The Book Club

Somebody To Lean On

One issue about masculinity that intrigues me revolves around the experience of dependence. Traditionally in America, dependence was dishonorable for men; women were allowed to be taken care of, as part of caring for others; men instead have been pushed to become self-reliant. Manly equals self-reliant. In fact, this traditional image of masculinity is nonsense. Imagine, for instance, someone at the beginning of an affair declaring, “Don’t worry, I can take care of myself, I will never lean on you.” You would soon lose interest; after all, you wouldn’t really matter in the other person’s life. But American men, in my experience, have a great deal of trouble saying “I need you.” It seems weak, and so shameful.

Faludi’s interviewees hew to this silence, and I wonder if that isn’t part of their trouble. Again, I think economics matters in this silence today. The ideology of work in modern society puts great emphasis on independence, on treating oneself entrepreneurially–but if you treat yourself as an independent agent, you don’t establish much emotional connection to other people. It’s the same problem: If you don’t acknowledge you need them, they are not going to care much about you. Unlike Shoshana, I don’t see the modern economy in fact giving people more independence; as she herself has shown, experiences such as working from home via the computer often plunge people into situations where they are more tightly monitored than if they were working in a traditional office. So perhaps part of the trouble with conceiving of strength as autonomy is that it makes people feel actually worse about the tangled web of dependencies that in fact rule their lives. Men in particular.

This insight isn’t really mine. The psychologist Carol Gilligan, in her fine book In a Different Voice, has probed the destructive consequences of manly silence–for men themselves as much as for the women and children who fall under the spell of this silence. In fact, making issues of dependence overt and legitimate requires a great deal of personal strength: You need to know what you need, and you need to figure out whether someone else can help you. I missed at the end of Faludi’s study a discussion of this dynamic of masculinity, though the problem surfaces in her interviews again and again.

I’d like to end this discussion, however, by saying that, perhaps unlike Shoshana, I think Stiffed is an admirable, serious, and humane book. It records the dead-end society has put men into as workers, parents, and citizens. Stiffed is blessedly free of jargon, and full of telling detail. Its analysis is meant to provoke debate, and will continue to do so. I think people should read it and argue with it.