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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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.