noted at the plant’s annual banquet that year.’ Yet, despite the women’s success at working for American Cyanamid, male workers protested and the company later and most infamously introduced a ‘foetal protection clause’ which required women workers to be sterilised if they wanted to continue to hold their jobs. Some women were so desperate to hang onto jobs (family-supporting jobs) in hard times that they agreed. These women were later to seek legal relief, and it was Judge Robert Bork as Federal appellate judge who in 1984 ‘ruled in favour of the company’. It may be that American Cyanamid had expected all its female employees would go away rather than undergo sterilisation, and the protection policy (which offered no ‘protection’ for men whose sperm could be adversely affected by working with the chemicals) was a means of getting rid of the female workers despite the fact that their work was conscientious and efficient, and thus profitable.
A chemical company (which manufactures skin creams and Breck shampoo, among other things) gets rid of female-workers, even though they increase productivity. Fashion designers, giant stores, advertisers etc run themselves repeatedly into the deep red trying to make women wear short skirts. A popular television programme is repeatedly criticised, retouched and even sabotaged by network executives. Are these the activities of a ‘pure’ capitalism? One of the fascinating things that emerges from Backlash is a vision of a society at large in which capitalism in its individual manifestations performs in a subordinate role relative to some greater end. This greater end can justify the kamikaze loss of money by gown-makers and stores, by pigment manufacturers and networks. Money alone is not enough. The entire gigantic enterprise must never allow itself intermission from its constant preoccupation—the ownership of women. Taming, subduing and moulding women, although according to a nostalgic point of view these ought to be ‘natural’, are activities that cost, mighty endeavours which must, like ‘real’ wars, occasionally call for large expenditure and great exercises of propaganda.
Expenditure on show, propaganda and products is only a part of the story, though a vivid part. We can laugh at the short skirts, the puffs and poufs—we can hardly laugh at the bombing of abortion clinics, and all the really ugly attempts in the United States in the Eighties to take literal and physical control of women’s bodies. The foetus suddenly acquired rights and privileges and status to the extent that the mother lost all of these. Anti-abortion groups in the USA call themselves ‘pro-life’, but the hypocrisy in most cases is very evident, for there are poverty-stricken children in the United States in the poor country regions of the South like Mississippi and in the vast urban sprawls of the North and West. There are children who get no food during the day, no measles shots, no health care. The offer of prenatal health care would save multitudes of wanted babies, and give them and their mothers a chance at life. The pro-lifers are not against abortion because they love children—they are patently against women’s right to choose abortion because it gives the woman control over her own body and thus also over reproduction in general.
Reproduction is the production—the substructure on which all economies rely. The conflict about marriage is a conflict about control over reproduction. In marriage as conventionally constituted the father has control over his wife and children, though if he chooses to be irresponsible about either, he is seldom penalised. Therefore, the industrial complex has a duty to work hard at making women feel insecure, body-shy, anxious about marrying, willing to marry. Advertising portrays women as helpless, vulnerable, feckless, silly, so that they will have the humility necessary to take upon themselves the chains of marriage. As Faludi has shown, behind the Harvard-Yale study are the contrary statistics indicating a new diminution of interest in marriage on the part of well-off, well-educated women. These women have now been scolded and lashed by all sorts of ‘moral’ advice, from the ravings of fundamentalist pulpits through the anxiety-based emollients of self-help books to the gloomy rages of academic pundits like Allan Bloom. Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1987) is very open about his anger at the women’s movement. ‘Feminism,’ he warns, ‘triumphed over the family.’ It suppresses modesty and rearranges the sex roles ‘using force’, it has enabled women to bear children ‘on female terms with or without fathers’, and has wickedly and wrongly freed them from the male will ‘so that they can live as they please’. Women doing ‘what they please’ apparently constitute the most massive threat to Civilisation as We Know It.
It may be that Bloom is right. In some sense he must be right, for women, once they emerge from the dictates of others and the behaviour and manners dictated by others, will not want to re-create a society that repeats the patterns that have in some ways suited men so well, and themselves so very ill. It is horrifying to think that for Bloom, as for so many others, Civilisation as We Know It must entail the enslavement of women. One can retort that a ‘civilisation’ that depends upon the enslavement of others—of half of the human race—is a pretty shaky and ugly proposition. The ‘civilisation’ we have has failed in a great many respects. To the truly religious ‘civilisation’ must never be set up as an idol. Perhaps now is the time to think of some alternatives. It is this fear, this very great fear of alternatives, that led the cultural complex of the West, particularly but certainly not only in the United States, to the excesses of folly that Faludi outlines in Backlash. The Eighties were a sleazy but interesting decade—interesting in its very brassiness, and the abrupt slews and gestures that made so much so visible.
Faludi’s book is an excellent companion to the Eighties. It offers a good means of getting one’s bearings. The revised English edition includes later news taking us to the Anita Hall case and the reactions to Thelma and Louise. Yet Marilyn French’s The War Against Women is the more telling book. It is brief, where Faludi is excursive; it does not wear the accoutrements of research as well (it has no index), and it is written in a much more peremptory, less immediately engaging manner. Yet it is French’s book that I would choose as the true manifesto of the new era of feminism. Marilyn French is global, whereas Faludi is engaged with the English-speaking world. Marilyn French is very trenchant, without trying to be in the least charming, but some of her crisis sayings have the bite of the best of, say, Virginia Woolf or the early Germaine Greer. …
At the very least, the appearance of these two books by Susan Faludi and Marilyn French at the beginning of the decade signal to an excited or alarmed audience that the Women’s Movement is far from over. In England, of course, it has barely begun. In the Eighties we were told that England was ‘post-feminist’. Nonsense! England was and is in a pre-feminist state, and has yet to discover what changes may be in store for it.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 946
SOURCE: A review of Backlash, in Humanist, September-October, 1992, pp. 47-8.
[In the following review, Shore offers a favorable assessment of Backlash.]
Women’s issues occupy a strange position in the collective consciousness of America. Even 20 years after the ground-breaking work of Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinem, and others, women’s studies remain ghettoized in small university departments and are dealt with only in limited ways by the mass media. The perception persists that women’s experience can somehow be reduced to a limited body of knowledge, of interest and importance only to a committed minority identifying itself as “feminists.” Backlash, by journalist Susan Faludi, does more than any other recent work to challenge this narrow conception of women’s issues and to compel us to see the forces controlling and crippling women for what they really are: forces working against the interests of everyone.
With a subtitle like “The Undeclared War Against American Women,” Faludi’s book might be taken for merely a polemical piece. Instead, Faludi builds a well-researched and carefully documented case for the existence of a widespread movement during the 1980s which sought to undermine the accomplishments of women and to deny them opportunities in the workplace and the home. Those responsible include the religious right, the exponents of popular psychology, the authors of self-help bestsellers, and the writers of daytime television dramas. Backlash is filled with troubling examples of how women’s and men’s reality is manipulated and distorted by television programs, journalists, intellectuals, and many others. Faludi notes that, “in the real world of 1988, 8 percent of AIDS victims were women. In daytime TV—100 percent.” Clearly, such a skewed portrayal of a disease of global importance is no accident. AIDS is made to seem the just punishment of sexually active women; the consequences of AIDS for society as a whole are dishonestly reduced to a “women’s issue” of limited significance, while the majority of victims are ignored.
Faludi did her research before Dan Quayle discovered that Murphy Brown and a sinister amoral “cultural elite” were conspiring against American family values, but Backlash sheds light on the attitudes that make the vice-president’s remarks sound plausible (at least to some). Far from promoting a radical or even modest change in our view of women’s roles, the media are shown in Faludi’s book to be major contributors to the continued oppression of women. Faludi’s indictment holds up far better than Quayle’s use of the media as a whipping boy, yet a common thread runs through both critiques: the notion that the power of the media in our passive consumer culture is pervasive and resistant to challenge. Much of Backlash deals with the way that persuasive techniques enthrall a passive public in a way that is as threatening to democracy as sexism itself.
In this long book, rich with anecdotal material, one of the most disturbing vignettes involves not a venal politician or shadowy business executive but, rather, the poet Robert Bly. Faludi’s encounter with Bly leaves the reader wondering if there is any hope for change in a society that hates women so much. Bly has had a distinguished career, both as a poet and a translator of great sensitivity. More recently, he has gained notoriety as the organizer of retreats in which men are allowed to rediscover their “primal selves.” In Backlash, we meet the Bly who displays automatic weapons at his men’s gatherings, warns his audience to beware of the “force field of women,” and badgers women who attend his talks, blaming them for everything he feels has gone wrong with American men.
Bly the writer is no Hemingway, existing in a macho world in which women play only ancillary roles. In his best translations he exhibits a rare ability to work within unfamiliar cultural viewpoints and make them accessible to others. If someone with such insight into the variety of human experience can be so alienated from and afraid of women, then the problem we face transcends the necessary legislation and social change for which Faludi is calling. Bly’s case thus sums up the greatest challenge offered by Backlash. Many of us realize some of the ways in which women are exploited, manipulated, and controlled, although it is good to be reminded of them by Faludi’s vivid examples. However, the documentation presented in Backlash suggests that the roots of this problem are deeper than the profit motive or the desire to stay with the comfortably familiar, no matter how destructive it may be. We are reminded of the tendency of our species to dominate for the sake of domination—a tendency that manifests itself in many ways besides sexism. Faludi exposes the hypocrisy of “anti-feminist” women who preach stay-at-home values while leading independent lives themselves, but she offers few answers to the question of what drives these women—and many men—to deny the obvious reality so that they, too, can have power and control.
The changes called for in Backlash’s epilogue are sorely needed: women must organize, recognize their common needs and goals, and draw upon what Faludi calls their “vast and untapped vitality” to create a more just society. But what of the corrupting effects of power itself, and the tendency of some to grasp at ever wider spheres of control? Unlike some feminists, Faludi does not say the problem is a fundamentally male one, leaving the question of the root causes of exploitation open to further debate. Until this basic question is confronted and dealt with, there remains the risk of other backlashes against groups seeking empowerment—and the necessity of writing more books like Backlash.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5537
SOURCE: “Wake Up, Little Susie,” in The American Spectator, Vol. 25, No. 10, October, 1992, pp. 30-6.
[In the following review of Backlash, Eberstadt provides an extended negative critique in which she cites a series of contradictions and weaknesses in Faludi's assertions.]
If feminists of the 1960s could have looked ahead to the present, what they spied would in some ways have resembled the promised land. More women, including more mothers of young children, are working outside the home than ever before. With this change in the market have come others that once seemed feminist fantasies. Both private corporations and government have devised benefits aimed at the working mother, and both are under pressure to devise more. Day care, though not yet free, has expanded dramatically. In many universities, female students now outnumber males. Women, even girls, now seem freer than ever to do what previous generations would have found unthinkable, or at least unthought-of, from Little League fields to once-male clubs to the combat ranks of the military.
They are certainly freer, as earlier feminists would have hoped, to engage in sex while postponing or altogether avoiding motherhood. To the contraceptive devices already widely offered, the FDA has lately added Norplant, whose five years duration may soon make the vaunted Pill, with its enduring “human error” factor, seem positively antique. Abortion, by most accounts the single most important concern of feminists then and now, continues apace; vehement national debate aside, the number of reported terminations is holding steady at about 1.5 million a year. Nor did the threat of a conservative majority on the Supreme Court materialize as many feared. As it showed this spring in the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the present Court will uphold selected inconveniences to the practice of abortion on demand; it will not, however, overturn Roe v. Wade. In July, moreover, the Democratic party platform and convention finally exorcised pro-life dissent and committed Clinton-Gore to “choice” in the feminist sense.
Alongside these triumphs, though, our 1960s feminists would have seen setback after amazing setback. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, anti-feminists of all kinds moved from what was once thought to be the lunatic fringe into the very warp and woof of political power. In newspapers and magazines, conservative and neoconservative voices proliferated. Already under assault from without, the women’s movement also found itself divided from within—often for prosaic reasons.
No-fault divorce, once a cherished cause, did not always seem so equitable in practice. “Trophy wife” entered the vernacular; “trophy husband,” did not. The two-income careerist household, another favorite cause, had its frictions. Women who had learned from feminism to equate running a household with indolence thought again when they tried it themselves—especially with children. Real life seemed to clash with liberation on other battlegrounds, too. Even ardent feminists sometimes balked at what were said to be the movement’s new frontiers—female reporters in locker rooms, mothers in combat, teenage girls in abortion clinics. Sexual liberation itself seemed rife with unexpected problems: “date rape,” “sexual harassment,” venereal disease; rising illegitimacy.
Whatever its consolations, then, feminism as a movement has for years careened from crisis to crisis. The troops have been defecting; the leadership is splintered and squabbling. As loyalist Ellen Goodman wrote earlier this year, “What is missing in the women’s movement is movement.” Sally Quinn, writing in the Washington Post this spring, found feminism as we know it not only dead, but murdered—by its own. “The people who spoke for the movement,” she argued, “were never completely honest with women. They didn’t tell the truth. … Instead of helping women fulfill their needs, helping the ‘total woman,’ they acted as if women had but one side and ignored the realities of husbands and children.”
As Quinn acknowledged, this latest round of obituaries was in fact just a postscript to the revisionism that had been going on among feminist leaders for years. Chief among these was Betty Friedan, whose 1981 book, The Second Stage, charged feminists with denigrating motherhood and leading women into “female machismo.” “Our failure,” she wrote then, “was our blind spot about the family.” Other recantations followed hers. By 1992, when the National Organization for Women chose as its president Patricia Ireland—a married woman who coyly acknowledged her lesbian adultery—it seemed anything but controversial to say, as Sally Quinn did, that “many women have come to see the feminist movement as anti-male, anti-child, anti-family, anti-feminine.”
But a funny thing happened on the way to feminism’s latest funeral. Even as pieces like Quinn’s seemed to ratify the popular mood, the most vehement and unapologetic call to arms to issue from the feminist camp in many years was enjoying sensational success. In Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, former Wall Street Journal reporter Susan Faludi could be found declaring that every single tenet of revisionist thought about feminism was wrong. The “man shortage,” “burnout,” “baby fever,” and other ills said to be afflicting American women—all these, according to Backlash, were myths. Women had not been made miserable by feminism, but by a “powerful counter-assault on women’s rights.” Their discontent had nothing to do with “wedding rings and bassinets,” everything with “justice for their gender.” Feminism had not been laid flat by its successes, but by a “society-wide backlash,” a “relentless whittling-down process that has served to stir women’s private anxieties and break their political wills.”
The speed with which Backlash and its message became ubiquitous in the mass media almost defies description. As always, success owed something to timing. When the book appeared in stores a year ago, most of America was devouring the spectacle of Clarence Thomas’s nomination hearings. That fact alone guaranteed an instant news “peg” for Backlash in many a subsequent musing about politics, sex, and the workplace.
A few months later, feminist grande dame Gloria Steinem published her own autobiography, Revolution from Within: A Book of Self-Esteem. In a move unusual in the world of publishing, Crown (Faludi’s publisher) and Little, Brown (Steinem’s) jointly promoted the two books together. This strategy created another nearly irresistible peg: that of passing the torch from the old generation of feminists to the new. The fact that Steinem’s book was often castigated for its feminist backsliding redounded further to the credit of the no-holds-barred Backlash, at least among feminist readers. Whatever tension their combination may have implied, Steinem and Faludi were to appear together—in person, in ads, on the cover of Time, and in the reams of commentary on both books.
But marketing, however savvy, goes only part of the way to explaining the Backlash phenomenon. Rave reviews helped, too. “Powerful, shocking, thought-provoking, inspiring, and truly groundbreaking,” “a must-read for women across the nation”: these verdicts by Eleanor Smeal on the book’s jacket were soon to be repeated by the score. So too was the judgment of Eleanor Clift in the Washington Post that “just as Friedan first gave voice to the ‘problem that has no name,’ Faludi has come along to rescue feminism from the trash heap of history.” Time called Backlash “one of those landmark books that shape the opinions of America’s opinion makers”; the Los Angeles Times, “the right book at exactly the right time.” Many more found the book “witty,” “forceful,” “brilliant,” and “trenchant”; John McLaughlin called Faludi “the best thinker of the year.”
With these accolades came many others. For most of the past year, Backlash—now in its tenth printing—has been a fixture on the bestseller list. Faludi was profiled in countless magazines, including People. So heavy was the demand for personal appearances that she left her job as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal to join the lecture circuit. In February, and despite stiff competition in the category of general non-fiction, a divided jury handed Backlash a coveted National Book Critics Circle award. Finally, in what may be the most succinct measure of the book’s extraordinary success and clout, its author has reportedly signed a ＄1.5 million contract for her next book, rumored to be about men.
The National Book Critics Circle award was not the first such prize to come Faludi’s way. Last year, she also won a Pulitzer for a Wall Street Journal story (May 16, 1990) about the sufferings imposed on employees by the leveraged buyout of Safeway Stores Inc. That Pulitzer came equipped with a story of its own. As David Streitfeld reported in April of this year for the Washington Post:
Faludi already has had recourse to a lawyer to protect her reputation. That happened when she saw the description of a forthcoming book, The Power and the Money: Inside the Wall Street Journal, a muckraking effort by Francis X. Dealy, Jr. that won’t appear until fall at the earliest but is already causing a bit of consternation at the paper. …
Faludi appears in this line: “The Journal’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning article on the Safeway [leveraged buyout] was largely a replication of a piece published two years before in the Texas Observer.” …
Faludi’s lawyer, Martin Garbus, has had a number of communications with Carol publisher Steven Schragis about the implications he feels are present in the word “replication” and its perhaps libelous connotations. But Dealy has not changed his mind. He still feels there are a number of points of “finite commonality” between the Journal and the Observer pieces. He’s not the only one who thinks so.
To see why, there is no substitute for reading the two pieces side by side. On December 23, 1988, the Observer published an article by reporter Bill Adler entitled “Leveraged Lives.” This was an account of the “flesh and blood consequences” and “human damage” suffered by Safeway employees in Texas as a result of the company’s buyout by some of Safeway’s management and Kohlberg Kravis Roberts and Co. On May 16, 1990, the Journal published “The Reckoning: Safeway LBO Yields Vast Profits but Exacts A Heavy Human Toll.” This was an account of the “enormous human costs” and “unintended side effects” suffered by Safeway employees in Texas and elsewhere in the country as a result of the buyout.
Broad similarities aside, a number of details appear in both accounts. Both pieces paint unsympathetic portraits of Safeway’s then-44-year-old chairman, Peter Magowan. Both pieces paint sympathetic portraits of two particular workers: James White, a trucker who worked for Safeway for thirty years and killed himself after losing his job; and Bill Mayfield, Jr., a mechanic who attempted suicide after losing his.
The day after Safeway closed its stores in Dallas, wrote Adler, “it would be the first time the local office of the Texas Employment Commission opened on a Saturday.” “When the Dallas Division shut down,” said the Journal piece, “the state unemployment office had to open on the weekend—for the first time ever—just to accommodate the Safeway crowds.”
Here is Adler again:
Of the 8,814 Dallas division workers who lost their jobs—all but the most senior management of the division were laid off—the average length of employment was 17 years.
Here is the Journal:
The following spring, the entire Dallas-area division was shut down, and nearly 9,000 more employees were dismissed—employees with an average length of service of 17 years.
Both pieces also mention the North Texas Food Bank. Adler writes:
The [Safeway Employees Association] was instrumental in forming the food bank in 1982 and Safeway remained the single largest donor—averaging 45,300 pounds of food per month—until the closing.
Again, the Journal:
The North Texas Food Bank suffered, too. It lost a founding member and its leading contributor; Safeway used to donate 600,000 pounds of food per year.
Here is Adler’s description of James White’s death:
… [A] year to the day after James White worked his final day for Safeway. … he walked into the bathroom of his tidy home. As he did so, he told his wife, as he often did, that he loved her. … The faint noise came from the bathroom. James White had ended his life as quietly as he lived it: he had shot himself in the head.
Here is the Journal’s:
In 1988, [James White] marked the one-year anniversary of his last shift this way: First he told his wife he loved her, then he locked the bathroom door, loaded his.22 caliber hunting rifle and blew his brains out.
Apart from its subject, thesis, point of view and the list of particulars above, the Journal piece differs significantly from Adler’s. It provides a fuller account of Safeway’s buyout and of LBOs more generally. It includes much more information about the key players in the transaction, particularly those in the KKR group. In addition to the workers in Dallas; the Journal piece also mentions workers in Denver, Oakland, San Francisco, and some other cities. Finally, while Adler’s piece is almost exclusively a human-interest story, the Journal’s suggests broad conclusions about leveraged buyouts in general.
Back at the Texas Observer, a struggling bi-weekly whose editor, Louis Dubose, regrets the rock-bottom wages his reporters make, these differences are scant consolation. “On the day Faludi won the award,” Dubose says wryly over the phone, “I called Bill up early in the morning to congratulate him for winning the Pulitzer. He said that several other people had already called with the same message.”
Neither Bill Adler nor the Texas Observer is mentioned in the Journal’s piece.
Faludi’s Backlash, in any event, had an inspiration all its own. According to a piece she wrote later for the Chicago Tribune’s Sunday magazine, Backlash was born in 1986, when Newsweek published its cover story about a now-famous study by two Yale sociologists and a Harvard economist. Based on previous American marriage patterns, the authors of the study had argued, it would appear that never-married college-educated women faced a decreasing likelihood of marriage as they grew older. In the hands of Newsweek and other popular magazines, the dry data provided by the study soon became grist for many a hair-raising speculation about whether older women, particularly career women, would ever marry at all.
These speculations threw then-27-year-old Susan Faludi into a slump. She read the Newsweek piece en route to a friend’s wedding “and landed at LaGuardia in a black mood.” At the wedding itself, “watching her trip down the aisle, the gray Harvard MBA suit shucked in favor of a white lace gown, I found myself unaccountably mournful, passed over.”
The doldrums did not last long, however. Back at her job as a staff writer for West magazine, the reporter began devouring the new literature of marital odds. In the gap between what the Harvard-Yale team had actually said and the sensationalism attached to those findings by the mass media, Faludi detected the makings of a “myth.” This led her to the trial of many other “trend stories” of the 1980s—on infertility, “burnout,” the “mommy track,” and so on—and soon myth after myth was exploding on the screen. The result four years later was Backlash.
Here we have what might be called Contradiction One of Backlash: It is a book conceived in marital neurosis, yet dedicated to the proposition that spinsterhood is the cure. Here is what emerges from the opening chapters: As a survey for Cosmopolitan magazine proved, “not only do single women make more money than their married sisters; they have better health and are more likely to enjoy regular sex.” Another study is said to show that “single women reported the greatest satisfaction with their lives,” still another, that “single women who worked … were in far better mental or physical shape than married women, with or without children, who stayed home.”
Exactly how dangerous is marriage? “The warning issued by family sociologist Jessie Bernard in 1972 still holds true: ‘Marriage may be hazardous to women’s health.’” “Study after study shows single women enjoying far better mental health than their married sisters.” Married women, the author reports, are more likely to be plagued by
nervous breakdowns, nervousness, heart palpitations, and inertia … insomnia, trembling hands, dizzy spells, nightmares, hypochondria, passivity, agoraphobia and other phobias, unhappiness with their physical appearance, and overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame.
Moreover, as the “depression literature” shows, there seem to be “only two prime causes for female depression: low social status and marriage.”
Single career women, then, are happier than ever before—except when they are being more miserable, which is an argument that Backlash makes simultaneously. Here we have Contradiction Two. Childless and single women, the book mourns, have come to feel like “circus freaks.” Many others suffer from “high marital panic,” “depression,” and increased “anxiety and guilt.” Women at large are beset by “malaise and enervation”; they have lost their “collective spirit.” Today’s women—all women—feel empty, out of touch, alone. “Young and old women, nonideological undergraduates and feminist activists alike, have felt the pain of this new isolation.”
These feelings of anxiety and pain, the text continues, have been implanted in women without their knowledge by a malevolent outside force. That force is the decade-old (sometimes age-old) cultural backlash against feminism. It has “moved through the culture’s secret chambers, traveling through passageways of flattery and fear.” At its most powerful, it “lodges inside a woman’s mind and turns her vision inward, until she imagines the pressure is all in her head.” Yet the backlash, the author insists, is neither a “conspiracy” nor an “organized movement.” “Often, the people who serve its ends” are not even “aware of their role,” Rather.
its workings are encoded and internalized, diffuse and chameleonic. … Taken as a whole, however, these codes and cajolings, these whispers and threats and myths, move overwhelmingly in one direction: they try to push women back into their acceptable roles—whether as Daddy’s girl or fluttery romantic active nester or passive love object.
Thus Contradiction Three. The backlash, with its “agents,” “infiltration,” “secrecy,” and “codes” behaves exactly like a conspiracy—except that Faludi insists that it isn’t one.
A few years ago, the book explains, stories proliferated in the popular culture, about the yearning for motherhood among career women. These stories, Faludi writes, made many readers feel “desperate, unworthy, and shameful for failing to reproduce on the media’s schedule.” The readers then erroneously “decided that the signals were coming exclusively from their own bodies, not their newspapers.” Thus the backlash in action. Similarly, the “marriage panic”—another topic of late 1980s journalism—“didn’t show up in the polls until after the press’s promotion of the Harvard-Yale study.” Infertility, “toxic” day care, the “man shortage”? Backlash again. Such trend stories, the author argues, were manufactured by reporters who “claimed to divine sweeping shifts of female social behavior while providing little in the way of evidence to support their generalizations.” Here we have what might kindly be called Contradiction Four: that the writer credited with the prize-winning piece on Safeway should deplore the work habits of other reporters.
From the mass media that ignited it, the backlash motored along through the culture. The entrepreneurs of misery jumped aboard. “Advice writers and pop therapists, matchmaking consultants, plastic surgeons and infertility specialists have both fueled and cashed in on women’s anxiety and panic under the backlash.” So did Hollywood, offering such regressive fare as Crossing Delancey, Working Girl, Baby Boom, and, of course, Fatal Attraction, whose “message” was that “the best single woman is a dead one.” On television, the hit show “thirtysomething” displayed “a complete pantheon of backlash women,” “from blissful homebound mother to neurotic spinster to ball-busting single career woman.” The fashion world exploited the new mood by fobbing off on women an array of repressive attire: miniskirts, baby-doll dresses, low necklines; teddies, underwire bras and girdles; lingerie tailored to men’s fantasies. The backlash also benefited from synergy. “Hollywood,” for example, “hastened to the aid of the intimate-apparel industry, with garter belts in Bull Durham, push-up bras in Dangerous Liaisons, and merry-widow regalia galore in Working Girl.”
Women did try to resist these new assaults. In the matter of underwear, for example, they spurned the G-string and thong and “just kept reaching for the all-cotton Jockeys.” (“Women,” the author explains, “want underwear that won’t ride up, won’t fall apart in the wash, and actually is the size promised on the label.”) Women, according to Faludi, also continued to demand career-girl’s clothes and politically correct television, ‘to postpone their wedding dates, and in general “to want” what “they have always wanted.” Ergo, Contradiction Five: The backlash business allegedly made “record profits” by exploiting millions of women—but these same millions of women allegedly rejected the backlash at the cash register.
In Washington itself, meanwhile, the backlash was busy “dismantling the federal apparatus for enforcing equal opportunity, gutting crucial legal rulings for working women, undermining abortion rights, halting birth control research, and promulgating ‘fetal protection’ and fetal rights’ policies.”
Like most feminists today, Faludi places women and fetus on opposing sides of the ideological chessboard. By the 1990s, she writes, women’s “reproductive freedoms” were in “greater jeopardy” than they had been in years. This was partly thanks to the medical profession, which had “defined the fetus as an independent patient” and the pregnant woman as a mere “ancillary party.” But the “most blatant and violent agents” of the backlash remained the anti-abortion activists. These men (with the exception of Cindy Terry, wife of Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry, Faludi writes only of the men) were chiefly concerned with stopping women from “climbing into the sexual driver’s seat” Some, like Randall Terry himself, were also apparently in it for the cash. Terry, the author points out, used to live in a “trailer park”; he “scooped ice cream” and “sold jalopies” for a living; he went to an “unaccredited school.” “It was not until Terry started Operation Rescue, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations started rolling in, that he was able to make a living wage.” Whatever their ugly motivations, the effect of the anti-abortion activists remained the same—the most vicious assault yet in the “long, painful and unremitting campaign to thwart women’s progress.”
The discussion of abortion and its critics brings up Contradiction Six: The successful, Harvard-educated author of Backlash—who of course champions poor against rich, town against gown—in fact views actual members of those groups with the condescension of aristocrats everywhere. This is true whether the member is Randall Terry (he and his wife “lived like charity cases,” Faludi sniffs), or actual working women themselves, from the “Tupperware-hawking homemaker” to the millions who are, in the author’s pitying judgment, “stuck in traditional ‘female-only’ jobs—as secretaries, administrative ‘support’ workers and sales clerks.”
How, then, did Backlash—a work so riddled with illogic that it cannot accurately be called an argument—become a pillar of reverential worship? In part, the answer lies in the awesome size of the book’s equipment. Backlash, which weighs in at 460 pages of text and 91 more of footnotes, is a torrential outpouring of social science numbers and jargon. As the author explained to Time, “In an odd way I was playing more by the boys’ rules—saying, O.K., you men will listen to data and ‘rational arguments’ and statistics, and the body of evidence will convince you.”
A few words about that “evidence.” Even her most fervent admirers have felt compelled to demur on the subject of Faludi’s use of numbers. As Ellen Goodman, who has tried harder to promote Backlash than almost any other journalist in print, put it gently, “Ms. Faludi marshals her evidence, but leaves out pieces that don’t fit her puzzle.” Time, Working Woman, and other friendly sources have politely said the same. In a letter to the New York Times, Barbara Lovenheim, author of Beating the Marriage Odds: When You Are Smart, Single, and Over 35, was more blunt. Faludi, she wrote, “skews data, misquotes primary sources and makes serious errors of omission.”
For example, in discussing the risks associated with postponing childbearing, Backlash had claimed that “women under 35 now give birth to children with Down syndrome at a higher rate than women over 35.” This statement, as Lovenheim argued, “flies in the face of all conventional medical wisdom”; it was also, she charged, contradicted by the very sources Faludi cited. In another case, as she attempted to rebut fears of a “man shortage” for older career women, Faludi had pointed out that bachelors in fact outnumber never-married women. True enough, Lovenheim wrote; “but she fails to mention how, divorced men and women and widows and widowers shift the balance in midlife.” Indeed, “there are at least one million more unwed women than unwed men between the ages of 35 and 54.” In her eagerness to show that women remain single by choice, Faludi had greatly over-represented the number of single women who are presently cohabitating. Researchers for a 1986 federal government study, Faludi writes, found that “one-third of these unwed women were living with a man.” The actual language of that study, according to Lovenheim: “4 percent [of American women aged 19 and over] were actually cohabitating, about one-fifth had cohabitated before marriage, and almost one-third had cohabitated at some time.”
But it does not take a statistician to see that the book’s ideology drives its numbers, rather than vice versa. Consider its discussion of day care. Many feminists, and many working mothers, want to be assured only that day care has no long-term negative effects on children. Faludi goes further. In Backlash, day care is presented not only as a good alternative to home care; it is, apparently, preferable. For one thing, children appear safer there. “There were nearly 100,000 reported cases of children sexually abused by family members (mostly fathers, stepfathers, or older brothers) compared with about 1,500 in day care.” The effect of day care on childhood development is not neutral, but positive: “It seems to make children slightly more gregarious and independent,” and “day care children also appear to be more broad-minded about sex roles.” Faludi even takes on the commonplace fact—which she attributes to “media reports”—that children in day care are exposed to more illnesses, and hence get sick more often than children at home. “Actual studies,” she reports, prove that day-care children “soon build up immunities and actually get sick less often than kids at home.” There are not many parents who will find such “actual studies” reassuring, or who will fail to wonder what other numbers lie buried beneath the author’s blithe admission that “children in day care are initially prone to more illness.”
But perhaps it is unfair to tax the author with her militant indifference to children; after all, she is not one of them. As she explained at a bookstore appearance in Berkeley, “One writer said [that] to succeed, feminists need to look at children from a ‘children’s perspective.’ “Why should we? We’re adults.” She is, however, a feminist, which brings us to Contradiction Seven: the women of Backlash itself are servile, faint-hearted, helpless dupes—except when they are being cunning, treacherous, bold self-promoters.
There are, for example, the outright enemies of the cause—women like Phyllis Schlafly, Mona Charen, the Free Congress Foundation’s Connie Marshner, and many more. None, to judge by Backlash, actually believe the preposterous things they say: most, it is implied, are just playing for personal advantage. (In a fascinating omission, Faludi nowhere mentions that pre-eminent critic of modern feminism, Midge Decter.) Lesser figures are merely dismissed with contempt. A staffer at the Reagan White House is mentioned only to enable the crack that she “was most celebrated for her sexual status as a twenty-nine-year-old virgin.” Cindy Terry, mother of five and comrade-in-arms of Randall, is portrayed variously as a “goodwife” who mows the lawn and “serves” and “clears the dishes.” George Gilder’s wife, an architectural historian who appears guilty only of having married him, is smeared—for no reason—with this baffling insult: “Maybe this aging prince had considered his marital odds—and decided he’d better settle for what he could get.”
Then there are the collaborators. On Betty Friedan: “Her book is punctuated with the tantrums of a fallen leader who is clearly distressed and angry that she wasn’t allowed to be the Alpha wolf as long as she would have liked.” Sylvia Ann Hewlett, revisionist author of A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women’s Liberation in America, sits at a “well-buffed” boardroom table and “live[s] … at a fashionable Manhattan address with her investment banker husband”: and no wonder, for her “attack on the women’s movement earned her a showcase in every press outlet from the New York Times to People to ‘Donahue.’” Susan Brownmiller’s revisionist book, Femininity, was “footnoteless and fuzzy.” And so on.
Even the women whose cause Backlash claims to be championing are reduced in its pages to stick figures of false consciousness. Faludi makes much, for example, of five women who worked at an American Cyanamid plant in West Virginia. Prohibited from working in a division of the plant that management believed to be dangerous to the human fetus, all five women had themselves sterilized—a decision that subsequently tormented, and was regretted by, each. But did they really feel that bad? No. For “the distress these women felt was, in large measure, the result of the signals they picked up from their culture and the way these signals conflicted with the real circumstances of their lives.”
What of other real women—for example, those who yearn for motherhood? They, too, appear “duped” by the “signals” of their “culture.” Backlash has much to say—all of it negative—about doctors who engage in infertility research and offer to help women conceive. Of the women who actually seek such treatment, there is not a word—much less sympathy. “To the infertility specialists,” the author explains, “humanizing the embryo just made good business sense.” Similarly, there is no kind word in Backlash for any woman who chooses not to be promiscuous; or for any woman who aborted and came to regret it (another media invention, we’re told); or for any woman whose opinions differ in any way from Faludi’s own.
Indeed, her discussion of abortion shows just how cold-blooded the author can be. Almost no one surveying the debate these past two decades could fail to see that most other Americans remain militantly uncomfortable with the whole subject—except Faludi. She goes so far as to place the “eyes” of the fetus in sneer quotes—a move that takes her beyond even the pro-abortion advocates of fetal tissue research, who at least know a spare part when they see one. Twenty-five million abortions have been recorded since Roe v. Wade; but by the 1980s, the author complains, “the fetus began to win out.” Well, some people are never satisfied.
As for other acts of choice, there is no honorable mention in Backlash of any woman who has chosen to stay home, with or without children to raise. Domestic life is described variously as “inactivity” and “a regressive fantasy”; the press, again, is condemned for “predictable women’s magazine treacle about the virtues and ‘deep-rooted’ values of any woman who has ‘found her identity’ by serving home, husband, and kids.” The “birthing festival” on 1980s television, Faludi writes, was “benign enough, if a little monotonous.” Less benign were the shows that portrayed large families, alias “a full litter of kids.” In the movie Parenthood, she notes distastefully,
… the whole brood crowds into the maternity ward, with virtually every woman either rocking a newborn or resting a proud hand on a bulging tummy. As the camera pans over row upon row of gurgling diapered babies, it is hard to remember that this is a feature film, not a commercial break for Pampers.
Thus the views of Backlash on wives, mothers, would-be mothers, and mothers-to-be.
Pitiful as these women are, their single, childless, working sisters are just as frail. “Instead of assailing injustice, many women have learned to adjust to it. Instead of getting angry, they have become depressed. Instead of uniting their prodigious numbers, they have splintered and turned their pain and frustration inward.” They are a bovine lot, these modern American women—reeling from their simple faith in Newsweek and Good Housekeeping, duped by everyone from the nefarious Hope Steadman on “thirtysomething” to nefarious Republicans in the White House, and all the while victimized by nefarious doctors and bosses—even their nefarious underwear.
And so we come to the real whopper, Contradiction Eight: Here is a best-selling, prize-winning, thunderously applauded author whose very premise (if that is the word) is that women like her, born free, are everywhere chained by the backlash. But as Backlash does manage to show, women are free all right—free to insist on double standards everywhere from the bathroom to the boardroom; free to blame everyone but themselves for everything from chlamydia and “pressure in the head” to problems so incoherent that they don’t even have a name. All this freedom, it is clear, makes feminists very happy. Just listen to them.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1107
SOURCE: “A New Attack on Feminism,” in Dissent, Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 123-24.
[In the following excerpted review essay, Epstein offers a positive assessment of Backlash.]
America’s ambivalence about the roles of women today was played out most ironically in the past presidential campaign. The Republican National Convention gave the private, family-centered woman Barbara Bush a very public and political role as a highlighted speaker, while the Democrats pressed Hillary Clinton, the assertive attorney and advocate for children’s rights, to retreat to the role of supportive wife and mother.
The right’s attempt to equate the traditional family with morality and to label alternatives as radical and destructive seized media attention—although voters wisely seemed to worry more about the economy than whether the couple in the White House should be like Ozzie and Harriet. But the many news reports and op ed pieces about whether Hillary Clinton harmed her husband’s candidacy and the polls, which consistently registered higher admiration for the white-haired grandmotherly Mrs. Bush than for the blonde Mrs. Clinton, showed that although the public might not let “family values” decide its vote, the mythic view of the traditional division of labor in the home was still popular on Main Street.
The American public’s attraction to what William J. Goode has called the “classic family of western nostalgia” is testament to the power of myth. Though Americans have been experiencing structural changes aplenty over the past decade, our mythology refuses to acknowledge them. The traditional cultural models are emphasized not only in folk culture and the popular media; they have considerable support in the academy and in intellectual circles. (Never mind that many have no basis in reality and never did have.) Though the movements of the 1960s and later challenged traditional views of “woman’s place” and precipitated wide-ranging legislation, rapid social changes made even many “emancipated” working women uncomfortable about taking advantage of new opportunities and departing from traditional roles.
Abandoning the sixties women’s movement’s belief that equality meant a sharing of responsibilities in the home and equal treatment at work, some feminist scholars reaffirmed traditional mandates—the notion, for example, of women’s special propensity for “caring” roles. Suddenly the right wing, which had always held that the old way was the best way, found support from “cultural feminists,” such as Carol Gilligan, whose book In a Different Voice was an unanticipated academic best-seller. Following the work of psychoanalytically oriented theorists in the United States and Europe, Gilligan suggested that girls’ earliest experiences created identities with an orientation to morality based on relationships (in contrast to a male orientation toward abstract justice) that accounted for their placement in traditional roles—as mothers, wives, and nurturers in the home, and as nurses, teachers, and social workers in the workplace. Other scholars claimed that the feminist movement had erred in pressing for equal treatment of women in several realms. Lenore Weitzman, for example, wrote in an influential book. The Divorce Revolution, that no-fault divorce had taken a severe economic toll on women because its assumption of equality removed the bargaining advantage that their dependent status had conferred. Sylvia Hewlitt (a former Marxist economist) wrote that women had A Lesser Life because of their multiple roles and lack of child care, for which she faulted the women’s movement. Other scholars maintained that the feminist movement had achieved little in the way of economic progress for women, except for a handful of elite white women. The press, ever vigilant to the dangers flowing from social change, had a field day depicting women’s participation in the labor force as a source of strain and pain for women and their families.
Susan Faludi’s Backlash provides a scorching look at the popular media and the academics responsible for the accounts that denied women’s hard-won progress toward equality in the 1970s and 1980s and the accomplishments of the women’s movement. Faludi especially indicts those who wrote about women’s supposed disaffection in the workplace—articles, for example, about women in high-level jobs who dropped out to return to the home. She cites the academics mentioned above as well as popular writers who gained wide attention with misleading stories about the negative impact of no-fault divorce on women, of day care on children, and of employment on women’s health. Faludi notes that the sources for the problems depicted were not to be found in women’s movement activism but in traditional discriminatory attitudes and institutions. But she also questions the studies that found negative consequences of equality and nontraditional behavior, concluding that they were not supported by additional research and further statistical analysis. Faludi points out, among other things, that not only were women not dropping out of the workplace to return to the home, their numbers in the workplace were increasing steadily; that a majority of divorced women reported that they were happier divorced than they had been in their painful marriages and that a year after divorce their economic situation, at first quite poor, had improved substantially; that controlling for quality, children benefited psychologically and intellectually from day care (and many faced a greater probability of abuse in their own homes than in nursery schools); and that women’s health was not impaired by demanding jobs. As the New York Times reported in October, recent studies by three economists showed that the economic situation of women has steadily improved over the past decades and continues to show a steady upward surge. This kind of article reporting the “good news” is rare, Faludi reports. News about women—even “success stories”—is usually peppered with suggestions that successful women are unhappy and lead lives of stress or are deprived of the pleasures of traditional family life. This message is part of the backlash Faludi points to. Of course, Faludi acknowledges that women do need help in attaining more highly skilled jobs, higher pay, government-supported child care, and freedom from sexual harassment. …
The work of Faludi, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and [Carol] Tavris, a Ph.D. in psychology who is also a popular writer and former editor of Psychology Today, indicates it is time to apply common sense—educated, cynical common sense—to the cultural myths about men and women perpetuated in part by the media and by segments of the academic community. The problems they raise are of crucial importance. The questions of women’s equality, the problems of the family and care of children should not be subject to posturing or faddish dabbling in new terminologies. These issues must be examined with steely-eyed caution and insistence on evidence.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 771
SOURCE: A review of Backlash, in American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 99, No. 3, November, 1993, pp. 824-25.
[In the following review, Fink offers a positive summary of Backlash.]
Susan Faludi’s account of the backlash movement [in Backlash] is thorough indeed. Although the war against American women may be undeclared, it is difficult to deny the pervasiveness of its battles. Faludi enumerates many efforts to limit women’s roles by those who would silence women’s newfound voice in modern American society. The protagonists described by Faludi want to revert women back into the silent ideal, seen but not heard.
Faludi points, first, to the role of the media in this campaign, but she also identifies other significant social actors such as academics, dress designers, Washington bureaucrats, and politicians. Many perceive a threat to their power as women become more active in the paid labor force and, more important, in the political process. Faludi continues with illustrations of the synergistic effects emerging between battlefronts as actors embellish and add their own agendas to the media’s war on feminists. It is interesting that she asserts that many of these embellishments may be motivated by attempts to recapture the often fickle attention of the media. She then censures “masculinists” such as George Gilder and Robert Bly and feminists revisionists such as Betty Friedan and Warren Farrell for what she views as their collaboration with backlash efforts in an effort to gain renewed fame and fortune. Faludi proceeds to lay out her thesis carefully, showing that the resistance she documents, while not an organized conspiracy, is surprisingly consistent in the shared themes of its numerous battles.
In a volume intended for a broad audience, Faludi’s book illustrates an important, basic lesson for social science research. She describes in readable language how bias, values, and multiple political agendas enter into various steps of the social science research process. In the section entitled “Statistics and a Tale of Two Social Scientists” she paints a revealing picture of recent uses and abuses of modern social science techniques.
The most controversial aspect of this book is also Faludi’s major premise: a backlash occurs not when major strides have been made, but when small but significant changes have occurred. Perhaps all significant transformations begin with a series of very small changes and many wars are undeclared. After reading this volume, however, many readers may question how a small change—that of women demanding a voice and a place in the political process—has elicited a ferocious and prolonged response. One could conclude that the intensity of the backlash means that this small change strikes very close to a core cultural pattern, and may incrementally begin to dismantle a familiar power structure. What Faludi has exposed is the magnitude of fear in the face of a loss in power. When Faludi has linked all the backlash incidents, one sees the patterns that connects these battles.
The backlash movement pressures women to go back into less visible, more traditional roles. Most telling are those warriors who blame feminism for all modern problems. Faludi, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, insightfully describes more than a fanning of a few sparks generated by the political Right; she also documents the continuing resistance of women at all levels.
One of the most interesting discussions is the account of men active in the antiabortion movement. While visible and often violent in their protest against abortion and women, they emerge as less problematic than the more powerful men who dominate the legal system. Men with this type of power continue to define women as “fetal environments”—lesser citizens who must be restrained especially during their crucial role as expectant mothers of the next generation of men.
One problem with this volume is that many will not finish it, as it is quite long and elicits an intense emotional response. But in some ways these weaknesses are its strength. Reading the extent of evidence amassed by Faludi may galvanize some to speak out. Faludi’s admiration for many of the women who have persisted shines through, and the book ends with a note of realistic hope and recommendations for concrete action.
This book could be used in a research methods class illustrating abuses of research. It would also be a welcome addition to understanding the tactics of modern social movements and the enlarged role of the media. Finally, it is an interesting example of the more abstract themes running throughout James Hunter’s recent Culture Wars (1992). In my opinion Faludi’s volume is an interesting and timely book that needs to be read and discussed.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1007
SOURCE: “Reproducing Culture through Language: Sex, Gender, and Conversational Style,” in Women's Studies in Communication, Vol. 18, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 93-103.
[In the following excerpted essay, Crawford discusses the cultural construction of negative female stereotypes and Faludi's critique of such constructions in Backlash.]
Popular press books are often used to supplement textbooks in the classroom. The trade books reviewed in this essay were selected because they are relatively recent, fairly well-known, concerned with gender/power issues, and written primarily by women. These criteria ground two purposes: the first explores ways that gender is construed in Western culture. As culture is both produced and reproduced through language, this review considers how the authors orchestrate and advance certain notions of stereotypical male and female behavior in contemporary American society. This essay’s second purpose is to touch on the issue of “backlash” against women. It examines the meaning and implications of representations of sex, gender, and conversational style in popular literature within a socio-political context that appears to remain antagonistic toward women. …
The details are vague. National Public Radio. Canada. Native women. A story about abortions. Barbarous protocol. No general or local anaesthesia. But the image is clear. Several people holding a woman down while she screams through excruciating pain for the doctor to stop. And the doctor is yelling back at the woman to stop—to stop moving and causing trouble. This kind of abuse in Canada and the United States still occurs. Abortion continues to be a highly charged issue, along with many other issues typically associated with the women’s movement. One of these other issues is economics. Susan Faludi (1991) supports the prevalence of a “backlash” against women in the United States, of which financial disadvantage is a major one. As she writes in her introduction [to Backlash]:
If American women are so equal, why do they represent two-thirds of all poor adults? Why are more than 80 percent of full-time working women making less than ＄20,000 a year, nearly double the male rate? Why are they still far more likely than men to live in poor housing and receive no health insurance, and twice as likely to draw no pension? Why does the average working woman’s salary still lag as far behind the average man’s as it did twenty years ago? Why does the average female college graduate today earn less than a man with no more than a high school diploma (just as she did in the '50s)—and why does the average female high school graduate today earn less than a male high school dropout? Why do American women, in fact, face the worse gender-based pay gap in the developed world? (p. xiii)
A few pages later she answers some of these questions. Faludi notes: “The truth is that the last decade has seen a powerful counter-assault on women’s rights, a backlash, an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories that the feminist movement did manage to win for women. This counter-assault is largely insidious: in a kind of pop-culture version of the Big Lie, it stands the truth boldly on its head and proclaims that the very steps that have elevated women’s position have actually led to their downfall” (p. xviii).
The ethical implications of the insidiousness about which Faludi writes are obvious. It is one thing to speak openly against women (although this is certainly problematic in its own terms), but it is quite another to frame the discourse in a way that finds women to be the cause of their own troubles. In Faludi’s words, the backlash against women in this country “is most powerful when it goes private, when it lodges inside a woman’s mind and turns her vision inward, until she imagines the pressure is all in her head, until she begins to enforce the backlash, too—on herself” (p. xxii).
Faludi’s book is packed with data about backlashes against women. She supports her case through examples that assert “truths” about female issues that are more mythic than factual. She suggests, for example, that statistics in allegedly scientific studies are often misleading because they represent “widely held media preconceptions” (p. 8) rather than careful observations of female culture and experience. After challenging such arguments against equality for women as higher instances of depression for single and career women, and the “infertility epidemic” afflicting “professional women who postpone childbearing,” she writes:
Under the backlash, statistics became prescriptions for expected female behavior, cultural marching orders to women describing only how they should act—and how they would be punished if they failed to heed the call. This “data” was said to reflect simply “the way things are” for women, a bedrock of demographic reality that was impossible to alter; the only choice for women was to accept the numbers and lower their sights to meet them. (p. 8)
At this point, the assumption that culture can be both produced and reproduced through language becomes germane. The manner in which Faludi suggests that statistics are used to depict women in the United States reproduces female stereotypes that, from a feminist perspective, are oppressive because they represent women in limited and diminished ways. …
I began this review essay by considering gender differences in popular trade books and then how they reflect potential backlash against women. In light of the review, only an interactionist perspective seems warranted as a way to think about gender, biology, and environment. In other words, neither hormones and genetic makeup alone, nor environment and social context in isolation, adequately explain female and male behavior. Both must exist transactionally and interdependently with one another to make any sense. This review provides a small, selected sample of some of the ways that sex, gender, and conversational style are depicted and explained in contemporary Western society. Moir and Jessel, Tannen, Faludi, Tavris, and Lakoff offer narratives through which to glimpse white, middle-class women’s representation in Western culture. How they tell their stories rhetorically creates competing perspectives for making sense of women’s experiences.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 829
SOURCE: “Opening the Male: A Leading Feminist Turns Her Sympathies to the Betrayed American Man,” in Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1999, pp. 17-8.
[In the following review, Chinni offers unfavorable assessment of Stiffed.]
If 1990s America offers one overarching lesson, it is that the cultural labels we once used to define our societal tribes are increasingly worthless. In a world with 500 cable channels, niche marketing, and the Internet, it has become nearly impossible to place large groups of people into neat little boxes.
Lines are blurring. Subcultures are merging across the old boundaries of race and gender. At the close of the 20th century, American society resembles a kaleidoscope, fragmented and constantly shifting.
And therein lies the real problem with Stiffed, Susan Faludi’s new 650-page sociological tract bent on telling us about “the betrayal of the American man.” Lumping half the population under this simple two-word category heading, she tries to “understand the perilous voyage to manhood undertaken by men I once knew as boys” in 12 chapters that roughly break down into a series of character and group sketches. The approach creates problems that extend beyond the enormity of the topic.
Faludi’s sketches are often interesting, even engrossing. In particular, the chapters concerning Citadel cadets, the Promise Keepers, and the porn industry (parts of which appeared in The New Yorker) show a reporter in top form.
She gives the reader a peek into the world of these men, examining their cultural icons, exploring their hopes, fears, and neuroses. The approach is similar to the one Faludi employed in her well-received feminist tome Backlash (1991), which substantiated interviews with pages of data.
But in Stiffed, Faludi, now a contributing editor at Newsweek, is surprisingly short on supporting information. She resorts to the all-too-familiar newsmagazine practice of using vivid anecdotes and colorful characters in place of facts and figures. And this raises questions for the reader.
The Promise Keeper phenomenon is certainly interesting, but is it indicative of a larger societal trend, or something occurring within a small subculture? Are men as a whole really anything like cadets at the Citadel?
Faludi, seemingly aware that her book would be vulnerable on this front, tries to deal with the issue early in Stiffed. She explains that one interview subject, “a self-described ‘patriot’ and avid fisherman,” told her: “If you want to see what’s happening in the stream called our society, go to the edges and look at what’s happening there, and then you begin to have an understanding.”
Well, no offense, but isn’t that what you’d expect a “self-described patriot” to say? It’s a bit like asking a fascist about politics or a badminton player about sports in America. You have to expect a slightly skewed answer.
What’s worse, however, is the often-tortured logic Faludi uses to make her fringe cases relevant. In a chapter on Sylvester Stallone, she explains how the actor was unable to break out of the action-movie realm with the film Copland because he was trapped in the new male “ornamental culture” that values looks over acting skill.
But she neglects to mention that Stallone created and reveled in the muscle-bound Rambo image and didn’t mind the “ornamental culture” when he was commanding millions for his performances. And is “ornamental culture” really a new development in Hollywood? After all, the role of life-size action figures extends far back beyond Stallone to actors like Rudolf Valentino, Tyrone Power, and Errol Flynn.
None of this, of course, completely discounts Faludi’s arguments. Men, particularly those white men on the bottom of the skills and education ladder, have lost a lot in the last 20 years. The departure of industrial jobs, the societal focus on glamour over substance, and the changing roles feminism has brought, have left many men in the lurch.
But as the author herself has compellingly pointed out in the past, women have not emerged unscathed from this cultural and socioeconomic reshuffling either. For every man who wants to look like Brad Pitt and walk like Stallone, there is a woman who wants Cindy Crawford’s body and Madeleine Albright’s job. There are points in Stiffed when Faludi seems to have forgotten the lessons she tried to teach readers in the past.
The male landscape Faludi lays out here is likely to seem foreign to most men—and women. But more interesting, by focusing so intently on a handful of male caricatures, the author has created a work of irony.
Feminism’s greatest lesson had less to do with equal rights than it did with seeing beyond and through the common myths and stereotypes of gender. In Stiffed, Faludi’s anecdotal quest for the mythical soul of American maledom has actually turned the clock back. And when she writes breathlessly about how shipyard workers “grounded their own worth and identity not in the masculine model of warrior, but in that of builder,” you can almost hear men chuckle—and feminists sigh.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1355
SOURCE: “The Betrayed Generation,” in Wall Street Journal, September 24, 1999, pp. W11-12.
[In the following review, Fukuyama pans the book Stiffed for its lack of logical analysis and coherence, and states that Faludi is a better journalist than social thinker.]
Journalist Susan Faludi rose to prominence in 1991 for her book Backlash, which sought to exonerate feminism of any blame for society's contemporary discontents, pointing the finger instead at feminism's enemies who, however improbably, were said to dominate the media and popular culture. Following her bestsellerdom, she spent time trying, as she explains at the beginning of her new book, Stiffed, to understand male resistance to female change. She did so initially by attending weekly meetings of a domestic-violence group and discovered that the men were not the monsters portrayed by some feminists but rather victims themselves. After countless interviews with men, she was led, as the book's publicity materials inform us, to a “surprisingly empathetic” view of modern males and the realization that the baby-boom generation of men has suffered a huge betrayal.
This, like the picture of the chisel-faced worker on the book's cover, turns out to be a lot of false advertising. Had Ms. Faludi's intention been to demonstrate how awful contemporary men were, she could not have picked a choicer lot. Apart from the workers at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard with whom the book begins, the rest of the male “victims” described in this book's mind-numbing 650 pages range from repulsive to merely pathetic: members of the Spur Posse (the high-school club in Lakewood, California, that racked up points for having sex with as many girls as possible); cadets at the Citadel, with their violent hazing rituals; the “Dawg Pound,” a group of working-class fans of the Cleveland Browns who dress up in basset-hound ears to yelp at their team; Lt. William Calley of My Lai fame; gun-toting militia members; an L.A. gangster who shot out the intestines of a 14-year-old; drag queens; and (I kid you not) a male porn star who was driven to suicide by his failure to deliver erections on cue. Even Sylvester Stallone figures as a victim; he whines to the author over appetizers at Spago that the only roles he can get are as “feminized” muscle men.
Having anointed this unappealing group of losers as representative of American postwar manhood, Ms. Faludi proceeds to explain how they were “stiffed.” According to her, the generation of men born at the end of World War II was promised by their fathers that they would be in control, that they would have meaningful work, that life-long loyalty would be rewarded, whether by their companies or their government. These baby boomers were then betrayed by a cliched list of villains. Their fathers, in the first place, were wedded to an incorrect version of masculinity that involved domination, protection of the weak and the desire to be number one. (Ms. Faludi explains at several points that being a man really means being a political activist or community organizer; it thus turns out that gays are the most manly of contemporary men.) These qualities led the fathers' generation to create what Ms. Faludi calls the “national security state” and to compete in a Cold War—interpreted primarily in psychosexual terms—whose outcome was ultimately Vietnam. This “foreign-policy betrayal” of American ideals was complemented at home by a betrayal of the lifetime employment contract by profit-hungry corporations.
But the chief villain in this postwar drama is the growth of what Ms. Faludi calls an “ornamental” celebrity culture that promotes individual display over community service. Feminists have long argued that women, rather than being rewarded for the work they do, are valued for their looks. Ms. Faludi claims that men—deprived of meaningful work—have come to suffer the same fate, measuring themselves increasingly by the kind of media spotlight they can attract to themselves. Men cannot deal with this “feminization” of their roles, and they react by turning violent and self-destructive.
There is of course a great deal that is distasteful about America's contemporary celebrity culture and the kinds of values that it promotes. There are certain subgroups like African-American inner-city teens who may be misled into seeing sports stardom as the best route to upward social mobility. But turning oneself into an “ornament” was hardly an option for the thousands of laid-off industrial workers, or downsized corporate middle managers, who have found the economy tough going in the past generation. The celebrity culture, moreover, is not a conspiracy stage-managed by some large media conglomerates but reflects in large measure the preferences of the general public. And it is notable that well into the age of feminism, those market forces dictate that ornamental display remains largely the province of women. Look at any airport magazine rack, where the men's magazines have pictures of beautiful women on their covers, while the women’s magazines have … pictures of beautiful women on their covers.
There is no question that men have had special problems in the past few decades. Women have not simply done better in the job market; men have positively lost ground. After peaking in the early 1970s, real male median incomes have slipped perhaps 12٪, while male labor-force participation—particularly for young workers without skills—has declined. Conservatives often fail to recognize that family decline is not just a matter of moral decay but also of men's loss of their ability to play the role of resource provider. (It is fascinating to note among Ms. Faludi’s interviewees how often it is that women respond to a spouse's loss of livelihood by taking up with another man who can better provide for them.) As Lionel Tiger points out in The Decline of Males, the desire of men to play this traditional role, or to participate in male-bonded competition, is rooted in nature and therefore cannot be so easily wished away when society finds it politically incorrect.
On the other hand, Ms. Faludi shows a complete lack of historical perspective by suggesting that somehow back in the good old days men always had meaningful work that embedded them in their communities. She seems to forget that the way to the West (or indeed, to the U.S. itself) was paved by the absence of opportunity at home, and seems to think that there was once a time when competitive individualism was not part of the American character (perhaps back in the days of Jay Gould or John D. Rockefeller).
Consistent with her earlier book, Ms. Faludi is particularly intent on showing that feminism is not to blame for the current predicament of men, despite the insistence of her interlocutors that this is so. It seems not to have occurred to her that the loud assertion by many feminists in the 1970s that men were violent, loutish creatures who had no useful role to play in the lives of women (recall Gloria Steinem's remark that a “woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle”) might have represented its own sort of betrayal. Ms. Faludi makes fun of the gun enthusiast’s nostalgia for the role of protector and provider without acknowledging that that role, no less than a steady job, was part of the “promise” that was made to the postwar generation of men. And she is oblivious to the fact that feminism's attack on “family values” is often tantamount to a denigration of the importance of fatherhood, despite the fact that she finds a failure of fatherhood at the core of the personal pathologies she describes.
The account I have just given of Stiffed makes the book seem more analytical and coherent than it really is; Ms. Faludi is clearly a better journalist than she is a social thinker. There are a number of compelling personal stories in this book, but to get to them one has to wade through a sea of pointless detail about the travails of a gay magazine or the maneuvering over Mr. Stallone's latest script. In the end, what is betrayed is not American men but the author's promise of a truly empathetic portrayal of them.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1524
SOURCE: “The People Behind the Books We Read,” in Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1999, pp. 1-3.
[In the following essay, Lacher provides an overview of Faludi's career and the media attention surrounding Backlash and Stiffed, including Faludi's own comments on her life and work.]
If you ran into famous feminist Susan Faludi in a dark alley, do you think you’d recognize her?
Probably not, and with good reason. The controversial author of the 1992 bestseller Backlash hasn’t been around, at least not where cameras are concerned. She’s been turning down talking-head media opportunities for years. She’s been too busy reporting.
“I wanted to return to being a shoe-leather, more anonymous, more traditional reporter who just goes out and talks to people without arriving as a celebrity with an entourage, which is how a lot of media works now,” says the Pulitzer Prize winner. “Dan Rather descending on whatever hot spot with his dressers and makeup artist—that, to me, isn’t journalism. It’s performance.”
So there’s the answer to your first question: How did such a big, bad feminist get so many men to open up for her latest treatise, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man? Many of them didn’t know who she was, and when they found out, they were impressed that she’d written a book that had attracted so much attention.
“None of this was particularly difficult,” says the soft-spoken Faludi, 40. “I really think that part of the distress for a lot of men is that they don’t feel listened to. They don’t feel acknowledged. That’s one of their big beefs about feminism. So when a woman, and even a feminist woman, shows up and wants to hear them out, that’s enormously appreciated.”
What she heard were men who felt marginalized, men who didn’t feel valued by their employers or their families, who felt pressure to live up to cartoony images of masculinity propagated by the media. And she was hearing similar things from the shuttered Long Beach Naval Shipyard to Hollywood, from Citadel cadets, porn stars and men who’d blasted off from Cape Canaveral as well as Promise Keepers and the bad boys of the Spur Posse, a group of Lakewood teens who preyed sexually on young women. Amid all this diversity, she found men “in crisis.”
FEELING USELESS AND ANGRY
“So many men I talked to suffered from the same agonizing sense that they were not useful to society, that the bedrock idea of what it means to be a man—which is to make a meaningful contribution to family and community and civic life—had been reduced to tatters.
“And out of that feeling that they were made obsolete by something they couldn’t put their finger on came a crisis that took the form of anger at women, violence in the workplace, shooting in schoolyards and in less dramatic form, widespread confusion and distress among average men just trying to get through the day. There’s such an unattainable vision of what masculinity is supposed to be that is perpetrated by the culture that it leaves most men feeling like losers.”
Oh, yeah? The never-married Faludi, who lives with author and journalist Russ Rymer in Beachwood Canyon, has just launched her book tour, and already men in the media are putting up their dukes. In an essay in the October issue of Esquire angrily titled “Are We Not Men? Susan Faludi Says We’re Not,” Sven Birkerts bridles at the notion that he might feel “stiffed”: “This woman is clearly on a mission: Find a soft place in the collective male self-esteem and drive at it until the lance runs red.”
In fact, Birkerts and others based their early critiques on a slim pamphlet of excerpts released to the media by William Morrow. Stories about the nearly 700-page book were embargoed until after Newsweek came out with its Sept. 13 issue featuring Stiffed on the cover. But then, Faludi’s public persona precedes her, and especially when it comes to the arena of sexual politics, much of that persona can be in the eye of the beholder.
“There’ve been a number of incredibly boneheaded pieces by people who haven’t read the book, who’ve actually said, ‘I haven’t read the book,’” she says. “What’s misunderstood is this is not a book about men in the generic, saying, ‘This is how men are at all times.’ It’s a book about how, right now, many men are facing a crisis, and I know that because I talked to hundreds of men and spent six years investigating this.”
Faludi came by her activist bent growing up in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., the daughter of Steven Faludi, a photographer and Holocaust survivor from Budapest, and Marilyn Lanning Faludi, a late-blooming editor who once helped derail a petition that would have prevented a black family from moving to town.
At Harvard, Susan dove into advocacy journalism with the campus paper. She wrote a piece blasting sexual harassment on campus, forcing an implicated professor to take a leave of absence. Later, as a reporter in the Wall Street Journal’s San Francisco bureau, Faludi won a Pulitzer for a 1990 article about laid-off workers jettisoned in a ＄5.65-billion leveraged buyout by Safeway Stores. In between, Faludi reported for the Miami Herald, the Atlanta Constitution and West, the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News.
In a piece for West, she decimated Newsweek’s notorious 1986 article alleging that women over 40 were “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to find a husband. That article led to Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award and made her name as a prominent feminist of her generation.
(Faludi acknowledges the “delicious irony” in Newsweek’s trumpeting of her new book after its inauspicious contribution to her first one, but she adds, “I think it has more to do with how Newsweek is changing. There are some strongly feminist people at the magazine.”)
LOS ANGELES AS GROUND ZERO
In Backlash, Faludi argued that feminists were undermined by a culture that blamed them for their problems. When she began Stiffed, she set out to determine why men resisted women’s rights. Most roads led to Los Angeles, where she began her inquiry.
“People move to L.A. for odd reasons, but this has got to be the oddest—to observe men in crisis. I wanted to look at the bad-boy behavior, the toxic masculinity in the Spur Posse and gangs. And I wanted to look at the collapse of the whole postwar defense, military industrial complex that had provided a middle-class existence for so many men. And I knew that so many of the pressures on men had to do with the commercial images of masculinity generated by Hollywood.
“So there were a lot of distress signals coming from men in this neck of the woods. Los Angeles is just the place where things happen first and most acutely. And I wanted to look at the crisis in its most acute form, because I thought that what’s going on in the extremes often illuminates the middle.”
As she talked to more and more men, she discovered that feminists’ foils weren’t men per se but, rather, the postwar culture that left everybody adrift, especially when many companies began switching their loyalties from employees to stockholders in the '90s.
On that spectrum, Faludi places both Ike Burr, a project superintendent at the Long Beach Shipyard who was laid off when the base closed in 1995, and Sylvester Stallone, the icon of media-driven masculinity, who has been out of the limelight ever since his attempt to break out of the macho mold with the movie Copland met a tepid reception two years ago.
“Stallone felt like he had been turned into some 1940s Jayne Mansfield pinup girl, so he tried to flee the action market, but, of course, that didn’t work either. You either move toward the light and kind of disappear in the blaze of camera lights, or you pull back and feel lost in the anonymity of a culture that doesn’t recognize people who are just leading a meaningful but ordinary life.”
Faludi says women have a tool that men don’t for grappling with a culture that judges people according to their image—feminism.
A MECHANISM FOR UNDERSTANDING
“Feminism is women’s attempt to confront these same forces that now have men by the throat. That was a big breakthrough for the women’s movement, knowing that we’re not a bunch of hysterics, there actually are social and economic and political influences that are buffeting us.
“But men, because of the way the culture defines masculinity, aren’t even allowed to acknowledge that, because they’re supposed to be dominating their environment, not the other way around. Actually, feminism has all these tools for analyzing the culture that would be quite useful to men if they could get beyond hating feminism and blaming it for men’s travails.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1667
SOURCE: “The Trouble with Guys,” in Washington Post Book World, October 10, 1999, pp. 3-5.
[In the following review, Fussell summarizes Faludi's observations in Stiffed about the contemporary American man.]
“Welcome to Testosterone Country!” says a Promise Keeper to Susan Faludi at the all-male convocation at Anaheim, Calif. Overhead, a plane trailing a banner buzzes the packed stadium; the banner reads “PROMISE KEEPERS, LOSERS AND WEEPERS,” and is paid for by feminists.
With Stiffed, Faludi, herself a feminist, dives straight into the belly of the beast, Manhood. Her testosterone tome has been six years in the making. It’s Brobdingnagian in scope, Bunyanesque in sheer size. Her prose and pose are not in the hysterical, shrill, histrionic '60s style of Mailer, Wolfe and Thompson, but she is working the same vein of ore. She's a miner in search of stones.
Why a 650-page meditation on masculinity? After all, “nobody roots for Goliath,” as Wilt Chamberlain was wont to sigh. How can the oppressor be oppressed? And hasn’t the subject been done?
Apparently not. The seeds of Stiffed are present in Faludi’s last book, Backlash, where she wrote, “The works on masculinity would barely fill a bookshelf. We might deduce from the lack of literature that manhood is less complex and burdensome, and that it requires less maintenance than femininity. But the studies that are available on the male condition offer no such assurance. Quite the contrary, they find masculinity a fragile flower—a hothouse orchid in constant need of trellising and nourishment.”
It turns out that there is a Y-chromosome crisis. As Faludi ingeniously argues in Stiffed, the '90s man is the '50s housewife. Her shopping is his consumerism. Her makeup as female exaggeration and artifice is his gym-bred muscles as male magnification. Choose your chains: her Maybelline or his muscles, her silicone or his steroids, her corset or his straitjacket. “No wonder,” Faludi writes, “men are in such agony, not only are they losing the society they were once essential to, they are ‘gaining’ the very world women so recently shucked off as demeaning and dehumanizing.”
At the close of World War II, men were promised the world and then handed a mirror. It is, as the subtitle says, The Betrayal of the American Male. What happened? Faludi sees the origin of the problem as the battle between then-competing versions of masculinity: the dogface GI Joe versus the silk-scarf flyboys, or the “everyman” columnist Ernie Pyle versus Henry Luce of Life magazine. Pyle’s “It’s all I can do to face a movie star. They make me so sick” is diametrically opposed to Luce’s Hollywood hokum and hooey. Pyle celebrated the bonds of brotherhood. Luce trumpeted the display of dominance and the imperative of image. That’s nurture versus narcissism. You and I versus me, myself and I. Guess who won? The astronauts, athletes, actors, models. In short: Luce.
Faludi wants nothing less than a revolution of gender in our time. With Stiffed she attempts to do for men what Betty Friedan did for women in The Feminine Mystique: Break them out of the box, out of the prison of public perception. For men don’t simply act, they are also acted upon. Just like women.
The classic complaint against feminism is that women acting like men is good for neither women nor men. Faludi inverts this argument, saying that men acting like women is good for neither men nor women. Faludi’s triumph is to recognize the rise of “The Ornamental Male,” whose erstwhile masculinity is now dominated by the traditionally feminine beauty industry.
In our postwar world, Faludi argues, the traditional roles of man are obsolete. Warrior, frontiersman, sole breadwinner, protector: It’s The Incredible Shrinking Man. What’s a baby boomer to do? Shuffle off to the cigar bar? Make a stand at the manse with the animal over the hearth he didn’t kill, with the guns on the mantel he didn’t fire, with the muscles on his arms forged not in the wild but at the Y?
Stiffed is Faludi’s journey through this manscape. As one Waco wacko tells her, “If you want to see what’s happening in the stream called our society, go to the edges and look at what’s happening there, and then you begin to have an understanding—if you know how a stream works—of what’s going on in the middle.”
So she finds the men in the margin. She hangs with the homeys in South Central L.A. She dodges camera crews by the Citadel as Shannon Faulkner makes her entrance. She breaks bread with “Big Dawg,” the wide-body “bleacher creature” from the Cleveland Browns Dawg Pound. She’s on the horn with My Lai’s Lt. William Calley. She’s the shoulder to cry on for Sylvester Stallone at Spago. She dons a hard hat with the skeleton staff at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, now a ghost town. Indeed, Faludi makes more appearances than Zelig. There she is, accompanying a Buchananite as he walks out of the 1996 Republican National Convention. She braves the bully pulpit of Head Promise Keeper Bill McCartney. She fires both barrels of a 12-gauge with a conspiracy kook at a Colorado gun range. She trails astronaut Buzz Aldrin at Planet Hollywood. She dishes dirt and scarfs bagels with porn star Ron “the Hedgehog” Jeremy in the Valley. She pops up more than a pogo stick.
But in her travels cross-country, it’s not a soaring spirit she finds. It’s a scrap heap. Men are marooned in an ersatz form of manhood—exiled in Guyville. Digging deep into the masculine maw, she uncovers sorrowful sons pining for some form of patrimony from their absent fathers. The home is no refuge. She notes the resentment of working wives whose husbands turn into Mr. Moms.
Faludi has a divining rod for finding the dispossessed and downtrodden. There are human doormats aplenty, including the boo-hoo crew wiping cheeks and wringing hands at the outplacement center at McDonnell Douglas and the sad sacks at “anger-management” groups. Everywhere, men seek the restriction and reduction of their roles, aching for a clean-cut definition of their rights and responsibilities.
Faludi is something of a sleuth. How, she asks, could JFK’s call for a “new chivalrous era” lead to Vietnam and somehow spiral down into the bloodbath of My Lai, where perverted paternalism turned a commander’s order to “take care of them” into a mandate to terminate all men, women and children with extreme prejudice? Further, she says, the promise of JFK’s New Frontier was bunk. The astronauts of the moon shot were not pilots but props, simply “spam in a can,” their passive act orchestrated by Mission Control. Once on the moon, before they even planted the flag, they planted the camera. Armstrong and Aldrin returned to Earth as “homecoming queens on a Space-Age float.” Not test pilots but media magnets, in makeup, eyeliner and hair spray. The show was a sham with the performers paid to pretend.
Faludi masterfully weaves larger essays with case histories and personality profiles. She connects the general to the specific and enlivens her argument with a host of haunted voices. What she hears from these is their feelings of irrelevance and inadequacy. Hollywood is the specter that haunts this book. There are no winners. Even those who capture the camera’s eye, like Sylvester Stallone, feel trapped in the prison of publicity.
The best of Stiffed can be found in the chapters on the toy soldiers of the Citadel, the selling-out of fans by the NFL, the mall rats at Lakewood, and Faludi’s prissy peregrinations into the world of hard-core porn. These will be re-read decades hence. But her vision is not always 20–20. The passion of her politics at times interferes with the reason of her argument. She is drunk on nostalgia, and her roseate view of “the brotherhood of blue-collar worksites” of the past is an image out of Norman Rockwell. The sexual revolution—the Pill—is never mentioned. For a book on men’s feelings of impotence, this omission is a bit of a boner.
But regarding the disease of celebrity endemic to our era, Faludi delivers a deadly diagnosis. Stiffed is a pathography of our time, an age of “virulent voyeurism” in which men caterwaul and compete for applause. Her Baby Boomers are subjects desperate to become objects. As a Calvin Klein adman gushes to Faludi, “Pecs are the new breasts now!” For every woman who wants to burn a bra, there appears to be a man who wants to wear one. In the gym, where vanity is disguised as virtue and pumped-up posing as the Protestant work ethic, muscles are the latest fashion in flesh.
With the body as a billboard, as an advertisement for the self, this “pedestal perching,” once the province of women, is now the modus operandi of the modern male. Professional athletics was once a way to become a man. Now it’s a way to become a media star—from push-ups to pin-ups. Even gangs are no longer about survival but about self-promotion. The drive-bys, the Bad Boy tattoos, the graffiti tagging are nothing more than “maintaining visibility” in the hood.
As the century coughs to a close, the worst sin isn’t homicide or rape. It’s anonymity. Faludi’s cast of characters are “wanna-bes and wanna-sees” looking for a “rep.” You’re not real unless you’re fake; that is, you’re not a person unless you’re a “player” with “props” and a “rep.” You’re “real” when you mutate into pixilated dots on the great television media screen. No wonder the fastest growing city in the United States is the glitter gulch and hall of mirrors called Vegas.
Calvin Coolidge got it wrong. The business of America isn’t business, it’s show business. Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my close–up.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1943
SOURCE: “Guy Talk,” in National Review, October 25, 1999, pp. 58, 61-2.
[In the following negative review of Stiffed, Decter derides Faludi's presentation of American men as victims of postwar consumer culture.]
Six years ago, as she tells us in her new book, Susan Faludi was moved to explore the question of why “our male brethren so often and so vociferously resist women’s struggles toward independence and a fuller life.” In seeking an answer, she set off on a truly strenuous round of travels, meeting with and interviewing and re-interviewing a wide variety of men. And since only one year before undertaking this mission she had published a much celebrated feminist tract, Backlash, the result of Faludi’s quest promised to be of no small interest, above all to her habitually anti-male loyal readers and sisters.
Now we have her findings, published under the title Stiffed, and depending on the fierceness of their loyalty to the founding tenets of their movement, her fellow feminists may or may not feel enlightened by them. For as the book’s title suggests, in the end Faludi came to believe that American men have been just as much victimized by their society—well, make that almost as much—as women.
Essentially, Faludi finds that American men have been betrayed by two forces in their lives. The first of these is their fathers, whose discovery of genuine brotherhood while serving in the armed forces during World War II, of mutual support and protection and, yes, love and hope, was a legacy they failed to pass along to their sons. The second force is what Faludi calls the culture of “ornamentalism,” by which she means that, just as women’s lives have been confined and corrupted by the surrounding culture’s demand that they be physically attractive, so men’s lives today are being constricted and corrupted by the demand that they, too, be “ornamental.” In their case, this means to have for themselves, and to be able to produce for others, all that success and money can buy.
Now, Susan Faludi is clearly a conscientious and hard-working journalist, and, judging from the things her subjects were willing to confide to her, a skilled one as well. She also writes quite entertainingly. And if it is sometimes difficult to understand the relevance of certain of her observations to the point that she believes she is making, what bestselling reporter shall’scape whipping on that score?
The interviewees whose experiences allegedly opened Faludi’s eyes to the oppression of the American male included men who without question had sad tales to tell. Most prominent among these were men who had lost their jobs as a result of cuts in the military budget or corporate downsizing, and were having difficulty finding new ones as pleasing or as suited to their abilities. Other interviewees, however, suffered from considerably more complex conditions, if that is even the right term. For instance, there were the men seeking help in controlling their propensity for violence, particularly against their wives and children, and there were others who had joined Promise Keepers in the hope that they might find some way to prevent their wives from leaving them.
A rather different kind of case involved boys who were members of a group called the Spur Posse, whose main avocation was keeping the score of their impressively numerous sexual encounters, and whose disappointed hope, first encouraged by certain national talk-show hosts, was to become media stars. Still others included in Faludi’s circle of sympathetic attention were a gang of government-haters called The Patriots, who wept with outrage at the ATF-cum-FBI raid on Waco; a group of male porn stars, worried about their capacity to perform on demand; Buzz Aldrin, whose life had been affected by the fact that he was the second rather than the first astronaut to set foot on the moon; a South Central Los Angeles gang-banger called Monster who wrote a briefly famous book about himself; a desperately disillusioned Vietnam veteran who had served under Lt. William Calley, of My Lai fame; a student antiwar protester; the obligatory group of homosexuals, whose careers as editors happened to engage them in standing the “ornamentalism” of the culture on its head and who, in Faludi’s eyes, were the only ones who had found the means of offering one another some much-needed brotherly support; and, for some reason truly difficult to fathom, Sylvester Stallone, who had been saddened by the reception accorded some of his recent films.
All of these specimens of male misery and disappointment are granted their full day in court. The book is consequently rather hefty, and since Faludi so clearly believes that her general analysis covers every case, it also tends to be somewhat repetitive. In the end, the most amusing and congenial—and, by the same token, most truly puzzling—presence in these pages is a bunch of madly devoted lifelong Cleveland Browns fans who had served for years as a kind of collective team mascot and who became distraught when the Browns were sold out from under them. (One inevitably suspects that the author, sympathetic as she may pretend to be, harbors a retrograde girlish view about the mental and moral feebleness of male sports fanatics.)
All in all, they make an odd collection, especially for use in the service of a thesis, even a two-headed thesis like Faludi’s. Quite clearly—with the exception of the Browns fans, who after not too long a delay were able to welcome a new team to Cleveland, and Sylvester Stallone, who hit upon an idea for a new movie script that made him happy—not one man among them has at this time found a reason to be even minimally satisfied with life. The polls tell us that there are many men in America who are generally satisfied with their lot. But in this project, any such man would have had to be kept entirely offstage, for the obvious reason that his story might have undermined the very raison d’étre of the entire undertaking.
Even so, the author’s failure to choose a representative sample of men is not her book’s most serious shortcoming. That honor must be reserved for her account of what is bothering the men she did choose. Because the major problem with Susan Faludi’s attempting to bring her newfound brothers into the once exclusively female society of victims is that, in her effort to do so, she has finally achieved little more than to raise the volume on that most tiresome and least enlightening form of human expression. I am referring to the Whine.
For example, no doubt some men who are the sons of the World War II generation—in other words, children of the '50s, that most famous of all American cohorts—were indeed neglected by their fathers. But the truth is that the fathers of the immediate postwar generation were on the whole very busy trying to earn the money with which to house and feed their families. This was, pace some assertions made about them later by their wives and children, no easy undertaking. And perhaps sometimes even a boring and/or unpleasant one. The economy was just then struggling into gear. No new housing had been built for many years, and there was a truly serious shortage. Certain amenities now taken for granted had not even been put into production. At the same time, the massive slaughter of the war through which the world had just passed had induced in everyone a powerful impulse to bring forth new life.
Those communities of uniform little houses served by uninviting little strip malls, derided in song and story by snooty '60s radicals and now subject to a fair amount of snooty comment by Susan Faludi as well, were places slapped up in a hurry to accommodate all those sprouting new families—in fact, to provide inexpensive housing for all the young couples who could not then afford better (hardly, one would have thought, either a tasteless or heartless undertaking). Many of the men now retroactively charged with neglect were working by day and going to school by night, or vice versa, in order to be better prepared to earn their way. Someone who really wanted to know what was bothering the men of that generation might consider that they were people who had down through the years been striving to meet the demands of their families—and then awakened one morning to find their wives and daughters accusing them of all kinds of brutality, and setting at naught their time-honored contribution to both the family and society.
And the fathers’ bewilderment was probably nothing as compared with the bewilderment that later on was to overtake their sons, who, no matter how they strove to please the females in their lives, were always found wanting. It is not at all hard to imagine that these sons would one day be most relieved to lay the blame for their discomfiture at the feet of their fathers. And how pleased Faludi must have been to believe them. For the blaming of fathers makes it possible to bring to all her sisters in liberation the message of their own complete and utter blamelessness for any of the men’s alleged indifference to women’s unhappy lot.
As for her analysis of the role of the ornamental culture in everyone’s unanswered prayers, that bit of theory in various guises is so old and dried up by now that it requires crutches even to move off the dusty page. For one thing, this culture is the result of, and in turn feeds on, a kind and degree of prosperity never before in human existence even dreamed of (a prosperity, by the way, of which the reader will find not even a passing mention in these many, many pages). That we have not yet learned how to live at ease with such wealth—or learned the lesson that, whatever else it can do, it cannot answer the deepest spiritual questions—goes without saying. But on the other hand, we do well to bear in mind that no one forces male porn stars to value themselves primarily for their private endowment—no more than anyone forces women, even putatively liberated ones, to dress and carry themselves as they do for a maximum degree of sexual enticement. After all, we grown-up human beings help to make, as well as participate in, the world of values in which we live.
The idea that something called “the culture” has forced one to live as one lives—in other words, that we are not free and responsible for ourselves—constitutes the very heart of the theory of Women’s Liberation. That Susan Faludi is now willing to invite men to take shelter beneath this theory is the very opposite of the compassion for their troubles that she feigns. For being encouraged to whine about some species of “them”—fathers, bosses, the government, the culture—is, as we have been witnessing for many years now, only the means for achieving an ever-growing and evermore-bewildered discontentment.
What men need above all is the simple recognition of their full and necessary value in the lives of women. Such a recognition would go a very long way toward the healing understanding that this book and its author claim to seek.
A lot of men have indeed been “stiffed.” But until Susan Faludi understands that as a loyal feminist she has done her own goodly share of the stiffing, her researches will have virtually nothing to teach us.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1628
SOURCE: “Fired, Fed-up, Discarded, and Scared,” in The Progressive, Vol. 63, No. 11, November, 1999, pp. 41-3.
[In the following positive review of Stiffed, Flanders commends Faludi's journalism, though finds shortcomings in her focus on working-class men and the importance of male stereotypes. Flanders notes that some of the problems Faludi attributes to gender may actually have an economic basis.]
I had the luck this summer to spend a weekend with my relatives Doug and Lori Chambers, and I thought of them as I read Susan Faludi’s latest book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Doug Chambers is perhaps five feet five inches and 130 pounds: too small to be a he-man, but American through and through. If anyone promised him a productive life followed by a secure retirement, Doug was betrayed for sure. He served in the Army in the 1950s, then worked twenty-one years making concrete blocks. Two decades of pounding wrecked his joints and his hearing, forcing him into early retirement last year at age sixty-one.
Today, Doug applies for lighter jobs—more than 100 so far, he says. But when the human resource officers see his graying hair and hearing aid, they turn him away. So he cooks and cleans and keeps house for his wife, Lori. She’s exhausted each day by her minimum wage job at a local factory, where she makes wire grates and grills. On hot days, Doug drives out to take her a frozen Slurpee for her lunch break. He himself eats barely a meal a day: “Housework doesn’t burn calories,” he says, and he doesn’t want to get out of shape.
Stiffed is full of men not so different from Doug: fired, fed-up, discarded, scared. Faludi “set out to explore the American male dilemma,” she says. After Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991), her masterful account of the media’s treatment of the white, straight women’s movement, Faludi says she was plagued by a question: Why do men “so vociferously resist women’s struggles toward independence and a fuller life?” But what started as an inquiry into men’s resistance to feminism became instead a discovery of how American men find their own aspirations derailed. Finally, she settled on a new question: “Why don’t contemporary men rise up and protest against their betrayal?”
In the second half of the twentieth century, according to Faludi, the laid-off laboring man has lost his work mates, the sports fan has lost his team, and fathers worry about keeping their wives attention and their kids’ respect. “A masculinity crisis playing out on the American stage.” Faludi calls it. The kicker, she says, is that “men see women’s advancement as a driving force behind their own distress.”
Her reporting is stellar, as it was in Backlash. Faludi patiently follows her topic from shuttered shipyards to closing football stadiums, from My Lai and Waco to the pathetic world of small-star porn.
What’s great about Stiffed is that Faludi listens—to men, their wives, gang members, Promise Keepers, the leaders and the led.
Her subjects unpeel themselves in astonishing ways. “I’ll he very frank with you. … I. Feel. I’ve. Been. Castrated.” says a military contracts negotiator, laid-off by McDonnell Douglas.
The colonel at the once-all-male Citadel talks of a favorite old colleague who “always kisses me on the cheek. It’s like a true marriage.” He says. “With no women around, we can hug each other. There’s nothing so nurturing as an infantry platoon.”
A former Cleveland Browns mascot explains the passion a man devoted to his sports team: “It was something to do for his community. It was something to give.”
And man after man talks about Dad: the one who never told his son he loved him; the one who promised a productive future that never arrived; the silent Dad, the drinking Dad, the Dad who was never there.
What’s odd about Stiffed is that, after all the acute listening, the conclusions Faludi draws don’t always match what the men say. Except in the section on the anti-government patriots and the portion on porn (one industry where the pay gap works against men), Stiffed isn’t jam-packed with guys blaming girls for their woes. Dads fall much higher on the at-fault list. Faludi paints a clear picture of men confused, like the needy Promise Keepers who are sold merchandise when they are looking for brotherhood. Dedicated shipyard workers are laid off by parent companies who downsize, then marry the competition—as McDonnell Douglas did Boeing last year.
Men find that masculinity has become ornamental and not so different from femininity. Crotches sell underwear, biceps promote perfume, while androgynous young gender-bender models make the big bucks. “Whatever troubles the American man,” Faludi writes, “the outlets of mass culture from Hollywood to pop psychology to Madison Avenue tell him, can be cured by removing himself from society, by prevailing over imaginary enemies on an imaginary landscape. … Each man is expected to dramatize his own struggle by himself, to confront arbitrarily designated enemies in a staged fight—a fight separated from society the way a boxing ring is roped off from a crowd.”
Faludi describes men more or less huddling in feel-good religious clusters, showy street gangs, loyal sports clubs, fearful gun-toters cells. And, sure enough, some perceive women’s advance as a grand unifying theory that explains their decline.
But, for the most part, it’s not male supremacy that the men in Stiffed miss: it’s companionship and social relevance. Hence all that sorrow about losing the work mates, the team, the gang. Though some rail against women snatching their jobs, spending their money, walking off with their divorce-settlement homes, more often than not it’s the isolation of contemporary (capitalist) individualism that’s breaking men’s hearts, not the fact that women like Lori Chambers have poorly paying factory jobs.
Faludi seems to recognize this. “Male utility is not only about finding work and being appreciated by women: it’s about finding one’s place in a societal structure,” she writes. But Faludi knows the media world. Relentlessly, the media have stripped from feminists’ mouths everything they say about gender as it affects boys and men. The public has been given a picture of feminism that is all about what PBS earlier this year called the “gender wars.” Journalists typically skip over that part of feminism’s project that has to do with liberating all people. And they ignore decades of feminist and queer theory about the price real people pay for aspiring to suffocating gender roles that fit no one’s flesh-and-blood.
Yet by accepting the framework that sets males against females, Faludi fuels this misportrayal. She has more reason than most to know that the part of Stiffed which is likely to get big media play is when she talks about the failings of feminists. “Blaming a cabal of men has taken feminism about as far as it can go,” she writes, a claim guaranteed to win acceptance, though no feminists I know go around blaming cabals.
From my reading of Stiffed and my own experience, I’d say men were betrayed at the start. It’s not a uniquely new or American phenomenon. One has only to read the letters of miserable participants in medieval crusades, or the gay poets of the First World War, or George Orwell on his shame at shooting an elephant in service of the British empire to know that a rigid ideal of “maleness” has plagued a lot of men for a long time. (Constricted expectations of femininity tortured the rest of us, too, of course.)
Faludi’s study of gender gets mixed up with class because she focuses almost exclusively on men who fit the stereotypical image of masculinity—brawny laborers and evangelical/militaristic macho types (and Sylvester Stallone). It’s hard to isolate maleness as the decisive factor in the stories she recounts. If she’d interviewed some affluent traders making pots of money in the market or business executives or Silicon Valley nerds, she could have filled a crucial gap. And plenty of men are doing just fine, thank you, with the traditional model. Not long ago. Vanity Fair did a lineup of the fifty most powerful Americans—all but two or three were white and male. Ditto the portraits of the Fortune 500 CEOs.
As it is, her fascinating reports from America’s economic underbelly reveal that unemployment, violence, and commercial vapidity are creating despair and resentment. But is that a masculinity problem—or an economic one?
Faludi suggests a male uprising, but wouldn’t a progressive social movement better fit the bill? After all, it’s not as though women are gaining from men’s losses. Many women are working in what used to be men’s miserable production jobs, but they often have fewer protections and lower wages. And, in the case of some women on workfare, no wages at all.
As she did in Backlash, Faludi looks too little at the constructions of race, class, and heterosexuality in Stiffed. The neglect leads to an incomplete—and overly gloomy—picture. Sure, some men feel resentful at the decline of the rigidly white, straight model of the masculine. But others are freed by it.
If there’s crisis in masculinity playing out on the American stage, I’d say that’s cause for at least some celebration. I’d also say there’s great and complicated stuff in Stiffed that reveals how our economic system screws white working class males and their families.
Sadly, given the media’s gender-war proclivities, that message will remain on this side of the media megaphone. I suspect Stiffed will be labeled “Faludi’s Apology to Men.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841
SOURCE: “Pity the Boys,” in New Statesman, November 1, 1999, p. 56.
[In the following review of Stiffed, Abrams praises Faludi's social observations and journalistic portraiture. However, she notes that Faludi makes victims out of men by simply transposing old feminist principles to the lives of men, with dubious results.]
Eight years ago, Susan Faludi became a big name on the feminist circuit with the publication of her first book, Backlash, in which she argued persuasively that women’s progress towards equality was being blocked by a wave of scare stories, misleading reports and misinformation campaigns. In her new book she turns away from traditional feminist territory to look at the problems facing men.
Initially Faludi set out to discover why men were so resistant to women’s growing independence. She talked to unemployed shipbuilders, LA gang members, Vietnam vets, porn actors, ex-astronauts and born-again Christians. After six years doing a Studs Terkel on the modern American male, she concluded that while men and their resistance might be a major cause of women’s problems, women and their growing independence were not the central cause of men’s.
According to Faludi, the trouble with boys is not emancipated girls but inadequate dads. Women are just a sideshow to the main event in men’s lives: their relationship with their fathers and the legacy of that relationship in adulthood. Young or middle-aged, cocky or gloomy, Faludi’s interviewees are ready to substantiate her theory either with lurid tales of paternal violence or depressing accounts of paternal absence, or both. Only a handful of the men whose voices fill the 600 pages of Stiffed had dads to be proud of, dads who helped them to become men themselves.
There have always been hopeless fathers, but Faludi’s argument is that the social and political climate that followed the second world war created a new phenomenon: an entire generation of men who sold their sons a dream, because it was the dream they’d been sold themselves. These men and their boys were “stiffed”—ripped off—by the promise of leadership in the home, fraternity in the workplace, supremacy in the world. What they got instead was “a world where personal worth was judged in ornamental terms. Were they ‘sexy’? Were they ‘known’? Had they ‘won’?” Faludi is excellent on the invidious stranglehold of this ornamental culture, in which men now find themselves objectified in very much the way that women have long since been.
There are several references to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and Faludi suggests that 1990s men have much in common with 1950s women (which men, one wants to know, which women?). But she could just as easily have drawn parallels with Nancy Chodorow’s The Reproduction of Mothering, for her central explanation for the woes of modern men is that the reproduction of fathering has gone seriously awry, and that the images of masculinity many young men have received from their fathers are inadequate for the world in which they find themselves.
The disappointing aspect of this book is that although Faludi appears to be breaking new ground, in a sense all she actually does is graft accepted feminist “truths” on to male experience. After all, feminism pioneered mother-blame decades ago. Compared to the battle that daughters were waging—consciously or unconsciously—on the dire influence of their mothers, patriarchy was always something of a picnic. Negative projections, stifling identification, ambiguous role-modelling, internalised guilt, repressed envy—was it any wonder we yearned to affiliate to the clear-cut male world of work, whatever the problems that might present? But how far did blaming our mothers for our misery get us? And how far will blaming their fathers get men? Once we are all equal in victimhood, then what?
Like many much-hyped books from the States, Stiffed is exclusively American in its focus, which provokes a further question: how relevant is any of this to British men? While the two countries may look alike in some ways, the dissimilarities are at least as significant. We have entirely different welfare systems, different employment structures, different social problems. Faludi argues that the malaise of the modern male is rooted in the aftermath of the second world war, but the issues facing American society at that time are not easily equated with those confronting British society in the same period.
These gripes apart, Stiffed is still a rewarding read. Faludi is a meticulous and sensitive interviewer, and her compendium of American men, which could easily have become a collection of superficial snapshots, instead grows into a gallery of compelling and detailed portraits.
The men from Promise Keepers, with their bizarre brand of religious faith more or less intact, despite their marriages collapsing round their ears like the walls of Jericho; the men laid off at the Long Beach Naval Ship Yard with their weary stoicism; the edgy misogynistic youths in the Spur Posse—all, curiously enough, invite compassion. It is these descriptions of lives-being-led that speak most lucidly about the dilemmas facing modern men in America today.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 701
SOURCE: “Gender Armistice,” in Maclean's, November 1, 1999, p. 70.
[In the following review, Wilson-Smith offers a positive assessment of Stiffed, though notes that Faludi's sympathy for brutal men is occasionally too generous.]
Susan Faludi likes men. Her affection extends to a willingness to try to understand and explain their opinions, even when they seem offensive. That is not remarkable, except that Faludi is the author of the 1992 feminist best-seller Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. In it, she argued the need to revive the flagging feminist movement because, she wrote, a combination of male-dominated government, media and conservatives were conducting a “powerful counter-assault on women’s rights.” The book won critical raves—except from conservatives whose views she excoriated.
Now, the 40-year-old Faludi is back with Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man—a book that may annoy some feminist fans of her first book, but one that is ultimately consistent with her previous work. Just as she did in Backlash, Faludi reports on the frustration faced by members of one sex in coping with the maelstrom of societal changes around them. This time the subject is men, and Faludi sums up her intent early in the book with a rhetorical question: “What if we put aside the assumption of male dominance, put away our feminist rap sheet of men’s crimes and misdemeanours, or our anti-feminist indictment of women’s heist of male authority—and just looked at what men have experienced in the past generation?”
Extensive, exhaustive and sometimes exhausting at more than 600 pages, Stiffed offers a vision of men on the outskirts of everyday life, wondering how they lost their place at the centre. Today’s males have come of age in an era that includes the end of the image of dad as the sole breadwinner, a push for guys to display greater sensitivity and employment-equity laws in some places that push white males to the back of the employment line.
The product of six years of research, Faludi’s book offers examples of male losers at all levels. They include embittered, die-hard Cleveland football fans who watch their team leave town, teenage gang members who accord each other points each time they have sex with a girl, and laid-off aerospace workers who go almost overnight from middle-class comfort to mid-life poverty.
In Stiffed, Faludi offers a nuanced picture of a multilayered society in which it is easy to pinpoint victims, and harder to find clear-cut villains. She begins with visits to meetings of a domestic-violence group, which reflects her belief at the time that “the male crisis in America was caused by something men were doing.” But as she continues her research, she decides the key issue is what has been done to men: their value system has been blown out from under, and they have yet to find a replacement.
Their reaction manifests itself in sometimes disturbing ways. Faludi visits The Citadel military academy in Charleston, S.C., in 1994, at a time when cadets are about to chase out the first female student, Shannon Faulkner, by brutal hazing. Long after Faulkner has gone, Faludi lingers, and her reporting gives a shocking picture of young men in an environment that is both homoerotic and archly homophobic.
On the other hand, Faludi concludes that the millions of men who join the Promise Keepers religious movement—which stresses the primacy of the husband and father—are not trying to suppress women, despite the demonstrable misogyny of the group’s leader. Rather, the members she speaks to seem “more concerned about impressing their wives than oppressing them.”
If anything, Faludi can be too sympathetic: her willingness to excuse brutal, racist actions by Citadel cadets as a product of their environment implies they should not be held responsible. And the endless catalogue of victimhood is wearying: millions of men deal daily with women without the need to be either victor or vanquished.
Wisely, Faludi offers no concrete solutions. She concludes men should not worry about “how to be masculine—rather, their masculinity lies in figuring out how to be human.” With Stiffed, the feminist Faludi is declaring that it’s time for men and women to move towards that goal together.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 910
SOURCE: “Betrayal of the American Women,” in Insight on the News, Vol. 15, No. 42, November 15, 1999, pp. 48-9.
[In the following review, Fields offers a negative evaluation of Stiffed.]
Stiffed is the brave new word to describe the betrayal of the American man. Poor babies. The pressure of postmodern masculinity is too much for them. The American male suffers from premature emasculation.
This is an idea that only could be written by a woman who dismisses personal responsibility as a guide to action. Susan Faludi, in her best-selling book Stiffed, seeks to put the blame everywhere but at the center of a man’s character. She accuses both feminists and the family-values folk for cutting the male down to size.
Feminists, according to her thesis, say that men are threatened because they must confront female dominance. Conservatives, by her lights, say that feminist demands for equal rights really are a disguise for dismantling the male apparatus both personally and publicly. As a result the American Man is unhinged, undesirable and underfoot. So Faludi has written 662 pages to update T.S. Eliot’s observations in “The Hollow Men”:
We are the hollow men We are the stuffed men Leaning together Headpiece filled with straw.
Faludi’s prose is not quite so poetic, but here’s her description of the astronauts, representative heroes of the nation: “They were painfully aware of how little control they had. ‘Spam in a can’ was the derisive term for the Mercury program at Edwards Air Force Base. … The astronauts were prepped for surrender—to the rocket thrusters, to the g-forces, to weightlessness, to the shepherd’s hook lowered from a helicopter that would collar them on splashdown.”
In other words, the astronauts were merely passive creatures pushed around by controlling men—men at the controls—at the command station on earth. An astronaut was by default a “ghost of celebrity.”
That makes men at the controls real heroes, doesn’t it?
But wait. A thesis is a thesis. So Faludi continues her update of Eliot on men as dead souls. Eliot writes:
Our dried voices, when We whisper together Are quiet and meaningless As wind in dry grass.
Of men who suffer their meaninglessness together, Faludi finds the Promise Keepers, those athletic types who want to turn their lives around. The Promise Keepers I have met blame themselves in their search for their failures, but as a self-appointed surrogate for them she blames the economy and a competitive culture that made them treat women badly.
“They hoped that from the ashes of one male institution, the football stadium that had once promised male communion but was now one big consumer billboard, might rise another more traditional and thus more solid one,” she writes.
What’s going on here is a colossal excuse for defining men by their external lives, merely as consumers in a material world. Instead of facing the courage and skill of an astronaut, the focus is on a physical passivity in relation to technology. Instead of acknowledging any personal failures and weaknesses in the character of the men who joined Promise Keepers, a larger cultural theory is invoked.
There’s a tiny grain of truth in her reporting and observation here, but looking at men as “stiffed” is to regard them as passive instruments in social change, depriving them of personal responsibility. If there is one message of the Promise Keepers, it’s that men who behave badly have to work on themselves, their relationships to God and to others. If they drink, beat up women and abandon their children, they’re creeps. Eliot knew how hollow men became hollow. Faludi doesn’t.
She offers the rationalization comically articulated by the character of Harry played by Woody Allen in Deconstructing Harry. His wife, a psychotherapist, receives patients in an office in the apartment he shares with her, and Harry has an affair with one of them. Facing his wife’s outrage when he is caught betraying her in their home, he asks: “Where else do you expect me to meet women?”
Eliot saw men in the context of original sin and man’s failure to live a spiritually satisfying and creative life that would create meaning. Faludi blames a “capitalist culture” that turns men into empty consumers. “Big Business,” not the devil, made him do it. (In China, Cuba and North Korea, the last remaining Marxist countries, all men are virtuous in matters of sex and money. Aren’t they?)
One of the problems of modern feminism is that in pushing for legitimate rights of women in the workplace, women as mothers are denigrated and downgraded. The sexual revolution, coinciding with the feminist revolution, allowed men to become selfish lovers, to live out irresponsible dreams, abandoning women with children without acquiring the traditional stigma exposing them as the bounders and louts they are.
Faludi concedes that she goes to the edges of society for her diagnosis, focusing on whiners and complainers. Her book ultimately is maternal in its point of view, written by a woman who insists upon making excuses for wayward boys who refuse to become mature men who accept personal responsibility in a world where life is unfair. But she looks at life through the wrong end of the telescope.
The real scandal of the millennium is the increase of single-parent families, where mothers are abandoned by irresponsible husbands and fathers. That book could be called Miffed: The Betrayal of the American Woman.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5588
SOURCE: “The Male Eunuch,” in New Republic, November 15, 1999, pp. 36-41.
[In the following extended review, Wolcott offers a negative evaluation of Stiffed. “Faludi's tome,” writes Wolcott, “is an almost self-parodying product of crisis-mongering newsmagazine journalese.”]
As if men hadn’t suffered enough indignities of late (loss of breadwinner status, declining sperm counts, TV ads targeting erectile dysfunction and hair loss), along comes Susan Faludi, offering soothing words and a lump of sugar. Like a horse whisperer, she feels men’s pain and wants to coax them out of the barn, one hoof ahead of the other. She isn’t being deliberately patronizing, which makes her tender concern all the more shaming. Men are now officially pathetic.
After stirring up the henhouse with her best-selling and award-winning tract Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, a warning cry about the secret plot to reverse feminist gains by brainwashing women with stick-figure fashion images and false idols such as Camille Paglia, Faludi has concluded six years of research with Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, which declares that men are not guilty of being the enemy. They are not the mobilizers and the beneficiaries of the backlash. No, they are victims, too, dazed captives in a jar. “[A]s the nation wobbled toward the millennium,” Faludi writes, “its pulse-takers seemed to agree that a domestic apocalypse was under way: American manhood was under siege.”
Like women, Faludi argues, men are judged today on their cosmetic appearance and their market value rather than their inner worth, forced to parade down the catwalk of consumerism’s “beauty pageant” and to compete in the swimsuit competition, “where the odds did not seem to be on the men’s side.” As men lose to women in the looks department, they blame women for their second-class showing. They shouldn’t. “[J]ust because men have wound up in a beauty-contest world doesn’t mean women have put them there. The gaze that plagues them doesn’t actually spring from a feminine eye,” Faludi observes, borrowing a term from cultural studies and beating it senseless. “The gaze that hounds men is the very gaze that women have been trying to escape.” It is the cyclops eye of “ornamental culture,” a Hollywood/Madison Avenue/glossy-magazine creation that saps everyone’s vital essences like a ray of Kryptonite. Only by poking out this prison searchlight can the sexes join forces and rise to confront their overseers. Runway models of the world, unite!
Other commentators have called for a truce between the sexes and a marriage of common interests (Cathy Young’s Cease-fire! is a spirited example), but Faludi plays peacemaker on an epic scale, as if mending a continental divide. Despite its irate title and a cover photo by Gordon Parks of a representative hardworking American Joe, Stiffed is a gentler dispatch than Backlash, more of a soft sell than a wake-up call. In a cover story for Newsweek Faludi was photographed inside sitting on the floor in a pixie pose, holding her bare toes and looking disarmingly girly, as if to say, “Me, a scary feminist? How silly!”
Like Edmund Morris with his biographical “memoir” of Ronald Reagan, Faludi couches her book as a personal odyssey. (There are no impersonal odysseys anymore.) “This is the story of a feminist’s travels through a postwar male realm,” she writes. “It is also a reflection of my own mental journey as I struggled to understand the perilous voyage to manhood undertaken by the men I once knew as boys …” A wayfarer with an agenda, she traveled the length and the breadth of America on her own listening tour, sprinkling a little empathy wherever she went.
Her safari took her into a country where men continue to lead lives of quiet desperation, and yet, like the “silenced” women in Backlash, are quite talkative. Exploring the fringes of male tribal behavior on the premise that what happens at the edges creeps into the center, Faludi suspends judgment no matter what nonsense she hears. Whether she is interviewing troubled souls in the Promise Keepers, a football fanatic who daubs his face every Sunday, or a former go-go boy who felt so used (“I felt degraded, he said, and his analysis of his degradation was one any female stripper would find familiar”), you can picture her nodding with understanding, like Judy Woodruff in a cutaway shot.
Faludi may be a good listener, but as a writer she has both mitts choking the steering wheel. With its hokey subheads (“Cause Without a Rebel,” “This Eager Violence of the Heart,” “A Woodsman in a Microwave World”), its oracular utterances (“a man didn’t have to go to Vietnam to confront the jungle”), and its pat generalizations too boring to quote, Faludi’s tome is an almost self-parodying product of crisis-mongering newsmagazine journalese, squeezing the life out of every topic to make a debatable point. Sentence after sentence unfurls like the flag at Iwo Jima as the author surveys the Zeitgeist to stereophonic fanfare, conflating the president of the United States with Obi-Wan Kenobi: “If Ronald Reagan was the fantasy elder come to lead the sons in triumphal battle against the Evil Empire, when the credits rolled and the sons awoke from the stardusted dream, most felt farther away from the promised land of adult manhood—less triumphal, less powerful, less confident of making a living or providing for a family or contributing productively to society.”
Faludi inflates the significance of a continuing identity crisis at Details magazine—its gawky metamorphosis from a gay-oriented downtown journal into a swinging-bachelors guide—into a soap opera of grave import. Watching’ the new editor and his art director ponder a lingerie spread, she remarks that “the gaze, it seemed, had at last reverted to its traditional vector, the male eye viewing the female body.” When the gaze goes on the blink and Details suffers another editorial convulsion, she intones with Vulcan solemnity, “The magazine’s invasion of the ‘feminine’ ornamental sphere had failed.” Return to the ship. (Curiously, Faludi effaces her own bit part in this saga, treating the Details office as just another stop on her journey. In fact she was hired as a contributing editor at Details by the very editor overseeing the “hetero-izing” revamp that she characterizes in Stiffed as an attempt “to hide from male readers their own fears of their own naked passivity in the face of display culture, their own prone positions as the objects of corporate desire.” Kinky!)
Incapable of poison-dart wit or flat assertion, Faludi employs hypnotic repetition as her chief power of persuasion, massaging the reader into trance-like submission. Whether the reader is nodding in agreement or just plain nodding off seems lost on her. As she murmurs the same phrases over and over and as her metaphors become fruitful and multiply (“Lured from my intended course, I sometimes lost sight of the bright beacons and media buoys marking the shoals where men and women clashed, and also lost sight of that secure shore …”; “Its surge had washed all the men of the American Century into a swirling ocean of …”; “Its tsunami force had swamped …,” “If there was an enemy behind this cultural sea change …”; “Navigating the ornamental realm …”), every chapter becomes longer than it needs to be, and every chapter seems longer than the one before, creating the illusion of a book feeding on itself and engulfing unsuspecting villagers.
To get a handle on her swelling narrative, Faludi uses segues and cinematic crosscutting (“Across the continent from Condé Nast headquarters, in a small corner of the San Fernando Valley …”) to foster the impression that postwar history is a streaming montage—an Altman-like epic where every fluky thing connects. However far the book roams, though, it holds fast to a simple story-idea. The idea is that the American man is a disappointed boy.
Faludi tells this story in the form of a space-age parable. In the opening chapter, punnily titled “The Son, the Moon, and the Stars,” Faludi imagines a typical boy in a Davy Crockett cap standing with his father in the suburban backyard. The two of them stare upward, tracking the gleaming speck of a manned spacecraft passing in orbit. It is a Spielberg-like epiphany that ends in a Springsteen-like lament. “When I talk with men who grew up during the baby boom,” Faludi writes, “this mission to manhood shows up in their minds not as promises met but betrayals, losses, and disillusionment. It is as if a generation of men had lined up at Cape Kennedy to witness the countdown to liftoff, only to watch the rocket—containing all their hopes and dreams—burn up on the launchpad.” This fizzling let-down is the result of a generation of boys being raised by fathers who emotionally stranded them.
After World War II and Korea, Faludi contends, veterans returned to civilian life with a stoicism that locked out everyone who hadn’t shared their harrowing experiences, and even those who had shared them. They put the past behind them with a vengeance, swapping their khakis for gray flannel suits. They married, moved to the suburbs, and stowed their worries in a briefcase, sipping their cocktails after a hard day at the office in enforced silence. Don’t bother your father, he has a lot on his mind. The sons grew up with fathers who so often seemed spectral, there and yet not there, ‘heads’ of household strangely disconnected with the familial body.”
And so, instead of initiating their sons into manhood, these holograms in cardigan sweaters, as bland and puzzled “as those perfect dads on television,” bequeathed them nothing except the promise of more material goods—a bigger car in the driveway, a hi-fi set. “With much fanfare, the fawned-over sons of the postwar generation had been handed their keys to the kingdom and for a while they reveled in their prosperity.” But it wasn’t enough. A generational link was broken, forcing male baby-boomers to form baboon tribes.
Everywhere she goes on her journey, Faludi encounters graying male boomers who are down in the dumps, having missed out on too many fishing trips. Malaise is tough to measure, and Faludi doesn’t cite a raft of statistics to indicate how pervasive and widespread the social toll of this father-son estrangement really is. (Recent developments suggests that having a hazy dad hanging around the house is better than having no dad at all.) Instead, she treats her postwar scenario as a poetic truth—an impressionistic fact.
Impressions can differ, though. When Gloria Emerson did her own personal survey on the state of masculinity in Some American Men in 1985, she was struck by “the great tenderness many men, more than I thought, feel for their own fathers.” She wrote: “Stuffed as we are with our daily rations of psychoanalysis-publico, it is not a revelation how the harsh father damages the male child. What is not so apparent is how the father who loves his son and makes it known, even in the sorriest circumstances, lifts the child to a privileged order from which he can never be expelled.” It certainly isn’t apparent to Faludi. Perhaps the situation between fathers and sons has worsened since 1985, for Faludi meets mostly grievance and regret. She keeps bumping up against a frustrating wall of silence between fathers and sons, a dead dial tone. “Men spoke to me of waiting, year after year, for a sign, a late-night confidence, a death-bed confession, even—desperately—a letter delivered posthumously, for any moment that would decode the mystery of their mute fathers.” At least Hamlet had his father’s ghost to put him wise.
The other broken link is the bond between working men. For generations, men forged their identities through industrial labor, taking pride in what they could do with their hands and muscles and engineering know-how. Faludi doesn’t cite her nemesis Camille Paglia, but her valedictory section on the Long Beach Naval Shipyard recalls Paglia’s remark that when she crosses a bridge or passes a skyscraper, she often thinks, “Men made this.” But such men are now an endangered species, a lunchpail line of Willy Lomans.
Plant closings, cheap imports, defense downsizing, information technology, and entrepreneurial success stories (to which whole magazines such as Fast Company and Tycoon are devoted) have consigned the ranks of blue-collar workers to the dinosaur pit of economic progress, tarnishing the survivors’ pride in craft and making them feel alienated, alone. Like many on the left (and some on the right) with a political investment in downgrading America as a land of disenchantment and former glory, Faludi stresses only the bust side of the boom-and-bust cycle, treating the economic expansion of the 1990s first as if it didn’t exist, then as if it didn’t fundamentally matter (“as the economy recovered, the male crisis did not, and it became apparent that whatever men’s afflictions were, they could not be gauged solely through graphs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics”). She mourns the derelict sites of the pre-post-industrial economy as if they were the bare ruined choirs of a broken faith. Instead of an apprentice studying under a union elder, instead of camaraderie among coworkers, it’s now every Dilbert for himself; and building a website (wowee!) doesn’t bolster the spirit or ennoble the physical landscape.
The book’s official mourner of the passing of industrial might is, of all people, Sylvester Stallone. He serves as Faludi’s guide to American manhood, her faithful Tonto. In a chauffered car from the set of Cop Land, an ensemble film with which the star hopes to win some acting respect from his peers, Stallone, tired of flexing his oiled muscles and being treated like meat, rides pensively, “consumed with his chances of rejoining a meaningful workaday world.” For Cop Land, of course, Stallone put on weight and walked with a limp, thereby fulfilling Faludi’s mental image of the American man as a puffy, hobbled soul-searcher. As the sedan nears the George Washington Bridge, he points to its iron majesty and remarks (weirdly like Paglia): “See that? The incredibly detailed work that went into it? That’s work. That’s when men had a real craft, when they really built something. Imagine looking out and seeing this and thinking, ‘I did that.’”
Elsewhere in her book, Faludi devotes an exhaustive chapter to the genesis of the “Rambo” mystique, examining the scripts as if they were variant texts of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and diagnosing the films’ true subtext as the conflict that Stallone had with his father, an Oedipal struggle that she cites as symptomatic: “Offscreen and on the political stage, the male electorate was having as hard a time reconstructing the public father as Sylvester Stallone had deconstructing his private one.” As Sly goes, so goes the nation.
Stallone cuts an almost surrealistic figure as the model of masculinity in Stiffed, a barbecued ham given to soul-searching pronouncements that he seems to sense Faludi wants to hear. His exaggerated image provides the right cartoon billboard for Faludi’s exaggerated fears. As the screenwriter Stirling Stilliphant observed so eloquently in an interview in Backstory 3, “Stallone has one talent—that is to have soaked up all the bullshit which has accumulated in La La Land over the years, coated it with an ersatz patina of culture and fine art, and created from his bootstraps a genuine, authentic Monster.” (Then Silliphant added, “In person he can be, I understand, a warm and delightful friend.”) A high-priced victim of voyeurism, Stallone is living proof to Faludi that no mere mortal man can bear up under the body armor of “ornamental culture.” If Rocky/Rambo, licking his wounds like Achilles at a banquette at Spago, feels listless, deflated, and unfulfilled—“‘I’m surprised they even gave me this booth,’ Stallone said, only half-joking. ‘I’m like driftwood in here’”—what hope can there be for your average loser?
According to Stiffed, futile exhibitionism is man’s lot in the 1990s. The Cleveland Browns fans in the Dawg Pound, the initiator of a Waco documentary who finds himself shunted aside at the Academy Awards, the sexual predators of the Spur Posse who become tabloid-TV bad boys for a brief spell (“‘Maury Povich, he lied to us,’ Chris Albert shouted, kicking hard at the leg of the blackjack table”), a former gangbanger and confessed killer named Monster Kody who publishes a bestselling book about his exploits only to end up back in the slammer (“Did you see me on ESPN?’ I hated to tell him I hadn’t; I knew he’d be disappointed”)—nearly all of Faludi’s subjects are bobbing heads competing for camera attention because they didn’t get enough nurturing from dear old clueless dad.
“For a generation of men who had to pursue their destinies in a Planet Hollywood world [Stallone being one of Planet Hollywood’s original backers],” Faludi writes, “the journey often seemed almost an extension of that old TV series Route 66. Like that show’s protagonists, they, too, often felt like orphans turning endlessly off some open road, pulling into unfamiliar towns, looking for fathers they could not find … All that was left was the road which, like the actual Route 66, seemed to end, literally for some, metaphorically for many more, in Hollywood.” And Route 66 leads Faludi metaphorically if not literally to the Ventura Freeway, which in turn takes her to Van Nuys Boulevard in San Fernando Valley—the heart of the American porn industry, its Bizarro Hollywood.
Here Faludi examines a naked colony of unaffiliated males in their Naugahyde habitat. First excerpted in The New Yorker, “Waiting for Wood” is meant to be the knockout chapter of Stiffed, the crescendo of all of Faludi’s themes, an electrical shocker. Instead, it is a study in how a journalist can get the particulars right and the overall picture dead wrong.
Like so many reporters investigating the skin trade, Faludi hangs around a porn set to soak up the cheesy atmosphere and tell us how tedious it all is. (“After several clockwork transitions and an endless anal scene. …”) She pays the inevitable visit to the World Modeling Talent Agency, which may look like a roach motel for porn rookies, but don’t be fooled: “It is a backstage door to the current American dream and an emergency escape hatch for some who find themselves capsizing in a reconfiguring American economy.” (It is difficult to resist quoting Faludi’s sentences. They are so awful.)
The World Modeling Talent Agency is where the ornamental culture gets downright nasty. As aspiring starlets stack up in the waiting room like runway jets for a “talent call,” a former Chippendales dancer who calls himself Damon Rose tries to pester his way into being seen by the production scouts, only to be ejected. “Damon Rose slunk out shamefaced, flung back into the masses in the main room, where I spotted him busy converting hurt to aggression. He had sneaked up behind an actress and grabbed her breasts. She shook him off, then turned to appraise his pectorals. ‘Your boobs are bigger than mine,’ she said. He laughed uncertainly, then wandered off, his face sunk in despair.” What a dork.
For Faludi, however, Damon Rose is another sideswipe victim of the porn world’s power-shift towards women, whose improved status has come at men’s expense. Like the shipbuilders and the dockworkers whom she memorializes, male porn performers have been deprived of an opportunity to ply a decent trade. They are humping on screen because of the new economy. “They had all bailed out of sinking occupational worlds that used to confer upon working men a measure of dignity and a masculine mantle but now offer only uncertainty.” Having nowhere to ply a trade with traditional tools, they are forced to grab hold of their own faucet for income and validation.
Paid less than their female counterparts, under constant pressure to perform, male porn performers are the ultimate freelancers in the brutal capitalist jungle. The spotlight of “display culture” burns hotter on them, reducing some to a crisp. The martyr in Faludi’s morality tale is Cal Jammer, a porn actor who suffered from wobbly wood on the set (or in Faludi-speak, “Much to his frustration, he often found his erections held hostage to his feelings”), was taunted by catty crewmembers, and finally shot himself on the front lawn of his estranged wife, a stripper turned porn actress whom nobody seems to like.
When Elvis Presley died, cynics said, “Good career move.” It wasn’t for Jammer. His posthumous career went nowhere. Faludi notes that after the suicide of a female porn star named Savannah, who killed herself after a car accident which left her disfigured, the porn biz rushed out compilation tapes and phony tributes to cash in. But poor Jammer’s suicide failed to attract any money-grubbing vultures; and this is conclusive evidence, writes Faludi, that “women were more marketable, even in death.”
Here, as in much of her book, Faludi is letting her thesis do her thinking for her. Jammer faded from the porn shelves not because he was a man in a woman’s realm but because, unlike Savannah, he was a utility player, not a star. If Jammer had been as famous as John C. Holmes, one of the first major porn stars to die of AIDS, he might have gotten the same tacky sendoff. (Holmes, a.k.a. “Johnny Wadd” and “the human tripod,” was the model for “Dirk Diggler” in Boogie Nights and is the subject of a documentary recently shown at the Toronto Film Festival.)
Faludi falls for the hype that because women are more visible in adult video, they are the ones in control. (She quotes a producer who complains about porn being infected by “the feminization of Hollywood.”) It is a distinctly odd notion, that porn is an expression of female power. Yes, porn actresses are glossy “cover-box girls” who develop their own fanclub followings, but the turnover in porn starlets is rapid and brutal, while men in the business—such as Randy West, Peter North, Ron Jeremy, Ed Powers, even a grizzled geezer like Jamie Gillis—not only continue working long past their first paunch and prostate problem, but also front their own lines of tapes where they “break in” new girls to the business. Still others, such as John Leslie and Paul Thomas, hang up their socks and graduate to the director’s chair where, through the prudent use of dry ice and flashbacks, they become “auteurs.” When it comes to the men, old porn stars never die, they just chip away.
As for the younger bucks, two of the most prominent male stars today are Rocco Siffredi, a sexual swashbuckler who presides over a series of Eurotrash-orgy tapes with titles such as Never Say Never to Rocco Siffredi and Rocco: Animal Trainer, and has reached such notoriety that he recently appeared in the very explicit art film Romance; and Max Hardcore, who dresses up porn actresses in Lolita outfits before he manhandles them. The mistreatment of women in Siffredi’s and Hardcore’s tapes is so raw, gagging, and physically intrusive that even the seen-it-alls in the porn world have expressed qualms.
The upscale erotica (“X-rated versions of Victoria’s Secret ads”) that may have prevailed when Faludi was visiting the San Fernando Valley has been overturned by a much meaner variety. Moreover, the introduction of Viagra into the porn scene has removed most of the existential angst of “waiting for wood” that Faludi charges with such significance. On many porn shoots today the problem isn’t getting it up, the problem is getting it down so that everyone can go home. Some male performers have turned into battering rams, wearing the poor women out. No, in porn, cock remains king.
Far from mirroring the moribund status of men, the current porn scene crudely reflects the resurgence of male bravado and male prerogative in popular culture. Aside from a few pockets of girl power (typified by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), pop culture in the 1990s bears the condom ring of guy humor and horniness, as evidenced by Howard Stern and his imitators, “Beavis & Butt-Head,” “South Park,” “The Man Show,” “Shasta McNasty,” Maxim magazine (whose success has turned other men’s magazines into bimbo eruptions), the dopey adolescent stardom of Adam Sandler, the locker-roomish slapstick antics of the Farrelly brothers, the needling misogyny of Neil LaBute, the playboy presidential bid of Donald Trump, the bruises worn as medals in Fight Club, much of hip-hop music, and the rebirth of professional wrestling as a postmodern Götterdämmerung. Immature and cartoonish as most of these items are, their popularity and their attack energy signify that millions of young men no longer feel hemmed in or inhibited by feminism. They know that they can joke their way around it.
Faludi is not unaware of this bantam strut of hormones—she refers to “amped-up virility,” and in a recent issue of Newsweek she touts Fight Club as “an incisive gender drama” for sensitive brutes—but she chalks it up to over-compensation for basic insecurity. “As successful manhood increasingly got measured in how much you were viewed, many men sought to draw the gaze in ways that didn’t leave them feeling ‘emasculated,’ that made them feel they had captured the spotlight rather than succumbed to it. As [Michiko] Kakutani noted, when a market-research firm polled teenage boys on their aspirations, they rated ‘being funny as the personality trait they value most and being athletic as their most prized skill.’ These young men understood that the wisecracking stand-up comedian and the muscle-bound sports star were the most watched and thus most highly valued male objects of their time.” What Faludi doesn’t understand about boys or men is that being funny has always been prized, not because it makes a guy stand out, but because it helps him fit in.
Humor makes someone popular, a part of the gang, not an object on a pedestal. But reading Stiffed, you would get the idea that men never crack jokes, except to cover up their anguish. You would also come away with the sense that popular culture doesn’t convey rebel energy and pent-up desires; that it is solely an instrument of social control and indoctrination. The men in Stiffed are like the masses in so much leftist literature of the 1930s: a poor herd always on the receiving end. Unable to find a proletariat in the present, Faludi has to import a proletariat from the past to accommodate men as a victim class.
Faludi has an atavistic leftwing nostalgia for the good old bad days when it was workers versus bosses, and the picket lines were drawn, and the only question was, Which side are you on? Now everything is muddier, and well-meaning personal gestures substitute for organizing. Just as Bruce Springsteen makes a political fashion statement by dressing like a railroad worker on stage to show his kinship to Woody Guthrie, Faludi, figuratively speaking, garbs the men in Stiffed in old dungarees and work shirts—ideological hand-me-downs from John Steinbeck, James T. Farrell, and Studs Terkel. Men are now a spiritual proletariat, an underclass and overclass of depressed Okies, worse off than their political sisters because they are too out of touch with their feelings to articulate their rage.
“As I traveled through this new landscape of masculinity,” Faludi writes, “I was struck by how many men I encountered had the feeling that something or someone had stripped them of their usefulness and stranded them on a new decorative planet.” After six years of interviewing sad sacks, Faludi scratches her head over this epidemic of male passivity. “My travels led me to a final question: Why don’t contemporary men rise up in protest against their betrayal? If they have experienced so many of the same injuries as women, the same humiliations, why don’t they challenge the culture as women did? Why can’t men seem to act?” Actually, that’s three final questions, and it leads to another rash of inquiry as Faludi concedes that men lack a clearly defined foe and battlefield.
What new realms should they be gaining—the media, entertainment, and image-making institutions of corporate America? But these are institutions, they are told, that are already run by men: how can men invade their own territory? Is technological progress the frontier? Why then does it seem to be pushing men into obsolescence, socially and occupationally? What kind of frontier conquers the American man instead of vice versa? Is technology not the frontier but the enemy? But if the American man crushes the machine, whose machine has he vanquished?
Not waving but drowning in her own swirl, Faludi manages to offer the prospect of men joining with like-minded women to create “a new paradigm for human progress.” Of course, it is always easier to isolate problems than to propose workable solutions, but what a dinky pop-fly. Six-hundred-plus pages purporting to show that men are expiring of slow suicide, and her prescription is “a new paradigm,” a phrase with which Tony Blair probably brushes his teeth.
And the suggestion that the key to men’s future well-being is to follow a feminist lead? Men will never do that—out of idiot pride, if nothing else. Robert Bly is right: men have to address their own messes. Perhaps the reason that Faludi is so fuzzy when it comes to practical agitation (the term is John Jay Chapman’s) is because she is essentially a moralist using pop sociology to trick out her own misgivings into trend lines that indicate a more widespread slump. When Faludi obsesses about ornamental culture, for example, it is clear that she has spent too much time in the sunglass glare of Los Angeles, where she lives. Like many cultural declinists, she practices a politics of piety, which is not politics at all, only a high-minded handwringing.
She got by with it once. The difference between Backlash and Stiffed is that the alarm bells in the first book did capture something in the air, a complicated tension between men and women in the workplace that exploded in the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas battle. But nothing in Stiffed rings true. The book is a series of muffled notes, and not just because so much of the material has dated so quickly. (Now that Cleveland has regained a football franchise, the cruel jilting of the Browns’ “Dawg Pound” contingent—which Faludi uses as a textbook example of how the average fan gets shafted by luxury-skybox owners who care more about the bottom line—has turned out to be a temporary separation, not a tragic parting. One prominent member of the “Dawg Pound” is currently doing a victory dance in Wal-Mart ads to promote Direct TV.)
The shock of recognition is what’s missing. I am a boomer, the oldest of four brothers, and my father served in Korea; but when Faludi writes of “fawned-over sons” being handed “the keys to the kingdom,” I can only wonder; What keys? What kingdom? Dad must have been holding out on us; and the other dads, too. Nobody with whom I grew up had the lofty sense of entitlement that Faludi eulogizes as having ended in ashes and stale beer. For all its invocation of the common man, Faludi’s book carries a severe college-educated upper-middle-class slant.
Also, I don’t know any man who feels that he is on pantyhose display in a world that he never made (and I work for Condé Nast, which Stiffed paints as a wading pool of narcissism). What men my age brood about is probably what men our age have always brooded about: waning powers, inklings of mortality, feeling past-it. For most men, these blues are something you go through and eventually get over; but in Faludi’s America, that tornado alley of backlashes, betrayals, undeclared wars, and domestic apocalypses, the quiet struggles of maturity don’t make for gripping allegory.
A Haunting Postscript. At the end of Faludi’s journey came another journey, a shorter one, yet one fraught with its own perils. I mean her book tour. “I’ve just finished writing a book on the cultural crisis besetting men,” she informed the readers of Harper’s Bazaar in October. “It comes out in the fall, and I’ve been bracing myself for the plunge into the cauldron of ignorance and clichés.” In the article she mentions her boyfriend, a writer named Russ Rymer. On one stop of this hell tour, Faludi was interviewed by the New York Post while Rymer ran interference (“You have a radio interview in 20 minutes, he reminds her gently”). “Russ lived the birthing of this book,” she told the reporter after Russ excused himself. “As she talks, she dreamily studies the cover of Stiffed—which features a picture of a handsome construction worker from the 1940s. ‘Don’t you think the guy on the cover looks a little like Russ.’ she asks.”
If the personal is the political, then perhaps Susan Faludi went marshmallow on men in Stiffed not because of feminist outreach, but because she found herself a nice fella, someone to look after her. The working-class hero on the cover of her book is actually her own Prince Charming in disguise. Her girlfriends must be so jealous.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1967
SOURCE: “Why Men Get Anxious,” in Christian Century, December 1, 1999, pp. 1166-168.
[In the following review of Stiffed, Van Leeuwen finds shortcomings in Faludi's overly long presentation and narrow selection of case examples, mainly marginalized middle-class, white men.]
My father, born at the turn of the century, was too young to see active duty in the First World War and too old to serve in the Second. But as a high school athletics teacher in a small Canadian city he maintained his masculine credentials in other ways. When his school was emptied of younger teachers during World War II, he coached all the boys’ athletic teams and directed the high school air force cadet squad while maintaining other classroom responsibilities. After the war, as he got older and retired from coaching, he continued to be a pillar of local and regional sports, serving as a record keeper and league administrator. When he died at the age of 71, cohorts of his past football players flocked to his funeral, and six of them were his pallbearers.
Susan Faludi maintains that since World War II American men have been cheated or “stiffed” out of just this kind of male mentoring (at one point she calls it “maternal masculinity”) by the very people and organizations who could and should have provided it. Her list of offenders includes absent and abusive fathers, downsizing corporations, sports team owners too concerned with profit to show loyalty to the cities where teams were first formed, and armed forces too bloated by bureaucracy and careerism to provide the kind of first-among-equals training that helps boys become men with a vision of serving their communities.
In fact, “useful” work for men is harder and harder to come by, Faludi argues [in Stiffed]. The craftsmanship of the Long Beach naval shipyards has fallen victim to defense budget cuts. The aerospace industry has replaced loyalty to its employees with cavalier worship of the bottom line. The clear and high goals of World War II deteriorated in the chaos of Vietnam. The space program of the '60s and '70s turned skilled fighter jet pilots into passive passengers—“spam in a can.” Unionized manufacturing work gave way to low-wage, benefits-poor service jobs, and the current economic boom is lining the pockets only of those fortunate enough to be in high-tech information industries.
Readers might well ask how representative Faludi’s case studies are. Median U.S. household wealth has improved steadily since 1970, and access to cheaper consumer goods has effectively raised most people’s standard of living regardless of what their pay slips say. Moreover, even if most men are as downwardly mobile as Faludi implies, women might well be tempted to respond by saying, “Welcome to the club!” Women have a long history of being ghettoized in lower-paying service and clerical jobs, vulnerable to layoffs without warning and often placed in positions that require them to display more image than substance.
But that is precisely part of Faludi’s point. As men’s capacity to be useful providers and protectors has eroded, many have begun to pursue the precarious routes to self-esteem and financial security long required of women—dressing right, cultivating sexual attractiveness, and looking for ways to get media attention, whether as goofily dressed football fans, gang leaders or iron-pumping gym rats.
“Ornamental masculinity” is the term Faludi coins for this late-millennial phenomenon, one which features some intriguing gender reversals. For example, between 1989 and 1996, men’s clothing sales in America rose 21 percent to record highs; in the same period, women, taught by 30 years of feminism to look for less superficial routes to a secure identity, spent 10 percent less on clothing. All this is frequently accompanied by male resentment, directed toward women for supposedly robbing them of what were once male sinecures and for adding insult to injury by having a head start in the art of self-display needed to make it in the celebrity culture.
A minority of men, like those in the Promise Keepers group Faludi observed, strive to find in God the nurturant, affirming father that they lacked at home and on the job. Meanwhile, some watch their marriages crumble and express remorse for resorting to spousal abuse under the strain of their masculine insecurity.
Faludi describes the anxieties and coping strategies of her various informants in sympathetic detail, often with a wry irony which manages to avoid seeming condescending. Even so, I felt mildly stiffed myself in the process of reading her volume. To begin with, it’s almost 700 pages long, and despite the author’s lively reporting and thoughtful commentary, it’s hard to believe she couldn’t have made her case just as effectively in half the space. In addition, as I’ve already suggested, the book is less about American men in general than about a particular class of men buffeted by the economic and political machinations of even more powerful males who lack an adequate social conscience.
Feminists have long argued about whether the most basic human oppression is a function of gender, class or both. In her previous book, Backlash, Faludi opted for gender; in this book it seems that in the end gender gets trumped by class. This is a conclusion she has every right to argue for; but then she might better have subtitled the book The Betrayal of the Working-to-Middle Class (Mostly White) American Man—which, I grant, does not make for a very good sound bite.
But in her final chapter Faludi speculates about a deep wound shared by American men of all classes: the absence—physical, psychological or both—of their own fathers. Everything else—male competitiveness, contempt for women, the desperate search for substitute mentors—may be a form of compensation for early paternal deprivation or abuse (though she is careful to add that this does not absolve men of responsibility for whatever nasty behavior results).
Faludi’s journalistic tour of male angst is indeed selective, but in drawing these connections she is in good company. For example, sociologist Scott Coltrane has examined coded ethnographic records of a representative sample of close to a hundred preindustrial cultures. He found that cultures where fathers show the most affection, proximity, and responsibility for routine child care are also the ones most likely to feature females participating in community decision-making and to provide females with access to positions of authority. In a further study he found that in cultures in which men have close relationships to children, they much less frequently affirm their masculinity through boastful demonstrations of strength, aggression and sexual potency. They are less apt to adopt an ideology of female inferiority, or to practice dominating behavior toward women. (See Coltrane’s 1996 book Family Man, published by Oxford.)
What accounts for such connections? Therapist Frank Pittman, in his 1993 book Man Enough, suggests (in opposition to Freud and other gender essentialists) that nurturant fathering, rather than turning boys into stereotypical men, accomplishes the opposite, much healthier result. By reassuring their sons that they are valued and loved as unique individuals, fathers are able to certify them “masculine enough” to get on with the more important business of being human. In other words, nurturant fathering helps relieve sons of the compulsion to prove themselves adequately masculine by engaging in truculent and misogynist activities, and so frees them to use their energies for acquiring more adaptive and less rigidly gender-stereotyped relational and work skills.
But if this is so, then we are in even deeper trouble than Faludi suggests, since the divorce rate in America is the highest of any industrialized nation and results mainly in single-parent families headed by women. Under the prefeminist doctrine of separate spheres for men and women, most fathers earned their wages away from the home, but at least they lived there. The present sad irony is this: while fathers in intact families are doing (and, it seems, enjoying) more and more hands-on care of their children, there are fewer and fewer intact families.
The solution, as Faludi seems to realize, is certainly not a return to the doctrine of separate spheres, with women relegated to economically dependent domesticity while men bond with each other in male-defined manufacturing jobs and noble military and athletic pursuits. For one thing, a lot of that old-time industrial work contributed mightily to the present ecological crisis—a point Faludi could have developed better than she does. For another, as most of her middle-aged informants make clear, the type of father involvement allowed by the doctrine of separate spheres was too thin (and often too authoritarian) to contribute very positively to the development of children and wives, even though it underwrote men’s own masculine status as breadwinners.
While my own father was busy mentoring the next generation of male athletes and cadets, my mother was battling depression and claustrophobia in a household that included two preschool children. She later told me, in a rare moment of candor, that as she watched him leave for yet another summer cadet training camp, she was sorely tempted to tell him not to bother coming home, since he was virtually never around anyway. It was, she implied, a near miss. The survival of the marriage probably owed a lot to the fact that a few years later my mother was able to dust off her own teaching certificate and get back to the classroom to help teach hordes of post-World War II baby-boom children.
Stiffed is long on describing the problem and short on specific recommendations. Readers might want to follow it up with a look at the 1998 joint statement by the Communitarian Network and the Religion, Culture and Family Project (available on the latter’s Web site at www2.uchicago.edu/divinity/family). That statement, titled “The Task of Religious Institutions in Strengthening Families,” is sensitive to both the cultural and the structural features of the current gender and family crises. It lauds a range of public, private and religiously based ventures aimed at promoting responsible fatherhood and at educating young people about the benefits of marriage and the communications skills needed to strengthen it. It calls for government and corporate support (in terms of health benefits and tax breaks) of a work week that does not exceed a total of 60 hours for married couples and 30 for single parents. Rather than promoting either a return to the doctrine of separate spheres or rigid androgyny, it suggests the development of a “Homemakers’ GI Bill.” This would allow either parent who is away from the waged workforce caring for children to receive child-care payments, children’s allowances, job training and other protections against long-term financial and job vulnerability.
I am more optimistic than Faludi seems to be about our capacity to reshape a view of masculinity not predicated on compulsive competition or the flight from women and children. Earlier this decade, Andrew Schmookler pointed out that “for thousands of years, human communities have seen the greatest threat to their survival as coming from outside enemies. So they have made warriors their heroes and the virtues of the man of power their ideal of manhood.” But now, with arguably the greater threat being what our quest for prosperity is doing to the planet, we need to recover “another ancient image of what a man might be. It is the image of the good steward, the man to whom the care of things can be entrusted” (“Manliness and Mother Earth,” Christian Science Monitor, October 3, 1991).
To make the image of the good steward seem as manly as that of the vigilant warrior will take a lot of cooperative effort on the part of cultural, religious, corporate and public spheres. But the time is ripe for doing so: that much we have learned in both heartwarming and heartbreaking detail from Faludi’s “stiffed” American men.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3517
SOURCE: “How Now, Iron Johns?,” in Nation, December 13, 1999, pp. 18, 20-2.
[In the following unfavorable review of Stiffed, Willis objects to Faludi's nostalgic stereotypes of masculinity and her thesis that male anxiety stems from manipulative mass culture and paternal abandonment, rather than the erosion of their historical supremacy.]
In Growing Up Absurd, his classic polemic on shortchanged youth, Paul Goodman remarks, parenthetically, that “the problems I want to discuss in this book belong primarily, in our society, to the boys: how to be useful and make something of oneself. A girl does not have to, she is not expected to, ‘make something’ of herself. Her career does not have to be self-justifying, for she will have children, which is absolutely self-justifying, like any other natural or creative act.” Goodman’s book was published in 1960; with historical hindsight, it’s easy to roll one’s eyes at the unself-conscious sexism that one of the foremost cultural radicals of the time shared with his conventional antagonists. It is less amusing that four decades later, in the wake of a movement that has reshaped the lives of women, a prominent feminist writer should come out with a book whose implicit assumption is basically the same as Goodman’s: that the conditions of work in late capitalist society are primarily a problem for the boys, a crisis of masculinity.
For the past few years, the idea that American men are angry, troubled and socially dysfunctional has been an insistent theme of the popular media. This male disaffection, whose symptoms have been said to range from the election of the Gingrich Congress to the shootings at Columbine High School, has been variously ascribed to resentment of women’s demands for equality, white working-class men’s loss of status in a changing economy, black men’s continuing oppression, fear of homosexuality, fear of homophobia, poverty, welfare, conflicting pressures to be sensitive “new men” and traditionally masculine achievers, the imposition of feminist rules of behavior alien to male nature, mistreatment at the hands of a “feminized” school system, the marginalization of fathers and a popular culture that glorifies violence. In Stiffed, Susan Faludi tells us that when she began her exploration of this territory she subscribed to the resistance-to-feminism, “masculinity on the rampage” theory of male crisis; her first stop was a domestic-violence therapy group. But as her researches progressed, among laid-off shipyard workers and middle managers, Citadel cadets, Promise Keepers, gang members, Vietnam vets, actors in porn movies and other denizens of the male deep she concluded that the real problem lay not in what men were doing but in what was being done to them.
As Faludi sees it, the plight of American men centers on the devolution of work that allows them to be useful and make something of themselves. The ill-fated shipbuilders, with their pride of craft and their loyalty to one another, are her working-class heroes, avatars of a vanishing model of manhood based on producing something tangible, serving the community and passing on one’s skills to younger men. In the fifties, this model of manhood was already endangered by the proliferation of white-collar corporate functionaries in “make-work jobs with inflated titles.” And by now, deindustrialization, cutthroat free-market capitalism, the demise of workers’ expectations that loyalty and dedication will be rewarded, the dominance of corporate values and the attendant apparatus of mass marketing, advertising and consumption that Faludi calls “ornamental culture” have in her view stripped manhood of any meaningful social content: Masculinity has become defined by those who sell the products necessary to live up to the image—everything from leather to Viagra—and the popular entertainment that validates and celebrates it. In short, Faludi claims, men now share women’s familiar status as ornaments and objects of consumer culture.
Having once regarded feminism as the key to men’s anger and anguish, Faludi has come all the way to believing that women have nothing to do with the case, that both feminists and antifeminists are missing the point. This conclusion seems incongruous, given her many descriptions of troubled or failed marriages, of men who display contempt for women, commit acts of sexual violence and predation, vent their anger on their wives and girlfriends, blame women or feminism for their problems, inform her that Hillary Clinton is running the country. But Faludi interprets such behavior simply as scapegoating, men’s unwillingness to face the fact that their real grievances lie elsewhere. Where? Well, there is “the culture,” in Faludi’s formulation a rather abstract, if suitably global, target. But Stiffed also proposes a more concrete culprit: paternal betrayal. “The men I came to know,” Faludi writes, “talked about their fathers’ failures in the most private and personal terms. … That they had felt neglected as boys in the home, that their fathers had emotionally or even literally abandoned the family circle, was painful enough. But they suspected … their fathers had deserted them in the public realm, too. ‘My father never taught me how to be a man,’ was the refrain I heard over and over again.” It doesn’t occur to Faludi that this indictment could be a form of scapegoating, a surrogate for some deeper and more hidden grievance: Unlike with her subjects’ complaints about women, she takes their brief against their fathers at face value.
Faludi is surely right that male doldrums cannot be reduced to antifeminist backlash—and that antifeminist backlash cannot be reduced to the simple reflex of a privileged class determined to protect its power. She is right, I suspect, that in their jobs, their relationships with women and their overall experience of the world, most American men most of the time do not feel especially powerful. Certainly her own depictions of men support these claims, and it is a tribute to the quality of her reporting that even unappetizing characters like the sex-for-points Spur Posse come across as recognizable human beings, not political caricatures. Nonetheless, she is wrong to deny that women and feminism are at the heart of the matter. The themes of men’s problematic relations with women and with their own “femininity” figure prominently in some of Faludi’s portraits—notably in her devastating account of misogyny and male intimacy at the Citadel, and in the less successful Promise Keepers and porn-movie chapters—and run through others like persistent minor fugues. But even when women are virtually or entirely absent from the narrative, their negative presence broods.
Since it’s hard to believe that Faludi is unaware of this, I can only conclude that she ignores it because it doesn’t fit her thesis. Remarking on the integration of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, she writes, “It created an environment where every male worker regardless of race could embrace a type of masculinity based neither on exclusivity nor dominance.” In fact, the masculine culture of the shipyard was founded on the exclusion of women, not only from jobs (if there were any female workers at Long Beach, Faludi doesn’t mention them) but from the very idea of work that animates the men’s sense of community. In a male-supremacist society, maleness is regarded as synonymous with generic humanity, and since the Industrial Revolution took most forms of work out of the home, creating a split between the public world of wage labor and the private domestic economy, men—and “man”—have been identified with the former. As a result men have tended to conflate worldly human achievement and, specifically, achievement in the world of paid work with proving their manhood. From this perspective, to fail at a job, or to have a job that does not seem worth doing, is not simply human disappointment but emotional castration—especially when it entails another major blow to masculine self-definition: the inability to support a dependent wife and children.
The inevitable corollary is that men who equate their humanity with their sexuality with their jobs have a strong emotional investment in keeping those jobs a male preserve; the communities of skilled workers who represent Faludi’s masculine ideal have typically reacted with virulent hatred to women’s efforts to integrate their turf. In turn, the closing of ranks against women reinforces the work-masculinity equation. This is a closed, ultimately self-defeating circle. More than one reviewer has decried Faludi’s nostalgia for America’s industrial past and the politics of working-class solidarity that went with it, but this criticism misses the essential point. There’s nothing inherently wrong with invoking the past as a standpoint for criticizing the present. The problem, in the context of this book, is that this particular past offers no exit from the real masculinity crisis: men’s need to adjust to the decline of patriarchal culture by developing a sense of themselves and their place in the world that does not depend on the segregation or subordination of women.
Anxiety about the loss of a masculinity organically connected to useful work, and about the deracination of men whose bonds to their fathers’ generation have succumbed to the atomizing force of “mass society,” is as old as industrialism itself and tends to resurface with every major shift in the way capital organizes the economy. What is distinctive about our time is that such a shift has followed the great social upheaval that was second wave feminism. Ironically, had the women’s movement entirely succeeded in its aims, integration of the work force would by now have done away with the coding of “useful work” and public accomplishment as masculine. This is far from the case: Female firefighters still make news, as do female CEOs and female presidential candidates. Yet women’s increased economic independence and personal and sexual freedom have transformed the institution of marriage and eroded male dominance in everyday relations between the sexes. Where once men who were wounded in their work-based masculinity might have found some compensation in their dominance at home, now they are likely to feel unmanned in both public and private spheres.
Faludi’s portrayals of marital relations, especially among the laid-off McDonnell Douglas managers who are her prototype of the emasculated corporate flunky, illustrate this double whammy. Often the wives of these men believe as strongly as the men do that manhood is about holding jobs and breadwinning, and feel betrayed by their unemployed husbands; but unlike their counterparts in prefeminist eras, they don’t just complain about their lot in life—they kick their husbands out, get their own jobs and take up with new boyfriends. Faludi gives the impression that only white-collar workers have such problems; she seems to imagine that men (and their wives) focus their conception of manliness on supporting a family only when work itself fails to provide a masculine identity. Although this is historically inaccurate—men in all sorts of jobs have invested their masculine pride in being breadwinners, and men too poor to be good providers, however “manly” their form of labor, have often felt deeply ashamed—the book’s depictions of familial meltdown make an important if apparently unintended point about how men’s condition has changed in the past half-century. In the fifties, men who felt alienated in their work, whether in corporate offices or on the assembly line, could take comfort in the combination of a widely available “family wage” and the cult of female domesticity that accompanied postwar pressures to send women back home. In retrospect, the ideological fervor with which that domesticity was promoted was a clear signal of how fragile it was, especially among educated women. And now, the convergence of feminism with the demise of the family wage has made the housewife vestigial. For men, the symbiotic satisfactions of providing and being provided for have declined in tandem, and it’s hard to say which loss is more traumatic.
Men have also suffered from the contrast between their own sagging fortunes and the apparent surge of female self-confidence. For even as feminism has exacerbated men’s identity crisis, it has alleviated women’s by challenging the idea that the desire for worldly achievement or lack of interest in domesticity and childrearing is at odds with femininity. It’s silly to argue, as some social critics do, that women are better off than men in the concrete, material sense. It is after all women who are subject to sex discrimination in employment and to the “double shift” at home and on the job; it is overwhelmingly women who have the burden of bringing up children alone, usually on too little money; and despite the cultural changes wrought by feminism, sexism in personal and sexual life is hardly dead. But these are external pressures, not invitations to angst about who one is and where one belongs. Yes, there is the vaunted “conflict between work and family”—a pop-cultural formulation that still assumes “family” to be mothers’ responsibility and tends to let both employers and fathers off the hook—but in its present version it is mostly regarded as a practical problem of time and priorities, not as a commentary on womanliness or the lack of it. In any case it has not hindered the popular perception by both sexes, picked up and amplified in the media, that women are thriving while men are a mess.
Faludi disregards all this in favor of a highly problematic narrative of fathers and sons. It’s not that I doubt her subjects’ individual tales of paternal neglect, abuse, abandonment. But such tales are scarcely unique to this generation of men. Faludi argues that the failures of fathers in the post-World War II era were “particularly unexpected, and so particularly disturbing,” because they “coincided with a period of unprecedented abundance.” True, the postwar generation grew up with an expansive sense of entitlement and so was susceptible to intense disillusionment when the balloon crashed; but as critic Susie Linfield pointed out in discussing this book in the Los Angeles Times, the generations waylaid by such events as the Civil War, World War I and the Depression also had a bone or two to pick with history. And anyway, why is it Dad’s fault? Were fathers in 1945 supposed to know that the liberal welfare state would give way to a frenzy of “creative destruction,” or that men would start resorting to plastic surgery—or that feminism would come along? Were they supposed to keep all these changes from happening? Taken literally, the idea that lack of paternal guidance can explain today’s masculinity crisis doesn’t make sense: I suspect rather that underneath the sons charge that their fathers did not teach them how to be men lies another, unadmitted complaint—that their fathers taught them only too well how to be men, and they are choking on the lesson. These men, as boys, faced the age-old tradeoff: If you undergo the painful process of renouncing the “feminine” aspects of your humanity and follow your father into manhood (and what choice do you have, really?) you will share in the spoils of the superior half of the race. Now, as men, they find that the spoils are far more meager than expected. No wonder they feel betrayed.
The other pillar of Faludi’s argument is an equally dubious analysis of men’s “feminization” by commercial culture. As she sees it, porn actors whose livelihood is dependent on their fickle erections; football fans and Waco protesters desperate to be validated by the media; the clothing ads in Details—all show that masculinity has been reduced to images, to something that is looked at rather than actively lived. This idea is superficially plausible, since it’s undeniable that male sexuality has become fair game for commerce in a way that was once limited to women. But does this development really explain male malaise? Only, I think, if you accept the puritanical thesis, perennially popular with the left (and much in evidence in Faludi’s earlier book, Backlash), that mass-mediated images—especially sexy ones—act as an irresistible addictive drug that enslaves our minds, driving us to orgies of helpless buying and preening before the TV cameras. In reality, people mostly buy because they enjoy material things and the process of acquiring them; they seek publicity because they want to make an impact on the world; and the image-makers, however eager to sell their products and influence our attitudes, can do so only by appealing to fantasies, desires and fears we already have. Which is to say that men, like women, are not mere passive recipients (or victims) of cultural images—including images of their sexuality—but active participants in shaping them.
Recounting the evolution of Details from an alternative publication with a gay male sensibility to a “heterosexualized” mainstream men’s magazine, Faludi declaims in the anticonsumerist’s characteristically apocalyptic rhetoric: The Condé Nast version of the magazine used gay style “not to question oppressive sex roles but to succumb to a role as oppressive as the gender yoke: that of consumer,” its goal being to purvey “the images that would turn a nation of young men into colonies of slavish male shoppers.” Yet the Details story is ambiguous: on the one hand another disheartening tale of corporate colonization and homogenization of the media, but at the same time an example of the assimilation into straight male culture of a more androgynous style of masculinity—an expansion rather than a restriction of men’s choices. In another chapter Faludi makes a dismissive reference to Bob Dole’s being “consigned to shilling erectile-dysfunction cures.” But it seems to me quite courageous—and useful—of Dole to bring impotence out of the closet, breaking men’s humiliated silence on the subject by admitting his own problem on TV. And what is demeaning about advertising a product that, while it may not be the answer to everyone’s sexual difficulties, can evidently relieve the suffering of a lot of men, not to mention their female partners? Indeed, it can be argued that if the commercial culture promotes a view of masculinity that centers, in one way or another, on men’s sexual being, this is exactly as it should be. Surely we have had enough of confusing maleness with “usefulness” and other human virtues. If men had a more modest view of what their masculinity ought to entail, perhaps they could move on from debilitating feelings of loss to tackling their real economic and political problems.
In the thirties, despite massive unemployment, failed masculinity was not a public issue. There was at that time no major challenge to conventional male-female relations but, equally important, the left and the labor movement provided an alternative framework for interpreting work, or the lack of it: This was a question not of manhood but of class. Today the changes that are generating enormous inequality, progressively destroying “real jobs” with security and benefits; demanding longer and longer hours and at least two incomes per household as prerequisites for a minimally middle-class existence, and depriving people of control over their work even in the professional classes are taking place in the absence of any credible opposition to the free-market dogma that rules the day. On the contrary, the capitalist triumphalists are riding high on a wave of “prosperity” that has enriched a minority of the population while obscuring the long-term slippage of our standard of living and our quality of life.
There is indeed an obsessive and borderline-hysterical quality about the current emphasis on getting, spending and celebrity, not because we are brainwashed by the media but because the marketplace is our main source of readily available pleasure and shopping one of the few socially convenient acts that feel something like freedom. It’s impossible these days to trade money for time, to decide to work less and live modestly. The choice—for those who have a choice—is endless work for low pay or endless work for high pay. If you have it, why not spend it? And if you don’t, there’s always a dollar and a dream. What bedevils most men is not that they are ornamental but that they are subordinated. As for those few at the top of the corporate hierarchy—the ones who are absent from Faludi’s pages—they do not seem too worried about their manhood (and I doubt that they feel like ornaments, either). They still have power, in the world and, by and large, over the women in their lives. If enough Lorna Wendts sue their CEO ex-husbands for half their wealth, perhaps the masculinity crisis will climb on up the class ladder; but I’m not holding my breath.
My point, though, is not that men’s feelings of emasculation are merely a displacement of class oppression. It’s that for men who have no sense that their society could be different and better, the rise of women and the erosion of male power are an unmitigated grief. A crisis of masculinity happens when men are told it’s the end of history at the very moment they realize that history has passed them by.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869
SOURCE: A review of Stiffed, in Ms., Vol. 10, No. 2, February-March, 2000, p. 83.
[In the following review of Stiffed, Goldstein commends Faludi's effort to define the crisis of male identity as a product of consumerism rather than feminism, though complains of the book's excessive length and her tendency to treat men as “hapless victims.”]
There are few more flaccid cultural barometers than the New Republic, so it was a shock to see its recent cover proclaiming that “Men Don’t Need Susan Faludi to Pump Them Up.” Inside was James Wolcott’s predictably canine attack on Faludi’s new book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. Faludi’s guide to the sorry state of masculinity is guaranteed to make a backlasher like Wolcott see red meat. Citing the enormous popularity of wrestling and bad-boy icons like Howard Stern, Wolcott concludes that there is no crisis of masculinity.
Now it’s true that any guy can come home from a meaningless job, ignore his sullen family, and wallow in an evening of phallocratic pleasures. But this is precisely Faludi’s point. Men, she writes, are as victimized by the current “culture of display” as women ever were. In great numbers, they’ve been robbed of work that bolsters self-esteem, consoled by entertainment that fetishizes an unreal power, and cinched into an obsessive body consciousness. Indeed, the greatest achievement of this mammoth book is to make it perfectly clear that feminism is not the cause of men’s decline. Both sexes are shaped by a consumer state that treats its citizens as niches. Angry white men? They’re a market. Give them magazines like Maxim and let them eat macho cake.
Stiffed is much more than a polemic. There are richly poignant stories here of working stiffs and superstars, media movers and porno studs. Faludi weaves these tales together in a style that’s threaded with empathy. This tone is why some critics call her a postfeminist—no compliment in these circles. But Faludi’s empathy for men doesn’t stem from a shift in her antipatriarchal ideology. It’s a new rhetoric to suit a new situation, one in which priorities have changed. As women make historic inroads (especially in the universities, where they will soon receive the majority of degrees), a deeper clarity has taken hold, says Faludi. An opening has been created in which feminists can look more broadly at the condition of both sexes, fulfilling a major ambition of feminism—to lead a truly universal revolution in consciousness. There’s a greater recognition now that sexism is not just a conscious choice but an artifact of larger economic and cultural forces.
In Faludi’s hands, this perspective is as subversive as any second-wave feminist tract. After all, to the extent that women and men are fixed on each other’s perfidy, they are less likely to see the common source of their misery—and more likely to fall for retail fantasies that give the illusion of liberation. The only way to elude these snares is to speak truth to market power, and this is what Faludi has done.
Still, she has nearly done it to death. Stiffed is so densely populated that few readers will finish it, which is a shame because the power of Faludi’s argument about culture and identity accretes as the sum of these many stories. Tolstoy she’s not, and lacking a master novelist’s gift for development, Faludi can’t always prevent her ideas from overwhelming her characters, giving the book a didactic air in spots. Fortunately she’s a good enough reporter to find the riveting epiphany—Sly Stallone’s struggle to be taken seriously; James Truman’s microfibered insularity—that can lift us over these sullen stretches, but Faludi would have been better served by an editor as talented at selecting as she is at representing.
Then, too, there’s a tendency in Stiffed to see these men as hapless victims, a stance that hearkens back to the image of workers in old proletarian tomes. In fact, there’s an alternative to ornamental culture—intimacy—and many men, workers and the wealthy alike, have chosen it. What’s more, men are not equally victimized by the consumer state. The farther down the class ladder, the more likely that this burden will be shared by both sexes, but on the upper rungs, men still run things and women must meet their expectations.
Yet, there is something utterly believable and undeniably tragic about the guys in this book. Faludi says that she was struck by the many men she met who had the feeling that something or someone had stripped them of their usefulness and stranded them on a new decorative planet. These men may regale themselves with a backlash culture calculated to assuage that empty feeling, but it’s not life. It’s more like a vaudeville of masculinity, easy to mistake for what Wolcott calls “the resurgence of male bravado and male prerogative.”
“Millions of young men no longer feel hemmed in or intimidated by feminism,” he brays. “They know they can joke their way around it.” Stiffed reveals what backlash boys can’t face: the joke’s on them.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1780
SOURCE: “Men are Miserable Too,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 17, 2000, pp. 9-10.
[In the following negative review of Stiffed, Kimball finds Faludi's description of a generalized “male crisis” unconvincing and contends that Faludi has merely applied the feminist argument of Backlash to men in Stiffed.]
In Backlash: The Undeclared War Against Women, Susan Faludi spent 550 pages telling her readers how unhappy and powerless American women are:
The truth is that the last decade has seen a powerful counterassault on women’s rights, a backlash, an attempt to retract the handful of small and hard-won victories that the feminist movement did manage to win for women. …
Just as Reaganism shifted political discourse far to the right and demonized liberalism, so the backlash convinced the public that women’s “liberation” was the true contemporary American scourge.
That was in 1991. Now Faludi is back with Stiffed: The Betrayal of the Modern Man—662 pages devoted to analysing the “siege” of “American manhood”, the “male crisis” that, according to Faludi, has made American men almost as miserable as American women. “At the close of the century”, Faludi writes, “men find themselves in an unfamiliar world where male worth is measured only by participation in a celebrity-driven consumer culture and awarded by lady luck.”
The institutions that promised the American youth masculine honour and pride “double-crossed him”. Indeed, according to Faludi, “corporate America”—her main epitome of evil—never intended to keep the promise: it offered “a secure job, not a vital role”. Members of the post-war generation thought they had been “handed the keys to the kingdom”, but it turned out that “the keys hadn’t unlocked much more than the door to the Chevy and the entrance to a shopping mall”.
Of course, unhappiness is seldom in short supply. But Faludi goes out of her way to assemble exotic specimens of wretchedness. Her dossier of masculinity-in-crisis begins with a year long visit to a domestic-violence therapy group in southern California. Typical is the ex-serviceman turned nightclub bouncer who told Faludi about the time he beat up his girlfriend: “I was feeling good. I was in power, I was strong, I was in control. I felt like a man.”
In her search for the failed “mission to manhood”—a favourite phrase that she discerns in contemporary America—Faludi visits a naval shipyard and an aircraft plant on the brink of closing. This allows her to explore “the devastation of downsizing” and to recount interviews with the men who lost their jobs. Faludi also spent some time with former members of the Spur Posse, a group of high-school boys who competed with each other to seduce as many girls as possible. Each new conquest yielded one point. The winning boy ended up a score of sixty-seven. Faludi then travelled to the Citadel, a military school in Charleston, South Carolina, where the “male crisis” was precipitated when the courts forced the school to accept women. She interviewed troubled Vietnam veterans, including one who helped blow the whistle on the My Lai massacre. She tells the story of the Dawg Pound, a zealous group of American football fans in Cleveland, Ohio, who are devastated when their team moves out of town. She reminds us about NASA astronauts who get depressed and members of a right-wing militia who feel that America has let them down. One of the male porn stars she learns about in California committed suicide at thirty-four; another one—an indefatigable zombie-like fellow known as T. T. Boy—is described by a colleague as “basically … a life support system for a penis”.
Many of Faludi’s subjects have had trouble relating to dad. Throughout American society, after the Second World War, she says, absent or inadequate fathers have “failed to pass the mantle, the knowledge, all that power and authority, on to their sons”. One surprising example is the actor Sylvester Stallone. Faludi interviews that celluloid personification of machismo, “as he sat brooding over a barely touched drink at the bar of the Four Seasons Hotel in New York”; Stallone confided in her about his unhappy relationship with his father. David Morrell, author of the Rambo books whose cinematic versions Stallone made famous, “grew up haunted by the loss of a father and bitter at seeing other boys who had fathers”. Perhaps it is difficult to work up much sympathy for rich celebrities like Sylvester Stallone or successful screenplay writers like David Morrell. Still, one must admit that it is a pathetic series of tales that Faludi rehearses.
Everywhere she turns she finds people like Shawn Nelson, an ex-serviceman and plumber who lost his job, had his tools stolen, and whose wife left him. One day, this poor chap broke into a National Guard armoury and stole an M-60 tank, which he proceeded to drive up and down the streets of San Diego, flattening some forty cars and utility poles until he got stuck on a concrete highway divider and the police shot and killed him. For Faludi, Nelson is a kind of model figure, “at war with the domestic world that he once thought he was meant to build, serve and defend. … All the pillars of the male paradigm had fallen, except the search for the enemy.” Near the beginning of her book, Faludi acknowledges that almost all of her case studies are drawn from “the margins of male experience”. But she endeavours to make a virtue of this shortcoming, quoting one of her interviewees, a man obsessed with the immolation of the Branch Davidian compound at Waco, Texas, in 1993: “If you want to see what’s happening in the stream called our society, go to the edges and look at what’s happening there.” Faludi certainly has travelled along the edges of American society. The question remains, however, whether her collection of misfits, losers and wounded narcissists really represents a “male crisis”. What moral, for example, should we draw from the story of Shawn Nelson—besides the obvious lesson that the National Guard ought to keep close watch over its tanks? Faludi wants us to see in such figures the rise of a new Common Man, emasculated by the same “corporate culture” that has conspired to keep women down all these years. Is that convincing?
“We have”, Faludi writes, “changed fundamentally from a society that produced a culture to a culture rooted in no real society at all.” What do you suppose that means? I do not really know, myself—unless it means that we now have a culture that regularly produces books like Stiffed.
Faludi’s gift as an author is her sense of grievance. It is a large, unassuageable grievance, compounded partly of resentment, partly of moralizing sentimentality. In the “aspiring middle-class suburb” where she grew up, Faludi writes,
there was no mistaking the belief in the boy’s preeminence; it was evident in the solicitous attentions of parents and schoolteachers, in the centrality of coaches and Cub Scouts and Little League, in the community life that revolved around boys’ contests and boys’ championships and boys’ scores. It was evident in the periodic rampages of suburban boys that always seemed to go unchecked, the way they tore up lawns with their minibikes or hurled rocks at newcomers with impunity or tormented girls at the public swimming pools; inherent in their behaviour was the assumption that this was their birthright—to be imperial bullies of miniature dominions.
Faludi brings a special bitterness to her recollection of the way boys got special treatment in her childhood neighbourhood. But in the end it doesn’t matter whether she is writing about men or women. She is an equal-opportunity grievance provider. Her real subject is always the same: the perfidy of things as they are.
Backlash was full of stories about pathetic women who had a raw deal from an uncaring society; Stiffed is full of stories about pathetic men who have a raw deal from an uncaring society. In Backlash, women were at the mercy of everyone from Ronald Reagan (a villain in both books) to the fraternity of plastic surgeons. In Stiffed, men are at the mercy of an “ornamental culture” that, “constructed around celebrity and image, glamour and entertainment, marketing and consumerism”, provides a “ceremonial gateway to nowhere”. In one respect, then, Stiffed is a remarkable book. Its title and ostensible subject matter naturally lead one to think that it will tell the other side of the story that Faludi set forth in Backlash. This is not the case. Appearances notwithstanding, Stiffed is essentially a continuation, a rewriting in a different key, of Backlash. The unrelenting message of Backlash was that only feminism can save us all—women but men, too—from the ravages of a heartless corporate society that perpetuates gender inequity and other dehumanizing social relations. The unrelenting message of Stiffed is that only feminism can save us all—men but women, too—from the ravages of a heartless corporate society that perpetuates gender inequity and other dehumanizing social relations. Today, Faludi says, men are “falling into a status oddly similar to that of women at midcentury”. Consequently, “feminism” is “an essential key” in men’s “struggles against their betrayals”. Feminism, Faludi says, can help men overcome “the male paradigm of confrontation” and foster a new paradigm” that will bring about “a freer more human world”, etc.
One of the oddest things about Stiffed is how close it dances to a real subject without ever making contact. For whether or not there is a “male crisis” in American society today—a proposition that Stiffed does little to corroborate—there assuredly is an assault on the ideal of manliness: a word that can hardly be used without apologetic scare quotes these days. It is an assault launched from the same quarter as the assault on the ideals of womanliness and femininity (other words that we can barely employ without apology)—that is to say from the bastions of American feminism. In so far as “corporate culture” has assisted in carrying out that assault, it is only because the business world, like the worlds of government and the academy, has been increasingly in thrall to the imperatives of feminist ideology: embodied, for example, by the author of that “international bestseller”, Backlash. Of course, Faludi doesn’t see it this way. For her, “men and women are at an historically opportune moment where they hold the keys to each other’s liberation”. All they need is an extra-strong dose of feminism, and all will be well; the “male crisis” will pass off like a night fever and women will finally get what they want. The sad thing is that Faludi seems to believe it.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2298
SOURCE: “Where Have All the Fathers Gone?,” in Tikkun, Vol. 15, No. 2, March-April, 2000, pp. 73-5.
[In the following review, Smith offers a positive evaluation of Stiffed.]
Around the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States a remarkable shift occurred. Advice guides on parenting, almost always in earlier times addressed to fathers, changed audience and targeted mothers. They did not merely expand the table of contents; they virtually wrote fathers out of the text. Reading through the “parenting advice” literature, I was so struck by this sudden switch that I eventually emailed a historian of my acquaintance and queried him. Was my observation accurate? And, if so, what had happened to fathers? He wrote back a couple of days later confirming the textual phenomenon (real fathers were probably more present in family life of the era than the books manifest, he opined), and suggesting that to understand more I read a spate of recent texts on “American manhood.”
Until 1800 or thereabouts, the father was the parent of record and the chosen audience for advice scribes not only because he held all the social and economic power, the legal rights, and the access to education and books, but because he was the link between the family and the public world. Fathers were responsible for educating and preparing sons to take their place in that world. Then something changed … or at least began to change. In the broadest stroke, starting in late-eighteenth-century New England, white middle class fathers gradually left home to focus their attention on money-earning labors, and mothers became the primary parent. This arrangement spread gradually throughout the middle-class populations in the nation and apparently seemed serviceable enough for the next century. Starting in the 1970s, the tacit contract broke down. Women entered the workplace, and this change meant that some men would come to feel both vestigial at home and threatened on the job.
Susan Faludi’s massive and important new book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, explores many aspects of this dilemma of contemporary manhood. But when all is said and done, it offers us a vast chorus of men—like so many creatures in a dark wood—unseeing and unseen, singing out their longing for fathers.
Tale after tale is of absent fathers, or, to be more precise, the absence of loving, talking, attentive, useful fathers; ones who might be able help sons grow up in the complex late-twentieth-century world. While expressing this longing is not their intention, they seem unable to avoid it once they start to converse. Some men tell Faludi about fathers who died in the war or left after divorces; others describe those who fell silent at home, ashamed by their inability to earn good wages; still others recount being fathered by martinets who could only repeat empty platitudes of masculinity, or worse still, men who beat their wives and children and terrorized their daily lives. The sum is a series of fearfully impoverished narratives—not the author’s, but the nation’s. She includes a few who are well fathered, but mostly Faludi’s men search the landscape for the memory of a tender gesture, a piece of useful advice. They long for older men to guide them lovingly, show them how to lathe a crucial emotional or political or religious piece that will help them make their way with confidence. Where are the fathers? And what has happened to so vex the sons?
To answer these questions, Faludi, an accomplished Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and established feminist, sets out across America. Faludi is bold, smart, and probably a first-rate map-reader to boot. She travels. No suburban sprawl, no wilderness of identical tract houses keeps her from finding an address. And this is a woman who will take anyone to lunch—shipyard worker, astronaut, gang member, drag queen, Citadel plebe, football fan, or porn extra. Part of the pleasure of reading the book is the way her indefatigable energy, her large ambition to paint a mural the height of a skyscraper, summons up other American epics. One thinks of John Dos Passos’ USA, James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan trilogy, the reportage of Edmund Wilson, Studs Terkel, Anthony Lukas—to name only a few. Like them, she attempts to braid many voices, assemble a rope of stories so long and thick Paul Bunyan could take it and lasso the nation.
A “stiff” is a working guy, a day laborer, a member of the proletariat. But to be “stiffed” is to be cheated of something owed to you. As well as amassing stories, Faludi frames an argument about betrayal. American men have been bilked of their patrimony. Her central thesis—and this brief summary will not do justice to her often subtle discussion—is that the men who fought in World War II returned home imbued with the values that had helped make them victorious: loyalty, teamwork, and the goal of “getting the job done right.” However horrid the war, its participants had imbibed its communal aspects: the close bonds among men, the relative egolessness, the submergence of the one into the many. They hoped when they came home to enter a work world imbued with similar values where once again they could win.
Some achieved that goal. Faludi visits the almost defunct Long Beach Naval Shipyard and describes the workers’ lives. At its best, the place fits the old World War II ideal (which, she points out, is from the New Deal). Men come in, find mentors, work, and rise through the ranks, all the while nurturing the younger ones (or at least those they like) below them. In time, workers accrue real knowledge that they can then pass on. “To be a shipyard ‘father’ … was to have command not over men but over a body of knowledge—and to be capable of transmitting that knowledge to a younger man who would, through his mastery, become a teacher himself.” Faludi compares these men to a newer type, the middle managers in the aerospace industry, who appear to know little that they can offer up to the young, and who work in a bureaucracy where no such idea of mentoring seems any longer to exist.
The boys of the 1950s who grew up with television and movies about war heroes believed manhood would be a time when they could fight evil, explore new frontiers, provide for families. But as they graduated from high school and college they crashed into the awful confusions of the Vietnam war, and saw their real fathers struggling in a very different society. In spite of economic growth, good jobs had started to flee overseas, and work conditions were deteriorating as the men aged.
The promised manhood was being dismantled before the sons’ eyes. They could not approach their fathers’ same-age earnings. But worse, they could not grab hold of any clear representation of how they were supposed to behave as men. Manhood was transforming from something active and useful to something more passive and ornamental. Substance was giving way to helpless dreams of celebrity. Faludi writes, “Where we once lived in a society in which men in particular participated by being useful in public life, we now are surrounded by a culture that encourages people to play almost no functional public roles, only decorative or consumer ones.”
In Stiffed, Susan Faludi listens carefully to men’s stories and tells them back to us with a distinctive combination of empathy and clarity. She shines full light on her subjects, and at the same time she lets them speak and works hard to understand their points of view. As a woman and feminist she may feel alienated from some of their aims or acts—which she describes without flinching—but she never derides the people themselves. Rather the opposite: however awful the behavior she describes—misogyny, racism, homophobia, rape, sadistic torture, murder—she attempts to locate its human roots, to surprise the reader by revealing the desperation, shame, longing for tenderness, or search for pride that launches it.
You imagine that her subjects looked forward to her calls. She may not have come with a cameraman, that Godot-like apparition for whom all her subjects seem to wait, but she at least kept her appointments. Wherever they settle in to chat, a TV is always on in the background, often the centerpiece of otherwise under-furnished rooms. But unlike their cathode company, the author surprises the men by wanting to hear what they have to say. Perhaps one of the more important facts of our era is that the television set itself—the technology the late twentieth century chose to substitute for small-town intimacy and communal life—was designed only to flash and show, narrate and drone, never to listen.
Faludi is, in contrast, a generous listener, and her reportorial kindness is generally a real plus. One danger of her style is that at moments it can make her appear as an apologist. While it’s an enormous relief to have her write as a feminist who does not need to make boys and men bad, occasionally her disciplined and mostly admirable neutrality slights history and real sexual politics. She starts the book by describing a domestic violence group for men who batter women, and observes that its members are not men who feel on top of the world or dominant, but rather guys who feel panicked, out of control, and inadequately masculine by some measure they hold up to themselves. Beating women is their effort to shake off the awful anxiety, to reverse the powerlessness.
While this analysis is certainly accurate as far as it goes, Faludi seems to imply that the phenomenon is local, one more response to the vast displacement, alienation, and dislocation of the current work world, rather than one of the most pervasive cross-cultural, cross-class, cross-time universals of human societies. Ancient Greek and Roman husbands beat their wives regularly. And more to the point, Arthur Kleinman, a professor at Harvard Medical School, has helped document contemporary wife-beating as a critical and pervasive world-wide public health issue. The only historic novelty in what Faludi witnesses is the effort made by the state, albeit fairly paltry (and often unsuccessful), to use group therapy to challenge family violence.
It is very much to Faludi’s credit that you want to argue with her. I would have liked her to write more about men who don’t fit her schema, who, in spite of disappointments and bad years, have found ways to create rich and satisfying lives. I would have liked her to have engaged in more explicit discussions of social class issues, downward mobility, education, religious differences, economics, and politics, and to have offered a longer historical perspective.
Most of all, I wish she had analyzed the father-longing more. What exactly were these men asking for when they asked for better fathering? Some simply had no fathers. But others had fathers who coached them at sports and stayed involved, yet who seemed also to fail them. How reasonable was the sons’ desire? How mythic? Perhaps the world had turned upside down so fast that like the children of immigrants, these sons experienced their progenitors as incompetent in the new land? Or had they simply watched so many heroic battle movies that they felt confused about what a flesh-and-blood man could and couldn’t do? Was it the very limitlessness of the proffered commodified world that fooled them? Perhaps because American ideologies shortchange tragedy, the nation’s sons have no recourse but to personify it in their individual dads.
But whatever diminished the role of fathers, whenever it started, and for whatever complex and diverse reasons, it’s clear from reading Stiffed that the situation is long overdue for change. The nation needs to imagine (and political agitation needs to make space in the demanding work world for) active, loving, involved, three-dimensional fathers so that real men can feel social support as they try to reinvent their purpose and improve on what they experienced.
Ultimately, to tax Faludi with questions that all of us must seek to answer is unfair. She’s done her part, and she’s done it well. I found myself reading bits of Stiffed aloud to my husband and two teenage sons. And I urged the three of them to read it. I especially thought it might be helpful to my sons by giving them a sense of the larger cultural sources of the pressures they feel more personally. (Besides, it’s gamey enough to keep them reading.)
It occurred to me a few years back that perhaps Madame Bovary could have saved herself had she only read Flaubert. Our advertising and entertainment media floods us with stories that are often barren. We take them in. Sometimes we separate the real from the fictional. But often, over time, we get confused. Packaged not so neatly in memory, other people’s fictions ooze and mix with our more personal experiences. For better and worse, they become part of what we experience as the “them” that is “us.” Faludi makes clear how the awful, frequently dehumanized visions of media masculinity that batter American men (and, of course, the real economics that undergirds them) have appalling consequences. Designed to sell products and exploit, they are devoid of tenderness, modulation, or maturity.
But where in contemporary society is their harsh rant effectively contradicted? Well, one place is in good books. When I finished Stiffed, I found myself hoping that the men Faludi wrote about would read their book. By listening to the sons and carefully, elaborately retelling their stories, the author offers a large opportunity, a crucial bit of the often missing care and attention; in fact, she embodies the very fathering that can help boys become men.
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