The Magazine

Unlucky Stiffs

Susan Faludi claims that our male-chauvinist culture oppresses even males

Oct 4, 1999, Vol. 5, No. 03 • By CHRISTINA HOFF SOMMERS
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Over the years, there have been an enormous number of popular books to explain how our "male culture" oppresses American women and children. Indeed, Susan Faludi wrote one of the most popular in the early 1990s, entitled Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women.


Well, Faludi is back, and here in 1999, she's confident that the American public is ready for the final irony. It's not just women and children who are victims of the male culture. That culture is so oppressive, it makes even men its victims, too.


In Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, Faludi unmasks a "masculinity crisis" so severe and pervasive she finds it hard to understand why men do not rise up in rebellion. Stiffed shows us the hapless men of the baby-boom generation, equipped by their fathers "with dangerous prescriptions of manhood," trying vainly to cope with a world in which they are doomed to fail. Men have been taught that "to be a man means to be at the controls and at all times to feel yourself in control." They cannot live up to this ideal of manliness and so, en masse, they lose their sense of self. Men, says Faludi, are "in agony."


In proof of her large claim, Faludi presents masses of evidence. Stiffed devotes hundreds of pages to stories and interviews with dozens of men: wife batterers in California, a group of teenage sex predators known as the Spur Posse, porn-video actors, men out of work because of corporate downsizing, depressed football fans, and Vietnam veterans who witnessed the My Lai atrocity. Most of Faludi's subjects have sad stories to tell about inadequate fathers, personal alienation, and feelings of helplessness.


Unfortunately, the reader never learns why the disconsolate figures Faludi has selected for attention are representative of American men. Her argument for the "male crisis" rests on the premise that what is happening at the extremes tells you a lot about the center. She met a fisherman who explained to her how this works: "If you want to see what's happening in a stream called our society, go to the edges and look at what's happening there, and then you begin to have an understanding . . . of what's going on in the middle."


Of course, to convince us that the edges of the stream tell us what's going on in the middle, Faludi needs more than the assurance of an unnamed fisherman. As it happens, social science operates on the opposite premise: Anecdotes (especially from the edges) are regarded as misleading unless backed up by some conventional studies using data with proper controls. The six years Faludi declares that she spent "researching" seem not to have included going to libraries to look at the formal surveys of how men are faring in American society.


In fact, those surveys routinely report high percentages of relatively contented people. In 1995, while Faludi was busy interviewing men for her book, Psychological Science published a review article entitled "Who is Happy?" which reported that 90 percent of North American men and women described themselves as happy with their lives. Faludi sees the modern workplace as humiliating and alienating for men. But a 1998 CNN/Gallup Poll found that 88 percent of men describe themselves as satisfied with their jobs (for women the figure is 84 percent).


Faludi's conversations convinced her that corporations have contributed in a major way to the demoralization of American men: "Productivity was something corporations and their shareholders now measured," she declares, "not by employee elbow grease, but by how many employees the company had laid off." She did begin writing her book during a recession, but you might think that America's remarkable recovery in recent years would force her to moderate her claim. It didn't. The economy may have recovered, she declares, but the men have not: "Something had been broken inside them, and it wasn't going to be made right by a boom based on inflated stock-market prices and temporary personnel." As Faludi sees it, America is paying for its economic prowess by forcing men into an inhuman game of competing and winning: "The American Century elevated winning to the very apex of manhood while at the same time disconnecting it from meaningful social purpose."


It's hard to take this complaint seriously. American preeminence in science and high technology is a major reason that the twentieth century will go down in history as the American Century. Are the thousands of American men forging revolutions in biology, neuroscience, medicine, and information technology "disconnected from meaningful social purpose"? She should have talked to some of them.


Faludi also claims that men are demeaned in the way women used to be. Academic feminists often argue that the culture dehumanizes women by treating them as ornamental objects. Faludi says that contemporary culture is now doing this to men, treating them as objects and "images" rather than as persons. Men, she says, now suffer because of an "enslavement to glamour." Like women, she says, men are now being undermined by the media's presentation of our "ornamental culture," being forced to compare themselves to "ghostly two-dimensional armies" of "superathletes," "action heroes," and television "stand-up comedians," who present men with unreal images of manhood. "Navigating the ornamental realm, much less trying to derive a sense of manhood from it, has become a nightmare all the more horrible for being virtually unacknowledged as a problem."


The fact that men greatly enjoy the feats of the superathletes or the jokes of the stand-up comics, the fact that they are quite unaware they are experiencing something horrible, makes no impression on Faludi. It never occurs to her that the horror she postulates is a figment of her theory. On the contrary, male obliviousness only adds to the horror: the "nightmare," she explains, is "all the more horrible for being virtually unacknowledged as a problem."


Faludi is preeminent among the group of crisis-writers who argue that America is an insidious culture that "destroys," "poisons," or "demoralizes" whole segments of the population. Her 1991 Backlash was followed by Mary Pipher's Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, in which we learned that the "selves" of the nation's girls are "crashing," "burning," and "disappearing." Not to be outdone, psychologist William Pollack soon followed with Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, claiming that boys too are in crisis. He calls American boys "young Hamlets [who] succumb to an inner state of Denmark." Like Faludi, Pollack believes that males are traumatized by their efforts to conform to "myths" of masculinity imposed by the culture.


If the nation's children are in the kind of distress that Pipher and Pollack are reporting, they too seem not to be aware of it, nor has a national crisis of girls or of boys been noticed by conventional psychiatry. Of course, a small percentage of children are disturbed. But the average child is not mentally fragile and is not served well by being portrayed as such. Pipher and Pollack make their cases for crisis by avoiding or dismissing the findings of standard research. Their arguments are full of metaphors, and the data they adduce are mainly anecdotal.


Faludi follows the same formula. She presents multitudes of unhappy and frustrated men and tells us they have been "betrayed": "It is as if a generation of men had lined up at Cape Kennedy to witness the countdown to liftoff, only to watch their rocket -- containing all their hopes and dreams -- burn up on the launch pad."


But though Faludi projects a commiserating sympathy for the plight of men, her lament over what is allegedly happening to them is actually based upon a sharp disapproval of their conventional masculinity. Orthodox feminist doctrine holds that masculinity is a "social construction" originally designed to keep women in a subordinate place. Faludi's book is in truth merely an elaboration of this theme, adapting it to show that the male culture, by imposing self-defeating ideals of manhood, has now unnerved men as well: "The architects of the American Century had drummed it in that manhood was all about the score -- on Little League fields, in pro football stadiums, on television's Old West Frontier, in the space race."


And what exactly should we do to reform the society supposedly causing all this harm? This is the second problem that comes from dealing only with fringe anecdotes instead of mainstream data: Anyone who takes the analysis seriously will still be at a loss for what to do next. Faludi believes, for example, that America is too competitive. Does she then want radical changes in our economic system? Is she for eliminating competitive sports? Is she against standardized tests? Readers will quickly discern that Faludi wants changes, but what specifically those changes might be we never learn.


Instead, we get safely vague references to the better future that might emerge. Masculinity, as "the culture" now constructs it, is as harmful to men as it is to women. Men have an "unmapped journey ahead," leading to "new ways of being men." At present, men are too preoccupied with being men. But as they "struggle to free themselves from their crisis, their task is not, in the end, to figure out how to be masculine -- rather their masculinity lies in figuring out how to be human."


Faludi claims that the poor, victimized men of America today have much to learn from the female veterans of the women's movement who have been successfully combating the culture for years. Of course, to learn how to fight the culture, men first have to want to fight the culture. But against what are they supposed to rebel? Against whom?


There really is no answer to such questions. All the author of Stiffed can do is repeatedly chide men for not going ahead and rebelling anyway -- for not, in other words, believing what Susan Faludi believes: that, against all evidence, American males are in crisis, American culture is profoundly oppressive, and that anecdotes from the edge ought to make us want to change the course of the entire stream.




Christina Hoff Sommers is the W. H. Brady fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.