The Book Club

L.A.: Too Much for the Man

Hello, Richard,

As always, it is a treat to read your cogent insights. I agree with you that the big story here involves the changes in capitalism and especially in the nature of work. Unfortunately, I think it would have been a much stronger book if the author saw it that way. …

First, I have an urgent message for Susan Faludi: Get out of Los Angeles as soon as possible! There is a real world out here with real people in it. If possible, bring Sylvester before his spirit is crushed forever beneath the weight of all those muscles. We’re waiting for you!

Susan Faludi’s book has two great strengths. First, she engages with a big and profound set of questions that affect all of our lives. She does this with great earnestness and deep commitment. She devoted years of her life to the undertaking. How many authors will do that? Too few, I think. Second, Faludi’s interviews with an unusual selection of men are masterful gems, each one cut and shaped by profound empathy, vivid observation, and keen listening. They are rendered in rich romantic prose that pungently conveys the disparate worlds of her interlocutors. I love the way she lets us in on the action through her own responses of compassion and bewilderment. She is always there, never silent, as we feel men and women opening up to her, trusting her, bonding with her, so much so that months and years later, they continue to call and bring her up to date on their lives and their troubles. What I cherish about this book, and about Faludi herself, is the way she surrendered to the mystery and adventure of this intellectual journey. She began with one set of assumptions and allowed them to transform, as she herself was transformed by the men she came to know. Her personal authenticity was the backdrop against which these men were able to turn their experiences into words with an anguished and heartbreaking transparency. Without being mawkish, I think one can say that Susan Faludi reached beyond her role as a feminist, or even as a writer. She reached toward her own individual humanity and through that medium reached a deeper truth with those men she sought to understand. Between her introduction and her conclusion, each of the “empirical” chapters–on the shipbuilders, the Citadel cadets, the “gangstas,” the Spur Posse, the Vietnam vets, the Promise Keepers, the football fans, the militiamen, the porno film stars, the fashion tyrants and their slaves, and Sylvester Stallone–can stand alone as testimony to a rich and unique life-world.

The question inevitably arises, though: What does it all mean? Here I believe Susan Faludi gets it mostly wrong. There are two critical intellectual errors that form the very foundation of her undertaking: one substantive, the other methodological. I was hopeful when I read on Page 15 her complaint that “popular accounts of the male crisis and male confusions are almost unrelievedly ahistorical,” but I was crestfallen some pages later, when she identifies some of the deep historical structures that might have allowed her to unravel her data, and then dismisses them as irrelevant:

I’m not speaking simply of the economic shift from industry to service … nor about a shift from a society organized around industry to one set up around electronic technology. And I’m not speaking simply about the irony of men supporting a massive military-industrial effort to produce machines … that ultimately would replace them … Those changes were only surface symptoms …

 There is no way to talk about these historic shifts “simply.” And this is the first time I have heard these monumental issues in the evolution of material life referred to as “surface symptoms”! Whoa! If that’s the surface, then we must be talking about something very deep indeed that is the cause of all this angst. But what is it? Well, by Page 596 we arrive at Faludi’s definition of the heart of this particular darkness: The deep pain experienced by the men she meets is explained by this confession and complaint: “My father never taught me how to be a man.” So, here we are once again on a canvas of ahistorical pop psychology, where the silence of the fathers and their devotion to commercial culture has crippled the sons, leaving them no source of meaning other than “Were they ‘sexy’? Were they ‘known’? Had they ‘won’?”

If there is a crisis of masculinity, then it truly can only be understood through history. We are now completing, at least in the West, the last feudal century. For the first time in any society, a majority of its people are educated and informed. For the first time in any society, a majority of its people use their brains and not their backs to accomplish its work. The bonds of hierarchy and patriarchy are not dissolved, but faded and weakened as never before. The fixed productive and reproductive roles of men and women, once determined by anatomy, are now giving way to an exhilarating and terrifying plethora of choices. The concept of work has been forever transformed and the boundaries of class have followed suit. These are the deep structures that are in motion. These are the sources of the ruptures with the past we all face.

If there is a crisis, then rejoice! The old sources of meaning that kept us each in our place are dead or dying. Susan Faludi’s men are being crushed as the tectonic plates of history roil and split and mow them down. They complain and whine and wail for a world that is vanishing. OK. It hurts. But this is their opportunity to not just be he-men but human beings. If they can’t be useful by protecting their women and “making” things–then it’s time to embrace the usefulness of supporting their women, learning new skills, committing to their families, and finding new ways to teach their children and contribute to their communities. The old world had women in a box and men in a harness. No one was allowed to venture outside their roles. If the fathers were silent, its because that’s how they thought the script was written. Don’t pine for that! Get on with the challenge of forging a new life and writing your own, better, script.

Finally, the methodological fallacy at the heart of this book: “If you want to see what’s happening in the stream called our society,” says one of Faludi’s “patriots,” “go to the edges and look at what’s happening there …” This alleged “societal dynamic” becomes her methodological justification for using the stories of the “underemployed, contracted-out, and laid-off men of Southern California to illuminate more general male losses… ” It must be said that this kind of approach is very tricky. If you are going to pick a few cases to illustrate the larger whole, then you have to have some pretty compelling and well-articulated reasoning for their selection. I am surprised, Richard, that you find Faludi’s characterizations of the male crisis to fit the British profile. I think that what she has unearthed in grisly detail is the uniquely shallow, instrumental, and crass culture of Los Angeles (which I once heard described as “high school with money”), where looks, fame, and income compose the ranking rules for a truly wacky hierarchy. Lamentably, she has lost sight of just how weird and out of the mainstream that culture is. It is not our culture. It is not our society. It is not the grain of sand in which the real world that most of us live in is etched. The gangsters, the militiamen, the porn actors, the over-the-top football fans–they’re all fascinating, but I don’t think that any of them says very much about most of us. But then, I live in Maine, where ornamental culture has made little impression, except possibly through a widespread interest in the L.L. Bean catalogue.

Once again, a plea to Susan and Sylvester. Move to Maine. It’s not too late. We’ll love you here even if you have a paunch or imperfect thighs!

More later,
Shoshana Zuboff