Excerpt from Susan Faludi's "The Betrayal of the American Man"
From Newsweek, September 13, 1999, U.S. Edition. SECTION: SOCIETY; Pg. 48
The Ornamental Culture and Beyond the Politics of Confrontation
By Susan Faludi
BOOK EXCERPT: Her groundbreaking Backlash looked at the 'undeclared war on women.' Now in Stiffed, the author explores the unseen war on men--the pressure to be masculine in a culture that no longer honors traditional codes of manhood.
The Ornamental Culture
If few men would do what Shawn Nelson did one evening in the spring of 1995, many could relate. A former serviceman whose career in an army tank unit had gone nowhere, a plumber who had lost his job, a former husband whose wife had left him, the 35-year-old Nelson broke into the National Guard armory, commandeered an M-60 army tank and drove it through the streets of San Diego, flattening fire hydrants, crushing 40 cars, downing enough utility poles to cut off electricity to 5,000 people. He was at war with the domestic world that he once thought he was meant to build and defend. He was going to drive that tank he had been meant to command if it killed him. And it did. The police shot Shawn Nelson to death through the turret hatch.
If a man could not get the infrastructure to work for him, he could at least tear it down. If the nation would not provide an enemy to fight, he could go to war at home. If there was to be no brotherhood, he would take his stand alone. A handful of men would attempt to gun down enemies they imagined they saw in family court, employee parking lots, McDonald's restaurants, a Colorado schoolhouse and, most notoriously, a federal office building in Oklahoma. A far greater number would move their destruction of the elusive enemy to the fantasy realm to a clear-cut and controllable world of action movies and video combat, televised athletic tournaments and pay-per-view ultimate-fighting bouts.
But none of it would satisfy, because the world and the fight had changed.
A few glamorous men understood intuitively that in the coming media and entertainment age the team of men at work would be replaced by the individual man on display. Elevated onto the new pedestal of mass media and entertainment, they were unreachable. Like the astronauts who were their forebears, the new celebrated men--media stars, moussed models, telegenic baby moguls-- existed in a realm from which all lines to their brothers had been cut. Where we once lived in a society in which men participated by being useful in public life, we now are surrounded by a culture that encourages people to play almost no functional public roles, only decorative or consumer ones.
Ornamental culture has proved the ultimate expression of the century, sweeping away institutions in which men felt some sense of belonging and replacing them with visual spectacles that they can only watch and that benefit global commercial forces they cannot fathom. Celebrity culture's effects on men go far beyond the obvious showcasing of action heroes and rock musicians. The ordinary man is no fool: he knows he can't be Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Nonetheless, the culture re-shapes his most basic sense of manhood by telling him that masculinity is something to drape over the body, not draw from inner resources; that it is personal, not societal; that manhood is displayed, not demonstrated. The internal qualities once said to embody manhood--sure-footedness, inner strength, confidence of purpose--are merchandised to men to enhance their manliness. What passes for the essence of masculinity is being extracted and bottled and sold back to men. Literally, in the case of Viagra.
The culture that '90s men are stranded in was birthed by their fathers' generation--by men who, weary of Depression and wartime deprivation, embraced the new commercialized American dream. What gets left out of the contemporary nostalgia of baby-boom men for their World War II fathers--evidenced in the huge appetite for the film Saving Private Ryan and books like Tom Brokaw's The Greatest Generation--is what those fathers did after the war. When Dateline NBC produced a documentary based on Brokaw's book, celebrating the World War II tougher than tough heroes, especially relative to their pampered sons, the troubling subtext was how devastatingly unfathered those sons were, how inadequately they'd been prepared for manhood by their heroic fathers.
The men I came to know in the course of researching this book talked about their fathers' failures in the most private and personal terms, pointing inevitably to the small daily letdowns: My father didn't teach me how to throw a ball or My father was always at work. That their fathers had emotionally or even literally abandoned the family circle was painful enough. But these men suspected, in some way hard to grasp, that their fathers had deserted them in the public realm, too. My father never taught me how to be a man was the refrain I heard over and over again. Down the generations, the father wasn't simply a good sport who bought his son a car for graduation. He was a human bridge connecting the boy to an adult life of public engagement and responsibility.
The guiding standards of the fathers, the approving paternal eye, has nearly vanished in this barren new landscape, to be replaced by the market-share standards of a commercial culture, the ogling, ever-restless eye of the camera. By the end of the century, every outlet of the consumer world--magazines, ads, movies, sports, music videos--would deliver the message that manhood had become a performance game to be won in the marketplace, not the workplace, and that male anger was now part of the show. An ornamental culture encouraged young men to see surliness, hostility and violence as expressions of glamour. Whether in Maxim magazine or in Brut's new Neanderthal ads, boorishness became a way for men to showcase themselves without being feminized before a potentially girlish mirror. But if celebrity masculinity enshrined the pose of the bad boy, his rebellion was largely cosmetic. There was nowhere for him to take a grievance because there was no society to take it to. In a celebrity culture, earnestness about social and political change was replaced by a pose of irony that was really just a sullen and helpless paralysis.
In a culture of ornament, manhood is defined by appearance, by youth and attractiveness, by money and aggression, by posture and swagger and props, by the curled lip and flexed biceps, by the glamour of the cover boy and by the market-bartered individuality that sets one astronaut or athlete or gangster above another. These are the same traits that have long been designated as the essence of feminine vanity--the objectification and mirror-gazing that women have denounced as trivializing and humiliating qualities imposed on them by a misogynist culture. No wonder men are in such agony. At the close of the century, men find themselves in an unfamiliar world where male worth is measured only by participation in a celebrity-driven consumer culture and awarded by lady luck.
The more I consider what men have lost--a useful role in public life, a way of earning a decent living, respectful treatment in the culture-- the more it seems that men are falling into a status oddly similar to that of women at midcentury. The '50s housewife, stripped of her connections to a wider world and invited to fill the void with shopping and the ornamental display of her ultrafemininity, could be said to have morphed into the '90s man, stripped of his connections to a wider world and invited to fill the void with consumption and a gym-bred display of his ultramasculinity. The empty compensations of a feminine mystique are transforming into the empty compensations of a masculine mystique, with a gentlemen's cigar club no more satisfying than a ladies' bake-off.
But women have rebelled against this mystique. Of all the bedeviling questions my travels and research raised, none struck me more than this: why don't contemporary men rise up in protest against their betrayal? If they have experienced so many of the same injuries as women, the same humiliations, why don't they challenge the culture as women did? Why can't men seem to act?
The stock answers don't suffice. Men aren't simply refusing to give up the reins of power, as some feminists have argued. The reins have already slipped from most of their hands. Nor are men merely chary of expressing pain and neediness, particularly in an era where emoting is the coin of the commercial realm. While the pressures on men to imagine themselves in control of their emotions are impediments to male revolt, a more fundamental obstacle overshadows them. If men have feared to tread where women have rushed in, then maybe women have had it easier in one very simple regard: women could frame their struggle as a battle against men.
For the many women who embraced feminism in one way or another in the 1970s, that consumer culture was not some intangible force; they saw it as a cudgel wielded by men against women. The mass culture's portfolio of sexist images was propaganda to prop up the myth of male superiority, the argument went. Men, not the marketplace, many women believed, were the root problem and so, as one feminist activist put it in 1969, the task of the women's liberation movement is to collectively combat male domination in the home, in bed, on the job. And indeed, there were virulent, sexist attitudes to confront. But the 1970s model of confrontation could get feminism only halfway to its goal.
The women who engaged in the feminist campaigns of the '70s were able to take advantage of a ready-made model for revolt. Ironically, it was a male strategy. Feminists had a clearly defined oppressive enemy: the patriarchy. They had a real frontier to conquer: all those patriarchal institutions, both the old ones that still rebuffed women, like the U.S. Congress or U.S. Steel, and the new ones that tried to remold women, like Madison Avenue or the glamour and media-pimp kingdoms of Bert Parks and Hugh Hefner. Feminists also had their own army of brothers: sisterhood. Each GI Jane who participated in this struggle felt useful. Whether she was working in a women's-health clinic or tossing her bottles of Clairol in a freedom trash can, she was part of a greater glory, the advancement of her entire sex. Many women whose lives were touched by feminism felt in some way that they had reclaimed an essential usefulness; together, they had charged the barricades that kept each of them from a fruitful, thriving life.
The male paradigm of confrontation, in which an enemy could be identified, contested and defeated, proved useful to activists in the civil-rights movement, the antiwar movement, the gay-rights movement. It was, in fact, the fundamental organizing principle of virtually every concerted countercultural campaign of the last half century. Yet it could launch no men's movement. Herein lies the critical paradox, and the source of male inaction: the model women have used to revolt is the exact one men not only can't use but are trapped in.
Men have no clearly defined enemy who is oppressing them. How can men be oppressed when the culture has already identified them as the oppressors, and when even they see themselves that way? As one man wrote plaintively to Promise Keepers, I'm like a kite with a broken string, but I'm also holding the tail. Men have invented antagonists to make their problems visible, but with the passage of time, these culprits--scheming feminists, affirmative-action proponents, job-grabbing illegal aliens--have come to seem increasingly unconvincing as explanations for their situation. Nor do men have a clear frontier on which to challenge their intangible enemies. What new realms should they be gaining--the media, entertainment and image-making institutions of corporate America? But these are institutions already run by men; how can men invade their own territory? Is technological progress the frontier? Why then does it seem to be pushing men into obsolescence, socially and occupationally? And if the American man crushes the machine, whose machine has he vanquished?
The male paradigm of confrontation has proved worthless to men. Yet maybe that's not so unfortunate. The usefulness of that model has reached a point of exhaustion anyway. The women's movement and the other social movements have discovered its limits. Their most obvious enemies have been sent into retreat, yet the problems persist. While women are still outnumbered in the executive suites, many have risen in the ranks and some have achieved authoritative positions often only to perpetuate the same transgressions as their male predecessors. Women in power in the media, advertising and Hollywood have for the most part continued to generate the same sorts of demeaning images as their male counterparts. Blaming a cabal of men has taken feminism about as far as it can go. That's why women have a great deal at stake in the liberation of the one population uniquely poised to discover and employ a new paradigm--men.
Beyond the Politics of Confrontation
There are signs that men are seeking such a breakthrough. When the Million Man March and Promise Keepers attracted record numbers of men, pundits scratched their heads--why would so many men want to attend events that offered no battle plan, no culprit to confront? No wonder critics who were having trouble placing the gatherings in the usual frame of political conflict found it easier to focus their attentions on the reactionary and hate-mongering attitudes of the leaders of these movements, concluding that the real agenda must be the anti-Semitism of the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan or the homophobia and sexism of Promise Keepers founder Bill McCartney. But maybe the men who attended these mass gatherings weren't looking for answers that involved an enemy. As Farrakhan's speech, chock-full of conspiracy theories and numerological codes, dragged on, men in droves hastened for the exits. What was really fantastic about the day was just being together with all these men, and thinking about what I might do differently, George Henderson, a 48-year-old social worker, told me as he headed out early. The amassing of huge numbers of men was a summoning of courage for the unmapped journey ahead.
American men have generally responded well as caretakers in times of crisis, whether that be in wars, depressions or natural disasters. The pre-eminent contemporary example of such a male mobilization also comes on the heels of a crisis: gay men's response to AIDS. Virtually overnight, just as the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps built dams and parks and salvaged farmland, so have gay men built a network of clinics, legal and psychological services, fund-raising and political-action brigades, meals on wheels, even laundry assistance. The courage of these caregivers has generated, even in this homophobic nation, a wellspring of admiration and respect. They had a job to do and they did it.
Social responsibility is not the special province of masculinity; it's the lifelong work of all citizens in a community where people are knit together by meaningful and mutual concerns. But if husbanding a society is not the exclusive calling of husbands, all the better for men's future. 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. The men who worked at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, where I spent many months, didn't go there and learn their crafts as riggers, welders and boilermakers to be masculine; they were seeking something worthwhile to do. Their sense of their own manhood flowed out of their utility in a society, not the other way around.
And so with the mystery of men's nonrebellion comes the glimmer of an opening, a chance for men to forge a rebellion commensurate with women's and, in the course of it, to create a new paradigm for human progress that will open doors for both sexes. That was, and continues to be, feminism's dream, to create a freer, more humane world. It will remain a dream without the strength and courage of men who are today faced with a historic opportunity: to learn to wage a battle against no enemy, to own a frontier of human liberty, to act in the service of a brotherhood that includes us all.