Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Terror Dream. A Book Review

Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream. Fear And Fantasy in Post-9/11 America. has a poorly picked title. Yes, the book is about fear and fantasy in the U.S. where "9/11 changed everything", but it is not about all the fear and fantasy that was changed or that stayed the same. It is, quite specifically, about the way our views of gender were pushed and pulled after the massacres and about the way the massacres were retold so as to fit them into an old national myth: the one about the courageous men defending the innocent virgins and pregnant mothers.

And Faludi has a point, you know. I started following the events she described fairly early and read many of the sources she uses, but I never quite "realized" (in the deeper sense of really seeing it) something she states in the opening chapter of the book: The vast majority of the 9/11 dead were men, roughly three quarters. Only eight children died, all of them on the planes. Yet the public coverage of the disaster focused on the female victims and on the dead children. Later, of course, the appropriate victims were found among the widows and children of the men who died.

Faludi's second point about the way the 9/11 butchery was altered in our imagination is linked to this one. It has to do with the way an attack against the most powerful business interests (Twin Towers) and military interests (the Pentagon) was reinterpreted into an attack against the American homeland. Even the term "homeland" was selected for the new government branch, meant to protect us all. What is weird about this is that bin Laden explicitly wanted his attacks to destroy the business and military hearts of the country. Well, not weird, because protecting the American homes is a lot more appealing, of course.

The rest of Faludi's thesis is that the events of 9/11 caused strong pressure on women to act more like damsels in distress, more like pure mothers, preferably pregnant, more in all those ways worthy for a brave man to defend. At the same time, the media gave us brave men to admire: firemen who charged into the Twin Towers just to die with those there was no way of actually saving, policemen who were the First Defense against future terrorism attacks and cowboy presidents in manly flight suits. In short, the traditional sex roles reared their less-than-pretty heads, with the eager support of many in the media and most of the right-wing media.

Now we know what men are good for, went the argument. Yes, I remember those stories. I remember thinking that I have always known what men are good for and wondering who it was who felt so insecure about that to require this whole approach to be resuscitated. And I remember trying to understand why the valuation of men seemed to require the devaluation of women. For the heroes to do their stuff someone must clap and cheer, I guess, for the hero to rescue the damsel-in-distress the damsel must just sit their and be distressed. So it goes.

But I also remember thinking that nobody seemed to notice the gender of the attackers. We wouldn't have needed the bravery and the sacrifice of the firemen if the terrormen had not committed mass murder first. It's quite dangerous to start that particular strand of thoughts so I stopped there.

It is interesting to read a book which treats the recent past as history, because our own memories of the events are still fresh. This is one of the reasons Faludi's book has been reviewed fairly critically by many. The usual argument is that her thesis about the events forcing women back into their kitchens, barefoot and pregnant, failed, because Hillary Clinton is running to be the president, because there are still lots of women with paid jobs out there and because right-wing pundits have always been telling women to return to their homefires, to rock that cradle with that hand which then rules the world. In short, the anti-feminist messages have always been there and they still aren't working.

Well, I disagree with these wholesale criticisms. I participated in that trip through time, you know, and I read voraciously from about 2002 onwards on all the issues Faludi mentions. There indeed was a renewed emphasis on the cult of the male hero and a renewed emphasis of the need for women to return home. The op-ed pages were suddenly almost totally masculine and the few women who still had access to the foghorn were overwhelmingly conservative and anti-feminist. When I pointed out this in a private conversation with someone I was told that war is a man's business.

The "lifestyle" pages (intended for women's consumption) sprouted several made-up trends about women wanting to quit working or about women wanting to have lots of babies or about women worrying and not wanting to be away from their families. These are made-up trends because no such trends actually appeared. At the same time, there were few stories about women wanting to defend the Homeland or wanting to enter the political debate about how to win the war against terrorism. Surely some women, somewhere, wanted to do exactly that?

So yes, Faludi is right when she describes the pressures of that time on women. Where I think she went slightly wrong is in the focus on the immediate aftermath of 9/11. In fact, all the anti-feminist trends she discusses started in the 1990s, with the stories about the era being post-feminist (which means that we no longer need to worry about equality for women), with the theories about women wishing to just nest or "cocoon", and with the whole reduced pressure on the importance of seeing more women in public positions of power, including in positions of writing about terrorism. The so-called "third wave" of feminists took their eyes off that ball and focused their work on other areas, perhaps thinking that old gains are there to stay. But what I saw was a retreat on many of the issues that supposedly had already been settled to the benefit of women.

The massacres of 9/11 provided a pretext for the anti-feminist message to be accelerated, true. But the message didn't suddenly pop into existence right there and then. The preparatory work had been in the making for a long time, and anyone who had listened to Rush Limbaugh was ready for the next stage.

But of course not everyone listens to Rush Limbaugh all the anti-feminist ladies of the right. This is another problem with the way Faludi's thesis is written and/or received: It is true that all this was in the air during the time when smoke still whirled over New York City, but most people did not read all those conservative newspapers and web sites. Most people only got small doses of the anti-feminist stew Faludi serves us. Her discussion pulls together everything about the culture of that era which tried to steer women back to traditional gender roles, but most of us didn't get as much of the propaganda in our daily lives.

I think this is the reason why some reviewers think that Faludi is exaggerating her message. But something else is going on in reviews like this one:

These efforts on Ms. Faludi's part to use the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as an occasion to recycle arguments similar to those she made a decade and a half ago in her best-selling book "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women" (1991) feel forced, unpersuasive and often utterly baffling.

To begin with, the reader wants to ask: What disappearance of female voices? What "bugle call" to "return to Betty Crocker domesticity?" Since 9/11, Hillary Rodham Clinton has become the leading Democratic contender in the race for the White House, with a good chance of becoming the first female president in history; Katie Couric was named anchor of the CBS Evening News; and women like Lara Logan of CBS and Martha Raddatz of ABC have been reporting from the frontlines of the war in Iraq.

Note that the thesis in this review is that Faludi's thesis is wrong because the public space isn't totally masculine. That is not a valid reading. It could well be that there would be many more women in public roles had the "Betty Crocker domesticity" calls not been heard, say. It could well be that the attempt to change gender roles right after 9/11 did exist but failed, because women on the whole didn't accept those suggestions. It could even be that the entry of the liberal and progressive blogs and especially feminist blogs into the political debate has changed the discussion from what it seems to be on some of those conservative sites. And it could simply be that the window for the anti-feminist attempts after 9/11 has closed.

There is something odd about many of the reviews of the book I have read, and the only way I can define that oddness is by suggesting that it doesn't seem necessary to actually study feminism to bash it.