Stiffed by whom?

October 15, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Maybe I should begin with the slightly acerbic comment of the young guy at the bookstore as he took my credit card.

Who's buying this 662-page treatise on the troubles of men -- men or women? -- I asked.

Without even looking up, he answered, "Women." Then he put my copy of "Stiffed" in a bag and, without missing a beat added: "Frankly, I don't feel oppressed, or stiffed, or whatever."

Or maybe I should begin with the arch words of an Esquire reviewer, "I look down the street at the guys washing their cars and playing street hockey with their kids. Raise your hand if you feel stiffed."

Or maybe I should begin with the question posed by the author herself, "What is a woman doing writing about men in jeopardy? Worse yet, a feminist?"

A funny thing happened on the way to the best-seller list. In the early 1990s, Susan Faludi focused her fine reporter's eye on what men were doing to derail the advances of women and called it "Backlash." Then she turned her sights onto what is being done to men and found that they've been "Stiffed."

Female audience

"Backlash" brought her an appreciative audience of women. But here is the irony: "Stiffed" has apparently also brought her an appreciative audience of . . . women.

Ms. Faludi took her open ear and her note pad deep into the cul-de-sacs of what is often described as "toxic masculinity." She interviewed members of the infamous California Spur Posse and of a domestic violence therapy group. She talked with laid-off workers from McDonnell Douglas, with porn stars and Promise Keepers, Citadel cadets and militia men.

In richly layered interviews, she performed the most female of roles: She offered men an empathic female listener. This understanding woman dug out a mineload of broken promises.

She found, as well, some fine nuggets about the consumer and celebrity culture that's created a masculine mystique to match the feminine mystique. Men have, she concludes, "lost their compass in the world."

If anything, Ms. Faludi got a bit taken with her limited cast of male characters. The men she talked with ("men on the margins") are not necessarily her canaries in the mineshaft of masculinity, signaling the woes of the entire gender.

On the book cover, the "betrayed American man" stands astride a construction site with a baseball cap on his head, a cigarette in his hand. But he looks less like Everyman circa 1999 than like a Soviet Worker Hero circa 1936. In fact, this book says as much about class as gender, if not more.

Ms. Faludi was also a touch too eager to accept the culprit that many of these men choose: dad. "`My father never taught me to be a man,' was the refrain I heard over and over again," she writes. Indeed, the sons eloquently, painfully, talk about "the mystery of their mute fathers." They blame these fathers, as if the elders knew the trick of manhood and refused to pass it on.

Which generation?

But Ms. Faludi never asks them which generation of American fathers did pass on the patrimony of maleness. The immigrant fathers who lost their trade and sense of place along with their native land? The fathers who lost their craft to industrial revolution? Those World War II warriors, after all, came home to don gray flannel suits and role confusion.

Indeed, her "betrayed American men" talk about themselves continually as sons; but rarely as fathers. In 662 pages, there isn't a single soccer dad.

Reading "Stiffed," I had the feeling that this feminist author was happy to report that men blamed their fathers. Better that than blaming their mothers? Or their wives? Or the women's movement? She seemed equally relieved to find men who were also victims, not oppressors.

Since the beginning of the women's movement in the 1970s, women have repeatedly insisted that feminism would liberate men too. Ms. Faludi's thorough and elegant reporting comes, a bit too conveniently, to the same conclusion: men and women "hold the key to each other's liberation."

Well, it's a hopeful note. But when I heard that note, I was listening to the author talk to an audience that held nine women for every man. What was the sentence a dubious male reviewer in London used? Imagine getting into a bar brawl only to have a woman save you.

Is it any wonder that women are more receptive than men to this dame in shining armor?

Ellen Goodman writes a syndicated column.

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