If you think Susan Faludi needs to be punished for writing a dumbbell-weight book about how oppressed men are, then sit back, enjoy: Discipline will be administered every day for the next month or so, as she makes agonizing rounds on television (which she dislikes) to be more or less interrupted for an hour, or goes on radio talk shows (slightly more agreeable to her) and listens to male callers go on about the pain inside, while the host chides the fellers to simply buck up, while she sits there quietly horrified. It will happen as she submits to celebrity profilers who want to know if the sweater she's wearing is, would you say, Susan, more of an avocado green? She's in hell.
Like now. Faludi is pliant, but trapped in one of those ferny, fake-backdrop isolation booths on the 11th floor of CNN's studios behind Union Station Thursday afternoon. It is only the third day of everybody telling her how wrong and possibly full of utter caca she is. In this go-round there is an assembled male panel: a news-hunk from Fox in New York, along with a grinning Promise Keeper in the Heartland, and a weird, Tolkienish figure who edits a men's journal in Seattle. Throw in an unhappy-looking studio audience 600 miles away in Atlanta and we're on:
Are men in the throes of a cultural identity crisis? Do we give a fig?
Faludi's banking on it, in a 662-page treatise, a "historical narrative" called "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man." It's her first book in eight years, the first book since that phenomenally successful other book, you know, the one you still see women who are about college age reading on the Metro some afternoons, with that certain look of aha! darting now and again across their faces. "Stiffed" is weighty, sheathed in a copper-tone book jacket, adorned with a chisel-jawed steelworker, and it's too huge, too unwieldy, in bed. (Wait. Bad idea.)
"Stiffed" is an unlikely elaboration on Faludi's "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women," and it's a fresh argument that men have succumbed to an "ornamental masculinity" that neither fulfills them or has meaning. "Stiffed" is either a brilliant new theory or a massive load. Yesterday the Wall Street Journal called it "mind-numbing" and "a lot of false advertising." No one in the real world has read it yet, but everyone has an opinion on it.
Imagine the same girl who gave the valedictory speech at Yorktown High School in Westchester County, N.Y., 22 years ago. People hated it. Her speech was very with-it, current, Jan Brady on a mission--about the energy crisis and the social pitfalls of making test-tube babies. The trick of being Susan Faludi goes back even farther than that: The John Birch Society attacked her for inciting communism in the fifth grade, after she polled classmates about their feelings on the ERA, Vietnam and abortion rights.
So nothing's changed. Brainy female, big ideas, long sentences, angry mob. Thursday afternoon on CNN's "TalkBack Live," Chris Cuomo, the good-looking "Fox Files" anchor, who doesn't seem to suffer from masculinity issues (when cameras are rolling, anyway), is picking a fight with her. Faludi finds herself defending the idea that anyone would want to write a social history of men, period. He says: "Who cares?! You're making it sound like there's a difference between women's books and men's books."
She says: "The--"
Nope, time for a commercial.
When the show resumes two minutes later, the microphone is handed to the studio audience, and a matronly woman in a plaid blouse thinks it's great that men are getting a raw deal: "The shoe's on the other foot; men are all starting to panic. I don't feel sorry for men," and she wonders why Susan Faludi would. Next, a doughy man in golf pants gets huffy: "We always try to blame the other guy or other gal. I ask you, why not walk together?"
From a satellite and back again, Faludi warms up to him. He looks old enough to have seen the edges of World War II optimism, followed by the Big American Fantasy, perhaps wounded by the American Dream. She's always been about the sexes walking together, equally, against stereotypes and so has feminism, she says. "I agree we've come to the end of this blame game. The whole point of my book is that this is a rare opportunity for men and women to unite against a cultural force."
The cultural force is commercialism. The enemy is this endless shopping spree we're all on. In her book, she compares it to a Philip K. Dick dream--lonely, futuristic people with credit cards and no sense of belonging to anything. It's false eyelashes and big boobs and lipstick. Lady Kenmore is now the victim of Pottery Barn, but also, for you guys, another specter: CK underwear, six-pack abdominals, the Abercrombie tyranny of perfect blond men with nowhere to go (not to war, not to factories, not to outer space). Here is the sad, new man: He's got nothing to do and nothing to show for it, and he hates that.
Whatever Faludi might say about commercialism is interrupted by a commercial break, and then a bit more of Chris Cuomo and oh, we're out of time.
A few minutes later, she is disconnected, unwired, thanked profusely by young production assistants and set free into the sunshine, into the caring cocoon of the sports utility vehicle driven by her book-tour escort du jour. Faludi's already pooped, and possibly coming down with a cold. The escort hands her an energy snack, a Clif bar, which resembles a Rice Krispies treat for yuppies. "And it says here, 'Formulated for women,' " her host cheerfully adds.
"What do you suppose that means?" Faludi wonders aloud. "Probably that it has lower calories? Whatever, they are good." And she nibbles, and sighs. She turned 40 in April (too busy finishing "Stiffed" to celebrate, she recalls, or to consider if the milestone was freighted with any meaning for one of the country's younger, better-known feminists). "This part of the book coming out--having to listen to people say it's hogwash--I sort of predicted. It doesn't lend itself to any quick sound bite, although I have worked valiantly to try and boil down the essence of the shift between utilitarian society and the ornamental, consumer, celebrity idea of masculinity."
Utilitarianism? Losing us here, Susan. Losing us.
"I knew there would be this great frustration with me. It's like, 'We've already slotted you as the feminist who we would put against the champion of men, so now where are we supposed to put you?' "
Now she is, if you can handle it, tender toward men. They're shrinking, like that guy in the old sci-fi film. He passes through atomic mist, slowly vanishing, and must take refuge in a pink doll house. Faludi relates to him: " 'What was I?' the shrinking man beseeches the silent heavens. 'Was I still a human being? Or was I the man of the future?' "
The Monumental Male
It seemed proper to start at the Washington Monument. O great phallus, erect symbol of male leadership, cracked and weakened from within, in a state of disrepair . . . these could be jacket blurbs for "Stiffed."
In layered chapters that are more impressive as works of journalism than of radical feminist thought, Faludi spends years hanging out with overlooked, abandoned, misunderstood or newly powerless men--most of them in the Joan Didionesque realm of uneasy Southern California, where Faludi deliberately moved seven years ago to feel "friction."
"Stiffed" begins with the collapse of the aerospace and military industries, intimately profiling men who found Space Age promises to be easily reneged upon a generation later. She even finds deeper meanings in the suicide of Cal Jammer, the top male pornography star of seedy San Fernando Valley, who suffered disastrous erectile difficulty in "one of the few contemporary occupations where the pay gap operates in women's favor," Faludi writes. It goes on. She examines the Waco standoff; she pries into the transformation of Details magazine from a street-smart, gayish independence to an image-driven, masculine showpiece for Conde Nast. Even astronauts in "Stiffed" are flailing about in the void of space, not truly heroic, not the men they are believed to be.
Faludi looks up at the scaffolding surrounding the Washington Monument. "It reminds me of the space program, of the scaffolding that supported the rocket before the launch," she says. (A long day is almost over for her, she's willing to dabble at metaphors.) "When the rocket blasted off, the scaffolding would crumble. It could represent the structure of the society and everyone's attention is instead on the rocket blasting off. Utilitarian roles are replaced by the Space Age idea. All attention is on the glamour. Maybe the scaffolding, though, is more meaningful to society."
Washington, meanwhile, now there's a man.
"Who, curiously, was never actually a father," she says. "But he really represented public fatherhood. It's so wacky that the whole idea of it . . . he filled sort of an adult tradition of not just authority but care. As opposed to now, if George Washington was running today, they'd have to sort of cook up some personal story about it. He'd have to run out and get a foster kid so he could run. Our country is such a fatherless metaphor to begin with. The whole Sons of Liberty history, who walked away from their fathers' oppressive rule. But now we're a country of fatherless people who yearn for it."
Walking along the Reflecting Pool, she talks a little about her boyfriend. "Or what do you call him? A common-law husband? It's interesting that feminists have never come up with a better word for 'boyfriend.' . . . 'Partner' sounds like we're lawyers." He's a magazine and book writer named Russ Rymer. He's 47. They met in San Francisco, through a mutual editor. In tangible ways, she says, Rymer helped her discuss out loud the things she was noticing about men through her seven-year odyssey to explain them. In intangible ways, she says, he helped her empathize with the modern man. "I see things more in shades of gray now," she says.
Lincoln. He's draped in scaffolding, too. Her attention is drawn south, toward the Korean War Memorial. Look at these monumental men, sad statues trudging across the Asian marshes, united against an enemy, or so they think. Faludi wants to be nice about it, but what you have here is a fantasy-by-committee: "It's for all those people who wanted a more traditional memorial. It looks like a scene out of 'Casualties of War' or 'Platoon.' Or yeah, 'Saving Private Ryan.' It's kind of easy. I don't know. Instead of really grappling with all that historical burden, it's sort of giving in to the teary moment and then it turns into another John Wayne tale, the tenderhearted but tough dad, take the bullet for his sons, and again, it's all fantasy."
Back in the SUV, she talks about Internet fantasies. The techno-fashion victims, the kitschy, lounge-lizard cigar-smoking "ironic" millionaires who profess not to care about money and yet judge their entire sense of self-worth on the stock market. Those guys are headed for a big letdown, Faludi says. Stuck in traffic, in front of a Banana Republic store, we contemplate stretch pants for men. The model is a happy androgyne. Stretch pants for men, as if. No wonder guys can relate to age-old feminist complaints. "Well, Banana Republic has always dealt in sort of ornamental BS," she says. "Remember when all they sold was jungle gear and bush jackets and maps that really didn't point anywhere or have meaning?"
She'd love to go deeper there someday, make something of how a Banana Republic ad campaign comes to be, but there's never enough time. Now she must go upstairs to the National Press Club, where, as always, she will receive a bit of adulation and a small ration of you-know-what. The complaints tonight will come from, oddly, more women than men, from those who are not ready to see it her way. Before she can really answer their concerns, however, she is shuttled away to a plane.