Sucking Up | Essay | Chicago Reader

Sucking Up 

Two feminist writesr fall to their knees before the masculine mystique.

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

By Kelly Kleiman

"Respect the cock," says Tom Cruise's character in the movie Magnolia. It makes sense in context: he's the leader of an est-style workshop devoted to producing aggressive men. I didn't realize he was also enunciating the prime directive of American publishing, but nothing else could explain a pair of recent books by well-known feminists. Someone must have said to Susan Bordo and Susan Faludi, "All right, already--enough about women. Talk about men now. Respect the cock."

In The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and Private, Bordo obeys this injunction in its most literal sense. She begins with an embarrassing meditation about never having seen her father's penis (apparently a deprivation) and continues through a full third of the book to talk about crotches as though men's bodies consisted of nothing else. It's a strangely prurient exercise, at the intellectual level of sitcoms that use the word "penis" because they can. For the rest of the book--a hodgepodge of unfinished essays, notes for classes she's taught, and points she wishes she'd made during them--Bordo tosses in the word and its cognates whenever interest might be starting to flag. The focus seems deliberate, pointed you might say. It's as if she were saying, "I may be a feminist but at least I'm not a dyke. I love cock. I'm obsessed with it. Listen to how I talk about it."

When she leaves the subject, she occasionally has something interesting to say. In the middle of the book, she directs her attention to the phenomenon of the male body as an object of gaze, contrasting it to the more traditional male role as subject, or viewer. Her overview of men as sex objects in 1950s films--she reads biblical epics like The Ten Commandments as S-M celebrations of "men, men, men whipping and being whipped by each other....Full of captive, semi-naked, spread-eagled heroes"--is amusing, and she offers an intriguing explanation for their disappearance from later films. Once sexual strictures were loosened, she theorizes, Hollywood became too preoccupied with showing what women looked like to bother showing what they liked to look at. Thus, what appeared to be liberation in fact produced further objectification of women.

Another essay in the same section considers contemporary male sex objects and the social meaning of a man's assumption of a role traditionally assigned to women. A rich subject, but unfortunately Bordo offers little more than a creepy display of what it's like to talk about human beings as if they were pieces of meat, airily styling herself a "nouvelle voyeuse" as she gushes over Calvin Klein ads with their prominent displays of "young, half-clothed football players...young, gorgeous, and well-hung." Perhaps that's the point, to illustrate the dehumanizing effect of treating people like objects, but I can get a better example from reading Playgirl--one that doesn't oblige me to hear about Bordo's personal obsession with Paul Newman's package, not to mention her struggles with weight and her feelings about being Jewish.

Nowhere in Bordo's book do we get to hear from any actual possessors of male bodies. By contrast, in Faludi's Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, they never shut up. In a series of five awkwardly connected parts, Faludi lends an ear to everyone and anyone she can find who's equipped with a penis--cadets at the Citadel, members of the Spur Posse, laid off salarymen, rabid fans of the Cleveland Browns, wife beaters, Promise Keepers, Vietnam veterans, Branch Davidians, porn stars, on and on ad nauseam. But despite her occasional oracular attempts to draw it all together--"The fathers have been decommissioned by a catastrophic collapse whose origins are social, not personal"; "The fathers would rather see the sons dead than see into the deadness of their own culture"--this cacophony of complaint never resolves itself into a meaningful story about something society did to these men and should now undo. The pithiest observation about Faludi's subjects appears on a sign trailing behind a plane buzzing a men's-movement rally: "Promise Keepers, Losers and Weepers."

Faludi obviously thinks we should care about these losers and weepers, but she never tells us why. Are they, in fact, representative of American men? If so, why are there virtually no men of color? No men who work in the nonprofit sector, or teach, or volunteer? What about successful entrepreneurs? Comeback politicians? Artists? It seems bizarre to exclude the thousands of men who have meaningful work and then complain that society gives men work that is not meaningful.

But if these men are representative of a widespread anomie in American life, why has Faludi framed their story as she has? What, exactly, were these men promised, and by whom? If someone invests excess enthusiasm in the exploits of a football team, he might think he has some sort of entitlement to the team's continued operation in his hometown. If someone goes to work for the defense industry, he might think he has an enforceable claim on the U.S. budget. If a man finds his life meaningless once his wife stops doing all his emotional work, he might think she should return home to do it. But what are the rest of us to think?

The appearance of the word "betrayal" in the title gives away the game: Faludi thinks these men are entitled to something, and she just wants to be sure they understand that the people who deprived them of it aren't women. It was the defense industry, and the NFL, and the best and brightest in government who sent them to Vietnam, and contemporary consumer capitalism, and...until midway through the book, she finally stumbles on the real villain: the absent father. "Our fathers never taught us how to be men," whine Faludi's Peter Pans, and she nods sympathetically and agrees that they wuz robbed. The men think feminism did it, but Faludi knows better. What did it is bad fathers and dumb work and a world where you're nobody if nobody's looking at you.

There's an interesting book hidden inside Stiffed--a book about the transformation of American culture from doing things to being watched while doing them, or simply to watching. But Faludi hasn't written that book; she's just passed along the view of her subjects that they've been deprived of something, and most likely the something is fame. Worse, she describes this obsession with celebrity as "feminizing." In other words, what's wrong with white middle-class American men at the dawn of the 21st century is that they're too much like women. That's a fine view for a feminist to take.

Faludi's betrayed men have discovered themselves to be watchers when they wanted to be doers. Women who made that discovery in the 1970s changed their lives. They got jobs, started doing things, got on with it. Nothing stops men from doing the same thing. And if the trouble instead is that these men discovered themselves to be watchers when they wanted to be the watched, whose fault is that? It turns out that everyone actually isn't famous, even for 15 minutes; but this fact of life hardly constitutes a betrayal.

Stiffed could have been "The Masculine Mystique"--like its female counterpart, a review of a "problem that has no name" as experienced by a wide range of people, and a review of the culture that produced the problem. But when the problem that has no name was that women were expected to experience their lives as full while cut off from meaningful participation in economic or political life, with nothing to do but other people's emotional and domestic work, it was possible to imagine communal solutions: let women into the workplace, develop alternate plans for child care, and so on. If today's problem that has no name is that men are expected to experience their lives as full when they no longer have women to do their emotional and domestic work, it's not clear what communal solutions there might be. It's one thing to argue for change, another to argue for changing back. Just as Faludi embarrasses herself by weeping over the McDonnell Douglas layoffs (since when do progressives lament the decline in defense spending?) she embarrasses herself by mourning the emptiness men feel when their wives have a measure of independence, emotional as well as financial. Though male comfort has traditionally depended on female self-sacrifice, there is no evidence that men are doomed without it. It takes effort to have a full, autonomous emotional life, but it can be done. The only thing preventing these men from doing it is their belief--fostered by Faludi, among others--that they shouldn't have to, that someone promised them something else.

What prevents this book from being "The Masculine Mystique"--from diagnosing and perhaps suggesting treatments for a genuine dislocation--is Faludi's refusal to credit what her interlocutors are saying. In fact, they're right. What's wrong with many of them is feminism. The common thread between the Bordo and Faludi books--and the common cause for their failure--is that each represents part of a futile effort to demonstrate that feminism is really good for men. Bordo makes this argument explicitly, claiming that the social construct "masculinity" harms men as much as "femininity" harms women. I can't imagine who the audience might be for this argument: men aren't listening, and feminists know better.

No doubt an equitable society would be better for men as well as women. In the short run, though, feminism is not good for men, any more than the Emancipation Proclamation was good for slave owners. Feminism requires men to give up unearned privileges, including the right to have free domestic services and child care. It doubles participation in the labor market and, in the zero-sum game that is capitalism, lowers wages and increases the competition each man faces. These are not trivial costs, and we shouldn't be surprised when men balk at paying them. But it's not the business of feminism to pretend that its demands are cost free; it's the business of feminism to reiterate that its demands are just.

Faludi's Backlash was a brilliantly reported book about male efforts to roll back the feminist clock, yet she ends Stiffed with "Blaming a cabal of men has taken feminism about as far as it can go," and by claiming that men are more victimized than women by capitalism, commercialization, and consumerism. Yes, more than the women who are still paid 75 cents for every man's dollar. In addition to being offensive, her statement is just false. Men still have greater access to the professions, to promotion, to high-paying jobs, to ancillary domestic and child-rearing services, and pointing this out--"blaming" them--is still the best weapon women have for securing redress.

It is, of course, a problem for the whole society if men are unable to adapt to living without exploiting women. But it's not feminism's role to solve it. No one would suggest that Henry Louis Gates should write a book about the difficulties of white people. Likewise, feminist scholars have plenty to do without special pleading for men.

If anything, the appearance of these books should set to rest any doubts we might have about who's still in charge.

Respect the cock.

The Male Body: A New Look at Men in Public and Private by Susan Bordo, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $25.

Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man by Susan Faludi, William Morrow and Company, $27.50.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Rebecca Jane Gleason.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Kelly Kleiman

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories