The Book Club


Susan Faludi’s Stiffed argues American men are suffering from a masculinity crisis, but it isn’t women’s fault. She conducted a wide range of interviews over the last few years across the grain of American society–shipbuilders, magazine editors, Promise Keepers, aging Vietnam veterans. The crisis of masculinity she describes appears on two fronts. One involves “utilitarian masculinity,” which is the pride of self men feel thanks to their skills, their commitments to their work, and to other men in the course of accomplishing a task. The other sort of masculinity she calls “ornamental,” and it is just that, the ornaments of cigars/leather chairs/Porsches/babes that festoon the pages of Details, Esquire, and the New York Times “Men’s Fashions” supplement. The utilitarian male is a producer, the ornamental male is a consumer.

In Faludi’s view, men as producers suffer from the changes in work that more largely frame today’s capitalism. This is a short-term world in which people are constantly changing jobs, dealing in intangibles of information and connections rather than making solid things, a world in which the craftsman who nurtures a skill over his lifetime is out of place. Correspondingly, male consumers are being sold fickle and impossible images of their sexuality and their social honour: fickle because the clothes, face creams, and similar goods now change like women’s hemlines, offering no stable sense of self, impossible ornaments because the Porsche and the $10 cigar lie in the realm of fantasy for most men struggling to make ends meet.

Put so baldly, Faludi’s argument may seem just another version of Demon Capitalism. But she is too good an interviewer to be trapped in that cliché. When she interviews shipbuilders losing their jobs, for instance, she shows how the old-fashioned pride in doing a good job remains even when the shipbuilders have come to the very end of their employment; their craft pride transcends any whining about being capitalism’s victims. No more does the ornamental male wear his jewelry of self comfortably; the buffed pecs and washboard stomachs portrayed in the Times’ men’s section are sources of anxiety rather than pleasure.

Perhaps the most spacious dimension of Faludi’s argument is that she, unlike many feminist writers, has a real feel for male bonding, and for the need of men to feel they can hold their heads up with honor. She doesn’t succumb to the simple-minded idea that male honor inevitably requires female oppression. Again, in her interviews with the post-Vietnam generation, she reaches out to understand the bonds forged by the violence of men at war. Above all, while she rejects the notion that the crisis of utilitarian masculinity in the workplace has resulted from the gains middle-class women workers have made in the last generation, she also shows that many women employees have been insensitive to the confusions of self that the new economy has bred in men.

The very openness and depth of her interviewing poses the first question I have about Stiffed. Is this really a book about maleness, or is it a reflection in the lives of men of something more generally applicable to American society, female as well as male? Isn’t Faludi describing a society in which social honor and self-respect are largely in short supply, or supplied in a fashion that can give no real satisfaction? In interviews I’ve done with female nurses and mental-health workers, for instance, I’ve found the same sense of craft, and the same feeling that the short-term cost-cutting of the medical business leaves them no room to realize their own inner potential.

A second large question: “Ornamental culture,” Faludi tells us, is “at its core … a virulent voyeurism” with sex being its “gold standard” [p.505]. But the interviews she conducts, as with the Promise Keepers, seem to me more about the ornaments of fatherhood and husband-hood, an inability of American males to find on the tube or at the movies images of how fathers and husbands ought to deal with the complexities of parenting and long-term relationships. Either the domestic male is portrayed as a goody-goody moral saint or as a guilt-ridden prisoner of the intimate realm. Sex isn’t the issue, I think; the consumer culture has trivialized adult experiences of responsibility, flattened out intimacy so that it appears a zone in which people, women as well as men, are pulled between self development and obligation to others: Ozzie and Harriet vs. Eyes Wide Shut (a film that for all its sex tries to show sex is anything but the “gold standard” for a man; the inchoate but strong impulse to break free is what really drives the male character).

Finally, as an American living abroad, I was struck in reading Faludi’s interviews how resonant they are with issues of self-worth and self-image among men here in Britain. It’s easy for Americans to imagine that our mobile, placeless society doesn’t give people much outside themselves with which to identify; indeed, in her interviews, Faludi finds many men longing for a mythical time when they knew where they belonged. But that longing for a lost home, a secure sense of self, appears equally in Britain–or in Germany. And this brings us back to the issue of capitalism. The disturbances of work and consumption that Faludi so brilliantly depicts are, I think, global in scope, they cut across the boundaries of gender, and they transcend sexual vanity.