It’s not hard to imagine what Susan Faludi would make of professional boxing’s first officially sanctioned match between a man and a woman, which took place earlier this month in Seattle. While the sports media dismissed the fight as an “old carnival act updated for the 1990s” and the male contender predicted victory in under one minute, his female opponent, a 5-foot-5, 125-pound former battered wife named Margaret MacGregor, radiated unflappable confidence. “If he thinks he’s getting a cream puff, he’s in for a real jolt,” she told The New York Times. “I’m going to rock his world.” The accompanying photograph served to reinforce MacGregor’s boast. In it, she towers over her diminutive opponent by a good three inches.
Here, distilled into a single frame are the plot and characters of Faludi’s long-awaited, much-critiqued Stiffed: Casually chauvinistic men with rippling biceps struggling and failing to protect their turf from an encroaching female threat. It’s no accident this particular skirmish took place in the ring, a realm where testosterone and brute force have always been the prerequisites of triumph and the guarantors of female exclusion. No longer. Even contact sports, Faludi would argue, aren’t immune to the victory march of feminism and femininity. According to her, it makes little difference which of these forces is more to blame: the women’s movement or, perversely, its frequent target, our culture’s obsession with the female body. It doesn’t
matter, in other words, whether MacGregor’s trip to the ring is the result of feminist empowerment (domestic abuse victim becomes champion slugger) or female objectification (given the choice, we’d rather see an attractive woman boxer than her male equivalent) or some combination of both. The net effect, argues Faludi, is the same. Men may be stronger, but women have more, well, if not money or political power exactly, something that in today’s image-driven culture is infinitely more valuable: sex appeal.
Still, if women have a competitive edge in today’s society, it is not, Faludi stresses, entirely their fault. Her indignant eulogy for the American male suggests that what’s afflicting men is something much bigger and more sinister than women, its unwitting beneficiaries. Today’s male walking wounded the proud, silent, laid-off ship workers, suicidal porn stars and haunted Vietnam vets who populate her book are all victims of what she depicts as a slow-growing disease that took root in the decades following World War II. Her diagnosis: terminal downsizing syndrome. The transition from a postwar industrial economy (comprised of coal mines, steel factories, automotive plants and aerospace engineers) to a service economy (comprised of infomercials, music videos and blue movies) may have ensured American hegemony on television sets around the globe, but its domestic legacy was unemployed male workers and epidemic emasculation. “At the close of the century,” Faludi writes, “men find themselves in an unfamiliar world where male worth is measured only by participation in a celebrity-driven consumer culture and awarded by Lady Luck. There is no passage to manhood in such a world. A man can only wait to be discovered; and even if he lucks out, his ‘achievement’ is fraught with gender confusion for its ‘feminine’ implications of glamour and display.”
Where once manhood had been defined by “character, by the inner qualities of stoicism, integrity, reliability, the ability to shoulder burdens, the willingness to put others first, the desire to protect and provide and sacrifice,” in today’s image culture, manhood is defined by “appearance, by youth and attractiveness, by money and aggression, by posture and swagger and ‘props,’ by the curled lip and petulant sulk and flexed biceps, by the glamour
of the cover boy.” Formerly predicated on sweat and toil and teamwork, manhood is today all about the reflection in the mirror.
To the horror of the author, whose first book, Backlash, documented widespread cultural resistance to feminism, men now find themselves in the same ontological predicament that has plagued women for centuries. No longer about doing, manhood is today all about being. And where’s the self-respect in that? A vivid writer capable of dazzling feats of analysis and interpretation, Faludi has produced a compassionate, overwrought polemic filling over 600 pages. But for all her ardor and dexterity on the page or perhaps because of it Stiffed seriously misses its mark as social commentary. Were men really better off when they lifted things for a living? Beneath Faludi’s sophisticated grasp of popular culture (her book is awash in knowing references to Jay Leno, Howard Stern, and Public Enemy) lurks a dated textbook Marxism that clouds her vision of contemporary life. To her nostalgic ear, the stoicism, integrity and willingness to sacrifice that Faludi hears about from former pipe fitters at the federally-funded Long Beach Naval Shipyard (closed in 1997, a casualty of Pentagon budget cuts) is vindication of the labor theory of value, a testament to the possibility of unalienated work. “See, a ship is like an enclosed little universe,” one laid-off ship worker
explains to her in a typical encounter. “Everything’s connected. . . You start on one system on a ship, you’re affecting everything.”
The pre-war America Faludi pines for is like this ship. It’s a world where every man does his bit, and every bit counts, all indispensable to the larger, humming social whole. It’s a world where no one man is better than any other and where mutual respect is as common as elbow grease. Today, Faludi argues, that world is all but defunct. If he’s lucky, the once proud ship-worker is now peddling his buff body to porn movie agents, praying he’ll maintain his hard-on through the sex scenes all the way to the money shot, so called because, Faludi reports, remuneration is entirely contingent on successful ejaculation. No come, no pay. But even if he does manage to snag a part on the set of Jailhouse Cock or Snow Bunnies in Tahoe, our former ship worker
Exhibit A in Faludi’s case against contemporary America is the sad saga of Cal Jammer, a former electrician and set designer who briefly became a porn actor before committing suicide at the age of 34. Jammer wilted on camera and his earnings fell to under $200 a scene; his wife, a stripper and aspiring porn star, found herself increasingly in demand. Jammer, we are made to understand, is more than just another victim of ornamental culture. He is the archetypal
victim, his story rich with allegorical implication: When economic success depends on narcissistic display, men just can’t compete.
If only Cal Jammer, a man who knew how to work with his hands, could have found a job at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard! Refurbishing an aircraft carrier, Faludi encourages us to believe, might have just the thing to buoy his fragile morale, steady his troubled marriage and enhance his dangerously low self-esteem. It’s not hard to be seduced by this rosy vision the happy ending never explored and now no longer possible. Faludi’s pre-war America is easy to love and long for because it probably never existed. To evoke this world at all, Faludi scours the country looking for witnesses to the good old days, determined to turn their fragmentary anecdotes and memories into sweeping cultural truths. When the messy testimony from the trenches fails to drive her thesis home, she supplies the missing rhetoric herself. Stiffed’s subtitle is “The Betrayal of the American Man,” and betrayal is a word that Faludi uses over and over again (as in “Michael Bernhardt had to live through years of cover-up and opprobrium and betrayal” or “Their occupational betrayal . . . had been compounded by a powerful sense of domestic betrayal”). Oddly, however, it’s a word the men themselves never use. They are angry, certainly, and eager to blame their various misfortunes on others: their wives, their former employers, the government, their fathers. At the same time, however, their testimony suggests they believe they owe their circumstances as much to dumb luck, bad judgment and inadequate parenting as to some seismic cultural shift. Perhaps these men, unlike Faludi, recognize that in a society currently enjoying record levels of prosperity and unemployment, they, her chosen interview subjects, are the exception, not the rule. And though they might grumble about it, at least some of the men in Stiffed would recognize Margaret MacGregor’s presence in the ring not as a threat to their manhood but as a portent of change, the kind of change that who knows? sometimes brings opportunity with it. MacGregor, it turns out, went home with the grand prize, but her male opponent got $1500 just for taking part in the show.