Pity the boys

Stiffed: The Betrayal of Modern Man

Susan Faludi <em>Chatto & Windus, 662pp, £15</em>

ISBN 07011

Eight years ago, Susan Faludi became a big name on the feminist circuit with the publication of her first book, Backlash, in which she argued persuasively that women's progress towards equality was being blocked by a wave of scare stories, misleading reports and misinformation campaigns. In her new book she turns away from traditional feminist territory to look at the problems facing men.

Initially Faludi set out to discover why men were so resistant to women's growing independence. She talked to unemployed shipbuilders, LA gang members, Vietnam vets, porn actors, ex-astronauts and born-again Christians. After six years doing a Studs Terkel on the modern American male, she concluded that while men and their resistance might be a major cause of women's problems, women and their growing independence were not the central cause of men's.

According to Faludi, the trouble with boys is not emancipated girls but inadequate dads. Women are just a sideshow to the main event in men's lives: their relationship with their fathers and the legacy of that relationship in adulthood. Young or middle-aged, cocky or gloomy, Faludi's interviewees are ready to substantiate her theory either with lurid tales of paternal violence or depressing accounts of paternal absence, or both. Only a handful of the men whose voices fill the 600 pages of Stiffed had dads to be proud of, dads who helped them to become men themselves.

There have always been hopeless fathers, but Faludi's argument is that the social and political climate that followed the second world war created a new phenomenon: an entire generation of men who sold their sons a dream, because it was the dream they'd been sold themselves. These men and their boys were "stiffed" - ripped off - by the promise of leadership in the home, fraternity in the workplace, supremacy in the world. What they got instead was "a world where personal worth was judged in ornamental terms. Were they 'sexy'? Were they 'known'? Had they 'won'?" Faludi is excellent on the invidious stranglehold of this ornamental culture, in which men now find themselves objectified in very much the way that women have long since been.

There are several references to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, and Faludi suggests that 1990s men have much in common with 1950s women (which men, one wants to know, which women?). But she could just as easily have drawn parallels with Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering, for her central explanation for the woes of modern men is that the reproduction of fathering has gone seriously awry, and that the images of masculinity many young men have received from their fathers are inadequate for the world in which they find themselves.

The disappointing aspect of this book is that although Faludi appears to be breaking new ground, in a sense all she actually does is graft accepted feminist "truths" on to male experience. After all, feminism pioneered mother-blame decades ago. Compared to the battle that daughters were waging - consciously or unconsciously - on the dire influence of their mothers, patriarchy was always something of a picnic. Negative projections, stifling identification, ambiguous role-modelling, internalised guilt, repressed envy - was it any wonder we yearned to affiliate to the clear-cut male world of work, whatever the problems that might present? But how far did blaming our mothers for our misery get us? And how far will blaming their fathers get men? Once we are all equal in victimhood, then what?

Like many much-hyped books from the States, Stiffed is exclusively American in its focus, which provokes a further question: how relevant is any of this to British men? While the two countries may look alike in some ways, the dissimilarities are at least as significant. We have entirely different welfare systems, different employment structures, different social problems. Faludi argues that the malaise of the modern male is rooted in the aftermath of the second world war, but the issues facing American society at that time are not easily equated with those confronting British society in the same period.

These gripes apart, Stiffed is still a rewarding read. Faludi is a meticulous and sensitive interviewer, and her compendium of American men, which could easily have become a collection of superficial snapshots, instead grows into a gallery of compelling and detailed portraits.

The men from Promise Keepers, with their bizarre brand of religious faith more or less intact, despite their marriages collapsing round their ears like the walls of Jericho; the men laid off at the Long Beach Naval Ship Yard with their weary stoicism; the edgy misogynistic youths in the Spur Posse - all, curiously enough, invite compassion. It is these descriptions of lives-being-led that speak most lucidly about the dilemmas facing modern men in America today.

Rebecca Abrams is the author of "The Playful Self" (Fourth Estate)/I>

This article first appeared in the 01 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - David Ramsbotham