Man in the Middle

The brothers aren't doing it for themselves: Susan Faludi

Inspired by reading Susan Faludi's Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, I called my dad to talk about the Vikings. For years I've been a football hater, associating the game with women's exclusion from the world of male bonding and ritual. For me, the sport dredges up memories of all-male football pools at work, holiday celebrations where male relatives congregated in front of the television while women assembled in front of the sink and stove, and my father's Saturday-through-Monday-night inaccessibility.

Six years ago, Faludi, the celebrated author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991), decided to approach men on their own turf and find out why they don't want women there. The feminist strategy behind her new project was smart and provocative: She would crash all-male preserves, from the Citadel and the Promise Keepers to violence-prevention groups, cigar clubs, and the Cleveland Browns' Dawg Pound, and expose the sources of the backlash she had identified in her first tome. But in the course of her travels through male realms, Faludi tells us, she shed her feminist suspicion of men, developed new sympathy for their grievances, and ultimately reaffirmed her faith in feminism.

Faludi builds her book around keenly observed case studies that feature contrasting models of contemporary manhood. The "grand battle of modern masculinity," she contends, does not pit men against women, but rather "useful" and cooperative men versus "decorative" and competitive celebrity men. Faludi traces these conflicting manly ideals back to World War II "grunts" on the one hand and "flyboys" on the other, and then shows how these models mark the present difference between unemployed shipyard workers and downsized aerospace engineers; football fans and team owners; grassroots Promise Keepers and evangelical celebrities; or sex workers and magazine editors. At her best, Faludi maps out a complicated geography of modern masculinity.

In her riveting chapter on boys, for example, she compares members of the Spur Posse (the infamous sex-for-points gang) to Citadel cadets and drag queens at a neighboring bar (where the latter two groups often date). While the Spurs craved celebrity and dominance, she shows, the Cadets and cross-dressers alike sought domestic intimacy and male community. Brilliantly, and counterintuitively, Faludi interprets Citadel rituals as a way of expressing "maternal femininity" in a masculine setting. Older cadets haze first-year "knobs" past exhaustion, then "nurse" them with Dixie cups of water. They also demonstrate care and affection by practicing ritual "shirt tucks," which involve extensive physical contact. These practices resemble nothing so much as drag queens' elaborate, pre-show dressing rituals, Faludi observes.

Yet these are the very cadets who hazed girls out of school, harass female faculty, and derisively call each other pussies and pansies. Amazingly, Faludi departs the Citadel not only with renewed feminist fervor, but armed with newfound empathy for her subjects.

At the core of Faludi's approach is a belief that from militiamen to wife batterers, men have reason to be pissed off and anxious. Soon after she began attending a weekly "Alternatives to Violence" therapy group for abusive men (the very group, she notes, that the court ordered O.J. Simpson to attend in 1993, but that he avoided), the author realized that these supposed "dominators" were, in fact, "clearly dominated." As one group member complained, the causes-of-domestic-violence chart that the counselors called "The Power and Control Wheel" should in fact be named "The Powerlessness and Out-of-Control Wheel." Faludi agrees, arguing that the mass-media-created (and feminist) illusion of male control obscures the reality that "the ordinary man" has "less and less to control beyond his remote-control device." Based on her abundant interviews, Faludi concludes that "most men feel not the reins of power in their hands but its bit in their mouths."

But who's holding these reins? While many of Faludi's subjects cast feminists--or women in general--as the villains in their lives, Faludi urges men to examine what she calls "ornamental culture." According to her, our celebrity-driven media and consumer culture has reduced men to objects and masculinity to a display. The "corporate leer" has rendered men "prone," a submissive position camouflaged by Calvin Klein crotch shots, erect porn penises, and Viagra. ("Men are the sex objects now! Pecs are the new breasts!" one giddy adman gloated to Faludi.) Nineties men resemble Fifties housewives, as abjectly dependent on disloyal corporations and trifling consumer goods as (some) women were on husbands and Hoovers. Utility men have become "hood ornaments."

Still, Faludi does not merely lament lost manhood; she calls men to arms, summoning them to revolt against ornamental culture, following Sixties feminists who identified the media and their commercial ethos as the source of women's oppression. She also calls men to "arms" in a second sense, encouraging them to follow the nurturing example of gay men who mobilized against AIDS by organizing everything from clinics to laundry-assistance networks.

Yet, as Faludi has avoided discussing politics altogether--a strange choice for the author whose first book treated popular culture in relation to politics--her call for men's "rebellion" doesn't exactly resonate. Although she calls on men and women to find common ground, she doesn't discuss social movements--abolition, civil rights, or gay liberation, say--where they have mobilized together. (Feminism itself, after all, grew out of abolition, civil rights, and union movements; Betty Friedan, for example, cut her political teeth as a labor activist before writing The Feminine Mystique.)

Similarly, Faludi doesn't explain the often sound historical reasons behind some men's (and women's) mistrust of elite white feminists, including her. Although she includes some intriguing examples of men's response to her as a woman journalist--a Spur jabbing a butter knife in her direction as he complains that her "say is bigger than his," or a porn executive omitting any mention of sex as a "courtesy" to her--Faludi characterizes men's response to her as almost uniformly warm. Faludi uses herself as her own best example of the potentially fruitful exchange between men and feminists.

Yet the backlash against even this sympathetic account of men suggests otherwise. When Faludi appeared recently on NPR's Talk of the Nation, men phoned in to complain that the topic of men was only taken seriously when treated by a feminist ("The last time I checked, Robert Bly [the "wild man" author of Iron John] was a bestseller," Faludi smartly retorted); or to allege that Faludi's reporting was suspect, charging her with dating an informant in order to get a story ten years ago ("I have no idea what he's talking about," she responded). But other listeners had more challenging insights, asking Faludi exactly which men she was describing. As a caller in Jacksonville, Florida, put it, "What's happening to white guys these days has been a fact of life for African-American males for a couple of hundred years in this country. I guess you do reap what you sow."

He's right--but as Faludi doesn't openly engage the subject of race, you wouldn't know that from reading Stiffed. Ultimately, "the brotherhood that includes us all" wistfully envisioned by Faludi will take considerably more than a bestseller to build.

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