30 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (xii)

The outer layer of the masculinity crisis, men's loss of economic authority, was most evident in the recessionary winds of the early nineties, as the devastation of male unemployment grew ever fiercer. The role of family breadwinner was plainly being undermined by economic forces that spat many men back into a treacherous job market during corporate "consolidations" and downsizings. Even the many men who were never laid off were often gripped with the fear that they could be next – that their footholds as providers were frighteningly unsteady.

As the economy recovered, the male crisis did not, and it became apparent that whatever men's afflictions were, they could not be gauged solely through graphs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Underlying their economic well-being was another layer of social and symbolic understanding between men, a tacit compact undergirding not only male employment but the whole connection between men and the public domain. That pact was forged through loyalty, through a conviction that a man's "word" meant something in the larger society, through a belief that faithfulness, dedication, and duty would be rewarded in kind, or at least appreciated in some meaningful way – some way that "made you a man." Realizing that loyalty, whether to a corporation, an army, or a football team, no longer allowed a man to lay claim to male virtue – that it was as likely, in fact, to make him a pitiable sap – could be devastating to any man, but especially to those postwar men raised on home-team spirit, John Wayne westerns, and tributes to the selfless service of the American GI.

Susan Faludi, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, p. 595

Slogging through Faludi's 600-plus page epic, one often suspects she has slipped in every precious writerly turn of phrase that editors have trimmed from her newspaper articles over the years. Nevertheless, in just over 14 pages, she pulls together a cogent and incisive concluding chapter that's worth more by itself than Hanna Rosin's entire book.

Rosin asks why men can't or won't participate in the New Economy, but she is too polite to seek substantive answers, and her fieldwork is far too shallow to offer them up on a platter. It is ultimately conjectural but by no means without some merit to conclude, as I have devoted much of the month to articulating, that digging deeper in fact threatens to challenge too many of her own basic assumptions about the world and about what people do and ought to want from it.

Faludi on the other hand has the distinct advantage of depth, if not breadth, of engagement, having followed her stories for years on end simply as part of her day job, and thus having developed long-term personal relationships with many of the men she chronicles. And what she found, overwhelmingly, were distant fathers and the gaping chasms they left unfilled in their sons' lives:

For centuries, of course, fathers have disappointed, neglected, abused, abandoned their sons. But there was something particularly unexpected, and so particularly disturbing, about the nature of paternal desertion that unfolded in the years after World War II, precisely because it coincided with a period of unprecedented abundance. In the generation before the war, millions of fathers failed to support their families, and hordes of them abandoned their households, became itinerant laborers, hoboes, winos. But that was the fault of the Great Depression, not of its men. By contrast, the post-World War II era was the moment of America's great bounty and ascendance, when the nation and thus its fathers were said to own the world. Never, or so their sons were told, did fathers have so much to pass on as at the peak of the American century. And conversely, never was there such a burden on the sons to learn how to run a world they would inherit. Yet the fathers, with all the force of fresh victory and moral virtue behind them, seemingly unfettered in their paternal power and authority, failed to pass the mantle, the knowledge, all that power and authority, on to their sons. (596-7)

For all of her insight, Faludi too suffers from a certain reluctance to go all the way on questions such as this, though the word "burden" above is a subtly dropped hint that she does, in fact, have the understanding and wherewithal to do so. I very much doubt she believes single mothers and gay couples to be inherently unfit to raise boys; why, then, should the mere presence of a distant father throw such a wet blanket on the whole enterprise when he is not the only parent present? Rosin's addition-by-subtraction, "just another mouth to feed" analysis certainly comes to mind, but she consistently frames this as a purely economic/financial decision, and one made disproportionately by working-class women; we have reached awfully dark times indeed if it is demonstrably better for children of all classes on grounds of social adjustment as well. That possibility notwithstanding, Faludi never quite so explicitly asks if perhaps the culture at large was responsible for creating in these boys inflated, ultimately regressive expectations of what a father might do for a son. In fairness, she can't really ask this since it violates the trust these men (i.e. the grownup sons) have shown in her in confessing their inner pain for a mass audience. I am asking it here, then, and at the risk of going all Men's Movement on everything, I have another question as well: how many of these distant fathers do you think may once have expressed what was, for them, the responsible intention not to have children only to be, let's say, fooled into impregnating their partner against their wishes? Everyone knows someone.

Another nugget, apropos of nothing in particular: I lost track of how many stories Faludi tells of husbands being laid off and wives more or less immediately moving out and "getting involved" with co-workers. You would think it was a stealth attack on these women's character and motives...that is until she inevitably induces the deserted husband to admit that yeah, he might have hit her this one time, and actually, yeah, he did hit her this one time. Suddenly the sticking around part makes less sense and the leaving part more. So, there certainly is some oblique storytelling here, but I suspect it's intentional, and it's definitely effective as long as the reader is paying close enough attention. It also, however, leaves one wondering if there aren't some simpler big-picture issues for these men to deal with before the intricacies of essentialism-versus-constructionism, inner psyches, and advanced capitalist exploitation can be fruitfully unpacked and offered up for their self-improving consumption.

The last item on that list, however, is one on which Faludi crafts some exceptionally insightful prose, and so in gratitude (is it showing gratitude to plop large sections of someone's book on the internet?), she gets the final word in this year's installment of Reports:

...just because men have wound up in a beauty-contest world doesn't mean women have put them there. The gaze that plagues them doesn't actually spring from a feminine eye. The ever-prying, ever-invasive beam reducing men to objects comes not from women's inspection but from the larger culture. Cast into the gladiatorial arena of ornament, men sense their own diminishment in women's strength. But the "feminine" power whose rise most genuinely threatens men is not the female shoulder hoisting girders at a construction site, not the female foot in the boardroom door of a corporation, not the female vote in the ballot box. The "femininity" that has hurt men the most is an artificial femininity manufactured and marketed by commercial interests. What demeans men is a force ever more powerful in the world, one that has long demeaned women. The gaze that hounds men is the very gaze that women have been trying to escape. (599)

And again:

At century's end, feminists can no longer say of consumer culture with such ringing confidence that "what it does to everyone, it does to women even more." The commercialized, ornamental "femininity" that the women's movement diagnosed now has men by the throat. Men and women both feel cheated of lives in which they might have contributed to a social world; men and women both feel pushed into roles that are about little more than displaying prettiness or prowess in the marketplace. Women were pushed first, but now their brothers have joined that same forced march." (602)

Don't push me, Hanna Rosin. Don't push me.

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