October 25, 1999 12:00 PM

With her 1991 bestseller Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, Susan Faludi established herself as a leading feminist voice. Chronicling society’s resistance to women’s rights at home and work, Backlash won the National Book Critics Circle Award and prompted yet another round of national debate on the war between the sexes. Now, in Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, Faludi examines the other side. After six years spent interviewing such diverse subjects as laid-off shipyard and aerospace workers, members of the Promise Keepers, cadets at The Citadel and even porn stars, she draws a grim conclusion: Since World War II, men have lost “a useful role in public life, a way to earn a decent living, appreciation in the home [and] respectful treatment in the culture.” The source of the malaise isn’t simply the economy or women’s progress, Faludi argues, but a tectonic societal shift away from job loyalty and valuing vocational skills to celebrity, image and “who has the most, the best, the biggest, the fastest.”

Growing up in Westchester County, N.Y., Faludi, 40, preferred woodworking and chemistry to Barbie dolls. She wrote about women’s issues as editor of The Harvard Crimson and worked at various newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, where she won a Pulitzer Prize for labor reporting in 1991. Faludi lives in Los Angeles with writer Russ Rymer, to whom Stiffed is dedicated. “The book came out of a million conversations we had,” she says. “He’s my reality check and sounding board.” Associate Editor Paula Chin spoke with Faludi in New York City.

As a feminist, why did you write a book about men?

Coming out of Backlash, I realized that while I’d documented men’s resistance to women’s equality, I hadn’t grappled with the why of that resistance.

I thought I’d be exploring the classic men-versus-women question—that is, men’s frustration, anger, their lashing out—which was why I began my research with a domestic-violence group. But it quickly became clear that male rage was just the outer layer of the onion. Letting the men guide me, I ended up taking a zigzag path—from Vietnam veterans who felt unappreciated and cut adrift to Cleveland football fans who felt abandoned when their team hightailed it to Baltimore for more money; from fatherless boys who turned to gangs and violence in South Central Los Angeles to movie stars who resented being valued only for their well-muscled image on a flickering screen.

Why do men feel disillusioned and unmoored?

First, there’s the economy. Many men had been laid off or were struggling with real job insecurity, especially during the recession of the early ’90s. But even those who later had found employment felt a bedrock betrayal—that loyalty, being a team player and mastery of a skill meant nothing and that they were essentially expendable. I discovered that many men are in crisis because society no longer offers them a feeling of being useful to their community and family. The root cause of this—the heart of the onion—is our commercial culture. We worship at the pedestal of beauty, sex appeal and marketable fame. Public service is no longer recognized—it’s all about competition and being No. 1. In the last few decades this phenomenon has gone into warp speed.

Why is that more of a problem for men than for women?

Women embraced feminism partly because of the way the culture had dehumanized them as baubles. Now men are being treated in the same way. Manhood is being defined by appearance, youth, attractiveness, glamor—the same traits that women have shucked off as demeaning. But there is no feminist-type movement for men, so while women continue to ride the up escalator toward a more meaningful social role, men feel they are going down.

You rely heavily on anecdotes rather than statistics. How do you know that this crisis affects all men?

I’m not saying that it afflicts the whole gender. There are many men who are not ripped apart by these changes. But I interviewed hundreds of men, and there is clearly a significant group that is upset about social change, feminism, affirmative action. There are enough angry white males to create a voters’ bloc and enough frustrated ones to support TV programs like The Man Show. Men weren’t attending Million Man marches and Promise Keepers rallies a decade ago. I’m speaking about a segment of men that is the least buffered economically and therefore the most vulnerable and anguished.

Hasn’t feminism contributed to the problem?

Certainly lots of men blame feminism. But I think it has contributed the one bright spot in an otherwise bleak picture—men of the postwar generation are more caring and involved fathers. Much more tender and equal partners. That’s in large measure because the women’s movement championed private domestic roles for men.

How have men reacted to your book?

So far the audience at readings has been half men and half women. Many women tell me they are buying the book for their husbands and that they need to read it. Men seem reluctant to talk about these things in public, but they’ve come up afterward to slide me notes saying the book really describes how they feel and they’re glad a woman is bringing this up. Some have called me, telling me that they so identified with what the book said that they read the opening chapter in tears.

What’s the solution?

I’m afraid I don’t have a 30-day plan for male fulfillment. But I think men must begin to grapple honestly with the true nature of their opposition and recognize that it’s not feminism, Hillary Clinton or illegal aliens. It is economic and cultural forces that have stripped them of a larger social mission. For women, a possible first step is trying to listen to men—to get beyond the rants against political correctness to their underlying anguish.

Of all the men I interviewed, I was most inspired by Michael Bernhardt, a Vietnam vet who helped expose the My Lai massacre. He was able to look into the abyss and confront what the war was about and how the country defined manhood. And he decided he wouldn’t play along. He tried to figure out a different way to be a man, and what he came up with was being a nurturer and caregiver—that is, a moral human being.

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