Susan Faludi is famous for Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, a detailed description of the hostile reaction to feminism during the 1980s. She is less well-known for Stiffed: The Betrayal of American Men, her equally in-depth description of male gender roles in the mid-1990s. The reason for this discrepancy? She wrote Backlash as a mainstream feminist for whom the existence of male privilege was an unexamined given. By contrast, by the time she finished writing Stiffed she was an unorthodox feminist critical of the conventional view of male privilege.
In modern feminism, male privilege is a major explanatory principle. Just as you might explain why objects fall to the ground by invoking gravity, so many feminists evoke male privilege for an explanation of almost anything that men do. For example, a man who makes a sexist remark is demonstrating their position of power over women. So is a catcaller or a rapist. In all these cases, evoking male privilege is all the explanation that is needed. There is no need to go deeper in male psychology, because referring to male privilege says all that is believed necessary.
By contrast, while researching and writing Stiffed, Faludi concluded from her observation that male privilege was only a partial explanation. As she interviewed men across the United States – particularly working class men – she noticed that, far from feeling powerful, many men had been feeling a lack of power since the end of World War Two, and lacked positive role models. Their sole exercise of privilege was their assumption that they could take out their uncertainty and frustration on women, whom they often blamed for their feeling of being trapped.
Faludi’s conclusions have distinct advantages over the conventional analysis of male privilege. For one thing, they are based on observation, not theory, so they carry more conviction. For another, they cast men as fellow victims of gender roles, a view that tends to break down the view of men as Other.
However, the most important aspect of Faludi’s conclusions is that, because they go deeper into the causes of sexism and misogyny, they suggest more productive ways of handling these behaviors.
This advantage became clear to me the other day at a Psychology Dinner meetup on the subject of modern feminism. A woman described how a young man, probably at a night club for the first time, was groping every woman he could reach, including her.
A conventional response would be to shout at him, or call for a bouncer; he was a man with an assumption of privilege. However, while such a response would get him to stop his immediate behavior, it would leave him resentful and more likely to continue his unacceptable behavior in a gesture of defiance.
However, instead of just shouting at him – although she did that, too – the woman took him aside. Assuming his behavior was due to immaturity, she took it on herself to explain why it was unacceptable. She never saw him again, so she never knew how he responded in the long term, but, by seeing him as human and inexperienced rather that an exerciser of privilege, she at least open the way for him to learn something and modify his behavior. The woman had never read Faludi, but her assessment of the situation was very much like what she might have had if Faludi had inspired her.
Yet despite these advantages, Faludi’s perspective has been rejected and generally dismissed in many feminist circles. It is unorthodox, and it denies the self-righteousness and sense of superiority that evoking male privilege encourages. It is also more humane, and therefore more difficult to maintain.
In a word, Faludi’s view is too new. It requires a rethinking that many feminists are reluctant to undertake. Instead, they reject it as being soft on sexism and misogyny, and stop thinking of it. Praising Faludi and accepting “backlash” into their vocabulary is one thing when her analysis is conventional, but being asked to critique their core analytical tools is another thing altogether, and completely unacceptable, regardless of the evidence.
Faludi’s response to this reception is that there are many types of feminism, and that questioning orthodoxy does not make her less of a feminist. But to me, the painful part is that mainstream feminism has rejected insights that might have deepened its members’ understanding, and made their analyses of society more detailed and effective. Faludi has been an important influence on my thinking about feminism, and I regret that her second book was not as welcome as her first one among those who could make best use of her insights.