News & Politics

Are Men Being "Stiffed" in Today's Culture?

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Susan Faludi, internationally known for "Backlash," her bestseller about society's resistance to female gains, has returned to the public spotlight with "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man." No stranger to controversy, Faludi has again raised eyebrows with this book. Discussing "Stiffed" in late September, just before embarking on her national tour, Faludi expressed the hope that if people take anything away from the book it's that they begin to realize that men and women are on the same side.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Susan Faludi, internationally known for "Backlash," her bestseller about society's resistance to female gains, has returned to the public spotlight with "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man." At 608 pages, "Stiffed" is a massive, and at times breathtaking, historical sweep of the male role in post-World War II America, mostly told by a diverse sampling of the men themselves. No stranger to controversy, Faludi has again raised eyebrows with this book. Discussing "Stiffed" in late September, just before embarking on her book tour, Faludi expressed the hope that if people take anything away from the book it's that they begin to realize that men and women are on the same side."I hope they see it as starting point in seeing men's troubles not as a battle with women, which is a classic divide-and-conquer strategy," Faludi says, "but as part of a larger struggle with a culture that doesn't give men or women enough useful roles, but instead values them more for being consumers and making money." This may not be easy, since many people are stuck with fundamental myths about the so-called "war between the sexes." On one side, some women think that men are threatened by women's desire for equality because of a testosterone-driven need to dominate and control; on the other hand, many men feel they are becoming obsolete; that women are ball busters; contemptuous of their feelings and dilemmas; and wanting to take over their jobs.While many people see this juxtaposition for what it is -- a false dichotomy -- the myth of the opposite sexes being irreconcilable in some fundamental way is a powerful one in the American culture. Like many myths, it perpetuates simplistic stereotypes that tend to emphasize differences, keeping men and women apart and making it difficult for them to see their common interests and plight. But fundamentally, "Stiffed" is about men and the consequences of the postwar cultural transformation."More and more, the American community fails to offer its post-war sons and grandsons what it used to offer all men: a chance to ground their manhood on utility, dedication and loyalty," Faludi writes. "The heirs of the GI generation increasingly find themselves stranded in a different world: computerized, consumerized, celebritized. In an ornamental culture where worth is measured by bicep and SUV size, by image and celebrity, men feel severed from fellowship and a tangible craft, valued only for their stock market portfolio." Already on the cover of (ital)Newsweek(ital), interviewed by Katie Couric on the "Today Show," and making the rounds of radio talk shows, Faludi is provoking a national debate about the male crisis, its causes and effects. And no matter how thoroughly Faludi documents her work, some men are not buying. "Stiffed" is quickly making them defensive and prompting some to ask: Is there really a male crisis? Men on the Defensive"Men are under intense pressure in many areas," Faludi says. "Their wages are declining, and millions have lost jobs. In a recent poll of union workers, more than fifty percent expressed feeling cheated by their economic and social plight -- and these are people who have jobs. Social science research points to a rise in alcoholism and male suicides." The failures of fathers to meet the needs of their sons, though obviously shaped by the culture, repeats itself throughout the book in heartbreaking personal detail. Fathers who abandoned their families, beat their sons and gave their boys no sense of self worth reappear with painful regularity in these men's stories. Faludi attributes much of the men's pain to their longing for patrimony – a sense of having received their fathers' wisdom, skills and approval.Asked if she fears being labeled a father basher for expressing such views Faludi pauses, a bit taken aback. "No, of course not," she responds. "I'm not endorsing reductive thinking. Most fathers did not have the power to make good on their promises to their sons. But I heard a lot of stories of crippled dads." In an emotional section of the book Faludi describes many World War II veteran fathers and their silence, almost muteness. This inability of fathers to talk to their sons and express their feelings is practically a universal experience for Baby Boomer men. Faludi explains that the men were taught to be silent. "They weren't supposed to talk about the horrors of war; the painful and powerful bonding experiences they had in the military. Many of the women's magazines of the time told women to let their men talk about things for a day or two but that was enough. Then it was time to get their husbands back into the harness…basically shut up about the dark side of the war and get on with building the prosperity -- the model postwar family with men in their jobs and women at the shopping malls." Despite Faludi's thoughtful process and style of letting men tell their own stories, she certainly will be spending some of her time ducking. (ital)Esquire(ital) had already taken a preemptive shot before "Stiffed" hit bookstores, running the headline: "Are We Not Men? Susan Faludi Says We're Not." "Susan Faludi is dead wrong" Sven Birkerts writes in the article. "Manhood is not in crisis. It's just retooling to meet a new set of demands." Christopher Lydon, host of "The Connection," heard on many NPR radio stations, opened his September 28 interview with Faludi by asking: "Is this not a construct in search of victims?" Lydon bonded with a caller named Mike who exhorted men to define masculinity for themselves and not complain. "We need more men like Mike," Lydon agreed. Needless to say Faludi had a hard time getting her points across.While on one level, male defensiveness is understandable -- nobody likes to admit being shafted and told they're in crisis -- the problem Faludi is encountering is also about class. Fundamentally, despite her protestations that the book is about all men, "Stiffed" is primarily about how the large majority of working-class and middle-management American men have taken it on the chin in our increasingly winner-take-all society. And most of the critics and interviewers who will shape the media's framing of the book are highly educated elites. These guys may have a very hard time sympathizing with the hoi polloi and therefore insist that there is no male crisis. Hopefully they'll give the book a chance rather than dismissing it by saying, "This has nothing to do with me, I'm a success," as Faludi has uncovered much that will make sense to almost all men of substance.Contrasting Characters"Stiffed" is a multi-layered tour de force. A meticulously reported and powerfully written excavation of the male psyche. It begins with a rich and detailed big-picture analysis -- a mix of history and characters worthy of the best historians. We learn how the populist, community-minded Daniel Boone was replaced by the individualistic and environmentally destructive Davy Crockett as the quintessential character of American myth. We trace the return of the American GI through the perceptive eyes of Ernie Pyle, the people's reporter.Faludi fleshes out and tracks a host of complex individuals, from Promise Keepers to gang members to editors at (ital)Details(ital) magazine. The stories often transcend comfortable stereotypes and consistently surprise and provoke. The fact that Faludi originally believed in a number of these stereotypes made this a stronger book. "I had my own favorite whipping boy, suspecting that the crisis of masculinity was caused by masculinity on the rampage," says Faludi. When she began her odyssey in the early ‘90s with weekly visits to a domestic violence group in Long Beach, California, she quickly discovered that men acting out violence were coming from a profound sense of powerlessness. Much of the book's structure is built around case studies of contrasting groups of men. Faludi introduces readers to the Spur Posse, a group of teenage boys from Lakewood, California, whose contest to see who could have sex with the most girls thrust the young members into the national television spotlight. Ultimately, it was revealed that the winner, Billy Shehan, was concerned more with the prospect of notoriety and being seen by the camera -- establishing a brand -- than with sex. She also takes us to the Citadel, where we meet cadets and learn in painful detail how carefully they avoid the media culture in order to maintain anonymity in their cruel world of hazing and male bonding. Faludi juxtaposes experiences of downsized workers from McDonnell Douglas in Long Beach, where a bloated middle-management bureaucracy suffered badly from layoffs, with men who lost their jobs at the Long Beach naval shipyard, ones who had learned a trade, took pride in their work and ultimately fared much better.She also covers the Vietnam War in piercing detail, taking us face to face with, Michael Bernhardt, one of the book's heroes, a man who ultimately spoke out about the My Lai massacre. Faludi describes the war as one "no one dodged," where not going to war became as life-defining as participating.Faludi insightfully captures the American sports scene, telling the story of the rise and fall of the Cleveland Browns football team through the eyes of Big Dawg, aka John Thompson, a member of the Dawg Pound, a group of working class guys who identified with the faceless grunts who made up the Cleveland Brown's line. The Dawg Pounders epitomized the changing relationship between fans and the corporatization of big time sports until the Browns followed the money to Baltimore. Some famous individuals are also prominently featured, such as Sylvester Stallone, son of a brutal and competitive father, who demonstrates that even Rocky's fame and fortune can leave a man feeling "castrated" and aimless. She also delves into the psyche of Michael McNulty, maker of the infamous documentary, "Waco: The Rules of Engagement," and other true believers in the Second Amendment who strive to protect their homes with weapons in a world where marriages are foundering and paychecks are a sometimes thing.Answering a different questionLike the good reporter she is, Faludi let the story take her to different conclusions than those she first anticipated."I began writing a book about why men resist the equality of women," she says, "but as I explored the anger I realized below the surface were much deeper problems. Men are feeling a lot of pain. They are embattled, isolated, obsolete and don't really know what it means to be a man."She began to see powerful parallels between men today and pre-feminist women. In the book she writes: "The more I considered what men have lost -- the more it seems that men of the late 20th century were oddly falling into the status of women in the mid-century. The ‘50s housewife, stripped of her connection to a wider world and invited to fill the void with shopping and the ornamental display of her ultrafemininity, could be said to have morphed into the nineties man, stripped of his connections to a wider world and invited to fill the void with consumption and a gym-bred display of his ultramasculinity."So her question changed."Instead of wondering why men resist women's struggle, I began to wonder why men refrain from engaging in their own struggle."This notion becomes a central theme of the book and answering it one of its challenges."Part of the difficulty for men is knowing who the enemy is," Faludi says. "It's hard to struggle for liberation without a clear target, which is why some men in distress engage in scapegoating. This huge cultural shift that undermines men doesn't have a face, it's a faceless commercial corporate machine." In assessing the chances of change, Faludi acknowledges the co-optative nature of the system and the sense that those who speak up get labeled a complainer -- and nobody likes a whiner. "Our culture shuts people up in many ways," Faludi says. "It can elevate you to become the most famous bellyacher, or silence you in the old-fashioned way by pushing you off the political stage. In the era of hip, cool people look down their noise at those who are earnest. It's the time of irony and people will say: ‘What are you so upset about? You're taking things too seriously.'" Man as ObjectFaludi's essential thesis is that the American culture has shifted from the values associated with loyalty, cooperation and mastery to an ornamental, celebrity-driven culture. As a result, men are "increasingly aware of what women have always experienced -- those who win often look the best, have the most, the biggest, the fastest." Over the past several decades Men have become intimate with a passive consumerism begun with (ital)Playboy (ital) and moved along by (ital)Details(ital). The result: Men now find themselves involved in mirror-gazing, traditionally held to be a feminine trait.It's hard to refute the evidence that men are more feminized. Just go to the newsstand and see the wide array of magazines aimed at men. Check out statistics about men engaging in cosmetic surgery. The avalanche of commercial and cultural messages indicate a society that increasingly emphasizes men's physical attributes and youthfulness.Women also appear to be more preoccupied with men as object, with buffed bodies and penis size taking center stage. "Dick jokes," according to (ital)Vanity Fair(ital) have become commonplace in television scripts. The popular HBO series, "Sex in the City," operates on the premise that successful professional women no longer "need" men, hence they stay single longer, perhaps forever. And where does television end and reality begin? An independent woman can chose to be involved with men based on more superficial aspects like looks, age and sexual prowess, much as men have done for ages. And it's not a leap to suggest that men are less emotionally equipped to grapple with their objectification than are women, who have lived with it all their lives. An objectified woman may have all kinds of painful reactions, but for better or worse, her femininity is generally not at stake. Not so for guys. "Boy toy" has yet to become remotely synonymous with "man" in anyone's consciousness.What Now?When one exhumes a social problem in all its complexity, as Faludi has done, it's fair to ask: What do we do about it? Faludi's response is, perhaps understandably, a little vague."The answer lies in building a public society that meets people's real needs. We need a world that isn't just about images. What's missing is an overall social responsibility -- of taking care of, nurturing, supporting, educating, safe-guarding social responsibility," she says. Faludi suggests that the confrontation style of feminism past is a bit outmoded."We need a new paradigm for change," she says.Finally, the book's overall message is that men and women need to target the rampant commercialism and manipulative media that have been very effective at redefining the meaning of success as all show and all buy, leaving millions of productive people feeling inadequate. This is no easy task, but you can bet that Faludi and "Stiffed" will provoke lots of discussion about how it might be achieved.