STIFFED

The Betrayal of the American Man

By Susan Faludi

Morrow. 662 pp. $27.50

Reviewed by Sam Fussell

"Welcome to Testosterone Country!" says a Promise Keeper to Susan Faludi at the all-male convocation at Anaheim, Calif. Overhead, a plane trailing a banner buzzes the packed stadium; the banner reads "PROMISE KEEPERS, LOSERS AND WEEPERS," and is paid for by feminists.

With Stiffed, Faludi, herself a feminist, dives straight into the belly of the beast, Manhood. Her testosterone tome has been six years in the making. It's Brobdingnagian in scope, Bunyanesque in sheer size. Her prose and pose are not in the hysterical, shrill, histrionic '60s style of Mailer, Wolfe and Thompson, but she is working the same vein of ore. She's a miner in search of stones.

Why a 650-page meditation on masculinity? After all, "nobody roots for Goliath," as Wilt Chamberlain was wont to sigh. How can the oppressor be oppressed? And hasn't the subject been done?

Apparently not. The seeds of Stiffed are present in Faludi's last book, Backlash, where she wrote, "The works on masculinity would barely fill a bookshelf. We might deduce from the lack of literature that manhood is less complex and burdensome, and that it requires less maintenance than femininity. But the studies that are available on the male condition offer no such assurance. Quite the contrary, they find masculinity a fragile flower -- a hothouse orchid in constant need of trellising and nourishment."

It turns out that there is a Y-chromosome crisis. As Faludi ingeniously argues in Stiffed, the '90s man is the '50s housewife. Her shopping is his consumerism. Her makeup as female exaggeration and artifice is his gym-bred muscles as male magnification. Choose your chains: her Maybelline or his muscles, her silicone or his steroids, her corset or his straitjacket. "No wonder," Faludi writes, "men are in such agony, not only are they losing the society they were once essential to, they are `gaining' the very world women so recently shucked off as demeaning and dehumanizing."

At the close of World War II, men were promised the world and then handed a mirror. It is, as the subtitle says, The Betrayal of the American Male. What happened? Faludi sees the origin of the problem as the battle between then-competing versions of masculinity: the dogface GI Joe versus the silk-scarf flyboys, or the "everyman" columnist Ernie Pyle versus Henry Luce of Life magazine. Pyle's "It's all I can do to face a movie star. They make me so sick" is diametrically opposed to Luce's Hollywood hokum and hooey. Pyle celebrated the bonds of brotherhood. Luce trumpeted the display of dominance and the imperative of image. That's nurture versus narcissism. You and I versus me, myself and I. Guess who won? The astronauts, athletes, actors, models. In short: Luce.

Faludi wants nothing less than a revolution of gender in our time. With Stiffed she attempts to do for men what Betty Friedan did for women in The Feminine Mystique: Break them out of the box, out of the prison of public perception. For men don't simply act, they are also acted upon. Just like women.

The classic complaint against feminism is that women acting like men is good for neither women nor men. Faludi inverts this argument, saying that men acting like women is good for neither men nor women. Faludi's triumph is to recognize the rise of "The Ornamental Male," whose erstwhile masculinity is now dominated by the traditionally feminine beauty industry.

In our postwar world, Faludi argues, the traditional roles of man are obsolete. Warrior, frontiersman, sole breadwinner, protector: It's "The Incredible Shrinking Man." What's a baby boomer to do? Shuffle off to the cigar bar? Make a stand at the manse with the animal over the hearth he didn't kill, with the guns on the mantel he didn't fire, with the muscles on his arms forged not in the wild but at the Y?

Stiffed is Faludi's journey through this manscape. As one Waco wacko tells her, "If you want to see what's happening in the stream called our society, go to the edges and look at what's happening there, and then you begin to have an understanding -- if you know how a stream works -- of what's going on in the middle."

So she finds the men in the margin. She hangs with the homeys in South Central L.A. She dodges camera crews by the Citadel as Shannon Faulkner makes her entrance. She breaks bread with "Big Dawg," the wide-body "bleacher creature" from the Cleveland Browns Dawg Pound. She's on the horn with My Lai's Lt. William Calley. She's the shoulder to cry on for Sylvester Stallone at Spago. She dons a hard hat with the skeleton staff at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, now a ghost town. Indeed, Faludi makes more appearances than Zelig. There she is, accompanying a Buchananite as he walks out of the 1996 Republican National Convention. She braves the bully pulpit of Head Promise Keeper Bill McCartney. She fires both barrels of a 12-gauge with a conspiracy kook at a Colorado gun range. She trails astronaut Buzz Aldrin at Planet Hollywood. She dishes dirt and scarfs bagels with porn star Ron "the Hedgehog" Jeremy in the Valley. She pops up more than a pogo stick.

But in her travels cross-country, it's not a soaring spirit she finds. It's a scrap heap. Men are marooned in an ersatz form of manhood -- exiled in Guyville. Digging deep into the masculine maw, she uncovers sorrowful sons pining for some form of patrimony from their absent fathers. The home is no refuge. She notes the resentment of working wives whose husbands turn into Mr. Moms.

Faludi has a divining rod for finding the dispossessed and downtrodden. There are human doormats aplenty, including the boo-hoo crew wiping cheeks and wringing hands at the outplacement center at McDonnell Douglas and the sad sacks at "anger-management" groups. Everywhere, men seek the restriction and reduction of their roles, aching for a clean-cut definition of their rights and responsibilities.

Faludi is something of a sleuth. How, she asks, could JFK's call for a "new chivalrous era" lead to Vietnam and somehow spiral down into the bloodbath of My Lai, where perverted paternalism turned a commander's order to "take care of them" into a mandate to terminate all men, women and children with extreme prejudice? Further, she says, the promise of JFK's New Frontier was bunk. The astronauts of the moon shot were not pilots but props, simply "spam in a can," their passive act orchestrated by Mission Control. Once on the moon, before they even planted the flag, they planted the camera. Armstrong and Aldrin returned to Earth as "homecoming queens on a Space-Age float." Not test pilots but media magnets, in makeup, eyeliner and hair spray. The show was a sham with the performers paid to pretend.

Faludi masterfully weaves larger essays with case histories and personality profiles. She connects the general to the specific and enlivens her argument with a host of haunted voices. What she hears from these is their feelings of irrelevance and inadequacy. Hollywood is the specter that haunts this book. There are no winners. Even those who capture the camera's eye, like Sylvester Stallone, feel trapped in the prison of publicity.

The best of Stiffed can be found in the chapters on the toy soldiers of the Citadel, the selling-out of fans by the NFL, the mall rats at Lakewood, and Faludi's prissy peregrinations into the world of hard-core porn. These will be re-read decades hence. But her vision is not always 20-20. The passion of her politics at times interferes with the reason of her argument. She is drunk on nostalgia, and her roseate view of "the brotherhood of blue-collar worksites" of the past is an image out of Norman Rockwell. The sexual revolution -- the Pill -- is never mentioned. For a book on men's feelings of impotence, this omission is a bit of a boner.

But regarding the disease of celebrity endemic to our era, Faludi delivers a deadly diagnosis. Stiffed is a pathography of our time, an age of "virulent voyeurism" in which men caterwaul and compete for applause. Her Baby Boomers are subjects desperate to become objects. As a Calvin Klein adman gushes to Faludi, "Pecs are the new breasts now!" For every woman who wants to burn a bra, there appears to be a man who wants to wear one. In the gym, where vanity is disguised as virtue and pumped-up posing as the Protestant work ethic, muscles are the latest fashion in flesh.

With the body as a billboard, as an advertisement for the self, this "pedestal perching," once the province of women, is now the modus operandi of the modern male. Professional athletics was once a way to become a man. Now it's a way to become a media star -- from push-ups to pin-ups. Even gangs are no longer about survival but about self-promotion. The drive-bys, the Bad Boy tattoos, the graffiti tagging are nothing more than "maintaining visibility" in the hood.

As the century coughs to a close, the worst sin isn't homicide or rape. It's anonymity. Faludi's cast of characters are "wanna-bes and wanna-sees" looking for a "rep." You're not real unless you're fake; that is, you're not a person unless you're a "player" with "props" and a "rep." You're "real" when you mutate into pixilated dots on the great television media screen. No wonder the fastest growing city in the United States is the glitter gulch and hall of mirrors called Vegas.

Calvin Coolidge got it wrong. The business of America isn't business, it's show business. Mr. De Mille, I'm ready for my close-up.

Sam Fussell is the author of "Muscle."