Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Book Review: Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream

[I realize that I'm a little behind the curve with this review, in the sense that the book has been out for more than six months. I swear, I only manage to do fun (i.e., non-academic) reading during the summer months, much to my chagrin.]

NOTE: This post is ridiculously long.

So. Overall, I really liked Susan Faludi's latest book, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9/11 America. Faludi is a master at accumulating waves upon waves of damaging evidence to support her argument, as she demonstrated in her earlier books Backlash and Stiffed. She also crafts a very compelling narrative conveniently divided into two parts, ontogeny and phylogeny, which treat, respectively, the present day 'symptoms' of the mythical terror dream that she examines, and the historical origins of that continually reanimated mythology.

Put simply, Faludi reads the perversely retrogressive responses to 9/11 (responses largely fabricated by the MSM) as indicative of an attempt to reincarnate a foundational American myth, namely the narrative of the strong male-as-protector and its necessary correlative, the weak woman in need of rescue and protection. That the myth is precisely this--fiction--matters little, as the narrative functions to buttress a vulnerable and damaged nation with an illusory picture of its own strength and impregnability. And so the tendency for 300-plus years (which Faludi painstakingly chronicles) has been to trot out this myth at moments of national crisis because of the mistaken belief that, as Faludi puts it, "only a house divided against itself can stand" (p. 295). That is, for men to be propped up as (artificial) heroes instead of the victims that they often have been in the course of US history, women must be consistently denigrated as helpless and infantile, stripped of all symbolic and actual power that they possess. It is only by consistently maintaining the fiction of a powerful and dominant manhood clearly demarcated from any contamination by 'feminine weakness' [sic!] that the persistently resurfacing evidence about the vulnerability of the USA can be covered over.

Here's a quote from the end of the book that I think best sums up Faludi's argument:
When an attack on home soil causes cultural paroxysms that have nothing to do with the attack, when we respond to real threats to our nation by distracting ourselves with imagined threats to femininity and family life, when we invest our leaders with a cartoon masculinity and require of them bluster in lieu of a capacity for rational calculation, and when we blame our frailty on 'fifth column' feminists--in short, when we base our security on a mythical male strength that can only measure itself against a mythical female weakness--we should know that we are exhibiting the symptoms of a lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction (p. 295).

Again, I should be clear, I really enjoyed the book and found Faludi's argument and supporting analyses extremely powerful, if not also a little disturbing for their ability to, as they say, hit the nail on the head vis-a-vis prevailing cultural attitudes towards masculinity and femininity in the USA.

But, that being said, there were a few things about the analysis that troubled (and continue to trouble) me in ways that I can't quite clearly explain.

My first nagging worry is about the conclusion that this myth of male superiority and female inferiority ultimately reduces to and relies upon. As Faludi makes clear in both contemporary (Jessica Lynch) and historical (captivity narratives) examples, this foundational myth ends up relying on the false imputation of rape as a way to reinforce the oftentimes incorrect view that these women were helpless waifs whose very innocence and purity -- hallmarks of the imagined femininity that the myth requires -- required male salvation. That in a large majority of these examples rapes never occurred is beside the point; Faludi shows that portraying the ordeals of women solely in terms of sexual violation effectively eliminates their agency -- and thus reinforces the parameters of the myth.

I think what worries me about this ultimate conclusion is that it seems to reduce a lot of the fucked up-edness of gender relations in the US to this one thing, the threat of rape and the unavoidable taint of susceptibility that it positions as a kind of sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of women.

To go all philosophical for a moment, there is a clear phenomenological argument to be made in favor of the assertion that many women do experience their lives as though the threat of rape were ever-present. As most women could tell you, we tend to walk differently at night, have a different level of awareness in terms of what's going on around us, and we often keep our 'radar' more sensitvely attuned to the potentially unsavory intentions of men, both strangers and acquaintances... But a lot of this extra situational awareness is itself probably a product of the rape culture that continually tells us that we are vulnerable and that we ought to be vigilant, lest we wear a short skirt and invite attack. (And all of this should be taken to denying the very real vulnerability felt by women who have been a victim of rape or other forms of unwanted sexual attention.)

So on this level at least, Faludi may be spot-on in her identification of the construct (constant threat of rape) ensuring that the myth continues to provide shelter for our national fears, psychoses, and weaknesses.

At the same time, however, the fact that the threat of rape sits at the center of a national fantasy about appropriate gender roles and traditional domesticity seems -- to me -- to call out for a separate, more penetrating analysis that Faludi does not completely provide in the book. Certainly, The Terror Dream is devoted to piercing holes in the inherent misogyny that permeates American culture, but I wish that this project was carried out more explicitly, and more directly employed the language of sexism, misogyny, privilege, and oppression in its argumentation. [This criticism may just be the theory nut in me wanting a more 'academic' analysis, so I'm not sure that this is actually a strong knock against what I still think is a very insightful claim.]

My nagging worry about the rape threat that seems to sit at the center of, and function as the productive force for, the narrative Faludi illuminates also connects to another, related worry about the treatment of race in the book.

For all of the ways in which the historic and current examples of captivity-and-rescue stories rely on unfounded allegations about the rape of women by terrorists, 'savages,' or other 'barbarians,' it seems to go largely without comment that only the rape of white women by brown men 'counts' when it comes time to reinforce the mythical narrative that Faludi dissects. That is, there is no corresponding way in which the vulnerability of enslaved WOC to the whims of their raping white masters -- for example -- challenges the dominant paradigm in which rapeability stands in for national weakness. (By the way, I'm really uncomfortable with the implications of this parallel and others bearing a family resemblance, for what I hope are obvious reasons that have been better explained by Chris Clarke (in a post the body of which seems to have disappeared), Thinking Girl, and Rana.)

This leads me to the second element of Faludi's treatment of race that is setting off alarms for me, namely the largely unspoken assumption that this is a foundational myth by and for white people (and more specifically, it would seem, white, heterosexual, Christian men).* While I get how the ontogeny that provides the historic pattern for the reenactment of this narrative of male strength and female weakness is based in racist fears about violence perpetuated by Native Americans, African-Americans, and scary Russian communists -- the examples that Faludi refers to in the second half of the book -- I find it strange that there is no explicit commentary on the fact that this fear-inspired myth of national virility is predicated on racism as well as misogyny.**

Anyhow, those are my thoughts on the book right now; I know that they're a little scattered, but I hope that they at least manage to provoke some discussion about a few things that seem to -- problematically -- go unsaid in Faludi's analysis.


* I would also ideally want to add some class identifier to this list, but to be honest I'm not sure whether the myth is targeted at working-, middle-, or upper-class men because of the way that fears about masculinity and power intersect in complicated ways with class and racial identifications, privileges, and/or oppressions.

** This notion, that the narrative roles afforded to strong men and weak women are themselves also predicated upon a corresponding set of racial prejudices and fears, also calls out for an intersectional analysis that I can't quite wrap my head around at this particular moment. This is more than likely a product of my own privileges, and when I've got it figured out I'll update the post accordingly.

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