How Now, Iron Johns?

How Now, Iron Johns?

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,


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.

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.

Faludi’s portrayals of marital relations, especially among the laid-off McDonnell Douglas managers who are her prototype of the emasculated corporate flunky, illustrate this double whammy. Often the wives of these men believe as strongly as the men do that manhood is about holding jobs and breadwinning, and feel betrayed by their unemployed husbands; but unlike their counterparts in prefeminist eras, they don’t just complain about their lot in life–they kick their husbands out, get their own jobs and take up with new boyfriends. Faludi gives the impression that only white-collar workers have such problems; she seems to imagine that men (and their wives) focus their conception of manliness on supporting a family only when work itself fails to provide a masculine identity. Although this is historically inaccurate–men in all sorts of jobs have invested their masculine pride in being breadwinners, and men too poor to be good providers, however “manly” their form of labor, have often felt deeply ashamed–the book’s depictions of familial meltdown make an important if apparently unintended point about how men’s condition has changed in the past half-century. In the fifties, men who felt alienated in their work, whether in corporate offices or on the assembly line, could take comfort in the combination of a widely available “family wage” and the cult of female domesticity that accompanied postwar pressures to send women back home. In retrospect, the ideological fervor with which that domesticity was promoted was a clear signal of how fragile it was, especially among educated women. And now, the convergence of feminism with the demise of the family wage has made the housewife vestigial. For men, the symbiotic satisfactions of providing and being provided for have declined in tandem, and it’s hard to say which loss is more traumatic.

Men have also suffered from the contrast between their own sagging fortunes and the apparent surge of female self-confidence. For even as feminism has exacerbated men’s identity crisis, it has alleviated women’s by challenging the idea that the desire for worldly achievement or lack of interest in domesticity and childrearing is at odds with femininity. It’s silly to argue, as some social critics do, that women are better off than men in the concrete, material sense. It is after all women who are subject to sex discrimination in employment and to the “double shift” at home and on the job; it is overwhelmingly women who have the burden of bringing up children alone, usually on too little money; and despite the cultural changes wrought by feminism, sexism in personal and sexual life is hardly dead. But these are external pressures, not invitations to angst about who one is and where one belongs. Yes, there is the vaunted “conflict between work and family”–a pop-cultural formulation that still assumes “family” to be mothers’ responsibility and tends to let both employers and fathers off the hook–but in its present version it is mostly regarded as a practical problem of time and priorities, not as a commentary on womanliness or the lack of it. In any case it has not hindered the popular perception by both sexes, picked up and amplified in the media, that women are thriving while men are a mess.

Faludi disregards all this in favor of a highly problematic narrative of fathers and sons. It’s not that I doubt her subjects’ individual tales of paternal neglect, abuse, abandonment. But such tales are scarcely unique to this generation of men. Faludi argues that the failures of fathers in the post-World War II era were “particularly unexpected, and so particularly disturbing,” because they “coincided with a period of unprecedented abundance.” True, the postwar generation grew up with an expansive sense of entitlement and so was susceptible to intense disillusionment when the balloon crashed; but as critic Susie Linfield pointed out in discussing this book in the Los Angeles Times, the generations waylaid by such events as the Civil War, World War I and the Depression also had a bone or two to pick with history. And anyway, why is it Dad’s fault? Were fathers in 1945 supposed to know that the liberal welfare state would give way to a frenzy of “creative destruction,” or that men would start resorting to plastic surgery–or that feminism would come along? Were they supposed to keep all these changes from happening? Taken literally, the idea that lack of paternal guidance can explain today’s masculinity crisis doesn’t make sense. I suspect rather that underneath the sons’ charge that their fathers did not teach them how to be men lies another, unadmitted complaint–that their fathers taught them only too well how to be men, and they are choking on the lesson. These men, as boys, faced the age-old tradeoff: If you undergo the painful process of renouncing the “feminine” aspects of your humanity and follow your father into manhood (and what choice do you have, really?) you will share in the spoils of the superior half of the race. Now, as men, they find that the spoils are far more meager than expected. No wonder they feel betrayed.

The other pillar of Faludi’s argument is an equally dubious analysis of men’s “feminization” by commercial culture. As she sees it, porn actors whose livelihood is dependent on their fickle erections; football fans and Waco protesters desperate to be validated by the media; the clothing ads in Details–all show that masculinity has been reduced to images, to something that is looked at rather than actively lived. This idea is superficially plausible, since it’s undeniable that male sexuality has become fair game for commerce in a way that was once limited to women. But does this development really explain male malaise? Only, I think, if you accept the puritanical thesis, perennially popular with the left (and much in evidence in Faludi’s earlier book, Backlash), that mass-mediated images–especially sexy ones–act as an irresistible addictive drug that enslaves our minds, driving us to orgies of helpless buying and preening before the TV cameras. In reality, people mostly buy because they enjoy material things and the process of acquiring them; they seek publicity because they want to make an impact on the world; and the image-makers, however eager to sell their products and influence our attitudes, can do so only by appealing to fantasies, desires and fears we already have. Which is to say that men, like women, are not mere passive recipients (or victims) of cultural images–including images of their sexuality–but active participants in shaping them.

Recounting the evolution of Details from an alternative publication with a gay male sensibility to a “heterosexualized” mainstream men’s magazine, Faludi declaims in the anticonsumerist’s characteristically apocalyptic rhetoric: The Condé Nast version of the magazine used gay style “not to question oppressive sex roles but to succumb to a role as oppressive as the gender yoke: that of consumer,” its goal being to purvey “the images that would turn a nation of young men into colonies of slavish male shoppers.” Yet the Details story is ambiguous: on the one hand another disheartening tale of corporate colonization and homogenization of the media, but at the same time an example of the assimilation into straight male culture of a more androgynous style of masculinity–an expansion rather than a restriction of men’s choices. In another chapter Faludi makes a dismissive reference to Bob Dole’s being “consigned to shilling erectile-dysfunction cures.” But it seems to me quite courageous–and useful–of Dole to bring impotence out of the closet, breaking men’s humiliated silence on the subject by admitting his own problem on TV. And what is demeaning about advertising a product that, while it may not be the answer to everyone’s sexual difficulties, can evidently relieve the suffering of a lot of men, not to mention their female partners? Indeed, it can be argued that if the commercial culture promotes a view of masculinity that centers, in one way or another, on men’s sexual being, this is exactly as it should be. Surely we have had enough of confusing maleness with “usefulness” and other human virtues. If men had a more modest view of what their masculinity ought to entail, perhaps they could move on from debilitating feelings of loss to tackling their real economic and political problems.

In the thirties, despite massive unemployment, failed masculinity was not a public issue. There was at that time no major challenge to conventional male-female relations but, equally important, the left and the labor movement provided an alternative framework for interpreting work, or the lack of it: This was a question not of manhood but of class. Today the changes that are generating enormous inequality, progressively destroying “real jobs” with security and benefits, demanding longer and longer hours and at least two incomes per household as prerequisites for a minimally middle-class existence, and depriving people of control over their work even in the professional classes are taking place in the absence of any credible opposition to the free-market dogma that rules the day. On the contrary, the capitalist triumphalists are riding high on a wave of “prosperity” that has enriched a minority of the population while obscuring the long-term slippage of our standard of living and our quality of life.

There is indeed an obsessive and borderline-hysterical quality about the current emphasis on getting, spending and celebrity, not because we are brainwashed by the media but because the marketplace is our main source of readily available pleasure and shopping one of the few socially convenient acts that feel something like freedom. It’s impossible these days to trade money for time, to decide to work less and live modestly. The choice–for those who have a choice–is endless work for low pay or endless work for high pay. If you have it, why not spend it? And if you don’t, there’s always a dollar and a dream. What bedevils most men is not that they are ornamental but that they are subordinated. As for those few at the top of the corporate hierarchy–the ones who are absent from Faludi’s pages–they do not seem too worried about their manhood (and I doubt that they feel like ornaments, either). They still have power, in the world and, by and large, over the women in their lives. If enough Lorna Wendts sue their CEO ex-husbands for half their wealth, perhaps the masculinity crisis will climb on up the class ladder; but I’m not holding my breath.

My point, though, is not that men’s feelings of emasculation are merely a displacement of class oppression. It’s that for men who have no sense that their society could be different and better, the rise of women and the erosion of male power are an unmitigated grief. A crisis of masculinity happens when men are told it’s the end of history at the very moment they realize that history has passed them by.

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