How Now, Iron Johns? | The Nation


How Now, Iron Johns?

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In Growing Up Absurd, his classic polemic on shortchanged youth, Paul Goodman remarks, parenthetically, that "the problems I want to discuss in this book belong primarily, in our society, to the boys: how to be useful and make something of oneself. A girl does not have to, she is not expected to, 'make something' of herself. Her career does not have to be self-justifying, for she will have children, which is absolutely self-justifying, like any other natural or creative act." Goodman's book was published in 1960; with historical hindsight, it's easy to roll one's eyes at the unselfconscious sexism that one of the foremost cultural radicals of the time shared with his conventional antagonists. It is less amusing that four decades later, in the wake of a movement that has reshaped the lives of women, a prominent feminist writer should come out with a book whose implicit assumption is basically the same as Goodman's: that the conditions of work in late capitalist society are primarily a problem for the boys, a crisis of masculinity.

About the Author

Ellen Willis
Ellen Willis directed the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University and was a Freda Kirchwey...

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For the past few years, the idea that American men are angry, troubled and socially dysfunctional has been an insistent theme of the popular media. This male disaffection, whose symptoms have been said to range from the election of the Gingrich Congress to the shootings at Columbine High School, has been variously ascribed to resentment of women's demands for equality, white working-class men's loss of status in a changing economy, black men's continuing oppression, fear of homosexuality, fear of homophobia, poverty, welfare, conflicting pressures to be sensitive "new men" and traditionally masculine achievers, the imposition of feminist rules of behavior alien to male nature, mistreatment at the hands of a "feminized" school system, the marginalization of fathers and a popular culture that glorifies violence. In Stiffed, Susan Faludi tells us that when she began her exploration of this territory she subscribed to the resistance-to-feminism, "masculinity on the rampage" theory of male crisis; her first stop was a domestic-violence therapy group. But as her researches progressed, among laid-off shipyard workers and middle managers, Citadel cadets, Promise Keepers, gang members, Vietnam vets, actors in porn movies and other denizens of the male deep, she concluded that the real problem lay not in what men were doing but in what was being done to them.

As Faludi sees it, the plight of American men centers on the devolution of work that allows them to be useful and make something of themselves. The ill-fated shipbuilders, with their pride of craft and their loyalty to one another, are her working-class heroes, avatars of a vanishing model of manhood based on producing something tangible, serving the community and passing on one's skills to younger men. In the fifties, this model of manhood was already endangered by the proliferation of white-collar corporate functionaries in "make-work jobs with inflated titles." And by now, deindustrialization, cutthroat free-market capitalism, the demise of workers' expectations that loyalty and dedication will be rewarded, the dominance of corporate values and the attendant apparatus of mass marketing, advertising and consumption that Faludi calls "ornamental culture" have in her view stripped manhood of any meaningful social content: Masculinity has become defined by those who sell the products necessary to live up to the image--everything from leather to Viagra--and the popular entertainment that validates and celebrates it. In short, Faludi claims, men now share women's familiar status as ornaments and objects of consumer culture.

Having once regarded feminism as the key to men's anger and anguish, Faludi has come all the way to believing that women have nothing to do with the case, that both feminists and antifeminists are missing the point. This conclusion seems incongruous, given her many descriptions of troubled or failed marriages, of men who display contempt for women, commit acts of sexual violence and predation, vent their anger on their wives and girlfriends, blame women or feminism for their problems, inform her that Hillary Clinton is running the country. But Faludi interprets such behavior simply as scapegoating, men's unwillingness to face the fact that their real grievances lie elsewhere. Where? Well, there is "the culture," in Faludi's formulation a rather abstract, if suitably global, target. But Stiffed also proposes a more concrete culprit: paternal betrayal. "The men I came to know," Faludi writes, "talked about their fathers' failures in the most private and personal terms.... That they had felt neglected as boys in the home, that their fathers had emotionally or even literally abandoned the family circle, was painful enough. But they suspected...their fathers had deserted them in the public realm, too. 'My father never taught me how to be a man,' was the refrain I heard over and over again." It doesn't occur to Faludi that this indictment could be a form of scapegoating, a surrogate for some deeper and more hidden grievance: Unlike with her subjects' complaints about women, she takes their brief against their fathers at face value.

Faludi is surely right that male doldrums cannot be reduced to antifeminist backlash--and that antifeminist backlash cannot be reduced to the simple reflex of a privileged class determined to protect its power. She is right, I suspect, that in their jobs, their relationships with women and their overall experience of the world, most American men most of the time do not feel especially powerful. Certainly her own depictions of men support these claims, and it is a tribute to the quality of her reporting that even unappetizing characters like the sex-for-points Spur Posse come across as recognizable human beings, not political caricatures. Nonetheless, she is wrong to deny that women and feminism are at the heart of the matter. The themes of men's problematic relations with women and with their own "femininity" figure prominently in some of Faludi's portraits--notably in her devastating account of misogyny and male intimacy at the Citadel, and in the less successful Promise Keepers and porn-movie chapters--and run through others like persistent minor fugues. But even when women are virtually or entirely absent from the narrative, their negative presence broods.

Since it's hard to believe that Faludi is unaware of this, I can only conclude that she ignores it because it doesn't fit her thesis. Remarking on the integration of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, she writes, "It created an environment where every male worker regardless of race could embrace a type of masculinity based neither on exclusivity nor dominance." In fact, the masculine culture of the shipyard was founded on the exclusion of women, not only from jobs (if there were any female workers at Long Beach, Faludi doesn't mention them) but from the very idea of work that animates the men's sense of community. In a male-supremacist society, maleness is regarded as synonymous with generic humanity, and since the Industrial Revolution took most forms of work out of the home, creating a split between the public world of wage labor and the private domestic economy, men--and "man"--have been identified with the former. As a result men have tended to conflate worldly human achievement and, specifically, achievement in the world of paid work with proving their manhood. From this perspective, to fail at a job, or to have a job that does not seem worth doing, is not simply human disappointment but emotional castration--especially when it entails another major blow to masculine self-definition: the inability to support a dependent wife and children.

The inevitable corollary is that men who equate their humanity with their sexuality with their jobs have a strong emotional investment in keeping those jobs a male preserve; the communities of skilled workers who represent Faludi's masculine ideal have typically reacted with virulent hatred to women's efforts to integrate their turf. In turn, the closing of ranks against women reinforces the work-masculinity equation. This is a closed, ultimately self-defeating circle. More than one reviewer has decried Faludi's nostalgia for America's industrial past and the politics of working-class solidarity that went with it, but this criticism misses the essential point. There's nothing inherently wrong with invoking the past as a standpoint for criticizing the present. The problem, in the context of this book, is that this particular past offers no exit from the real masculinity crisis: men's need to adjust to the decline of patriarchal culture by developing a sense of themselves and their place in the world that does not depend on the segregation or subordination of women.

Anxiety about the loss of a masculinity organically connected to useful work, and about the deracination of men whose bonds to their fathers' generation have succumbed to the atomizing force of "mass society," is as old as industrialism itself and tends to resurface with every major shift in the way capital organizes the economy. What is distinctive about our time is that such a shift has followed the great social upheaval that was second-wave feminism. Ironically, had the women's movement entirely succeeded in its aims, integration of the work force would by now have done away with the coding of "useful work" and public accomplishment as masculine. This is far from the case: Female firefighters still make news, as do female CEOs and female presidential candidates. Yet women's increased economic independence and personal and sexual freedom have transformed the institution of marriage and eroded male dominance in everyday relations between the sexes. Where once men who were wounded in their work-based masculinity might have found some compensation in their dominance at home, now they are likely to feel unmanned in both public and private spheres.

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