"Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man" by Susan Faludi

A Review by Kim Allen


Susan Faludi, known previously for her brash feminist study entitled "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women," has come forth with an equally brash book about men: "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man." Although she clearly benefits from a flair for dramatic titles, Faludi's journalistic works have substance beneath the inflammatory subject matter, in the form of detailed statistics and intimate case studies that only a devoted researcher would pursue to such depth.

"Stiffed" is as much a journey for the feminist Faludi as it is a book about men. In the Introduction, she frames the research as an exploratory study of men's relation to feminism that evolves into a study of men's relation to their own gender role:

"A question that has plagued feminists like myself is the nature of male resistance to female change. Why are so many men so disturbed by the prospect of women's independence? Why do so many men seem to begrudge it, resent it, fear it, fight it with unholy passion? The question launched my inquiry. But in the end, much to my surprise, it was not the question that most compelled me.... [T]he more I explored the predicament of postwar men, the more familiar it seemed to me. The more I consider what men have lost-- a useful role in public life, a way of earning a decent and reliable living, appreciation in the home, respectful treatment in the culture-- the more it seems that men of the late twentieth century are falling into a status oddly similar to that of women at mid-century. The fifties housewife, stripped of her connections to a wider world and invited to fill the void with shopping and the ornamental display of her ultrafemininity, could be said to have morphed into the nineties man, stripped of his connections to a wider world and invited to fill the void with consumption and a gym-bred display of his ultramasculinity....

And so my question changed. Instead of wondering why men resist women's struggle for a freer and healthier life, I began to wonder why men refrain from engaging in their own struggle. Why, despite a crescendo of random tantrums, have they offered no methodical, reasoned response to their predicament? Given the untenable and insulting nature of the demands placed on men to prove themselves in our culture, why don't they revolt?... Why haven't men responded to the series of betrayals in their own lives... with something coequal to feminism?...

The feminine mystique's collapse a generation earlier was not just a crisis but a historic opportunity for women. Women responded to their "problem with no name" by naming it and founding a political movement, by beginning the process of freeing themselves. Why haven't men done the same?...

The ultimate answer has deep ramifications not only for men but also for feminists. Eventually I came to believe that, far from being antagonists, they were poised at this hour to be vital in the other's advance."

When I read this passage, I literally cheered in thanks, for two reasons. First, I was pleased to see such a mature approach to bridging the male-female gap. Why not go talk to men in their own spaces and really try to listen to their concerns about women, feminism, and the changing gender roles in 1990's America? I'm certainly as curious as Faludi, as are millions of other women. Pardon the expression, but I'm glad Faludi had the balls to undertake this study. I know few men who have played the role of translator, really listening to average feminists by attending their meetings and observing their daily lives, then reporting back to other men. Faludi has done this with these very average American men.

But second, and more important, I want to thank Faludi for asking one of the essential questions of modern feminism: Where is the Men's Movement? For realizing that women's continued advance is linked to men not in the stereotypical zero-sum, antagonistic way, but in a complex way that requires men to begin thinking about their own gender role with the same sophistication as women have applied to the consideration of theirs. It almost doesn't matter anymore why men are resisting feminism. Everyone resists change, and women have made such strong gains and developed such a strong feminist infrastructure that we can deal with a lot of the remaining crap as it comes up. Asking "why" is no longer a question of strategic importance. But men's resistance to even think about gender is a crucial topic, because men are stuck in a gender role too. And it's pushing on them pretty hard right now-- so hard that it's affecting women's advancement and happiness in general. We have brothers, husbands, boyfriends, friends, and fathers whom we care about. And we have 30 (if not 130) years of experience thinking in terms of structures called "gender roles." Why won't our brothers adopt this template for analyzing their problems?

Some days it feels like trying to explain to men that they have an infection caused by bacteria, which antibiotics could kill, so long as they take the full run of the medicine. And then they come back with their own explanation in terms of tribal medicine and angry gods, for which the best treatment is trekking over the far mountain and killing a sacrificial beaver. Or whatever. How do you start to bridge a gap like that? Perhaps Faludi knows after her long, strange trip into the minds of American guys.

She sets out having done the hardest work already: asking the right question. And for the next several years, she travels among the men of America, including the Spur Posse gang of LA, the laid-off builders at McDonnell-Douglas, the Promise Keepers, the staff and students at The Citadel, male porn stars, and disgruntled football fans. It seems that some men of today feel "cut adrift," confused, and as if they are standing on shaky ground. What does it mean to be a man? How do you know when you are one? The more men try to act like men, the less sure they are what that amounts to.

Faludi frames the basic problem in terms of betrayal. Her core set of men are those who are "Baby Boomers" (although she talks to younger men too). They were boys in the 50's, the decade of rebuilding after World War II and retrenching against the growing Communist threat. Boys of this era were taught that manhood is supported by many traditional pillars, including the taming of a frontier, service within a tight-knit "brotherhood," and responsibility toward building a larger social community. Men control their own fate, and with hard work and loyal dedication, can expect to steadily advance in life, recognized for their quiet competence and respected for their moral fortitude. They should play a leadership role at home and a service role in public.

Except it didn't work out that way. Everything they were promised fell apart or proved to be a sham. The war they were offered was not the "good fight" of WWII, but the morally questionable skirmishes of Vietnam. It turned out that the stalwart "company man" of the 50's often led a bleak and limited life, and the Boomer boys struggled for new meaning as they entered the job market in the 60's and 70's. Women ceased to accept their role as "helpmates," instead rising up to accuse men of oppression. Where was the world they were promised? Their war-era fathers had no answers.

The men Faludi talked to felt betrayed, but were a bit unclear about the source. Some of course blamed women. Many also blamed their fathers for setting up a post-war vision of Life in America that turned about to be nothing but a fašade, much like the cookie-cutter suburban housing that contained hordes of "Feminine Mystique"- reading women. But Faludi goes one step farther, peeling away one more layer of betrayal. She blames men's distress on "ornamental culture," by which she means commercial America's glorification of consumption. Status arises from wearing the right clothes, and satisfaction is supposed to come from buying the right toys. "Being" becomes more important than "doing" in ornamental culture. Faludi perceives that modern men have been thrust into this vapid role, just as 50's housewives were after Rosie the Riveter lost her job, and they are just as dissatisfied.

One manifestation of ornamental culture that Faludi explored in detail is fame-seeking. It's the super-star mentality, the idea that ritz and glitz amount to substance; that the best are those who are "seen," especially on a TV talk show or in a tabloid; and that marketing, brand name, and "spin" are more important than quality. The goal has subtly shifted from being known as a solid guy who does good work, to simply being known. Ego is as important as diligence. The limelight is the holy grail.

Why is this especially hard on men? Because "ornamental culture" has traditionally been the realm of the female. Women are the ones who know how to stand around and look good, who are the darlings of the camera, the real show-stoppers. The male ideal handed down to Baby Boomer men was to do things, like build ships, build communities, and fight moral wars to protect their families. That was about being in control. But when you are fighting for air time, the click of the flashbulb, and the hotshot salary that comes with having a lot of "fans," it's all much more uncertain. And not what men bargained for.

(Of course, it wasn't what women bargained for either. The second wave of feminism was partly about rejecting the ornamental image of women as home decorations and party favors. It's unclear how successful that aspect of the campaign was, but I think one of Faludi's most perceptive observations is that men of the 1990's resemble women of the 1950's in some ways).

It takes nearly 600 pages to describe all of these confused men from so many walks of life, and to tie together the common themes of their complaints into a thesis of ornamental-cultural problems. I was disappointed that Faludi only gets around to answering her most interesting question ("Why don't men rebel against the obviously detrimental gender role they are stuck in?") in the final few pages of the book.

Her answer is simply that men haven't figured out how to do it. And with good reason: there is no model for them to work from. In all of human history, or at least the part we commonly know, there has never been a revolution against no enemy. Men have already been branded as the oppressors-- how can they be oppressed? They need to break out of their stereotype as aggressive egotists-- but how can they boldly set forth on a passive, pacifist path? They need to escape the cameras and microphones-- but how will anyone know that they are doing this? Second-wave feminists had an easier task because they could frame their struggle as a revolution against men, and conveniently adopt all the male paradigms of conquering a frontier (male-dominated jobs), building a "sisterhood," and making sacrifices for a greater cultural good.

Faludi concludes by noting that feminism is changing also, in ways that might segue with men's problems. The war metaphor for feminism is wearing thin. It is far from clear that men have all the money and power (remember, we are talking about America only), and that women should see themselves as victims of a corrupt male regime. (Indeed, this is an excellent point about why third-wavers like us are redefining feminism.) Faludi then states that the best hope is for men and women to combine forces, fighting not against each other, but for a fairer world, a community of all people, and a moral leadership no longer enslaved to shallow consumerism.

And so in the end, Faludi is sympathetic to the American male. He has been told that he is "in control," and so he finds it incomprehensible that the world is not unfolding before him as he desires.

This is a book that needed to be written. I believe the data are valid; Faludi gives us a very comprehensive look at lower- and middle-class American men. It doesn't matter how we ultimately judge its conclusions with the benefit of hindsight twenty years from now; what matters is that we (or at least feminists) are waking up to the concept of the male gender role as something worthy of analysis. That in itself is a sign that men no longer hold the reigns of power exclusively, and that we need to define new roles for the new century.

However, many people have found ways to avoid taking this book seriously. Men shrug and say, "Well, I don't feel stiffed." Second-wave feminists, who still like to perceive themselves as outside "the system," bridle at the concept that men might no longer completely determine their own fate. Both are cheating themselves. Men lose by not acknowledging that there is room for improvement in the current model of "manhood," and women ought to be bold enough to realize that yes, feminism has made some changes. It is not the sole cause of the realignment of male-female relations (see my further comments below about globalization), but it is one cause. Women are players now, not just revolutionaries on the "fringe." We ought to start acting like it.

I believe that Faludi is onto something with "Stiffed." She has correctly perceived that a key idea of the 1960's, which has worked itself into our consciousness and language, is starting to wear thin: the concept of the "white-male culture" as the domineering culture of America. The fact that such a cultural norm is receding does not imply that we have eliminated racism or sexism (and certainly not homophobia!), but it does imply that we need to restructure our view of American society as we proceed into the new century.

However, I have two things to add to Faludi's analysis of the data. The first is a frustrated comment about who is reading "Stiffed." Early sales indicate that-- as usual-- it is women who are reading serious books about gender analysis ("Men are from Mars, etc" doesn't count). The very people who would benefit most from books like "Stiffed" are not inclined to read them! Because men and women do not read the same literature about gender, they tend to lack a common language with which to have productive discussions, shape policy, etc.

Second, I would like to offer another view of the present uncomfortable male situation, which I hope will add to Faludi's interpretation and broaden it. I see a link to the process of globalization which has been occurring sneakily since World War II and with gusto since the end of the Cold War. (There are many treatises on the suddenly-hip concept of globalization; a good one is Thomas Friedman's "The Lexus and the Olive Tree.") I know that "globalization" is the hot buzzword these days, so that in applying it here I risk sounding like I'm just jumping on the bandwagon. But few have commented on the changes that the New Economy will bring to gender relations, and it's worth doing so, for the changes are potentially great.

Consider the following salient properties of globalization. Note how they map onto the concerns of the men in "Stiffed" almost one-to-one, thus offering an alternative perspective to the source of men's discomfort:

"Stiffed" is not about betrayal by war-hero fathers, or getting comeuppance from liberated women. It is indeed about forging a new model of manhood, although that will be only part of the process. Most of all, it about whose boat is being rocked the strongest by the tidal wave of globalization, and it seems that some American men are among this group. We already know how tough the transition to the New Economy has been for countries such as Thailand and Mexico. And the roughest roads are still ahead for China and Russia.

But we shouldn't forget that this transition affects individual people too. America may be riding the front edge of the globalization wave, but some Americans are swallowing water, men in particular. (Not all men. Faludi didn't ask the men of Silicon Valley if they felt that there were no more great frontiers to conquer, or if they were disappointed that they weren't getting the opportunity to build something new from the ground up!) But men attached to the older industrial economy are getting hit from all sides.

And they're not prepared. Faludi is correct that men are living with the belief that they are in control, that the world works "just so," and thus are reeling that things aren't working out so neatly. In many ways, women are better able to cope with the uncertainty of globalization because we are used to not being in control. We are used to--and good at--working behind the scenes, cutting deals instead of making policy proclamations, and "going with the flow." We accept hectic, unpredictable lives as normal once we are dealing with small children. We are accustomed to viewing our careers as nonlinear progressions that may be interrupted several times, as opposed to a linear advancement through the adult world. All of these ideas are fairly new to men, especially working-class men who are still tied to industrial production.

Because globalization is changing which skills are valuable and which methods of approaching the world are most effective, it is affecting relations between men and women. As noted above, the walls are falling. The workplace skills people need are less gendered in the Internet world than they were in the concrete-and-steel world of the Industrial Era. And with the accelerating pace of change and increasingly complex relationships in business, who has time to grumble about whether women should be programmers, homeowners, or CEOs? Or whether it's OK for men to stay home and care for children? We need to stop seeing gender relations as a zero-sum game, balancing each "side" against the other. That is Cold War, dichotomous thinking. What we do need is to take a serious look at the roles we have constructed for both men and women (but men in particular, since gender analysis has not focused on this area before), and think together about what new gender structures would align with the globalized world.

We're not really doing this yet. Men haven't accepted the idea that their gender role is worth thinking about, and women have not learned to wield power in the public sphere as naturally as they will have to in the New Economy. We have much to teach each other, if only the conversation could begin. Faludi has made a good start.

I am sobered by a passage that Thomas Friedman wrote in "The Lexus and the Olive Tree" about stumbling blocks to the success of globalization. He worried that for some countries, globalization might be "Just Too Hard." Some might find it too hard to enact open economic policies, too hard to adjust to a quickly changing culture, too hard to let failing companies die so that fresh ones can rise up. If it's a small country like Albania, maybe the world will just erect a "firewall" around it and go on, but if it's Russia or China or even Thailand, the whole globalization effort could bog down.

At risk of sounding melodramatic, I'd like to draw an analogy to American men, as regards women's continued advancement. What if the new male role in the internetworked world is Just Too Hard for some fraction of the male population? What if they can't give up the old structures of being head-of-household, being the main breadwinner, playing a game of emotional aloofness and hierarchical dominance? Those concepts in the new Internet society are as obsolete as cronyism in the new transparent economy, but that doesn't mean they will peacefully vanish. Jesse Helms and Osama bin Laden may have more in common than they think, as they each fight tooth and nail against the coming changes that are so threatening to them.

Faludi may be right that it's time for men and women to join forces in order to realize gender roles that fit us more comfortably than the ones we have now. I agree, but I would frame the imperative differently. Just as it is in the globalized countries' best interests to help bring the stragglers along, it is the interest of women and men who have accepted the liberalized gender roles of Internet culture to help others make the transition to this world also. The slower folks aren't the enemy that withholds power from women any more than Russia is maliciously destabilizing the world economy. Unlike in the Cold War era, we'd all be better off if Russia were back on its feet.

That doesn't mean any of this will be easy. Even those who have managed to shrug off Cold War thinking do not have a clear idea how to go about helping Russia overcome its economic woes. And it is similarly challenging to forge relations with the men who are in crisis because the old structures are vanishing. I admit that I have difficulty finding the sympathy that Faludi expresses for the displaced male. I often give in to the frustration I feel from their refusal to look forward. They whine about women, or their jobs, or life in general, but they won't really confront the changes they are afraid of and participate in shaping a compromise that might be more comfortable for them. I, and other members of the 3rd WWWave, have ranted on these pages about "male passivity," and the refusal to engage in male gender analysis. We get scathing emails off our web site from reactionary men who are certain that "women like us" have ruined America. These complaints are analogous to the anti-U.S. movements in many countries struggling with the New Economy. The truth is that America is not "in charge" of globalization (remember, no single entity has control anymore), and women are not "in charge" of remaking gender relations. The task is much harder than that, and will require men and women to work together. I hope we will find ways to communicate, which will require effort from both sides.

Have men been "stiffed"? In some sense yes, for the promises made to them in the 1950's never materialized. The role they were trained for has evaporated with so many other certainties of the Cold War era. But there is no use in men's looking back woefully. It is my hope that Faludi's book, and others that tackle the same subject, will start all of us (and men in particular) on a path toward understanding the new global society we live in. Not just surviving the transition, but reaping the rewards of a more open, connected world.

Copyright 1999 Kim Allen.