Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix A Guy Thing

A feminist journalist discovers the masculine mystique

By Megan Harlan

NOVEMBER 15, 1999: 

Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man by Susan Faludi (William Morrow & Co.) 662 pages, $27.50.

About six years ago, having macheted her way through the media's favorite misogynistic myths of the Reagan-Bush years in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi decided she wanted to understand why so many men seem so threatened by feminism. She had no shortage of potential interview subjects -- after all, according to popular culture, 1990s America was the stomping ground of the Angry White Male. But once she actually started interviewing, she came to the realization that men are not so much afraid that their own importance has been diminished by feminism, as it appeared at first glance; rather, they are in the midst of a collective identity crisis brought on by society's emphasis on looks, power, and stardom to the exclusion of deeper, more sustaining values.

This is the premise of Stiffed, 600-plus pages of generously framed profiles bookended between two chapters of insistently well-intentioned theorizing. Faludi's subjects include astronaut Buzz Aldrin, actor Sylvester Stallone, a rabid Cleveland Browns fan named Big Dawg, and the Angry White Male in all his ranting permutations: outraged cadets at the Citadel during the Shannon Faulkner year who scrawl "Women will destroy the world" on a female professor's door; Midwestern militia men horrified by the deaths at Waco, which they creatively blame on a conspiracy led by Janet Reno and Hillary Clinton; Promise Keepers who feel shunned by their fathers and overshadowed by their wives; male porn stars who envy their female counterparts' higher salaries and worry about their fading youthful vigor; and members of the Spur Posse, the Southern California high-school boys infamous for their sex-for-points competition.

All of these real-life examples serve as fuel for Faludi's argument that American men are in "agony" because manhood has become a superficial concept in an "ornamental culture" that views men in the same smothering, frivolous terms that feminism supposedly taught women to defend themselves against. Faludi compares the plight of the 1990s male to that of the 1950s housewife, who was instructed "to fill the void with shopping" and other means of "ornamental display." It is this void-filling to which Faludi attributes the current popularity of cigar bars; "gentlemen's" clubs; the booming male cosmetics, fitness, and health industries; and the never-more-popular notion that a man's car somehow reflects his virility.

A central assumption for Faludi is that masculinity was once celebrated for its "social usefulness" in building communities, businesses, families, faiths. She describes the old-fashioned ideal man as a creative, constructive, selfless force in the lives of others. Such an ideal naturally suited frontier life, when banding together and homesteading were matters of survival. Faludi points out that contemporaries admired Daniel Boone not for his ability to kill the native population like a Rambo in raccoon skins, but for the way he made life "safe" for his family. This ideal has been revived and updated in times of duress -- during World War II, for example, a man's duty was, first and foremost, "to serve."

But the concept of masculinity as a force of meaningful social bonding was slowly undone, Faludi claims, by changes of the Industrial Revolution and the postwar era. The cushy conformist life -- with its comforts and its boredom -- inspired the popular romanticization of the rebel, the loner, the "new ideal of Darwinian manhood." Today, says Faludi, whole industries prey on men's hope for "market-bartered 'individuality.' " Though the average white college-educated man works in a climate-controlled office, kowtows to the boss, and confines his testosterone outbursts to the racquetball court, he is bombarded with messages from advertising and pop culture that manliness means being in control, blazing one's own trail, and flaunting one's power. Never mind that, at the same time, the civil-rights movements have told him that he must be nice and share. Never mind that the media stereotype of the Angry White Male has undergone a rather extreme and unflattering makeover during the past few years, evolving from the merely loutish to the downright ominous -- from a proud-to-be-politically-incorrect fan of Rush Limbaugh to a gun-toting lunatic mowing down co-workers, family members, students.

No wonder Faludi yearns for "a particular vintage of American masculinity, monumental in its pooled effort, indefatigable in its industry, and built on a sense of useful productivity, of work tied to service." You can almost hear Paula Cole's "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?" playing in the background as you read. Faludi's American Man is not a gym-toned cubicle dweller, but a purposefully muscular member of the industrial working class -- say, a shipyard worker with a weathered face and callused hands who has spent his adulthood crafting spectacular machinery in the company of other men. But because of cutbacks, his shipyard is being shut down, and his role as family provider is crumbling. His father, a World War II veteran, taught him that a man is only as good as his work, and now his work is no longer valued. Therein lies the "betrayal" that Faludi bemoans: the little guy -- devoted to his craft, loyal to his family -- has been cast aside by a greedy, glitzy culture.

Faludi's lament for downsized blue-collar workers is heartfelt, and her reporting on one such shipyard, in Long Beach, California, is exacting. But she could have focused the book more precisely along the class lines it in fact follows. And with rare exceptions -- for example, a brief profile of gang members in South Central Los Angeles -- this is really about the specific plight of white men.

Perhaps even worse, Faludi overlooks the fact that the people masterminding the cutbacks are American Men themselves, though a different breed -- the kind who wear suits and have soft hands. The omissions are so glaring that they're almost comic. Here are some of the men Faludi did not interview for this sweeping portrait of millennial masculinity: Silicon Valley whizzes, Wall Street brokers, Hollywood-studio honchos, Fortune 500 CEOs, mainstream religious leaders, academic bigwigs, congressmen. In other words, American Men who might actually be doing pretty well for themselves, not to mention ones who are building meaningful social structures that are still primarily boys' clubs. The reader can only guess what these guys might think about the current state of American manhood, but it's not hard to imagine that they would find Stiffed, a feminist's lament on their behalf, a little ironic.

In fact, what ultimately emerges from Faludi's interviews is not so much a portrait of an entire culture letting men down, but the prevalence of a more personal form of betrayal: that of sons by their fathers. This theme seems to take Faludi by surprise, and it's her own unfolding exploration of the subject that enriches and energizes the book.

An outstanding example of this is Faludi's chapter on the Promise Keepers, the born-again Christian organization that so captured media attention during the mid 1990s with its all-male football-stadium meetings, public displays of hugging and tears, and calls for men to reclaim their "God given" role as heads of the household. Faludi spent months sitting in on a Promise Keepers support group -- a small, AA-type meeting where men shared their struggles to be good Christians. Much to her surprise, the men seemed uninterested in wielding authority over their wives, and rarely spoke about their own children. What obsessed them instead was their own absent, neglectful, or abusive fathers. Their personal identification with Jesus, Faludi realized, sprang from their sense that, just as Jesus had felt forsaken by his father, so too did they, and that the Promise Keepers offered them a community-based means to heal this wound.

In this account and in her insightful portraits, Faludi is true to the specific challenges and circumstances of real men, eschewing the sound-bite generalizations that continue to dictate and distort the standards of masculinity and femininity. But her theories are too overarching to have much bearing on the reality of people's lives, strung together as they are from romantic ideals and conciliatory prescriptions. "If my travels taught me anything about the two sexes, it is that each of our struggles depends on the success of the other's," she writes, with a grasping kind of hopefulness. Some of the stories she tells are quite fascinating, but -- especially when compared to the sparkling, accretive clarity of Backlash -- this book never manages to be greater than the sum of its parts.

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