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Betrayal of the American Man

Susan Faludi

October 14, 1999 – Commonwealth Club of California, San Francisco CA


Let me start by asking a question: What is a woman doing writing about men in jeopardy, and worse, a feminist woman?

In the past six years, as I have traveled around the country, a sort of solo feminist venturing into embattled male territory, I have often thought of an episode from Don Quixote. It comes out of a chapter where the bumbling knight gallops to the rescue of this damsel in distress only to botch the job and get her in even hotter water. She barely escapes with her life and, afterward she turns to him and says, “Don Quixote, do me a favor, next time you see me in trouble, whatever you do, don’t save me.”

Probably the last thing the average man in distress wants to see coming over the horizon is a feminist in battle gear. Nevertheless, I have come to the conclusion that feminism holds the key to the male predicament. Also, I am convinced that men’s struggle to free themselves from that predicament holds the key to the success of feminism.

I have spent the past six years talking to men struggling with difficult changes: corporate managers losing their jobs, industrial workers losing their craft, evangelical husbands losing their marriages, young men losing any sense of a secure future. To give you a taste, I talked with a man named Ernie McBride, who fought to integrate the naval shipyard at Long Beach, California. He became the shipyard’s first black electrician and worked his whole career to improve working life for black men in his community.

But these days McBride sits at home and grieves because the tools that he honed in his historic struggles don’t seem to be the least bit effective in the new struggles he sees playing out in his neighborhood streets. “I look out the window,” he told me, “and I see young black men facing disaster. If we don’t do anything about it, the black man is gone.”

I also talked with a Cleveland football fan named Vince Irwin, who could be found on Sundays in the Dawg Pound, that rabid cheering squad of the former Cleveland Browns, his face painted like a hound and a three-foot rawhide bone in his hand. Irwin, or D. Dawg, as he dubbed himself, and also as his business card said, felt an intense, personal kinship with this team until it pulled up stakes three years ago and high-tailed it to Baltimore for more money and a fancy stadium. Certain scales have fallen from D. Dawg’s eyes. “This is the kick in the teeth I needed,” he told me, “to wake up and see what’s really going on here.” He gave up watching football, even reading the sports page and launched a one-man boycott against Nike.

It probably won’t surprise many of you to hear it said that men are in crisis; in fact, you probably are sick of hearing about it. You can’t pick up a newspaper without reading headlines like “The Trouble of Boys,” “White Male Paranoia,” and my personal favorite, “Maybe Manhood Can Recover.”

The newscasts are full of accounts of adult men preying on ex-employers, teenage boys preying on schoolyards, presidents preying on interns, or Promise Keepers praying in football stadiums. Social scientists tell us about rising, lopsided rates of male distress, male illnesses, male suicides. Pollsters track the Angry White Male voters block, and marketers cash in on what one of them called “the new Neanderthal trend” with magazines like the leering Maxim and boorish programs like “The Man Show,” where a bunch of guys hold back what they call a “river of estrogen.”

What is actually burdening men? You listen to the media and you would conclude that there are two possible culprits: women, that is, feminism; or men, that is, their testosterone. We have been told that men are emasculated “victims” of the women’s movement. “Feminism has launched a war on boys,” as a PBS special declared recently. Gender Armageddon. One of the more popular books on boy trouble contends that feminist attitudes can “create boys who are either murderous or suicidal.” Evidently, by this line of thinking, boys are bringing guns to school because feminists created “Take Our Daughters to Work Day.” The same people who insist that feminism is dead are hysterical that feminism is taking over the world.

The other popular line says that men are behaving more badly than ever, but that’s just the way they are engineered. There’s nothing we can do about it short of major doses of Ritalin, passing paddling bills, or chemical castration. The message is, “It’s the testosterone, stupid.”

The underlying message in both cases is that men are driven by the genetic imperative for dominance. Men can’t be men if they aren’t in control. Or, to put it in “Sex and the City” terms, men are dogs and every one of them, evidently, an alpha dog.

But the men I met weren’t hormone-driven hounds any more than women are ovary-ruled breeders. The central problem men face is one overlooked by the media, an elephant in the living room that everyone ignores: the role in men’s lives of the society we live in. Why is this ignored? While we criticize men for dominating, we expect them to do so. So, we look for non-social answers on the male brainstem and the male genome.

The story of what happened to men in society, of men’s recent history, as opposed to men’s unchanging biology, was the story that I went in search of. Male historical experience is a buried story, each chapter being buried even as it unfolds. We talk about American manhood in the abstract, and we reduce men themselves to a perennial everyman, as women were a century ago when the phrase “the woman question” was invoked to describe that perplexing sex in the ethereal singular.

I started my search drawn to the most visible layers of troubled masculinity: Tailhook, the Citadel, the Spur Posse (those high school boys in Lakewood, California, who gained notoriety in the early ’90s in their sex for points contest). I went to the media hotspots where the stories seemed to be about men accosting women. These eruptions of toxic masculinity began to show me what was wrong not so much between men and women, as between men and the changed world that they inhabited. As Billy Shehan, the Spur Posse member with the most points, asked me, “We have to be products of our society somehow, don’t we?”

What could the Spur Posse or the Citadel cadets or the gun-toting kids at Columbine High School for that matter, teach us about pressures on men more generally? So many of the men spotlit by the media cameras in the ’90s seem to be men on the margins, and their stories surely too out there to offer revelations useful to the average man. But, it turned out they had plenty to show us. They were a bit like the canaries in the mine; the first to feel the effects of a kind of social poisoning. What they experienced as catastrophe, many other men sense as pressure, as a distorting force in their lives.

The media-hyped tales about bad boys on the edge led me to investigate the story of the more mainstream fathers from the post-World War II generation, an economic trauma that was especially apparent in the early ’90s, with the recession at full tilt. The mass layoffs of that era plainly undermined men’s role as family breadwinners. Many of these men faced a loss of male authority, even men who weren’t laid off were struck by the fear that they could well be next. As one middle manager, Ron Smith, told me, “I’m like the guy who is hanging from the cliff. I am starting to lose my grip.”

In Billy Shehan’s hometown, McDonnell Douglas laid off 30,000 employees. The misfortunes of the fathers played out at job clubs, unemployment agencies and outplacement centers. The ex-McDonnell Douglas men spoke endlessly to me about the loss of what their paycheck bought, the three-bedroom split ranch homes, the Jacuzzi out back, the five-week family vacation.

But the more I talked to men who were losing their livelihoods, the more I came to see that their sense of masculinity was not fundamentally determined by the size of their wallet. Something else far more essential to them had been stripped away.

Down the road from McDonnell Douglas was the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, and like many military bases in the ’90s it was closed down even though it was one of the top performing shipyards in the country. I spent months there, immersed in a male society in which older men guided younger men by helping them master a body of knowledge. The men called that guidance having a shipyard father. In a shipyard that was 60 percent minority, the fathers and sons were often of different races. Hispanic instrument mechanic Joe Solis called his black superintendent, Dennis Swann, “dad” – the same name that Dennis Swann had earlier given to a white foreman named Charlie Spohn.

The shipyard was a society in which manhood was based on a publicly useful skill and on contributing to a community in which men supported and guided each other. The shipyard workers were able to keep that society alive even as they were closing the shipyard by taking care of each other.

The betrayal of men’s loyalty is one reason why, as the economy recovered in the mid-’90s, the crisis that many men experienced did not. Underlying economic well-being is another layer, a basic compact, not only to male employment but to the whole connection between men and their society. That pact was forged by the belief that loyalty and dedication would be rewarded, or at least appreciated.

I learned about that layer not just at the workplace. It was made clear to me at the Municipal Stadium in Cleveland, where Dawg Pound fans fumed over their team’s flight and where former football players recalled the original bonds between them and the fans. Dante Lavelli, one of the original 1940s Brown’s players, who now runs a mom-and-pop used houseware store in a nearby suburb, recalled to me how he would go have dinner with the fans after games and how, the day after the game, he would sit down and write them thank you notes. “We gave our loyalty,” he said to me. “That’s because,” he said, “everyone was in the same boat after the war.”

Lavelli was himself a GI who had weathered the Battle of the Bulge, and he saw his relationship with the fans in infantry grunt terms. The Dawg Pound fans also saw it that way; they had moved down to the cheap bleacher seats on the ground level to reclaim that more intimate relationship, to literally climb back in the same boat again.

But their loyalty and their love no longer was reciprocated. In the ’90s, teams play to a TV audience, and the Dawg Pound fans found themselves competing with the team for the TV spotlight, which is why men in dog suits were waving their dog bones not at the team, but at the network cameras. In the new world, it was every dog for himself. Loyalty, whether to a corporation, the army, or a football team, was no longer an honored male virtue. In fact, in the eyes of the world, you were as likely to be seen as a pitiable sap.

Even such a loss of loyalty is not at the heart of things. Beneath it lies an even deeper and more private layer of male betrayal. I didn’t go to the men I interviewed originally to ask about their fathers. I went to talk to some of them about sports, others about work, or marriage, or religion, or their war experience. But whether they were football fans or office managers, they insisted that I hear their fathers’ stories. The breakdown of loyalty in the public domain brought the men I talked to face to face with the collapse of some personal patrimony. The men I came to know talked about their fathers’ failures mostly in private terms, “My father was always at the office,” or, all too frequently, “My parents divorced and my father disappeared.”

These men sense that their fathers deserted them in the public realm as well. Having a father was supposed to mean having an older man show you how the public world worked and how to find your place in it. Down the generations, the father wasn’t supposed to be simply a good sport who bought his son a car at graduation, he was supposed to be a human bridge, connecting the boy to an adult life of public engagement and social responsibility.

Some fathom that there is yet another level, a betrayal so all-encompassing that it can hardly be blamed on the fathers. A profound cultural change has occurred in our lifetime, one that’s been building for at least 100 years, but that has now gone into warp speed. We are passing from a utilitarian society where people’s public service was needed and valued, to a consumer-driven, celebrity-saturated culture where people’s credit cards, their display value, their sex appeal, and their marketable fame sometimes seem to be all that’s recognized.

The force of this new culture dictates profoundly what it means to be a man, whether you are a Hollywood celebrity or a clerk at the 7-11. The new display culture thrusts men into an ornamental world of images where what you do for a society takes a back seat to how many people are watching you do it. In the new world, a man must be a “winner” all by himself, and winning is determined by his ratings – whether he has the biggest biceps, the fastest car, the biggest killing on the stock market, or the winningest Viagra performance.

This new culture works subtly and often in unexpected places. One example is that the Vietnam War was fought on terms very different from World War II. The World War II model was of a war fought by grunts, shoulder to shoulder with their officers, gaining a territorial advantage on a traditional battlefield. By the time of Vietnam, we were fighting a celebrity war where the real territory was the media realm of image management, where the officer was just a mid-level bureaucrat unconnected to his troops and needing the disembodied carnage of the body count to make his performance reviews look better.

Getting the biggest body count was akin to getting the greatest marketing percentile for an Internet entrepreneur. It’s a battle field arbitron rating like the notched belt body count contest of the Spur Posse. The Spur Posse boys were denounced for their treatment of girls, and rightly so. But no one looked at their greater motivation, which wasn’t so much to seduce young women as to compete with young women for the spotlight. As Billy Shehan told me, “If you want to prove yourself as a man now, you have to turn yourself into a brand name.” In other words, you are not a man unless you play one on television. It’s an understanding that even the men farthest on the margins grasp, such as the gang kids I talked to who talked about trying to “maintain visibility” as ghetto stars by getting their bloodiest acts on primetime news.

Now, in analyzing this, am I really talking about a class problem? Well, class, race and sexual orientation are all dynamics that determine how susceptible one is to society’s whims. But gender also determines how susceptible one is to class. Because of the expectation for men that they always be in charge and in control, class difficulties are exaggerated in the lens of masculinity.

The celebrity culture is a losing game, even for some of the biggest male winners. Witness that icon of ornamental masculinity, Sylvester Stallone, who tried in spite of the millions he was making to escape the action market because, as he told me, his action hero brand name had trapped him in a life where “everything is a display,” a life where he felt encased in what he called “the feminine mystique.”

Men look around at this ornamental culture where so much of what is valued is based on appearance and youth and image, and they feel like they have been trapped in a world ruled by Miss America, a world in which they are no longer Bert Parks but one of the runner-up contestants.

But just because men have wound up in a beauty contest world doesn’t mean women put them there. The gaze that plagues men doesn’t spring from a feminine eye, and certainly not a feminist eye. What demeans men is a commercial gaze built on entertainment and glamour and PR, a gaze ever more powerful in the world and one that has long demeaned women. Women have challenged that gaze. They have come to understand that it is something separate from themselves, culturally created.

The women’s movement was an attempt to fight the same forces that now increasingly have men by the throat, and here is where feminists, actually can come to men’s rescue. In their struggle against the burdens of a commercial culture, women have experienced lessons that they can impart to their brothers. They learned how to create a breathing space between themselves and their culture, a space in which they could see their situation honestly and imagine other possibilities. Just as women challenged a commercially manufactured feminine mystique, so men can challenge a masculine mystique.

In their struggle, men can come to the rescue of feminists. as well. The feminist movement has operated along, paradoxically enough, very traditional male battle lines. Women fought the clear enemy of the patriarchy on the real frontier of the workplace and higher education and all those public institutions that had shut women out. But men can’t simply rail about a male-dominated society. They have to come up with a way of seeking change without crushing a visible, personal enemy, because their enemy is not visible and not personal. They have to figure out how to confront themselves and look honestly at their relationship with the culture around them, which is a lot harder than blaming someone else. If men can do that, they will be doing women’s struggle a great favor.

The old paradigm of enemies and frontiers is nearing the end of its usefulness to the feminist movement, as it is nearing the end of its usefulness to the century’s other great social movements. We need a new way to seek social progress and to revitalize our public life.


Source – Gifts of Speech:
Copyright 1999 by Susan Faludi. All rights reserved.