Friday, December 23, 2005

Susan Faludi's Backlash

She is the feminist of the day on this blog. Faludi's Backlash is a good book to read, even this many years later, if not for the subject matter itself (the 1980's backlash against feminism of the previous decades) then for the pattern that Faludi makes visible, a pattern that is equally visible today.

Faludi is like an archeologist who carefully and painstakingly uses a tiny brush to sweep away at what looks at first just ordinary dirt, but which gradually reveals an ancient mosaic or a statuette or a cuneiform tablet, though in her case it is the structure of anti-feminism, the connections between the right-wing foundations, the radical clerics and the whacko scientists and writers. The sheer mass of evidence she goes through is awe-inspiring and though her writing is not without errors on the whole her accuracy is impressive.

And what is this pattern, this rare cuneiform tablet of antifeminism? To appreciate the totality you need to read Faludi's book. But certain major parts of the pattern repeat themselves so often that I can write about them without having checked the book for several years.

The first one is something I find hard not to call a media conspiracy. What else would it be when some poorly made or nonexistent study is suddenly hailed and celebrated in every single type of media, without fail, and when the only obvious reason for this hailing and celebrating is that the results don't bode well for uppity women of some stripe? Faludi's example is of a study which argued that middle-aged women have a greater chance of being the victims of terrorism than of finding a man to warm their bed. I still hear this one on the internet! The study was utter crap, but this didn't stop it from being discussed on television and masticated in the print media. For here was the proof, finally! Women who waited to marry to have careers would end up sad, lonely and barren! Yippee!

The media conspiracy that Faludi discussed has appeared several times since. It is always about uppity women and always implies that feminism has failed. Not the society, not the men or the women with power, nope. It is just that women on their very own, with their own little heads, have decided that feminism was the Big Bad Wolf.

And just as in the example in Backlash, the new media conspiracies are always shown to be made up. But by the time corrections pour in the media is looking for a new pearl to string to the necklace of feminism's downfall, and all the writers and pontificators are far too busy to point out the errors and biases of the previous one. We have Faludi to thank for spotting this pattern. Once you see it you can always recognize it, and you will, too, when the next pearl rolls out.

A second part of the pattern is the distinction between the public statements of anti-feminists and their private lives. Faludi gives us several examples of people whose public voices are very different from their private choices. Today we have Patrick Buchanan as an example of this pattern. A man who writes with great concern about the falling white birth rates in this country has no children of his own. But he is not a woman so this fact appears not to count against him in the public eye.

The "do as I say, not as I do" anti-feminists are a dime a dozen, of course. Consider Caitlin Flanagan (now a writer for New Yorker but previously for the Atlantic Monthly) who loves to heap scorn on mothers who have jobs or careers. That she is a mother with a career doesn't seem to slow down her acerbity one bit.

I suspect that many such anti-feminists are publicity hounds, raising a wetted finger to test the societal winds and sniffing out the biggest money bags. After all, it is hard to get rich from criticizing the strong and the powerful. Much easier to smooth the fears of those who hate the recent changes in societal gender roles.

The third aspect of anti-feminism Faludi revealed for me was the astonishingly low number of famous anti-feminists. If they seem to be everywhere, both then and these days, it is because the media gives them access like no feminist can ever dream to have. But in reality the number of these fanatics is quite low, though they are a tightly-knit group and extremely well-funded, too. Several of the conservative donors hate feminism which makes finding money for the publication of anti-feminist statements a walk in the park.

Now I feel depressed that so little has changed since Faludi's Backlash was first published. Some things have changed, true, but for the worse. What hasn't changed is the covert assumption that anti-feminism is decent and presentable in the mainstream media but that feminism is wild and feral and best kept outside it.