Books: Men Overboard

It’s hard to have sympathy for the angry white male, especially now that he, in the guise of misunderstood teenager, unlucky day trader, or neo-Nazi, has started shooting. It’s like feeling sorry for Gloria Vanderbilt. Given so much, can they ask, with or without violence, for more?

Susan Faludi thinks they can. And in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (September 21; William Morrow; $26), she explains why. Her acclaimed Backlash demonstrated how and why women continue to get less than they deserve; eight years later, Stiffed shows that men, too, are getting a raw deal – even if the recent spate of violence leaves her feeling a little queasy.

“There’s certainly something going on in the culture,” she says on the phone from her L.A. home. “I don’t feel culpable, but I feel creepily confirmed.” She pauses. “I would prefer if there weren’t people going off in every workplace.”

Stiffed comes with a built-in eye-roll. We need to feel sorry for them? Just as nonreaders of Backlash thought, Oh, great, a book about how men are evil, nonreaders of Stiffed will probably think, Oh, great, a book about how women are evil. Faludi hasn’t had a post-best-seller political reversal. She’s still a feminist and a working journalist. She has sympathy for militiamen, Vietnam vets, the Spur Posse, but she’s no apologist: “Sympathy doesn’t mean looking at people through rose-colored glasses.” She’s perfectly willing to quote every misogynist word – a catchy ditty cadets sing on their daily run, for example: “Who can take two jumper cables / Clip ‘em to her tit / Turn on the battery and watch the bitch twitch.”

“After Backlash, which documented – some would say overdocumented – the counterreaction to women’s struggle for independence, I still hadn’t sorted out in my own mind why men are so angry at women,” Faludi says. She started her research for Stiffed in a domestic-violence group-therapy session (for men who batter women), then began flying to male-female “trouble spots” – Norfolk, to look into the Tailhook scandal; Cleveland, for the Browns’ last game before they abandoned the city; Southern California, to examine the military-industrial layoffs.

“There’s an arc from the breakdown of an old style of masculine utility,” she says, “to looking at the new world economy, which is driven by consumer and celebrity values. Who has the biggest biceps, the most overinsulated SUV? Whether you’re in the ornamental world of men’s magazines or you’re a celebrated movie star or you’re a gang kid trying to promote your name, in all of these cases men are struggling with a new idea of manhood as unrelieved performance in front of the camera.”

The chapter in Stiffed on the porn industry (which appeared in The New Yorker four years ago, in slightly different form) uses the remarkably businesslike XXX underworld as a stand-in for the real world. Women are the ones on the video boxes, women are the breadwinners, women are the stars. The man’s contribution, the money shot, is minimally acknowledged. After all, that’s what men do. Faludi’s argument coincides here with something Chris Rock pointed out (profanely) in Bigger and Blacker: Everyone thanks Mama for her cooking, but who ever thanks Dad for paying the bills?

Faludi also wanted to delve into the mainstream film industry, in which male vanity is gratified by $20 million paychecks but insecurity still lurks. She sent an “endless numbers of faxes to talk to a very famous movie star” about “how men contend with living in an ornamental and celebrity culture.” Of course, now she’s not allowed to say who it is – an irony she appreciates. This month, Newsweek plans a major excerpt, presumably of the more star-studded, mediagenic portions of her book. Maybe then it will be up to Mr. Big to sell the product.

It’s not only movie stars who are feeling rather decorative. Just as women, sent home after World War II, were left with a lot of excess energy, Faludi believes, men back from the trenches were similarly unfulfilled by factory work. Thus the deluge of feel-good books and movies, Steven Spielberg, Stephen E. Ambrose, and Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation. “Those books are just a way of escaping a hard look at how GIs were cheated post-war,” Faludi notes. “They were never allowed to grapple with their moral anguish, to adjust. They had to immediately proceed to their tract house.”

Postwar consumer society had little of the intimacy, camaraderie, necessity that fighting a war had provided, so today’s men sign up for other tours – gangs, military school, even the Promise Keepers. “You are going to lose your identity if you rely on your job for it,” says one leader of a Christian men’s group. “We’re surrounded by these billboards that say, ‘If you have this, you’ll be happy,’ but if you get your identity from Christ, you don’t need any of it.”

At times, it seems astonishing that these men, blue-collar, white-collar, or designer-collarless, wanted to open up so much to the author of Backlash. “I thought that was going to be a real problem,” Faludi says slowly, amused, “but it turns out I’m not as well known as I would like to imagine. They really wanted someone to listen to them – a woman to listen to them. They had a sense of not being heard that was really poignant, and very familiar.”

Books: Men Overboard