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Man Trouble

Author Susan Faludi says American men are an endangered species

By Patrick Sullivan

"BOOK TOURS are strange things," says author Susan Faludi with a weary laugh. "Every 15 minutes you're starting over again." But it may be a while before Faludi gets any respite from the besieging ring of interviewers. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and feminist, perhaps best known as the author of the best-selling Backlash: The Undeclared War against American Women, is in high demand once again, sailing from television talk shows to news magazines and back again with a provocative new message that the mainstream media seem both helpless to ignore and deeply reluctant to accept.

Back in 1991, Backlash generated howls of outrage in some circles for its argument that women's struggle for equality was running up against a political and social counterattack of monstrous proportions and effect. Now, in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man (Morrow;$27.50), Faludi is back with a startling new thesis: Men, says the feminist author, are also getting a raw deal.

The book, which was some six years in the making, is built around Faludi's in-depth interviews with a wide range of American guys, from downsized aerospace engineers to Waco-obsessed militia members to Cleveland Browns' fans to gangbangers from South Central. Even Sylvester Stallone, Details magazine, and a visit to the set of a porn movie make it into the mix.

Despite the diversity of her interview subjects, Faludi--who speaks on Oct. 15 at Sonoma State University--found that American men seem to have at least one thing in common: a painful identity crisis.

"The theme I heard struck again and again was 'I don't feel useful in society,' " says the 40-year-old Faludi, speaking by phone from a hotel room in New York City. "And that sense of social utility, where you make a meaningful contribution to your family, to your community, where you work with other men--that's historically where manhood's been grounded."

But that source of masculine identity, the author argues, is increasingly uncertain in a contemporary America beset by layoffs, deindustrialization, and--perhaps most significantly in Faludi's eyes--a cultural shift toward the glittery new world of media spectacle, a world populated by superathletes, action heroes, and Viagra studs.

"What's happening is that we're becoming more and more of a commercially driven consumer culture that's all about celebrity and image and being a winner all by yourself," Faludi says.

"So many of men I talked to," she adds, "felt that there was no middle ground anymore. Either you were this winner on display who just dominated everything and was larger than life and had the biggest muscles and drove the biggest car, or you were a nobody, a loser."

American men, in short, have been betrayed--neglected by their emotionally distant fathers, sold short by a celebrity-obsessed media culture, and sucked down by the treacherous quagmire of the postmodern economy.

If only Nixon could go to China, then maybe only a certified feminist like Faludi could write Stiffed. Certainly a man making these arguments could easily sound like a whiner, a sore loser, or an Angry White Male. But, then again, Faludi's credentials haven't shielded her from intense criticism.

"This woman is clearly on a mission: Find a soft place in the collective male self-esteem and drive at it until the lance runs red," declared one writer in an Esquire article, before going on to add that he didn't feel stiffed and didn't know any men who did.

"Well, that guy hadn't even read the book!" Faludi says indignantly. "You know, that's part of the problem with our culture, where we have people writing reviews of books they have not seen. I mean, that's a little bizarre, I think."

But the author has encountered similar criticisms during her frequent forays into the male-dominated world of the TV talk show. One of her pet peeves is interviewers who explain to her that a quick survey of their male colleagues in the green room didn't turn up anybody who felt betrayed by American culture.

"You just can't take a man on the street survey and expect to get anything particularly revealing," Faludi says. "One has to really know the men you're talking about, and the men have to feel comfortable talking before you get any kind of honest grappling with what's really going on with them."

That kind of immersion served as Faludi's primary method of collecting the material for Stiffed. She began by plunging deep into the fractured world of a group of Southern California men in financial and emotional crisis, spending hours, days, even years talking to them and tracking their progress through unemployment centers, Promise Keepers' meetings, and domestic-violence counseling groups.

She hung out with the adolescent members of the Spur Posse, a high school gang that won a fleeting media notoriety by competing for points in a contest focused on who could have sex with the most girls. She went down to the shooting range to fire off a shotgun with Michael McNulty, an unemployed insurance salesman who was one of the creative forces behind the documentary Waco: The Rules of Engagement. And she talked extensively with actor Sylvester Stallone, trying to unravel the knotty riddle of his troubled relationship with both his movie career and his abusive father.

"I actually spent a fair amount of time with him, because it was at a moment where he was really questioning his persona as an action hero and was trying to retreat from the action market for a while," Faludi says. "He was quite open and interested in talking about masculinity."

Some readers may be surprised by the amount of empathy--even affection--that Faludi clearly has for most (though not all) of these men. Combining finely honed reportorial skills with graceful prose, she lays out their troubled lives in largely sympathetic terms.

That very sympathy has opened Faludi to another kind of criticism. Some reviewers have said that she's too soft on men, that she's letting the perpetrators of domestic violence off the hook, or even that Stiffed amounts to a betrayal of feminism. But the author urges anyone who believes that to take another look.

"It's a very feminist book. It's attempting to apply feminist analysis to men," Faludi says. "I mean, I understand the impulse among women to say, 'Oh, boo-hoo. Men--who cares about their pain? But it's not a very productive response. It comes out of the frustration a lot of women feel in the workplace where they see that all the top spots are taken by men, or at home, where they feel that their husbands are not carrying their fair share of the domestic load. But the truth is that . . . most men are in quite a powerless position in society."

STILL, FALUDI SAYS she does take the issue of male violence very seriously. Indeed, she points to the long list of recent killing sprees in America's public schools and office buildings as perhaps the most lethal consequences of the male identity crisis.

"One thing that interests me is that so many of the discussions about schoolyard shootings are about 'What are we providing that may be inciting this violence? Is it video games? Is it dirty movies? Is it action flicks?' " Faludi says.

"When maybe," she concludes, "what we should be asking is 'What are we not providing?' And that's a society for young men to grow up into where they feel they have a real stake and something of substance to offer."

But make no mistake: Faludi has no desire to return to some mythical '50s paradise of white picket fences and rigid gender roles.

As she writes in Stiffed, "Because as men struggle to free themselves from their crisis, their task is not, in the end, to figure out how to be masculine--rather, their masculinity lies in figuring out how to be human."

Susan Faludi appears on Friday, Oct. 15, at 8 p.m. at SSU, Evert Person Theatre, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. Tickets are $10 and are available at Copperfield's Books. For details, call 664-2353.

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From the October 7-13, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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