The Man Question


Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male, by Susan Faludi, New York: William Morrow & Company, 662 pages, $27.50

Women Can't Hear What Men Don't Say, by Warren Farrell, New York: J.P. Tarcher, 371 pages, $24.95

The debate about gender has been, by and large, a debate about women. For centuries, the "Woman Question" had no male counterpart; men's condition was seen as the universal human norm, and little thought was given to how equality would change male roles. Over the past few decades, however, the notion of a universal human anything has been left in tatters, and feminism has increasingly shifted its focus from formal barriers to equality to cultural beliefs about gender–including the male gender. Meanwhile, three decades of often turbulent change in relations between men and women have given rise to talk of a "decline of males" and a "crisis of masculinity" and engendered a fledgling men's rights movement.

The latest book to wrangle with the Man Question comes from Susan Faludi, whose previous contribution to the gender wars was the 1991 bestseller Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. An almost completely mythical exposé of a society-wide, decade-long effort to undo women's gains, Backlash was not a very male-friendly book. Its central thesis was that men feel threatened by gender equality, and so male-dominated culture mounts a "backlash" whenever women make even modest steps toward this goal.

Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Male is the result of Faludi's six-year exploration of "the American male dilemma," which began, by her own account, as an attempt to find out just why men "so often and so vociferously resist women's struggles toward independence and a fuller life." It says a great deal about the original spirit of her project that the first stop on her quest to understand men was a batterers' counseling group (which is rather like starting a study of women by hanging out with hookers). But along the way, Faludi became convinced that she was asking the wrong question; that the "male crisis," while real, had nothing to do with feminism; and that men–even the batterers–were, like King Lear, more sinned against than sinning.

So who's doing the sinning? Faludi says it's mainly modern capitalism, which strips masculinity of its positive and meaningful aspects.

Interestingly, unlike many feminists, Faludi does not equate traditional masculinity with abusive, egotistical dominance. Rather, she notes that cultural concepts of manhood have always been based on caretaking, social responsibility, and productivity–values she sees embodied in the workingmen of a glorified industrial past, like the rugged steel factory foreman in the 1946 photo on the cover of Stiffed. The older order may have "exploited men's health and labor," may have "broke[n] the backs and spirits of factory workers and destroyed the lungs of miners," but at least, Faludi writes wistfully, "it defined manhood by character, by the inner qualities of stoicism, integrity, reliability…the desire to protect and provide and sacrifice."

Is this the same Susan Faludi who once described male attachment to the provider role as the chief obstacle to women's progress? Yes, it is. But she has hardly turned into a new traditionalist. Her romanticized portrait of blue-collar manliness is strangely unsexed: The workingman's sense of male identity, she asserts, came from doing something "worthwhile," not from being masculine per se. She carefully skirts the fact that this identity was based on a sexual division of labor: the ability to take pride in doing a "man's job" (i.e., occupational segregation by gender) and in supporting a stay-at-home wife.

Faludi's account of the plight of men today is just as skewed. Men, she writes, "find themselves in an unfamiliar world where male worth is measured by participation in a celebrity-driven consumer culture and awarded by lady luck," where "useful" work matters less than glamor, where they can only "enact a crude semblance of masculinity" before the media's looking glass. The modern man, Faludi argues, doesn't really get to be a man. The best he can hope for is to play one on TV.

Imprecations against an age in which image has eclipsed substance and entertainment has usurped life are hardly new (and one need not be an anti-market grouch of the left or the right to believe that these critiques, however overblown and hysterical, contain some valid points). The new twist Faludi adds to this theme is that "ornamental" masculinity has reduced the 1990s man to a condition much like that of the 1950s woman, a state of "objectification, passivity, infantilization, pedestal-perching, and mirror-gazing."

To reach this startling conclusion, Faludi has to employ a rather sweeping definition of "ornamental" masculinity. She is not merely, as one might think, talking about the ubiquitous male Calvin Klein models and other signs of male vanity on the rise. Most of us would see important distinctions between a model, an athlete, a venture capitalist, and an astronaut; in Faludi's jaundiced eye, they're all equally passive objects of the public gaze, all creatures of hype rather than real accomplishment.

Upon a closer look, it turns out that Faludi's real gripe is not with passivity, but with individualism: "The team of men at work [has been] replaced by the individual man on display," she grieves, as if these were the only options available. She gets misty-eyed about the scene in the 1949 film Sands of Iwo Jima in which John Wayne promises the young recruits he will teach them to "move like one man and think like one man." Recounting Shannon Faulkner's fight to get into the Citadel, Faludi can't resist sympathizing with the male cadets who wanted no part of her: They were, after all, a brotherhood, and Faulkner a media-savvy self-described "individualist."

Faludi's other bugaboo is an ever-changing society. The fathers' betrayal, it turns out, is that the world they left their sons was different from what the sons had expected. Today, Faludi laments, "the father has no body of knowledge or authority to transmit," and "each son must father his own image, create his own Adam." Indeed, it seems that in her ideal world, sons would, just like in medieval times, routinely join their fathers' trade. When Los Angeles gang-banger-turned-author Kody Scott talks bitterly about desertion by his father, National Football League player Dick Bass, Faludi reflects, "But even if Dick Bass had been around…what sort of knowledge could he have deeded a son? Bass wasn't likely to pass on to Kody the ability to become an NFL football player." Is Faludi really saying that a father's only real function is to teach his son a useful craft? Has she ever paused to think that most of her working-class heroes slaved away at back-breaking jobs so that their sons wouldn't have to do the same kind of work?

As most critics have noted, Faludi's study of the "male crisis" is based on an odd cast of highly unrepresentative characters–some colorful, some tragic, some merely pathetic. There are laid-off shipyard workers and middle-aged victims of corporate downsizing. There are the infamous "Spur Posse" boys who engaged in a points-for-sex contest, and who seem far more excited about being on TV than they are about the sex. There are Promise Keepers and militiamen, rabid football fans who are devastated when the owner of the Cleveland Browns decides to move the team to Baltimore, and male porn stars undone by erectile dysfunction. And there's Sylvester Stallone, whose angst gets more than 30 pages of text.

Faludi apparently realizes that her unorthodox sampling technique might undercut the validity of her case in some people's eyes, so she tries to neutralize this criticism in advance by quoting one of the militiamen: "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…of what's going on in the middle." It may be a catchy metaphor, but it's certainly suspect social analysis.

Some of the stories in Stiffed are poignant, gripping, and well-told, even if they tend to go on and on. Faludi does offer some interesting insights–for example, on the peculiar mix of gender traditionalism and New Sensitive Manhood in the Promise Keepers movement. And I suppose there is some value simply in her recognition that men are not powerful oppressors but human beings whose stories deserve to be heard and whose suffering deserves compassion (even if she makes such an odd selection of stories to hear and so misdiagnoses the suffering).

But what does it all add up to? Faludi wants men to rebel against their "ornamental imprisonment" as women did against theirs, and suggests that feminism –which, in her peculiar interpretation, becomes an anti-consumerist revolt–can offer men a key to their own liberation. However, she cautions, men cannot simply follow the feminist model of activism: Women could fight against "a clearly defined oppressive enemy" (male domination) and lay siege to patriarchal bastions, while men have no turf to conquer, no identifiable antagonist to defeat.

Faludi suggests that men need to find a new, noncombative paradigm of liberation, and that in doing so they will actually help revive feminism, since the "paradigm of confrontation" has outlived itself for women, too. It's an intriguing idea, but what is this "new paradigm"? What is it that men should actually do? Here Faludi is exceedingly vague; she mentions men who went to the Million Man March or Promise Keeper rallies not in search of an agenda but simply to be with other men and find "a place where they could start to think about their situation afresh." That's a pretty small payoff for a 662-page tome.

Given the way Faludi overdraws her portrait, it's tempting to conclude that there is no "male dilemma" at all. It's certainly true that most American men are happy (or at least satisfied) with their family lives and their work, even if it's not "meaningful" by Faludi's standards. They would not recognize themselves in Stiffed and its melodrama of betrayal. Nevertheless, not everything is fine for men, though for reasons far different than Faludi supposes. The cultural climate has been infected with a view of masculinity as "toxic," a fact Faludi barely mentions, probably because doing so would implicate feminism in men's distress. That's the one thing she wants to avoid. The tendency to blame men for anything that goes wrong between the sexes can and does affect public policy and the legal system. Many men are genuinely confused by women's expectations and feel that feminism has led only to a new set of double standards. Finally, there is men's often involuntary estrangement from their children. If one group of American men feels truly "stiffed," it is divorced fathers, bafflingly absent from Faludi's account.

Those "men's issues" are explored by Warren Farrell in Women Can't Hear What Men Don't Say. Farrell, whose last book, The Myth of Male Power (1993), has become a men's movement bible, views the male predicament from a radically different perspective than does Faludi. Interestingly, his interest in this subject, like hers, grew out of feminism. In the 1970s, he served on the board of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women and became the feminists' favorite "liberated man" (he even published a book by that title). Then he began to talk about the male side of the war between the sexes, which cost him his friendship with Gloria Steinem and earned him Susan Faludi's ridicule in Backlash for "standing up for men, the new downtrodden."

Farrell's basic argument is that both men and women need to be freed from the rigid roles of the past, and here he takes a decidedly optimistic view of the liberating potential of technological and cultural change. Today, he says, we are in a period of "gender transition" in which both sexes have to make difficult adjustments and deal with complicated dilemmas.

But seeing women as the oppressed sex, we have focused only on women's problems and men's faults. As a result, gender issues are often reduced to "women good/men bad" clichés. Family violence studies showing that women can be aggressors as well as victims have been ignored or swept under the rug; discussions of working women's "second shift" of domestic labor have neglected male contributions and downplayed the fact that overall, American women have more leisure time than men. Male bashing flourishes not only in the feminist movement but in popular culture, from sitcoms to greeting cards. ("Grow your own dope…plant a man" is one of the more innocuous examples cited here.) This atmosphere, Farrell argues, poisons relationships by feeding women's anger at men–"the most dangerous forcefield of anger ever aimed at either sex."

One need not accept Farrell's implausible view that men and women have always had equal-but-different roles with no real imbalance of power to see the value of his perspective. It is quite clear that in the past 30 years, women's options have expanded far more than men's; women can now work or stay home without incurring any significant social disapproval, but a stigma still attaches to a man who lives off his wife's earnings. Moreover, it's often women who actively enforce the male provider role by shunning men who fail to perform it. (Some of Faludi's stories illustrate this point–many of the white-collar workers who lose their jobs are promptly dumped and sometimes treated quite horribly by their wives–but she is interested only in the men's feelings of "emasculation," not in what this says about women's attitudes.) As Farrell points out, even women who have or aspire to successful careers usually don't see lower-status men as marriage material, and that's one form of traditional prejudice one hardly ever hears feminists criticizing.

Women Can't Hear What Men Don't Say makes a persuasive case that male disadvantages, in areas from education to health care to criminal sentencing, have not received the attention lavished by academics, the media, and government on real or imagined female troubles. For instance, initiatives to empower girls eclipse the fact that boys are the ones increasingly falling behind in schools. Farrell chronicles the tendency of institutions to shut out nonfeminist perspectives on gender issues–what he calls "The Lace Curtain," a term coined by conservative writer Nicholas Davidson–and shows that feminism has become the "one-party system of gender politics." His argument that feminist demands for special protections often overlap with traditional chivalry toward women is not wholly original, but it's a point that bears repeating. In Farrell's memorable phrase, "protecting women creates sexual equality no more than welfare payments created class equality."

Unfortunately, like many feminists, Farrell can't resist overstating his case. Thus, in his discussion of housework, he does an excellent job of exposing flaws in studies that indict men as shirkers, including Arlie Hochschild's much-hyped book The Second Shift; but his list of 50 categories of male contributions to the household gives a major opening to those eager to dismiss his entire case. Farrell splits a single category–"repairs"–into multiple items ("carpentry," "gas/electric failures," "remodeling," etc.), lists activities that take place once a year or less often (putting up Christmas lights, stereo hookup, car buying), and comes up with such bizarre items as "options generating" (suggesting which restaurant or movie to go to).

Farrell's description of anti-male biases in the media and culture, while mostly on-target, also includes some dubious assertions–for instance, that man-hating feminist Andrea Dworkin "has been given mainstream credibility by…reviews and coverage in The New York Times," starting with the assignment of her book Pornography to "a feminist (Ellen Willis) to review." Willis is a well-known foe of anti-porn feminists, and her review of Pornography was extremely negative.

A more serious problem is Farrell's wholehearted embrace of platitudes about the need for men to "be in touch with their feelings"–not to mention the little anecdotes illustrating what an emotionally evolved fellow the author is (e.g., he cries over The Bridges of Madison County). After a while, the talk about "caring," "sharing," and "love" gets so treacly that one feels like reaching for a volume of the Marquis de Sade or watching the World Wrestling Federation.

Indeed, the contrast between Farrell's and Faludi's view of the world is not always in Farrell's favor. However bizarre Faludi's definition of work may be, she at least believes that men and women cannot respect themselves or feel truly human unless they have "something worthwhile to do" (emphasis hers). Farrell laments that traditional male roles encouraged a man to become "a human doing" defined by work, rather than "a human being" defined by feelings. In his rendition, everything men have achieved throughout history is reduced to the onerous role of "performing."

Of course, men should not be stigmatized for expressing emotion–though there is a big difference between having feelings and coddling them–and men's suffering should not be seen as unworthy of compassion. But Farrell considerably exaggerates the degree to which men have been subjected to such standards; and surely today, when political candidates are routinely psychoanalyzed by the media and public schools are teaching students how to express their feelings, the last thing we need is more jabs at the already-battered virtue of emotional reticence.

Is the current lack of political interest in men's problems caused by the stigma against male complaining and indifference to male feelings, as Farrell thinks? Such norms have never been a barrier to addressing concerns about the plight of male workers such as, say, coal miners or factory hands. It's only when an issue is framed as a gender issue that female disadvantage tends to be magnified and male disadvantage to become invisible. This mentality needs to change, but that can be accomplished without encouraging men to join the touchy-feely Oprahfied culture. It's one thing when a man talks about the pain of losing his child in a divorce; it's quite another when he ruminates that the role of suggesting social activities "often involves having one's ideas rejected, which can be emotionally taxing."

If one has the patience to cut through the psychobabble, Farrell's ultimate recommendation is a sound one: "to create not a women's movement blaming men, or a men's movement blaming women, but a gender transition movement." Unlike Faludi, he actually proposes a fairly specific (and mostly positive) agenda for this movement, from recognizing fathers' rights to ending discrimination against men in areas such as the military draft to special protections for female crime victims.

Both Faludi and Farrell end up painting much too bleak a picture of men's lot. Still, if these books signal the start of moving beyond the oppressor/oppressed paradigm of male-female relations, that is something to be applauded. One can only hope that the movement is in the direction of ending the victim sweepstakes, not adding men to the roster of contestants.