Some time after the shootings at Columbine High School, on a Sunday when The New York Times Magazine’s cover story revealed the special difficulties faced by modern American schoolboys, a friend — the feminist mother of a kid as archetypically snails-and-puppy-dog-tails-oriented as a male child can be — phoned with an insight. ”Boys are the new girls!” she declared, with the wry wisdom of a journalism junkie raised on the Zen-like pronouncements of the late Vogue fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland.
With the trend-sensitive cultural savvy that served Susan Faludi so well in her 1991 best-seller Backlash, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist had been tracking male malaise well before the terrible, tragic young men of Littleton, Colo., first adopted black trench coats as the defiant costume of outcasts. And in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man — an eye-catching title that demonstrates a whole new level of postfeminist provocateur humor — Faludi bags and tags mountains of research in support of her sweeping, sound-bite-ready thesis:
(1) Manly morale is a mess because ”masculine” industrial economy has been replaced by ”feminine” service economy — not to mention an obsession with ”feminine” ornamental celebrity in which appearance regularly trumps ”masculine” substance (a separate dissertation is needed to discuss these sexist stereotypes); (2) the loss of economic authority has been accompanied by a devaluing of traditional male virtues such as loyalty and fraternity, not to mention that girls are being admitted to The Citadel; and (3) at the core of the sickness is a sense of paternal betrayal. In the post-World War II era of abundance, Faludi writes, ”Never…did fathers have so much to pass on…. And conversely, never was there such a burden on the sons to learn how to run a world they would inherit. Yet the fathers…failed to pass the mantle, the knowledge, all that power and authority…on to their sons.”
Briefly, only briefly, the author asks why. Why did dads fail sons? Why haven’t men risen up, as women did so dramatically in the ’70s, to change the system? But there’s no time and no room here for Faludi to consider such unwieldy follow-up questions. Instead, she jams her book with voluminous reporting and interview transcripts to stress (and frequently overstress) her argument.
When California’s Long Beach Naval Shipyard was laying off workers, she was there. When creepy members of the Spur Posse were making the talk-show rounds boasting about their reputation as alleged sexual assaulters of young women, she was there. Faludi was the bigtime author tagging along at rallies of the Promise Keepers, the much-publicized Christian men’s movement that appeals, she writes, to men ”seeking to build something greater than the sum of their individually distressed lives.” She hung with Vietnam veterans and antiwar protesters. She considers Waco, Sylvester Stallone, the grinding porn industry centered in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, and Conde Nast’s unsubtle strategy to reposition Details magazine by eradicating any gay sensibility and installing instead an aggressively, leeringly hetero tone of crotch grabbing.
The author presents her interview subjects with gracious empathy at most, nonjudgmental patience at least. She describes her shipyard guide — one of the many men there to whom she responds with particular affection — as having ”a creased face and the most work-worn hands of any public-relations man I’d ever met” because, indeed, he had spent 30 years as a manly mechanic, radar specialist, and combat electrical-systems expert. (No wussy PR flack he.) She also gets Stallone to open up with unusual emotion about his violent, disappointing father. And in her chapter on the workaday indignities of porn production, zest and wit peek out behind Faludi’s poker-faced journalist’s stance.
Stiffed is reader-friendly and gender-inclusive, calm in argument and conciliatory in approach; no one need be frightened by any gusts of sharp feminist emotion here. And that’s both its appeal and its limitation: It’s a fat, flashy, provocative book meant to describe the condition of an oppressed majority by a highly empowered member of the opposition. ”If my travels taught me anything about the two sexes,” she says in good-girl conclusion, ”it is that each of our struggles depends on the success of the other’s.” Easy for you to say, sister.