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Porn Stars, Promise-Keepers, and “Pound Dawgs” A Comment on: Stiffed, by Susan Faludi


Susan Faludi

By

Cynthia Peters

Male

porn stars get paid based on their ability to sustain an erection. Promise

Keepers are told to look to God as a Father they can trust, and to stock up on

Promise Keeper mugs, t-shirts, and other memorabilia. "Pound Dawgs" -

extreme fans of the Cleveland Browns who dressed in orange and brown, wore dog

costumes to games, barked at the opposing team and threw dog biscuits on the

field – felt a kinship with the players and other fans until they were betrayed

by a money-grubbing owner who got a lucrative deal from Baltimore and summarily

moved the team, leaving the "pound dawgs" desolate.

These

guys have been "stiffed" according to Susan Faludi, author of the

unfortunately titled book, along with the laid-off ship-builders, gang members,

Vietnam vets as well as their anti-war counterparts, Citadel students, drag

queens, and numerous other men. In an interview with Don Hazen of Alternet,

Faludi says, "I don’t endorse reductive thinking." Yet the title of

her book calls to mind the occasional condition of a male body part, and the

subtitle refers to the "American Man" – as if there were such a

singular thing that could be uniformly betrayed. Even the photo on the front

cover offers a sharply reduced image of masculinity – a single white steelworker

in a macho pose.

Reductive

thinking is perhaps the greatest flaw of this exhaustively researched

journalistic account of some men’s lives in the late 1990s. In her effort to

show how post-World War II men have been betrayed by an increasingly

"ornamental" culture that prizes consumerism over productive activity,

loyalty to brand names over service, and consumption over connections to family

and community, Faludi conflates all men and virtually ignores the profound race,

class and cultural differences among groups of men. Although Faludi features the

emptiness of the marketplace and a robotic corporate culture as culprits in

men’s failure to be initiated into meaningful masculinity, ultimately the blame

seems to go to the "fathers" of these men.

Faludi,

author of Backlash!, is a feminist, but she employs none of feminism ‘s hard

learned lessons about analyzing gender problems. Too bad. Stiffed would have

greatly benefited from a more nuanced definition of men and masculinity. Faludi

says one of the reasons men have not organized to fight their own oppression the

way women have is because they have no identifiable enemy. She thinks that

feminists have had an easier time uniting because they have a common enemy: men.

But that is not so. While there may have been some aspects of second wave

feminism that saw men as the enemy, most feminists in the 1960s and 70s were

attempting to understand and defy patriarchy, which is a system, a set of

institutions, not a collection of individual men. True, patriarchy was sometimes

narrowly defined and not always contextualized by race and class. But thanks to

mostly women of color, third wave feminism came along and moved us beyond a

white middle-class definition of patriarchy. Feminism has taught us that

identities and power relations are not rooted solely in gender and that there is

no single definition of womanhood.

Faludi

does not pin personal blame on fathers. She sees them as having been battered by

forces that left them emotionally "crippled," mute, incapable of

ushering their sons into "manhood." Having been abandoned by their

fathers, sons are left with no moral compass, no sense of responsibility,

forever in search of paternal figures elsewhere, usually to no avail.

Unlike

their fathers in World War II, soldiers in Vietnam, according to Faludi, did not

benefit from being in a brotherhood of men headed by paternal officers who would

give rough but loving guidance. Instead, the military of the 1960s adopted a

corporate style of management that treated soldiers like replaceable cogs, did

not inspire discipline or respect, and was mostly incompetent. The worst

officers were – you guessed it – fatherless, or nearly so, thus lacking those

all important roots in a sturdy masculinity that would enable them to properly

"father" their young recruits. "Symbolically speaking," says

Faludi, "what the fathers really passed on to their sons was not the GI

ethic but the GI Joe `action figure,’ a twelve-inch shrunken-man doll whose main

feature was his ability to accessorize."

Faludi

can certainly turn a phrase. Her writing is witty and clever, and sometimes

penetrating. But just as it can be hard to "establish a foothold on the

shiny flat surface of a commercial culture," so can it be difficult to

wrestle with some of Faludi’s slippery concepts. What exactly was the G.I. ethic

of the previous fathers? Did it somehow net us fairer wars? And what’s so bad

about accessorizing anyway? A lot of men do it. Gay men flaunt it. But then

again, they’re not real men. So what is a real man? I still don ‘t know. Again,

Faludi misses an opportunity to critique the entire notion of masculinity, and

instead almost appears nostalgic for the old fashioned kind.

In

one of the most moving but ultimately disappointing sections of the book, Faludi

tells the story of the My Lai massacre through the eyes of Michael Bernhardt – a

witness of, but not a participant in, the massacre. While the rest of his

company speared babies and slaughtered children as they knelt in prayer,

Bernhardt ran around screaming, "This is wrong!" Why did Bernhardt

have the backbone to protest his fellow soldiers’ actions? And where did he get

the courage to later come forward and publicly expose their terrible crimes?

Faludi offers a range of insight, but it comes down to the fact that Bernhardt

had a loving and present father who taught him that "being a man is about

responsibility, it’s about taking care of people." Lieutenant Calley, the

officer immediately in command of Charlie Company, came from an

"emotionally cold family," with a father who drank too much and

"didn’t really listen." Juxtaposing these two men in this context

implies that My Lai might not have happened if the officer in charge had had a

stronger relationship with his father. Indeed, it is possible that another

officer might not have ordered his men to kill in that particular instance. But

"My Lai" would have happened anyway, as it did, over and over again in

Vietnam. Villages were strafed; children were napalmed; the country was laid to

waste; and untold civilians were murdered in a fundamentally corrupt, illegal,

immoral war.

Yes,

men are oppressed. In wildly different ways. Black men have a significant chance

of being imprisoned or dead before they reach middle age. Gay men are repeatedly

punished in a variety of ways for their sexuality. Working class boys will get

funneled into high schools that specialize in auto mechanics while their upper

class counterparts will go into liberal arts programs that teach the skills of

decisionmaking and control. Some working men spend their adult lives

manufacturing useless gadgets and barbaric weaponry, performing dangerous and

boring labor, or providing service with a smile to the privileged. Immigrant men

pick pesticide laden food at substandard wages. Upper class men, well, they have

a hard time expressing their feelings and they draw huge salaries from

corporations that pay them to maintain meaningless hierarchies. Poor things.

In

an eloquent passage, Michael Bernhardt, the My Lai massacre witness, wonders

about the definition of man. "All these years I was trying to be all these

stereotypes. And what was the use? It’s a variable thing. You can’t score it.

I’m beginning to think now of not even defining it anymore. I’m beginning to

think now just in terms of people." Faludi applauds Bernhardt’s rejection

of the masculine yardstick, and she echoes his sentiment in her conclusion. But

deciding to think of everyone as "people" doesn’t work either. That

means not having to address the way power can fall along gender lines, with the

guys usually coming out on top, even if they get stiffed along the way. In other

words, we still need to understand how society constructs a damaging

"masculinity," at the expense of everyone, and we need to envision the

plethora of liberating ways it could be reconstructed.

 

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