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.