I was part of a feminist reading group about a decade ago when Susan Faludi's Stiffed came out. Assuming you're serious about your book idea, I'd encourage you to read it. It's thick and wide-ranging, and Faludi is both a scholar and a pretty fantastic journalist. There's a great chapter in which she describes her time sitting in with an evangelical men's small-group Bible study and getting to know the men in it. She's genuinely curious about "The Betrayal of the American Man" (the book's subtitle) and writes with an honest sympathy.
So I just read the first chapter and I have to say, honestly, that I was bored to tears by it. It seems like Faludi is making up a feminist fantasy version of how she imagines American history in the last century or so. I usually feel unsatisfied if I don't finish a book, and being a fast reader, will usually grit my teeth and finish it. Faludi's drudgery is really trying my patience though. On the other hand, I am interested in reading the chapter on her impressions with a men's small-group Bible study ... and well, the subjects of some of the other chapters look
interesting, I'm just afraid of what she'll make out of them. Here's some examples -
First she talks about how "masculine" the media made the World War II generation out to be (because WWII vets took control) and, according to Faludi, masculinity seems to be all about desiring, keeping, and gaining more "control" over others. She starts out talking to women-beaters -
Faludi - As a feminist and a journalist, I began investigating this crisis where you might expect a feminist journalist to begin: at the weekly meetings of a domestic-violence group ... "I denied it before," he said of the night he pummeled his girlfriend ... "But looking back at that night when I beat her with an open hand, I didn't black out. I was feeling good. I was in power, I was strong, I was in control. I felt like a man." But what struck me most strongly was what he said next: that moment of control had been the only one in his recent life. "That feeling of power," he said, "didn't last long. Only until they put the cuffs on. Then I was feeling again like I was no man at all." He was typical in this regard. The men I got to know in the group ... They had been labeled outlaws but felt like castoffs. Their strongest desire was to be dutiful and to belong, to adhere with precision to the roles society had set out for them as men.
And thus she begins and lays the groundwork for her entire book. Apparently, she's going to tell of all the other men she's talked to who have whined and complained to her about feeling like they have lost control. What she fails to point out is that women-beaters are not stereotypical men (although she may think otherwise). Your average guy, every one of whom is a sinner, does not define his manhood or masculinity by his desire to feel power - over the woman he's punching in the face or over anything else. Most men would say that "being a man" would include the exact opposite, never under any circumstances hitting a woman, and not caring a fig for some wierd, psychological, masculine-overcompensation desire for "control."
Men are troubled, many conservative pundits say, because women have gone far beyond their demands for equal treatment and now are trying to take power and control away from men ... The underlying message: men cannot be men, only eunuchs, if they are not in control. Both the feminist and antifeminist views are rooted in a peculiarly modern American perception that to be a man means to be at the controls and at all times to feel yourself in control.
I could swear I've heard this power-centric view among academics before. But who on earth else talks like this? What guy thinks in terms of defining his manhood by wanting power and control over all the women he knows? This is not masculine, and if you're in a domestic-violence recovery group, your psychological problems are not the norm for most men.
To be a man increasingly meant being ever on the rise, and the only way to know for sure you were rising was to claim, control, and crush everyone and everything in your way. "American manhood became less and less about an inner sense of self, and more and more about a possession that needed to be acquired," Michael Kimmel has observed in Manhood in America. Davy Crockett was elevated to the masculine pantheon ... In his incarnation as a cleaned-up Walt Disney television character in 1955, Davy Crockett would eclipse Daniel Boone for good. His "appearance" in a three-part series on the popular program Disneyland set off a real-life mass slaughter, as the marketplace raced to meet the runaway demand for raccoon hats by doing in much of the continent's raccoon population.
What is she talking about? Seriously, is this supposed to be a metaphor for control and manhood or something? Because of Fess Parker, Davy Crockett was a masculine ideal in the 1950s, and Crockett symbolized man's desire for control because of how he dominated and had dominion over the wilderness - and over all the dead racoons that resulted from boys wanting to copy him. This is how Faludi is introducing the ideas she wants to explain in her over-600 page book?
Faludi then goes on to describe how Herb Goldberg began the "men-in-distress" academic genre with his 1977 book The Hazards of Being Male
. Goldberg apparently went into how American men are in some sort of psychological "crisis" because of their slow loss of control. But Faludi disagrees with some of his conclusions -
Goldberg, like others, assumed men's problems to be internal. Yet clearly masculinity is shaped by society. Anyone wondering how mutable it is need only look at how differently it is expressed under the Taliban in Kabul or on the streets of Paris ... As anthropologist David D. Gilmore demonstrated in Manhood in the Making ... "Manliness is a symbolic script," Gilmore concluded, "a cultural construct, endlessly variable and not always necessary." It should be self-evident that ideas of manhood vary and are contingent on the times and the culture.
Masculinity is a social-construct foisted upon men according to always-changing and evolving approved cultural norms, yadda, yadda, yadda ... Even though I'll be arguing against this sort of thing, reading it is drudgery.
She then goes deeper into why she thinks "masculinity" was a little over-hyped during WWII.
If the French revolutionaries of the 1790s cast their struggle in iconographic terms that were essentially maternal - Marianne as Liberty in Delacroix's later painting, breast bared and bearing her standard into battle - Americans of the 1940s sexed their icons the other way. A band of marines struggling to erect a flagpole in the flinty ground of Iwo Jima would become the supreme expression of the nation's virtue.
Is Faludi implying what anyone reading her for very long (with all of her allusions to symbolic male virility) might think she's implying with the Iwo Jima vets erecting their flagpole? Why use this sort of imagery? Who thinks like this? I'm going to really struggle trying to finish this book.
Then, apparently, there was a problem with WWII vets passing on their "masculine" traditions to their sons - (this apparently is what has helped cause the "masculinity crisis" Faludi was referring to earlier).
The men who bought into the Ernie Pyle ideal of heroically selfless manhood, the fathers who would sire the baby-boom generation, would try to pass that experience of manhood on intact to their sons in the 1950s and 1960s. The "routine little men" who went overseas and liberated the world came home to the expectation that they would liberate the country by quiet industry and caretaking. Their chances of that had already been greatly reduced with President Truman's abandonment of the Democrats' "New Bill of Rights," which would have guaranteed, among other things, full employment and equal access to food, health care, education and housing.
Obviously because the men who fought WWII wanted the government to legislate the "right to employment" and to federally guarantee "equal access to food, health care, education and housing" in order for them to even be able to pass their traditional masculine ideas on to their sons.
Ah, but another huge problem, Faludi enlightens us, was that the sons of WWII vets didn't have an enemy like the Nazis to prove their manhood against. How could the baby-boomer generation of boys become men?
Kennedy would see to it that the sons had an enemy, too. He promised as much on Inauguration Day in 1961, when he spoke vaguely but unremittingly of Communism's threat, of "the prey of hostile powers," of the "hour of maximum danger," of "a long twilight struggle," and most memorably of a country that would be defined by its readiness to "pay any price" and "oppose any foe." The fight was the thing, the only thing, if America was to retain its manhood ... What Kennedy was selling was a government-backed program of man-making, of federal masculinity insurance.
what that Kennedy speech was about, I always thought it was about something else.
And eventually, American men decided that their test of manhood would be conquering the final frontier - in other words, pursuing their ever desperate desire for more control in the "space race." And this is why American men are now so disallusioned, you see, Faludi explains, the space race just wasn't as good of a proof of their masculinity as fighting the Nazis was for their fathers.
But space was a sterile environment, not a place where women and children could or would want to settle. To explore space was to clear the way for no one, to be cut off from a society that had not real investment in following. Nor was space a place of initiation, of virile secrets, of masculine transformation. There was no one there to learn from or to fight. It was a void that a man moved through only passively, in a state of almost infantile regression. The astronaut was a dependent strapped to a couch in a fetal position, bundled in swaddling clothes. He made it through space only by never breaking the apron strings of mission control back on Mother Earth. An astronaut returned from space unchanged by the experience, because there was no experience. No wonder that, for all the promotional effort expended on space, by the time Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon, Americans were already suppressing a yawn over the adventures of their new heroes.
I never knew American history could be so sad and boring. I also didn't know I would have this much of a problem taking almost anything Faludi is going to keep saying here seriously. She is slowly developing her ideas on "The Betrayal of the American Man" and apparently this betrayal has something to do with there being no more Nazis to fight anymore, and how this dissapoints and frustrates the American man's deep desire for power and control - going to the moon was yawnstipating you see, because the moon didn't have any virile
secrets or any life changing
experiences. That's just so
dissapointing for men, you see.
I knew she had to go there eventually - next is how the baby-boomer generation didn't have any bad guys to fight in Vietnam -
When the boy got older, he was at last presented with his own war, in Southeast Asia ... Nor was this a "masculine" war in the World War II mode. There were no landings, no front lines, no ultimate objectives. It was essentially a war against a domestic population, against families, where huts were burned with Zippo lighters, cattle slaughtered, children machine-gunned ...
The more Faludi keeps getting wrong, the less interest I have in any of her insights about how "hurt" men in America are now feeling, or how culturally-construted ideas of masculinity are what have led to the dissapointment for so many men who couldn't be like their WWII dads. I'm just not buying any of this.
But this chapter refuses to end, and she's still going on and on about American men's desparate search for real enemies to fight (so that they can get a chance to prove their masculinity to everyone).
What began in the 1950s as an intemperate pursuit of Communists in the government bureaucracy, in the defense industries, in labor unions, the schools, the media, and Hollywood, would eventually become a hunt for a shape-shifting enemy who could take the form of women at the office, or gays in the military, or young black men on the street, or illegal aliens on the border, and from there become a surreal "combat" with nonexistent black helicopters, one-world government, and goose-stepping U.N. peacekeeping thugs massing on imaginary horizons.
Her politics is showing. And it's also becoming more and more evident that the "American Man" she's saying was "betrayed" is the white, middle-class, (probably angry) American man. Coming from a generation where race, class, gender, culture, etc. is all increasingly mixed - when my book talks about ideas of masculinity, I have zero interest, unlike Faludi, on only focusing on middle-class white guys.
There's more to go from chapter one, but I'm going to have to divide my comments on it in half.
Edited by J.A.A. Purves, 06 September 2012 - 02:41 PM.