Un-Stiffing the Mystiques

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    For a few hours I am scared, on cue. Just the day before I'd been on the phone with Susan Faludi, whose latest book sets out to convince me the old ideas of virility and maleness are in danger. She called it Stiffed, as in failed, not victorious (William Morrow & Company, 662 pages, $27.50). And certainly not erect.

    Yet Faludi is?with Naomi Wolf and a few other second-generation feminists, now in their late 30s and 40s?"pro-male." With Betty Friedan and a few men, she once argued that the "masculine mystique" needs detonation, just like the "feminine" one. For six years it had been rumored Faludi was interviewing men all over the nation, determined to explain what the postfeminist world looks like through men's eyes?and how we've been betrayed.

    But Stiffed, for all its good intentions, is a downer. The Barbell Girl, upon reflection, is also a downer. Then I pick up The New York Times and find Natalie Angier, the Supreme Male-Basher of 1999, praising a body manual written for teenage girls that welcomes sexuality into public discourse (Deal With It!: A Whole New Approach to Your Body, Brain, and Life as a Gurl, by Esther Drill, Heather McDonald & Rebecca Odes; Pocket Books, 309 pages, $15). She is ecstatic over its frank language. She warns us it's filled with first-person testimonies from the authors' website, much of it celebrating heterosexuality. ("Salome" writes: I try to look into my boyfriend's eyes when I'm sucking. It seems to get him off faster.) This manual is a signal reversal of the tide that has swept through our political and media life since Monica, dousing George W. Bush so totally he decided to come out against masturbation a few weeks ago, denying his fratboy past as well as contradicting Naomi on Al Gore's shoulder, who thinks self-gaming is fine.

    So of course I call the publisher for a review copy of Deal. Gloom lifts, temporarily. It's no longer just me vs. the rich women who reduce every talk show debate to the primitivism of old-style Marxist class warfare or new-style free market panaceas. The debate seems to be admitting new ideas, differing viewpoints...and one feminist book about the forgotten male. Women are beginning to hint they aren't totally indifferent to us.

    Davis: It took you six years to write this book about men. Why? You must be worn down talking to working-class males. Are they as tight-lipped as their stereotype?

    Faludi: Yes, it did require months to get the men to open up. On the other hand some of the men, not necessarily pro-feminist, turned out in the end to be willing and eager to talk. I think that's because one of their beefs with feminism is they feel they aren't being heard. They have a genuine desire...to get beyond the conventional assumptions about what is really underlying their discontent.

    You sense what I mean. Faludi wants to straddle all the worlds at once. While implying often in these pages that women don't "get it" about men, she's not going to bash women. She's going to argue that "conventional assumptions" (cf. male media, corporate bosses and politicians), not feminist attack squads, are ripping the sexes apart. She'll admit the genders are coiled inside a system that beats up on both of them, revealing one inch of Marxist stocking. But she's going to focus primarily on the victim-guys most likely to hate feminism, the unemployed Industrial Belt sluggers, ignoring the ones who voted to give women the right to vote and hoist barbells, the white collars in service and information. Her book is layered in hundreds of direct-quotation male conversations. They're unmistakable proof that Susan really enjoys men, provided they're rough and tough, but fragile at the same time, barely able to blurt out grainy sound bites that badly need the gloss she gives them.

    Why has it taken so long for the idea of a masculine mystique to be recognized and confronted?

    First and foremost, our culture defines manhood as being in control: you are not shaped by social and cultural forces. You're a rock of strength. So for men to even begin to discuss the way in which they're molded or shaped by the culture?which is really what added up to the feminist mystique?is to admit they're less than men. In that way, women had it easier. They didn't mind admitting their fragility.

    Let's begin with the myth that "men" are furious over "women's advances," as Faludi tells me on the phone. It's not only that her model is brilliantly selective: laid-off engineers, steelworkers, shipyard mechanics, high school dropouts, poor-boy gangs, male porn stars, ex-astronauts, gun nuts, Promise Keepers, Citadel cadets. Stiffed begins with the author shadowing one domestic abuse workshop after another. She rigorously ignores the vast numbers of males who say?in poll after poll?that they are for equal rights, well-qualified female pols and women CEOs. The last serious poll to ask the question, "Would you be willing to vote for a woman for president?" yielded a "yes" vote of over 90 percent, with only a two-point difference between male and female respondents.

    As for the chastened men who do talk to her about beating up their women and such, yes, they're eloquent about sexist sins and more than willing to confess all. She's surprised by this, but in truth it's predictable. By the time Faludi gets to them, they have expiated their sins in more than one workshop, right on cue. The Confessed Sinner, among them our President, is a celebrity of our time.

    That's why this male mystique code, subtly modulated by feminist analysis, is drenched in guilt?as was the feminine mystique that rose out of the same 1950s. And why the single achievement of the gender war rhetoric in the past few decades has been negative, not positive, however much the employment rolls have enlarged to take in hordes of women. We have mightily?if unintentionally?eroded whatever small tolerance existed in this repressed society for the pleasures of heterosexuality. Anyone 15 years old or more has surely noticed the rise since 1990 of legal and bureaucratic actions against any mainstream sexual expression that doesn't follow strict guidelines. The courts are filled with harassment charges, the schools are chocked with seminars warning each gender against the other (all the way down to grade schools where little boys are suspended for kissing little girls who want to be kissed), and our political leaders, most of whom enjoy rich and varied sex lives, sound like Cotton Mather on the stump (in his scorn for masturbation, George W. is the spitting image of Pope John Paul).

    Faludi ignores this heterophobic public relations trauma, other than an occasional quotation ("Girls have the power to have sex with somebody if they want to," says a California teenage boy, burning with resentment. "They have the power.") She sees the male crisis as primarily economic?the loss of manly blue-collar jobs. No other issue, social, psychological or political, means as much to males now as the drought in manual labor, she says, and regular paychecks and beer parties.

    This single-issue mania is the main reason Stiffed fails to achieve its goal, which is nothing less than man's lib. Monomania, a thoroughly American sickness, is also lurking behind the failure to liberate women. It's our obsession with One Truth at a Time.

    Why can't men act? You ask this question halfway through your book and provide a long, intense answer. Can you summarize it for me now and add any references to how this text has been read and reviewed?

    Women find it easier to act because they are able to use new and traditional battle-line strategies to take action against their situation. They found a clear enemy in the "patriarchy" and a real frontier in the workplace and education and public institutions. Whereas for men there is no clear enemy. They can't rail against a "male-dominated society." Beyond that they can't act because in doing so they must confess they aren't masters of the universe?that they're buffeted by social and cultural forces just as women are. The response to my book from a lot of defensive media guys has only confirmed that: "I am fine," they say. "I am not the victim of anything. I don't even want to read this book."

    Here and elsewhere I think Faludi buys into the very mystique she wishes to bankrupt. In search of males who fit the pattern, she finds them, exalts them, pats them on the head like a good mom. Of course this is why she continually expresses surprise that tough guys can talk, as well as chew gum: because two decades of feminist rhetoric had led her to believe they couldn't.

    The betrayed American male has no ability, in brief, to sense what the bad guys are doing to him. She expresses shock in Stiffed that Sylvester Stallone or Michael Bernhardt, the Vietnam vet who told the truth about the My Lai massacre, contradict the pattern. Stallone's discomfort with his Rambo/Rocky image, which brought him at once fame, fortune and derision, is seen here as a lonely, heroic rejection of his father. Bernhardt's decision to tell the Congress and the media about what he saw?even the moment when the infamous Lieut. Calley, half-clad, held a gun to a naked Vietnamese woman?is also seen as isolated defiance.

    But are they really unique? Stallone is simply the latest multimillionaire Hollywood star fed up with typecasting, stretching all the way back to Gary Cooper and Rock Hudson. He admits to Faludi (at the Four Seasons) that he helped get himself out of the Vietnam draft by pretending his bad hearing was worse than it is. In all his moves, Rocky/Rambo reveals himself at one with Hollywood and America: rejecting the male mystique script whenever it causes pain or loss.

    God knows Michael Bernhardt is worth the time and adulation Faludi heaps on him (in diners and coffee shops rather than the Four Seasons). But again she is driven to cast him as a loner, as one of the rare few who saw through the Vietnam War folly. Has she forgotten how many males refused to fight in Vietnam, deceived the system (cf. Bill Clinton, Dan Quayle, Rush Limbaugh) or demonstrated against it? Or how their models?from the Quakers to Gandhi to Martin Luther King?were also males?

    It doesn't take a professional historian to point out how often feminist writers distort history in the most blatant terms, ignoring long lines of male pacifists, pro-feminists and socialist visionaries.

    Faludi is obsessed with the alleged right-wing power to blind males to the evils of Late Capitalism. Be a good girl, guys, she says, in effect. Admit you've been brainwashed. Reject the patriarchy. She even finds JFK in obscure speeches in 1960?as well as his address to the Democratic National Convention?trying to rouse "young men" to invade "the new frontier," which he defined like a football game, as "a set of challenges." "The fight," she concludes, "was the thing, the only thing, if America was to retain its manhood." But JFK was much more than a simple muscleman, as he later proved on several levels, including his willingness to admit defeat in the Bay of Pigs. I agree that Stallone, Bernhardt, and company are admirable in their ability to "see through" the gorilla ethic. But they're hardly alone. They're not even in the minority.

    For sure Faludi is right when she argues that women were able to organize in the 60s and 70s against a "clear enemy." But the enemy can be so overstated and oversimplified that he/she isn't real. The idea, for example, that the average American male worships the corporate elite is one example. It's equivalent to assuming that the average woman sees herself as Hillary Clinton or Martha Stewart. What about the tons of poetry, politics, art, popular music and theater that attack this elite? Why is Warren Beatty (Reds, Bulworth) making a fortune? What about the endless polling that documents massive distrust of Wall Street and the government, not to say tv commercials? Why do millions of males either refuse to vote at all, or pull down the lever for adversarial politicians in this allegedly domineering, dominating patriarchy?

    How have your feminist colleagues reacted to Stiffed?

    Warmly. The book is a feminist book. It does not take exception with the fundamentalist feminist position. It uses feminist analysis to try to understand the frustrations of men.

    If feminism is so successful, as you argue (and on one level I agree), why don't most young women want to call themselves "feminist"?

    For obvious reasons. They don't want to be mean and humorless, they don't want to be vicious, antagonistic. They want to get a date. They don't want to seem like harridans and hags and all the words that have become associated with feminism... Then you've got on the other hand these women in the media, in books, on talk shows, "the chattering elite"?like Christina Hoff Sommers?opposed to feminism.

    "They want a date"? Does this mean that sexuality has been victimized in the 90s?

    You're talking about the private realm of sexuality. I am talking about making a living. And those are two different realms... What people do in the privacy of their love lives is highly complex.

    But Faludi herself weaves the "private" realm of sexuality into what she calls the "final" betrayal of the American male, the coming of "ornamental culture," which is a product, she says, of the past two decades. That's when the service and information industries pushed hard muscular work offstage. During this traumatic switch, the corporate media barons began to value masculinity entirely as display?cf. Stallone?not as function. Image, display and flourish replaced "real" work. "Femininity fit more easily into the new ethic"?the ethic of display. Faludi's favorite guys are now final losers: "The internal qualities once said to embody manhood?surefootedness, inner strength, confidence of purpose?are merchandised to enhance their manliness."

    Faludi assumes that the American male is only an asset, only a Real Man, when he uses his muscles, not his brain. Another perversion of history, but more to the point, isn't the new economy a betrayal of the traditional American female as well? Ripped from her home, her kids and her privileged privacy, thrown into the marketplace, where she must do battle with Gates, Grove and Gore?

    Or is it that at this moment two traditional mystiques, never particularly powerful or confining, are deconstructing, leaving the old paradigms in ruins?

    As much as I welcome Susan Bordo's obsession with The Male Body in her book, the plain fact is she does not understand what an erection is?and shouldn't pretend to. No woman does.

    That is why Stiffed, far more than Backlash, is simply reporting and allowing the men to speak... There is no one else to explain what it is to be a man but a man. But men don't speak. Did you read that great book by Richard Rhodes about his sexual coming of age? Male reviewer after male reviewer complained...as if he broke some taboo. I think fear and hatred await any male who breaks the silence.

    Part of me agrees. Heterosexual men are attacked when they write frankly about gender issues?but it's hardly just by the "male reviewer." And until we can speak frankly we can't change things.

    What's wrong with the tons of paper wasted on genderism to date is that it's focused relentlessly backward, as is the nonsensical "family values" debate. Neither side keeps its eyes open to what is actually happening right now: the radical decline in the percentage of American households made up of "married couples with kids"; the sharp upswing in white illegitimacy, which means prosperous unmarrieds choosing to spawn kids; the meteoric rise of the information industry to dominance in our economy, while Faludi's Rust Belt dwindles; the expansion of sexual activity both before and around marriage, due primarily to the independence of women who no longer feel they must marry to survive, meaning that the employment of sex-as-pleasure has doubled. (As our lives lengthen, as the genetic logistics of our body extend, it will triple.)

    While all this happens, the software differences between the genders are widening, not collapsing. On one side, Microsoft. On the other, gurl.com, where Salome's fellatio quote cited in Deal With It! came from. Let's allow a few flowers to bloom in this artificially constricted debate. Helen Fisher, author of a classic anthropological study, Anatomy of Love: The Natural History of Monogamy, Adultery, and Divorce, predicted many of the current behavioral changes almost a decade ago?most of all the potential coming of abundant existential sensuality.

    Fisher's references were to the past, to older societies that simply "equalized" male and female freedom. Faludi's outlook is retrogressive for an entirely different reason?back to a sentimentalized work-ethic era no longer decisive in our lives. Your reference and mine ought to be the future, a radically open, a thoroughly un-stiffed future.