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.