The Highbrow

Crying Wolf

Susan Faludi’s terrible dream.

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

A few weeks ago, I began to blog about gender issues over at Slate’s “XX Factor” just as I was finishing Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America. There is nothing like scanning the news every day with a gender lens at your eye to make you notice what Faludi has made a career of pointing out: how insidious (and ubiquitous) the pull of traditional ideas about femininity and masculinity can be. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has certainly stirred up all kinds of confusion about how we conceptualize female power and independence. But there’s also nothing like watching Hillary to make you feel that in The Terror Dream, Faludi herself is too transfixed by what she identifies as a post-9/11 “illusion of a mythic America where women needed men’s protection” to pay full attention to how interesting, and strange, a moment this is for gender in America.

The first half of The Terror Dream consists of an exhaustive parsing of how the media (and, more broadly, the culture) construed gender roles in the months following 9/11—from the New York Observer pronouncing that women would become “more feminine” to Peggy Noonan announcing the return of “manly men.” There are persuasive examples of just how quickly some old gender signposts were unfurled, along with American flags, in the shivery days after the attacks. But the most interesting part of The Terror Dream—which has been reviewed more extensively here and here—is Faludi’s argument about the reason Americans were so quick to invoke a “girl-in-need-of-rescue script.” The impulse to do so, she suggests in the book’s second half, “belongs to a long-standing American pattern of response to threat, a response that we’ve been perfecting since our original wilderness experience.” It dates back to anxieties fostered in our frontier days, when pioneers saw their families attacked, captured, or killed by Native Americans (on the “home soil,” no less). Standing on the shoulders of historians, Faludi suggests that these attacks instilled a sense of shame (“a largely male burden, the result of recurring attacks in which the captivity of women and children served to spotlight male protective failures”), which found its expiation in an emerging genre of redemptive captivity narratives that recapitulated this “social trauma.”

Such narratives were immensely popular in the Puritan era—the most famous of them, Mary Rowlandson’s, went through four printings in its first year and became “America’s first best-seller,” in Faludi’s phrasing. But they also resurfaced during the expansion of the frontier in the 19th century, and in the aftermath of Reconstruction in the American South, when they took the form of a white preoccupation with the threat black male sexuality posed to white women. Some of the best-known are white-washed versions of real events, replotted to make the men look braver and the women less resourceful. Others focus closely on the captivity experience of the woman herself.

The shame they embody or seek to correct, in Faludi’s view, functions as a kind of latent virus; once infected, we have never shaken it off. It lurks in our national subconscious until, provoked by another attack on American home soil, it flares up in new ways, inspiring new correctives. Consider the Cold War Western, with John Wayne providing solace both as an on-screen purveyor of strong justice (“Don’t apologize—it’s a sign of weakness,” runs one famous line) and as president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Values.

All this history is fascinating, even if it isn’t entirely fresh. Yet it remains unclear what, if anything, the trauma at the heart of these captivity narratives really has to do with how America metabolized the trauma of 9/11. It’s true, as Faludi cites, that the exaltation of fireman in New York City offered a clear-cut embrace of traditional ideals of masculinity. And the emergence of Rudy Giuliani as a tough-guy action hero—the platform he’s now using to run for president—exemplifies her point about our (briefly) uncritical valorization of male brawn. Nor would many argue with her contention that contemporary masculinity is still shaped by the pioneer myth of self-determination. She persuasively argues that for a few months after 9/11, traditional gender scripts enjoyed a retro-chic resurgence.

But evidence that this traditionalism took hold in any enduring sense is, at best, flimsy. The post-9/11 call for a “return to a Betty Crocker domesticity” hasfallen as flat as bad soufflé. The marriage rate has not skyrocketed. The “opt-out” phenomenon of mothers leaving the workforce is wildly overinflated (as Faludi herself points out). And with Hillary’s presidential bid, Condi as secretary of state, and an updated ass-kicking Bionic Woman on the air waves, one cannot say we are experiencing a “silencing of women’s voices.”

In fact, the irony is that Faludi herself has emerged as arguably the most influential cultural transmitter of the victim myth. With Backlash, she endowed a word with indelible gender associations, and has been associated ever since with a doomsday story line of post-feminist women under attack—though in Stiffed she turned her attention to men, and there, too, discerned a “crisis.” In The Terror Dream, she is so bent on snuffling out victims in the cultural forest that she herself is guilty of effectively silencing the many women who don’t fit into her tidy narrative. She fails to grapple seriously with figures like the real-life Karen Hughes or the fictional Laura Roslin, or to give due to younger feminist writers like Jessica Valenti, as Rebecca Traister observed. There ought to be a term for the Faludi method, which offers up the post-feminist woman as a meta-victim: a victim of others victimizing her. Get into the habit of viewing the world this way, and you’ll see the horror everywhere—even when the larger picture might look brighter than the parts within it.

In the end, Faludi’s books demand that we look beyond them for the more complicated reality of women’s situations, just as she urges us to do with the myths of old. With Hillary Clinton running for president, articles about the return of girly girls and manly men now seem anomalous—or, at worst, glib trend-seeking on the part of newspaper editors scrambling to assign feature stories about 9/11. And while gender is a key issue in Clinton’s campaign, parsing the implications is not so simple. For one thing, polls suggest that many Americans do not think it takes a man to protect our nation. In fact, a recent poll asked Democratic respondents to say which candidate they most associated with the word tough; a majority named Hillary. Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice, however you feel about her, is a key player in the Bush administration—out there trying to cope with dangerous borders (Pakistan, the Middle East), not cowering inside the fort.

Six years after 9/11, the new domesticity heralded in October of 2001 simply hasn’t come to pass. The ‘00s do not look like the 1950s, when marriage was peddled as a patriotic Cold War virtue and J. Edgar Hoover suggested, as Faludi reminds us, that women should marry young and procreate to fight against “the twin enemies of freedom—crime and communism.” That doesn’t mean bias has been eradicated. It hasn’t been. But Faludi tells us that the sky is falling when the debris coming down, in some cases, is just another glass ceiling being cracked open.