Feminist Queen Bee Susan Faludi Tackles Men With Book

Susan Faludi-whose 1991 best seller, Backlash : The Undeclared War Against American Women , gave women who came of age in the feminist-unfriendly 80’s the kind of “Whoa, so I’m not crazy” moment of enlightenment that Betty Friedan once gave their mothers-was on the phone from her house in the Hollywood Hills. She was packing for a 15-city tour to promote her new book, Stiffed : The Betrayal of the American Man , and complaining about some early press.

“Like this piece in Elle magazine,” sighed Ms. Faludi, 40, who sighs a lot when discussing the media. “It wasn’t even a piece, it was more like a paragraph. Ninety percent of it is the picture and the quote-unquote review is by somebody who says that he hasn’t read the book but he can just guess what it’s about from the title and that it must be all about erections .”

Except for one chapter about male porn actors, which The New Yorker ran back in its saucy Tina Brown days, Stiffed is decidedly not about erections. It is about men-deflated men, beaten-down men, cheated-feeling men of the late 20th century.

“Apparently there was something in Esquire ,” continued Ms. Faludi, referring to “Are We Not Men?” by Mount Holyoke professor and literary critic Sven Birkerts, “about how, ‘I’m feeling fine, and I don’t wanna hear anything about how men are in crisis, I’m not in crisis, and why don’t you just shut up.'”

“This woman is clearly on a mission,” wrote Mr. Birkerts. “Find a soft place in the collective male self-esteem and drive at it until the lance runs red.” “And he hasn’t read the book!” said Ms. Faludi disgustedly.

If he had, Mr. Birkerts might have seen that “the point of this book,” as Ms. Faludi puts it, “is that men have been betrayed by similar cultural forces that women have grappled with for so long.” Big sigh. “The same culture that puts a premium on appearance and image and marketable fame and glamour and display,” she said. “It’s the water in which we all swim, and it’s hard to get away from it.”

In fairness to Mr. Birkerts, the fact that he hadn’t read the book wasn’t strictly his fault. Stiffed is not only a big book-at 608 pages, 148 longer than Backlash (“I had more to say,” said Ms. Faludi)-but it is also a Big Book, meted out to the world by Manhattan’s brigadier general of Big Book publicity, Lynn Goldberg, in militaristically precise hits: an exclusive Newsweek excerpt, which meant no reviewers were sent the book until long past the fall deadlines for Esquire, Elle and other glossy monthlies; followed by a splashy Today show appearance on Sept. 21, capped off by a tweedy New York Times -sponsored literary brunch at the Waldorf-Astoria on Sunday, Sept. 26.

That the excerpt went to Newsweek has some irony, since Ms. Faludi excoriated the magazine in Backlash for its June 2, 1986, cover story, which used inaccurate statistics to state that single women over 30 were basically doomed to spinsterhood. She is now one of the magazine’s contributing editors and appeared on the Sept. 13 cover glammed up by a prominent Los Angeles styling agency. Inside, she is pictured wearing a ruffly lavender designer top, grinning widely and clutching her bare feet in a girlish, Joyce Maynard-esque pose.

“Oh, I don’t know ,” said Ms. Faludi with some annoyance when asked what she thought of this treatment. “You know, to me it’s all, it’s all in good fun. I think I actually kind of liked , I really liked, the playing with the idea of what, the expectations of what a feminist looks like and acts like … You know, I wasn’t sprawled on a bear rug with a pink bow on me!”

“I appreciate that Newsweek did not portray me as feminists have so often been in the past, as sort of jackbooted, humorless dragon ladies,” said Ms. Faludi. “Because the real face of feminism is very, very diverse and generally more friendly to men …”

Indeed, a current typical feminist might have hopped at the chance to pose sprawled on the bear rug. The current face of feminism, with its bubble-gum-pop cheerfulness, blithe acceptance of men’s sexual marauding (see Bill Clinton) and sprightly valuation of things like lipstick and knitting, is maybe a little bit too friendly, too upturned toward men. Ms. Faludi might have shocked readers more if she had been photographed, say, sitting at her desk, with no makeup, uncombed hair and a sturdy cup of coffee nearby.

Feminists have gone from mocking “the beauty myth” to being expected to both mock and embody it-and not to take anything too seriously. Flashback to a Park Avenue book party last March, a party for The Skinny, a book by New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean (hiding under her husband’s surname, Sistrom) and humor writer Patricia Marx. The book was an occasionally funny but more often horrifying look at dieting that suggested, among other tactics, pouring bleach on tempting food to render it unpalatable. At the party, drawn-looking women in journalism and publishing-all of whom had been on diets at some point or another, probably even at that very moment-tittered their way around the hors d’oeuvres platters (annotated helpfully- ha ha -with calorie counts) while stocky, smug, well-paid men from Time Inc. and other media organs circulated and munched avidly, not really getting the joke. That was a grim moment for modern feminists. Imagine if all the energy and ingenuity these women applied to dieting (in their arch, ironic Manhattan way, of course) was poured into political missions or novels or even redressing salary imbalances with their male counterparts?

Lunch With Truman

Ms. Faludi’s new book is the anti- Skinny ; it is the Fat. It is intensely serious; aggressively, almost anxiously substantive. One can almost see Ms. Faludi as the self-consciously smart , summa cum laud e Harvard University-Dunster House undergrad that she was, chugging away at her Big Idea, hitting it with facts like so many bricks until, finally, the idea just gives in.

The book features hundreds of Ms. Faludi’s signature footnotes and sweeping, whiplash-inducing cross-continental narrative leaps. Vietnam vets to Cleveland football fans to Denver Promise Keepers to Citadel “knobs” to Waco Patriots to Los Angeles Spur Posse members to sad-sack astronaut Buzz Aldrin to sad-sack actor Sylvester Stallone to chilly Condé Nast editorial director James Truman. “I had been waiting almost an hour when James Truman finally arrived, fashionably late, for a fashionably late dinner with me at a fashionable downtown restaurant …” writes Ms. Faludi with disdain, adding that Mr. Truman actually had the gall to refuse to move from the “cool” area into a quieter side room. What New Yorker couldn’t help but wonder which restaurant? “Ha ha ha,” said Ms. Faludi, the former Wall Street Journal reporter, over the phone. “God, what was it? It was downtown.” Balthazar? “That doesn’t sound right. God, you know, I’m sure I have it in my little address book,” she said vaguely. “Oh, well. It was sort of in the Village.”

That’s the kind of superficial detail virtuously omitted from Stiffed. To take interest in that kind of detail, perhaps, is to demonstrate one’s place in something Ms. Faludi dubs “ornamental culture” and hazily defines as “celebrity and image, glamour and entertainment, marketing and consumerism.” Both men and women, she writes, have been equally damaged by ornamental culture.

Ms. Faludi hates superficiality. She hates glibness. But this is a book that, for all its diligent reporting, all of its fatness , could have maybe used a soupçon of glib. Stiffed is a little, well, stiff . Backlash had the same meticulous quality, but there it seemed impressive; there was a scrappiness, an indignance to the earlier book that kept you plugging along. Stiffed wanders and warbles. At times the book almost appears unedited, as if it were written from copious note cards, or as if the editor was cowed a bit by the author’s larger-than-life quality.

Ms. Faludi’s editor on Stiffed , Tom Engelhardt, shied away from an interview. “It just makes me uncomfortable,” he said. “I just feel an editor should be subsumed in the process and shouldn’t be out there yakking.”

In any case, it’s going to be interesting to see if the women who made Backlash a best seller will pick up Stiffed. Ms. Faludi’s failure to present a cogent argument, after laying things out so clearly in Backlash, left this reader feeling a bit, well, stiffed. And for all of its sympathy for the male condition, Stiffed would at first not be a book most men would want to be seen lugging around. Then again, men may secretly crave an understanding shoulder like Ms. Faludi’s, especially as men’s magazines such as Maxim and Esquire abandon any pretense toward seriousness in favor of corny soft-porn pictures of B-actresses and horn-dog high school prose.

Speaking of which, Ms. Faludi isn’t the only prominent female journalist these days with a beef against the October Esquire . In a Sept. 12 New York Times column dubbed “Sure I Would,” Maureen Dowd took issue with writer Tom Junod’s heavy-breathing piece about Hillary Clinton. “If you want to understand exactly how trivializing it is to sexualize Hillary Clinton in this way,” wrote Ms. Dowd, “let’s apply the Junod approach (and much of his own panting vocabulary) to male candidates.” Which she does, to droll effect. One feels Ms. Dowd could use a little bit of Ms. Faludi’s “substance,” and Ms. Faludi’s book could stand to dowdy itself up a bit. Maybe it isn’t good form to pit two female writers against each other-sisterhood, etc.-but Ms. Faludi started it, with a May 13, 1996, opinion piece in The Nation headlined “Does Maureen Dowd Have an Opinion?” “Surface is everything,” Ms. Faludi wrote of Ms. Dowd’s mode of punditry, comparing her to a “50’s sweater girl” who “eyes male politicians as if they were pimply teens or prospective suitors … It’s as if we’ve gone from Anna Quindlen to Anna Quibbler.”

“Oh, god ,” said Ms. Faludi on the phone, when reminded of her Nation article. “Yeah, actually, you know I wrote that piece back when she was just starting out her column … and grumpiness aside, what I was really trying to say was, you know, ‘Please stop writing about shopping, ’cause you’re better than that, and you have more to say.’ And since then, probably no thanks to me, but for whatever other reason, she has stopped writing about trips to Barneys and has taken on a lot of meaty subjects.”

Ms. Faludi said she liked the “Sure I Would” piece. “I think it’s an incredibly hard job,” she said of Ms. Dowd’s Times gig. “It took me close to a decade to finish one book. My hat’s off to anyone who can write that frequently. I can barely get a book done and keep the plants in my house watered, in fact I don’t water the plants …”

Faludi Has Guy, Cats

Now there’s a question any young feminist struggling in a relationship with a man might want to ask. Who does water Susan Faludi’s plants?

That’s Russ Rymer, 47, Ms. Faludi’s live-in boyfriend-she calls him her “common-law” husband-also a journalist, whom she met eight years ago in San Francisco through a former boss at the Atlanta Constitution (where they both worked at different times). Mr. Rymer has also written a book, a critically acclaimed study titled American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory . “He’s a better housekeeper,” said Ms. Faludi, who bought the Beechwood Canyon two-bedroom the couple share with their two female tabbies, Hedda and Pogo. Ms. Faludi claims to have no hobbies, but Mr. Rymer, she said, “plays the cello right now. He rented it. He’s very interested in music.”

Is he ever intimidated by her success? “I think you’ll have to ask him that yourself,” Ms. Faludi said with a laugh. “Say, Russ? Russ ?”

Muffled negotiation, and then a friendly twangy voice got on the line. “Mmm, not that I’ll confess to … heh … heh … heh ,” said Mr. Rymer. “You know, I was on my way to pick her up for our first date when I looked over at a newsstand and she was on the cover of Time , so it’s not like it was a shock .”

Ms. Faludi said that naturally her beau had helped her with Stiffed . “We had lots of discussions. Maybe I’m repressing them, but I can’t recall any fights ,” she said. “Mostly he was an incredibly helpful sounding board; no matter how empathetic one tries to be, at the end of the day I’m still a woman .”

“This isn’t really about a battle between men and women, it’s a battle in which men and women are on the same side,” said Ms. Faludi. “It’s the culture that is pushing us all in the same set of unpleasant directions. Meaning a world in which we increasingly have less of a real society that we can engage in both as men and women, and more of a culture and marketable fame and sex appeal and turning yourself into a commodity.”

Putting down this big, broad listening tour of a book for a sec, one can’t help but notice that Ms. Faludi has morphed the appealingly frowzy 70’s refugee on Backlash ‘s jacket (lank, middle-parted hair; limp turtleneck; unpainted lips in a half smile) to a chic, sleek 90’s female on Stiffed ‘s (styled hair; necklace over V-neck; plummy lipsticked mouth pulled back over a row of pearly teeth). “Well, I guess we women are still winning in the celebrity culture, which is why a lot of men still feel this is a women’s world,” said Ms. Faludi. “Then they mistakenly decide it’s because of feminism, but really it’s because we live in this commercial culture where appearance and sex appeal and youth and glam, ha ha, are the watchwords of the day.”

Mr. Rymer admitted that, in fact, he is better at dish washing and stuff. “Who told you that? Did she tell you that? Well, she’s right,” he said cheerfully. He will accompany Ms. Faludi on her tour, but only as far as New York. “My main mission is to stay out of her way,” he said. And so he should, the big, hairy, misunderstood beast .