In her new book, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, journalist and author Susan Faludi examines the way America has come to tell the story of the 2001 terror attacks. Casting the events of 2001 against an evolving national mythology, Faludi concludes that American culture operates under a grand illusion–a terror dream–that in times of crisis, “manly men” are called upon to protect weak women.
Faludi deftly proved in her earlier works, Backlash and Stiffed, that this gendered American story line permeates our cultural consciousness. The gender myth that emerged in the wake of 9/11 is a puffed-up buckskin bravado that ultimately fails to ensure our safety.
In this conversation with Rashi Kesarwani, Faludi discusses The Terror Dream, politics and the “war on terror.”
When did you first notice the post-9/11 exaltation of manly men and submissive women? Was there an Aha! moment?
Perhaps one needs to be out of the country to see such things clearly. My Aha! moment came to me while I was in Sweden during 7/7 [the bombing of the London subways]. I was following it by reading the British press and listening to BBC, and it struck me that the British, like the Spanish earlier, responded to their terrorist attacks by treating them as criminal matters to be methodically investigated and prosecuted. They did not react by calling for the return of manly men and submissive women. There was something peculiar in our response, peculiar to us as a nation.
This is your third book about gender. What draws you to this subject?
It’s bedrock. When I started this book, I didn’t even understand all the gender dynamics at work, particularly the historical ones. But gender, like class, is so overlooked in this culture’s self-critiques that when you approach almost any subject with a gender-aware eye, you find answers and explanations to questions and problems that are otherwise opaque.
How does this “terror myth” affect men?
The myth is just as harmful for the people it designates as heroes as for the people it designates as victims. Men were given hero script in lieu of real support. Look at the firefighters, who were expected to settle for hero worship in place of the protections and tools they needed–and pleaded for–to be effective in their jobs. Or the US soldiers in Iraq, who are exalted as heroic while being denied the armor and medical care they desperately require.
You devote a chapter to the story of Jessica Lynch, a US soldier serving in Iraq whose injuries and recovery were grossly misreported by the media. Why did mainstream media seize on Private Lynch’s circumstances?
It’s a classic example of the media rewriting a real-life story to fit the master narrative of our security myth, just as our culture has done over hundreds of years. (See, for example, the story of Cynthia Ann Parker, a young woman taken captive by Comanches in the 1830s, who preferred Indian life and fought bitterly against her “rescue” and repatriation–and whose story was rewritten ultimately into a tale of John Wayne derring-do and helpless “little Debbie” gratitude in the 1956 John Ford Western classic, The Searchers.) The narrative we keep returning to demands inflated male heroes rescuing a helpless girl, ideally one in danger of violation, which is the story the media wanted out of the Lynch rescue tale–and distorted to get.