The Book Club

Men at Work

Dear Shoshana,

Let me first comment on the end of what you say–about the British echoes of Faludi’s findings. This shouldn’t surprise you. Maine has no global reach; Los Angeles does. When British men feel out of it, by comparison to those sleek, buffed males merchandized globally, the merchandise that oppresses and obsesses them comes from Los Angeles and New York.

In a way, you are unfair to Faludi; her interviews reach beyond the style epicenters. But I think you are right on target in pointing to the immense divide between wired-up, screwed-up America (which is where the money is), and a quieter America where men may suffer far less from identity crises because they are trying to get by rather than get ahead. When I lived in New York, it drove me crazy listening to people complain about making only $100,000 a year; they suffered from epicenter-envy of people who made $200,000 and spent $300,000. There’s no gendering these days in epicenter-envy, the Manhattan female hotshot is as obsessed about the people who stand above her as the male of this species–which again is why I think the story Faludi has told is about men in capitalism, rather than men as such.

What her interviews show is a new chapter in the subject Americans never talk about: class. Many of the men Faludi interviewed are being lumped into a new synonym for class; they are “losers.” In the last generation, as we know, the gap between winners and losers has grown; the wealth of the top 20 percent has expanded, the wealth of the middle 60 percent stagnated or declined, the resources those in the bottom 20 percent can command has declined. As our society becomes more unequal, however, the imagery of how people ought to live, the ideals of self and mutual respect, are increasingly defined by behavior and possessions at the top. Thus the gnawing sense of being “out of it” that surfaces among the ordinary people Faludi interviewed, the fear of falling behind. This is how class works in America: a shared imagery of taste and behavior; a stark inequality of material, educational, and social means in measuring up to the image of how you ought to be. And this is why, when Faludi uses the word “emasculation,” what I think she is evoking is a fear of diminished potency which is more economic than sexual.

You attack, Shoshana, the argument Faludi makes that men suffer in large part from a crisis of masculinity because they have failed “role models” in their fathers–i.e., “My father never taught me to be a man.” I have to confess that this argument, which I’ve heard for years applied to blacks, makes me, like you, deeply uneasy, though in my case for quite personal reasons. I was raised by a resolutely single mother who in the 1950s was subjected in Minnesota to the widespread prejudice that by not living in a nuclear family, she was doing me untold psychic harm. In my own case, this didn’t prove so, but the prejudice in favor of nuclear families is deeply engrained in American life. Do you think Faludi is reviving it?

As you say, the myth of the strong father is one thing; the reality is often quite another: often tyrants who are intimidating rather than encouraging. My own experience of parenting is that adult firmness coupled with irony and occasional bouts of silliness makes for sturdy children. Perhaps what Faludi was hearing when people told her, in one way or another, “My father never taught me to be a man,” was a complaint about American childhood. I know of no country in which children lead more lonely isolated lives, isolated from social contact with children unlike themselves and from adult society. You can’t be taught just by rules how to be a man or a woman; you learn adulthood for yourself, and to learn adulthood well you need far more exposure to real life, its horrors and difficulties as well as its pleasures, than American society makes available to children. This is why, I think, Americans often remark about European children that they seem older, more self-possessed.

My question to you about this book is, if American men are in the trouble Faludi thinks they (we) are, what’s to be done about it? You’ve written about cooperation in the workplace. Do you think the ills she recounts might be righted if in communities there were more opportunities for men to cooperate? Faludi seems in part to believe a more interactive society, less oriented to displays of potency, would ease crises of masculinity.

My own views head off in another direction–but I’ll save that until I hear what you have to say.