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Early on in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male, Susan Faludi imagines a scene that might have taken place on a summer evening in 1960: a father and son lie on their back lawn watching the Echo satellite pass overhead. Having been told that the skin of the satellite is extremely thin, the boy is struck "that something so powerful could be so fragile (p.4)." Faludi would have us believe that this contrast between the appearance of power and the reality of fragility aptly characterizes the current plight of American men. American men are anxious, disappointed, in spiritual and emotional pain, and unsure of their place in the world. All this because they have been betrayed, in ways and on a scale that makes that betrayal imperceptible for what it is, at least from the perspective of any individual man. Only careful observation, listening, and thorough and exhaustive fact gathering across a wide range of cases can reveal patterns indicative of the underlying cause of contemporary male malaise. Just as she did in her 1993 book, Backlash: The Undecalred War Against American Women, Faludi applies her prodigious journalistic skills to unearth these patterns.
Stiffed is a big book, but its underlying thesis can be simply put. Men born after the Second World War grew up steeped in a paradigm of masculinity, the components of which have become impossible to realize. America, Faludi says, came "out of World War II with a sense of itself as a masculine nation (p.16)." The "national male paradigm" achieved its clearest public exposition in John F. Kennedy's 1963 inaugural address, in which he alluded to "the promise of a frontier to be claimed [space]. . . . the promise of a clear and evil enemy to be crushed [communism]. . . the promise of an institution of brotherhood in which anonymous members could share a greater institutional glory . . . and . . . the promise of a family to provide for and protect (p.26)." Well, space exploration turned out to be an expensive disappointment, the Cold War petered out, social and economic forces have driven people apart, made them concerned for their own welfare rather than for the welfare of their communities, and feminist inquiry revealed that the "traditional" nuclear family has for the most part always been a fantasy. So what's a guy to do? How can a man be a man, if the requisite ways of life and work are unavailable to him?
Most men might not be able to articulate the existential puzzle that (allegedly) lies at the heart of masculinity, but if Faludi's informants are a representative sample, many American men have the vague sense that they are missing out on something, that expectations have not been met. Hence the feeling of betrayal, which is exacerbated in two ways. First, it is not clear whom to blame. It's not as if any particular promises were made to particular men. And secondly, it is difficult to complain about feeling powerless in a culture in which (some) men continue to wield the bulk of political and economic power. Faludi argues that these latter two factors explain why, despite the need for one, there is no movement for men comparable to feminism. For feminism's targets were and are relatively easy to identify, and any serious consideration of the facts confirmed women's political and economic oppression.
A major strength of Faludi's book is that she lets her interviewees speak for themselves. We hear from soon-to-be-out-of-work shipbuilders, bored, privileged teenagers, manipulated sports fans, a struggling pornography performer, Vietnam veterans, and members of the Promise Keepers. The lengthy first-person accounts make for the book's vividness and vigor. However, Faludi's authorial distance has its downside. Rarely does she reveal what questions elicted the quoted responses. Without these questions, we are lead to believe that the men she interviews talk spontaneously about her major themes: absent fathers, powerlessness, and the move from a "society of utility," in which manhood was defined by "character, by the inner qualities of stoicism, integrity, reliability, the ability to shoulder burdens, the willingness to put others first, the desire to protect and provide and sacrifice (38), " to "a culture of ornament" which defines manhood "by appearance, by youth and attractiveness, by money and aggression, by posture and swagger . . . by the curled lip and petulant sulk and flexed biceps, by the glamour of the cover boy, and by the market-bartered 'individuality' that sets one astronaut or athlete or gangster above another (p.39)." Thus it seems as though her working hypotheses are confirmed at every encounter, with every conversation. Perhaps they were. Nonetheless, I found myself distracted by skeptical worries as the book went on without any apparent living counterexamples. I learned a great deal about ways of life relatively unfamiliar to me; but in 605 pages of text I encountered not one man I knew.
While she focuses on working class men, or men who have (to borrow from Barbara Ehrenreich) "fallen" from the middle class, Faludi is curiously silent on the matter of socio-economic class. Anyone can feel betrayed if one does not enjoy the bounty and comforts of a thriving capitalist economy. And the argument of the book would have been stronger had Faludi at least attempted to distinguish between expectations set up by capitalism and those set up by a particular paradigm of masculinity. This distinction is especially relevant when the issue is the betrayal of American men. Betrayal is the appropriate concept when unmet expectations are legitimate; it is not enough to know merely that men's expectations have been thwarted. However, Faludi fails to address whether men were objectively entitled to the promises implied in post-World War II America.
Despite Faludi's obvious deep interest in and concern for her subject, Stiffed lacks the wonderful edge, the clarity and the outrage of Backlash. Instead of being energized, as many were by Faludi's first book, one finishes this one feeling depressed, defeated, and weary. (And I'm a girl.) Not recommended beach reading.
Susan Dwyer is Associate Professor of Philosophy at UMBC (Baltimore, Maryland) where she directs the Masters Program in Applied and Professional Ethics.