When Susan Faludi published Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women in 1992, the moment seemed ripe for a feminist revival. Bill Clinton had been elected, essentially, by women; Anita Hill had outed Clarence Thomas and sparked a national discussion on sexual harassment and gender inequality in the workplace; and Washington had hosted the largest pro-choice rally ever assembled. Meanwhile, Faludi’s book, which investigated the myths of women’s improving economic and social lives, crested the best-seller lists for almost nine months. Faludi herself became something of a cultural icon — a professional feminist, pictured on the cover of Time, next to that other cultural icon, Gloria Steinem. But Faludi has always been, above all, a journalist — in 1991 she won a Pulitzer Prize for labor reporting for the Wall Street Journal — who’s unable to resist a good story when she sees one. In the early 1990s, the stories she saw had mainly to do with men’s anger and confusion. She started hanging out at job clubs and Promise Keepers rallies and in Marine recruiting stations and locker rooms. She spent time with male porn stars and cadets at The Citadel. Faludi began to see patterns emerging from these stories. Her new book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, will be published in October by William Morrow & Co.
Your new book, Stiffed, is about men and the culture of masculinity. Why did you call it that?
It actually came out of an interview on a talk-radio sports show. I was in the studio, observing the program, and the host had run out of things to say, so he put me on and asked me to describe my book. He asked me what I was going to call it, and I said that I didn’t know. Then the next caller said, “You should call it either Stiffed or Shafted.” So I did.
But isn’t the title a little … loaded?
People tend to have one of three reactions when they hear it. They either cringe, they laugh, or they say, “Perfect!” To me it has three meanings: working stiff; the ways guys have been cheated by this society; and the fact that men are supposed to be stiff — that they have to show their armored self to the world all the time. Having to do that hurts them as much as it hurts everyone else.
So what’s a good feminist like you doing writing sympathetically about men?
I don’t see how you can be a feminist and not think about men. One of the gross misconceptions about feminism is that it’s only about women. But in order for women to live freely, men have to live freely, too. Feminism has shown us that what we think of as feminine is actually defined by cultural messages and political agendas. The same holds true for men and for what constitutes masculinity. Being a feminist opens your eyes to the ways men, like women, are imprisoned in cultural stereotypes.
Okay, but we’ve always been imprisoned in cultural stereotypes, and the stereotypes have seemed to work in men’s favor. Are you suggesting that something has changed?
What’s changed in the last decade is that you can be honorable and dogged and have high standards, and the culture may just throw you in the garbage. Manhood has been so tied up with doing socially useful work. The kind of money being made now is not about social utility. It’s about whether you’ve got a good financial manager or not. If you’re a hard worker, if you are loyal to the corporation, it’s no longer true that you’ll be rewarded, or at least honored.
Given that it’s a difficult time to be a man, is it a better time to be a woman?
Look, it’s hardly a time of great jubilation for anyone. But it’s much harder for men in many respects because they have this feeling that women are rising just as men are falling. The truth is, of course, that women are moving from the subbasement to the basement. By any objective measure — pay, representation in boardrooms, status — men are still ahead. But psychologically it’s much harder to fall than to climb, even if you land at a higher point than those who are just beginning to rise.
But since younger men haven’t had that experience, why are they so angry?
It’s true that older men have a clearer sense of expectations, of what the deal is, and how it’s been broken. Younger men have had no clear guidelines from the start. A lot of their rage comes from that.
Does this begin to explain the massacre at Columbine High School and the other schoolyard — schoolboy — shootings?
Columbine seemed consistent, in a very extreme and warped way, with what I was seeing when I researched this book. Here are these young men whose parents were being buoyed by the money culture, yet they did not feel connected to any real society. This massacre is not the act of people who feel connected to a community. Obviously, it doesn’t mean that every kid in that situation will act that way.
Why are men so angry when the economy is booming? Didn’t white man’s rage come to the surface at the end of the ’80s, when unemployment was high and we were shifting to the so-called service economy?
I started the book when the economy was in a recession, which seemed to support the conventional wisdom that the economy and masculinity are related — that men feel emasculated when their lives as wage earners are threatened. But I found that as the economy improved, the men I was talking to were still stricken with a sense that they had been betrayed, and that the betrayal went much deeper than a paycheck. It had to do with loyalty and a social pact that they had been led to believe was bedrock and part of being a man. It had to do with work, with the relationship between men and their community, and even with the sense that they could count on their hometown sports team rewarding their loyalty by staying put. Instead, they saw those teams leave town to chase the biggest money offers somewhere, anywhere, else. And buried much deeper down, it also had to do with the loyalty between fathers and sons.
You mean that older men are angry because their sons have betrayed them, too?
I’d argue against the conventional wisdom that the virtuous fathers delivered the world to their sons on a silver platter and the sons turned around and kicked them in the teeth. Almost the reverse happened. The fathers who came out of World War II and the Depression generation were supposed to hand off positions of leadership to their sons. Instead, they handed off a consumer culture that focused on money, on winning, and on dominating everything and everyone. So who betrayed whom? Consumerism slayed both generations. It co-opted everyone, and left the fathers as flat-footed as the sons. We are now living in a culture that runs on image. How you look matters more than ever. Appearing youthful matters.
So men are upset about the same thing their feminist wives and girlfriends and daughters have been upset about — that they are judged on how they look. And they’re obsessed about it too?
Eating disorders are on the rise in young men, which says something. And the other day, when I was getting my hair cut, the woman who was doing it told me that she’s noticed that men are hysterical about their hair these days. They tell her that they’re worried that if they lose their hair they won’t get a woman. Which, ironically, is just the same thing that women have always said — that if they’re not thin or sexy or pretty enough they won’t find a man.
Given men’s current preoccupation with their looks, does feminism have things to teach men?
The feminist diagnosis, especially from second-wave feminists like Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, has remarkable relevance to the male dilemma. The truth is that what feminism is asking for is exactly what men want in their own lives, which is not to be judged according to superficial and ephemeral and impossible-to-attain objectives. Men don’t want to live in a world run on retail values any more than women do. Like women, they want to be needed and useful participants in society. They want to have real utility and to be engaged in meaningful work.
Your feminism has always seemed to come from an analysis of political and economic factors in the culture at large. This seems very different from the feminism of younger women, who focus more on being able to express themselves and achieve individual fulfillment and pleasure.
Younger women were born into a world driven by consumer, ornamental, celebrity values. Even if they don’t espouse those values, they’re caught up in a world where they are being told that they have to do these star turns — where they have to appear on the cover of a book with their shirt off, for instance. It’s easy to attack women who do that. I didn’t grow up with that. The difference between older and younger feminists is how we respond to consumer culture. If you’re caught up in it, you’re probably not thinking about changing it.
What about the recent idea that it’s feminist to choose to embrace what has traditionally been called, and derided as, feminine?
Just because someone wears a push-up bra does not mean she’s not a feminist. It doesn’t mean she is a feminist, either. It’s not about what you wear, or if you use makeup or not. I put on lipstick at times, and at other times I don’t. I wear various undergarments. But people who focus on that are missing the whole point, which is what you do in the world. Still, I am reluctant to condemn women who engage in this new brand of feminism — and it probably is a brand by now, with its own trademark — because it’s not their fault. They are trapped in a world where the whole mechanism for social change has gone by the boards.
Are you saying that there is no way to promote social change anymore?
No, I’m saying it’s not obvious. These days, everything changes overnight. Nobody knows who is in charge. No one knows who to appeal to. So we need to start at square one and figure out what the forces are and respond to them. It’s as if the new culture has eaten up the society like a virus. It’s a Philip K. Dick futuristic vision: our lonely selves and our credit cards. Maybe this is how it felt at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The 19th century Dickensian world seemed utterly devastating and insurmountable, but eventually social and political analyses did make a difference. Right now, there is no honest discussion going on.
Isn’t that what journalists are paid for?
Absolutely. One major factor contributing to the failure to have this discussion about our consumer society is the media. So much of what we are concerned about in this culture — like, for example, who has the biggest market share — has been midwifed by the media. And with less and less commentary of any value to people. So much of the cynicism in journalism comes from journalists willfully avoiding what’s going on. Everything is working out just fine for them, and they don’t want to question anything because then they’d have to question themselves. As journalists, that’s one place to start.
And you? Do you see yourself as a journalist, which is how you have described yourself, or an activist, which is how you were cast after Backlash?
I try to throw these ideas out there and pray that others are thinking about them too. My role is as a writer, because that’s where I enter public life. For me, being a writer is the best way to be an activist.