Seeking to create, in her new magnum opus, a canvas rivaling in scope those of Balzac and Dickens, Susan Faludi offered herself as compassionate auditor to American males over a six-year period. The result of all this listening, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, manifests a change in her original assumptions, she says. But in her selection of subjects—Promise Keepers and porn stars, ex-shipyard and aircraft workers, Vietnam veterans and militiamen, notorious street gang figures and members of the Spur Posse—Miss Faludi shaped her conclusions before she had conducted her interviews, revealing more about contemporary journalism than about the reality of men’s choices.
Miss Faludi’s universe begins with the post-World War II generation, and the internal evidence of the book shows little awareness of a historical process prior to the New Deal, although her implicit theoretical assumptions derive from Marx and Freud. Miss Faludi’s preconceptions go unacknowledged: we are meant to think that the truth has been made known to her by the almost uniformly unhappy and unsuccessful men who were asked to share their stories. And the overarching truth she uncovered through so much note taking in so many drab and cheerless settings is that white heterosexual males—the oppressive villains of radical secularist orthodoxy—are victims too. Miss Faludi’s achievement is to universalize victim status.
How, then, have American men been betrayed? Neither a cultural historian nor a theorist, Faludi draws upon her ideology for explanation. She dislikes contemporary conceptions of masculinity, and traditional ones too, but she fails to examine such conceptions or to trace a historical change, except in cursory asides to her vignettes. Her closest approximation to social analysis is in occasional brief and vaporous passages comparing the present plight of males to that of women before the dawn of the feminist movement of the sixties. It is, you see, the System that is to blame—what she infelicitously terms the “ornamental culture”—sketchily portrayed in derivative and superficial comments about our celebrity-oriented consumer society. It is not that this particular intellectual cliché does not continue to deserve serious scrutiny, but rather that Stiffed provides none.
More importantly, Miss Faludi acknowledges the profound impact of feminism on the lives of American males over the last thirty-five years only in passages at the beginning and end of the book calling for men and women to work together toward the new utopia. What resources are to be mobilized, and in what manner, are questions left unaddressed, or perhaps purposely hidden. Like a fellow traveler of the thirties, Miss Faludi is very cautious about revealing her agenda.
But the contrast between Miss Faludi’s mocking and uncomprehending treatment of the Promise Keepers’ search for meaning and her sympathetic depiction of a male porn actor’s struggle to stay afloat financially indicates both her unacknowledged political allegiances and her moral numbness. Porn actors are portrayed rather like unemployed corporate workers, their choice of career unquestioned, their difficulties blamed on the system in which they work rather than on any internal emptiness.
It seems that what males are hired for in pornographic films is to ejaculate on camera for what is called the “money shot,” which is the crucial event of the film. The ability to perform this task on demand with a machine-like indifference to external circumstances or internal feelings is not widely distributed even among the willing male population. Thus males, whose performance is unpredictable and who are in any case secondary attractions for the heterosexual audience of the films, earn far less money than female porn stars, whose appeal is largely visual and whose standard of performance can be counted on. Miss Faludi elaborates on the plight of the male porn star in a long section focused mostly on his limited earning capacity and the disrespect with which he is treated, rather as if she were decrying workplace discrimination against blacks and women.
Miss Faludi exchanges her compassion for porn stars for irony, direct criticism, and passages of political harangue when the discussion switches to the Promise Keepers. Their attempts to adhere, however inconsistently, to a religious tradition she vigorously faults as a failure of political engagement, negatively contrasting this contemporary men’s movement with the Social Gospel movement that arose early in the century. The earlier crusade earns her praise for projecting “a radical critique of capitalism” with a “vision [that] foregrounded Christ’s workingman status.”
From Christ as workingman Faludi proceeds to a hasty and confused foray among authorities ranging from the twelfth-century churchman Bernard of Clairvaux to various feminists and social scientists in an effort to discover the psychological purposes served by the various images of Christ. After spending a few pages exploring the meaning and history of Christianity, she declares that “the form of Christianity has proved exceedingly mutable as has the image of Christ himself.” Further, “all of these images were shaped as much by worldly forces as by the religious imagination.” Thus she affirms her own strongly implied position that religion should serve politics.
Miss Faludi speaks in her own voice only on the subject closest to her heart—the social construction of gender. Again, the weight of anecdote and quotations embellished with dramatic metaphor provides the imagery for her underlying theme: men have been victimized by a faulty definition of manhood that demands the pursuit of victory. Seeing the world in terms of a Marxian power struggle, she perceives the goals of success and excellence as an effort at “winning” that must be abandoned.
Thus Miss Faludi is drawn to the sexually transgressive, to the men who have decidedly rejected traditional masculinity. She accepts gay activist Martin Duberman’s assessment of drag queens as the heroes of the Stonewall revolution, the 1969 riots in New York City credited with sparking the contemporary gay liberation movement. This heroism consisted not primarily in physical resistance to police raids on a homosexual bar, but in their confrontation with “the whole binary idea of gender.” That confrontation is celebrated by Faludi and attributed by her to sources in feminism as well as gay liberation. She laments the transvestites’ later rejection by many gay activists seeking to modify their public image. But she does not deal with the fact that the drag queens make manifest a major purpose of mainstream gay activism, although she quotes approvingly anthropologist Esther Newton: “The effect of the drag system is to wrench the sex roles loose from that which supposedly determines them, genital sex.”
In a concluding peroration, Miss Faludi raises the question: “Why don’t contemporary men rise up in protest against their betrayal?” She muses that “the male paradigm of confrontation” is peculiarly unsuited to mounting a challenge to men’s predicament because men have no clearly defined enemy who is opposing them. What has not occurred to her is that women are increasingly becoming the enemy: the growing hostility between men and women goes unremarked in this six-hundred-page book.
While ostensibly eschewing “the male paradigm of confrontation,” Faludi thinks in terms of male mobilization, a political mechanism for confrontation. The preeminent contemporary example of such a mobilization is, she says, gay men’s response to AIDS. Detailing the networks of mutual support they have built, she ignores completely the dark side of this effort. Gay men have vigorously fought off the only public health measures that could significantly contain the spread of AIDS—contact tracing and testing of partners—methods long used for syphilis and other sexually transmitted afflictions. In the same way they have for the most part opposed the closing of the gay bathhouses that are breeding grounds for the disease and have often made their fundraising parties for AIDS research opportunities for the promiscuous sex that is the disease’s primary cause.
Homosexual activists like the playwright Larry Kramer and the writer Gabriel Rotello, author of Sexual Ecology—an important weaving together of ecology theory, epidemiology, and sexual politics—have been ferociously attacked by their fellow gay activists for publicly acknowledging that AIDS results as much from human behaviors as from specific microbes.
Faludi’s support for gay liberation, denying so much of its reality, is grounded, it appears, in her enthusiasm for destabilizing sex roles. Such a program has as its ultimate consequence a lessening of interest in human reproduction and thus a rending of the intergenerational bond that is the essence of civilized society. In our culture of narcissism, feminists have joined with gay activists in rebelling against this bond, and their rebellion is the key to the betrayal of the American man.
Marjorie Rosenberg, a former psychotherapist, is a writer living in Chicago.