BY SUSAN FALUDI
William Morrow; 662 pages; $27.50
Truth is stranger than nonfiction. And life is too interesting to be left to journalists. People have stories, but journalists have “takes,” and it’s their takes that usually win out when the stories are too complicated or, as happens, not complicated enough. Give a journalist any subject so massive as the lives of American men since 1950 and you can be guaranteed that she’ll return with something between a big idea, a panacea, and a flat-out lie.
But don’t tell any of this to Susan Faludi, the self-styled fairy godmother of victimhood who – not content to speak for all women, as she did in her last bestseller, Backlash – has managed in her new book, Stiffed, to reduce the massed experience of millions of postwar American men to a slick, newsmagazine cliché: Modern “manhood” or “masculinity” (here the simplifications begin and the battle for the Pulitzer is joined) is in a state of crisis. Beleaguered, besieged. And men themselves, the actual individuals, have been let down on a mammoth scale, left desolate. What’s worse, Faludi personally feels for them – the football fans deserted by their teams, the Vietnam vets welcomed home by spitting hippies, the laid-off aerospace workers, the addled gang members. It’s not your fault, boys, she wants to reassure them; there are forces beyond your control, I’ve analyzed them, and they’ve ground you down. Moved by feminist noblesse oblige, Faludi wants to complete the circle of gender-based victimization in America so that we can all enjoy its dubious privileges. And so, to all the insults and rebuffs supposedly suffered by men since 1950 – the plant closings and corporate downsizings, the immoral wars and unfulfilling space program – add one last, castrating coup de grâce: the pity of Susan Faludi.
“This is the story of a feminist’s travels through a postwar male realm,” Faludi states in her intro. (Call her Ishmael.) Since the demise of Queen Victoria, such florid condescension has been rare, but it returns full force in Stiffed, gaining momentum from the opening line: “When I listen to the sons born after World War II, born to the fathers who won that war, I sometimes find myself in a reverie, conjured out of my own recollections and theirs.” A few pages on, Faludi repeats the image, causing one to imagine a small room just off her study where she conducts her focus groups, possibly dressed as a nurse: “When I talk with men who grew up during the Baby Boom, this mission to manhood shows up in their minds not as promises met but as betrayals, losses, and disillusionments.”
Job one for Faludi is finding the villain behind all this multi-generational misery. It can’t be men themselves, since they’re the dupes, and it can’t be women, of course, who are still recovering from being lashed back at, and so the accusing finger lands on “culture” – the perfect culprit, since no one knows it personally and yet everyone can claim to be affected by it. “The culture they live in,” Faludi writes in the bulging intellectual grocery bag that is her introductory chapter, “has left men with little other territory on which to prove themselves besides vanity.” This statement sounds nothing if not definitive, but it is followed in the course of Stiffed – a book of over 600 pages – by a thousand other diagnoses of the degraded masculine condition that are at least as ringing and conclusive. In a chapter on the Patriot movement, Faludi concludes that men outraged over Waco “were fighting a world transformed by the women’s movement” by joining anti-government militias. That, of course, makes two ways for men to prove themselves: vanity and violence. Faludi’s not counting, though.
Almost any scene or incident involving a live male human being is capable of supporting Faludi’s thesis that men, as a group, have been screwed by unseen forces, pickpocketed by the invisible hand. At one point, seeking fodder for her argument, she visits the office of a casting agent who hires men to act in porno movies. She’s barely inside before she’s calling the place – in her sociologist’s rich baritone – “a backstage door to the current American dream and an emergency escape hatch for some who find themselves capsizing in a reconfiguring American economy.” But that’s the trouble with Faludi (besides her prose, which could use some reconfiguring itself): She can’t take anything for what it’s worth; she has to make it pay off for her grand concept. Pornography may predate the new economy, and the reasons for acting in it may be as various as the actors’ physiques, but she’s not interested in such old truths. All she’s interested in is her big book.
What the book requires first and foremost from the men whose life stories it feeds off is that those lives be pathetic. Sad. Ridiculous. Take “Big Dawg,” an obsessive Cleveland Browns fan who’s left inconsolable when the Browns leave town, hijacked to Baltimore by a callous owner. (Corporate bigwigs get the shaft in Stiffed, standing in for “culture” and “society” when a flesh-and-blood bad guy is in order.) Between his clownish costumes, his sorrowful childhood history, and his maniacal screams from the grandstand, Big Dawg is a huge but huggable mess – and the perfect patient for Faludi, who insists that the man doesn’t really understand himself and that what he’s actually doing by boosting the Browns is “fathering himself” and trying to “reclaim a lost patrimony.”
Oh, go jump in a lake, Nurse Ratched. Joyless, clinical, and smug, convinced that any colorful male behavior is a mask for unacknowledged wounds (and that only she can find and probe those wounds), Faludi is straight out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You can almost hear her gummy soles as she pads in spotless white shoes from bed to bed, penciling clever comments on her chart about the bewildered Promise Keepers, shell-shocked veterans, and raging militiamen locked up in her ward. Comments such as these about the man whose documentary on the Waco fire sparked the recent investigations (thus getting the sort of concrete results that Faludi’s type of reporting never does): “Whether McNulty was trying to fulfill his obligations at home, fight the feds in Waco, or stake a new claim in Hollywood, the gunslinger’s image had proved of little utility.” Or these lines, chilly with psychological certainty, about male cadets at the Citadel: “The intimacy these men seek is physical and sensual … it is a dream of blissful oneness, a sensuality more closely associated with mother and child.”
The nurse has researched and identified your problems, men. Line up for your shots.