Archive for the ‘Susan Faludi’ Category

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.

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Anyone who troubles to think knows that traditional male roles are outdated. They started going stale fifty years ago, and by now they are too moldy for anyone to digest. Yet almost no discussion takes place about what – if anything – should replace them.

As with any trend, the media is eager to seize on every explanation for the unsuitability of traditional male roles. The decline of heavy industry and the outsourcing of jobs are popular explanations. Often, too, the changes in women’s roles is cited, sometimes with urban legends like reverse discrimination, but increasingly by even uglier methods such as personal misogyny and laws about reproductive issues that have been called a war on women (and that have about as much chance of succeeding as demands to ship both legal and illegal immigrants home). But the shallowness of these explanations is suggested by the facts that they are inevitably voiced in aggrieved and puzzled tones, and that they offer no alternatives.

The trouble is, men are the least politically conscious gender. Robert Bly’s mythic men’s movement was never much more than another media-manufactured craze, while modern male supremacists sound like a parody of the popular stereotypes of feminism and provoke laughter more than serious consideration.

Even more importantly, such efforts are essentially reactionary. They demand a return to the roles of a past that lasted very briefly. To the extent that these roles were widely accepted, they existed from about 1850 to 1960, and never did manage to influence the working or lower middle classes very thoroughly.

While gender roles certainly existed before that, and were often weighted in favor of men, any social history reveals that they were rarely those that we think of as traditional. Nobody thought it odd that a medieval English merchant’s widow should take over his business, while women in tenth century Iceland had legal rights that women in modern society only regained midway through the twentieth century. Nor, as we find increasingly, is there much evidence of our social roles having an evolutionary origin – all of which only makes the arguments of male supremacists even more desperate than they initially sound.

So far, the best analysis of modern male roles can be found in Susan Faludi’s Stiffed. Faludi, who is best known for Backlash!, an analysis of the reactions against the second wave of feminism, is equally insightful in talking about men’s roles. She suggests that the generation of men who fought World War 2 returned home emotionally distant, losing themselves in their careers in their overwhelming desire for normality. As a result, they became distant parents, and failed to pass on an image of responsible masculinity to their Baby Boomer sons.

Left to shape their own images of masculinity based on the movies, these sons focused on the more superficial aspects of their father’s roles. They expected control of both family and society, but failed to notice that this control was supposed to be justified by their support and loyalty. Male roles became such a caricature of themselves that today, watching sports is supposed to have more to do with masculinity than making sacrifices for your family, or worrying about the moral values of your children.

In a few places, some of the old masculine roles survived. Faludi notes, for example, that until just before the millennium, father and son roles were common in places like shipyards, where new workers were routinely assigned to the care of older men. These mentorships, by Faludi’s accounts, were highly valued by everyone involved. But most Baby Boomers had no opportunity for a similar experience, and had to make up masculinity as they went along.

Many never got past an adolescent concept of masculinity. If you doubt that,check the leading movies of the last twenty years, especially the comedies.

Yet even if they learned their father’s values, the usefulness of these values in recent decades would have been limited. As self-actualization and economic necessity brought more women into the workplace, the justifications for traditional sex roles quickly declined. In particular, the economic justification of marriage for women diminished. At the most, a woman might marry to extend the prosperity of herself and her future children. No longer needing marriage for basic survival, why should any woman put up with even the appearance of deferring to her partner?

In this light, the confusion and anger of many modern men about feminism is understandable – not admirable and by no means excusable, but understandable. Unsure of their roles, then finding those roles diminished, they could hardly be expected to react except with fear and anger, especially when no obvious alternative exists.

This subject is, of course, endless. But it seems to me that, in the same way that women are starting to learn to move beyond their traditional roles, men need to learn to move beyond theirs. The trouble is, the average modern man is completely unprepared to do so. For many men, their gender role is central to their identity. More – making sure that no one can accuse them of being in any way female is important to their sense of self-worth. Yet, with the social differences between men and women diminishing in industrialized culture, men have less and less to compare themselves to. They can only fall back on trivialities, such as preferring beer to wine – which in the end makes their gender identities even less secure.

What men need is to analyze their recent history as thoroughly as feminists have analyzed women’s. Once they do that, more men might manage to identify themselves less as men and more as humans, and even learn to ally with feminists.

But that is an effort that many men are still reluctant to make. Instead of recognizing the inadequacy of the roles they model themselves upon, they would rather cling to those roles and ignore their increasing irrelevancy. But, until they are ready to move on, the personal and social cost is going to be as high as it is needless.

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One of the most disturbing trends in modern journalism is the manufacturing of news. Of course, journalists – or, at least, editors – have always had the power to decide what is or isn’t news, which is why Rolling Stones’ conversion of the New York Times’ motto “All the news that’s fit to print” to “All the news that fits” is so cynically funny. But what I’m talking about goes even deeper: I mean cases where reporters from reporting the news and starts to making it – often out of very little substance.

For example, Susan Faludi, who is best-known for Backlash, her book on the reactions to feminism, but is also one of the keenest observers in general of the media in North America, notes that, after the September 11th attacks, reporters claimed that women in the United States were suddenly lusting after firefighters. As Faludi observes, this trend was based on no statistical evidence, and often nothing more than a few off-hand comments. Yet it soon became a truism that the media took for granted, its members forgetting that they had created the story themselves.

Some manufactured news is relatively benign. Stories to mark the anniversary of an event are usually fairly lame, but perhaps in an era where the cultural memory is so short, they serve more point than simply providing journalists with an easy story based on old material. And at least anniversary stories are based on real events, although the danger exists that new interpretations will be slipped in, as happened with the twentieth anniversary of Expo 86 in Vancouver, when journalists managed to pretend that the considerable political dissent that the event generated never happened.

Similarly, while journalists reporting on other journalists means that, rather disturbingly, they move from behind behind the scenes to being part of the news, that does happen naturally from time to time. About the worst thing you can say about this type of manufactured news is that journalists do not make nearly as fascinating copy as they seem to believe, and, while they are indulging their own interests, they are usually boring the general public. Still, reporting on journalists can cause an imbalance in the news, as happened when Conrad Black went on trial and dozens of eastern Canadian journalists, many of whom had either worked for Black or with him, gave him coverage that was not only wildly excessive, but so willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that the quality of reporting slipped badly.

However, other types of manufactured news undermine the supposed traditions of journalism more consistently. The manufacturing of a trend based upon a few anecdotes or wishful thinking, the sort of occurrence that Faludi is making a career out of documenting, exists on all levels of journalism, but makes a mockery of the idea of investigation and the effort to uncover truth. Instead, it is the passing off of fiction as reality through repetition – and all the deadlines in the world cannot excuse the fact that it is simply shoddy reporting.

Similarly, when a journalist interviews a celebrity, they frequently fall into the associational fallacy – the idea that, because someone famous endorses something, it must be good, or at least news-worthy enough to be on the front page rather than in the sports or entertainment sections where it belongs. Given the power of the media (and, since the Internet, that power has become greater than ever, even if those who hold that power have shifted), any promotion of sloppy thinking is an event to regret. And when that promotion becomes a regular event, it becomes even more alarming. I also have to wonder why editors are giving away free advertising.

At times, manufactured news turns even nastier, being based on outright distortions and over-simplifications. For instance, recently in the free software media, a great deal of attention was paid to the fact that Linus Torvalds, the benevolent dictator of the Linux kernel, was no longer using one piece of software (the KDE desktop), but had switched to a rival (the GNOME desktop). This switch was only a small part of an interview that covered far broader-ranging and interesting topics, and the comments were casual. Not only that, but the switch was provisional, with Torvalds saying that he would reconsider his choice the next time he set up a computer. But, by giving these comments an exaggerated importance, free software journalists ended up systematically misrepresenting the affair to the public.

What makes this manufacturing of the news particularly troublesome is that, being overworked and under deadline, journalists often borrow from one another. This habit breaks the implied contract that journalists have with readers – especially if the journalist is a columnist – since one of the claims that journalists have to their audiences’ attention is that they are supposed to offer expert information or informed opinion.

But, when manufactured news enters the picture, the habit becomes a means for distortion and poor research to become more accepted.

I can’t say that I have always resisted the temptation to manufacture news myself. I’ve done my share of anniversary reporting, just as most journalists have done. But that is minor peccadillo at best, and sometimes useful. Nor, I’m sure, can I claim that bias creeps into work despite my best efforts – real bias, I means, not the sort that people mean when my efforts to marshal facts leads to a conclusion different from theirs.

But, for me, journalism is supposed to be an effort to express the truth as I see it. Deliberately, consciously manufacturing news is an abandonment of that effort for convenience, and produces only distortion. As I struggle with mixed success to keep my own hands clean, I can only become angry at other people in my profession who no longer even try to do so.

And so, too, should their readers.

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