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She Said He Said

Susan Faludi's new book relays a message from American men: We got a raw deal.

September 29, 1999|IRENE LACHER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If you ran into famous feminist Susan Faludi in a dark alley, do you think you'd recognize her?

Probably not, and with good reason. The controversial author of the 1992 bestseller "Backlash" (Crown) hasn't been around, at least not where cameras are concerned. She's been turning down talking-head media opportunities for years. She's been too busy reporting.

"I wanted to return to being a shoe-leather, more anonymous, more traditional reporter who just goes out and talks to people without arriving as a celebrity with an entourage, which is how a lot of media works now," says the Pulitzer Prize winner. "Dan Rather descending on whatever hot spot with his dressers and makeup artist--that, to me, isn't journalism. It's performance."

So there's the answer to your first question: How did such a big, bad feminist get so many men to open up for her latest treatise, "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man" (William Morrow)? Many of them didn't know who she was, and when they found out, they were impressed that she'd written a book that had attracted so much attention.

"None of this was particularly difficult," says the soft-spoken Faludi, 40. "I really think that part of the distress for a lot of men is that they don't feel listened to. They don't feel acknowledged. That's one of their big beefs about feminism. So when a woman, and even a feminist woman, shows up and wants to hear them out, that's enormously appreciated."

What she heard were men who felt marginalized, men who didn't feel valued by their employers or their families, who felt pressure to live up to cartoony images of masculinity propagated by the media. And she was hearing similar things from the shuttered Long Beach Naval Shipyard to Hollywood, from Citadel cadets, porn stars and men who'd blasted off from Cape Canaveral as well as Promise Keepers and the bad boys of the Spur Posse, a group of Lakewood teens who preyed sexually on young women. Amid all this diversity, she found men "in crisis."

Feeling Useless and Angry

"So many men I talked to suffered from the same agonizing sense that they were not useful to society, that the bedrock idea of what it means to be a man--which is to make a meaningful contribution to family and community and civic life--had been reduced to tatters.

"And out of that feeling that they were made obsolete by something they couldn't put their finger on came a crisis that took the form of anger at women, violence in the workplace, shooting in schoolyards and in less dramatic form, widespread confusion and distress among average men just trying to get through the day. There's such an unattainable vision of what masculinity is supposed to be that is perpetrated by the culture that it leaves most men feeling like losers."

Oh, yeah? The never-married Faludi, who lives with author and journalist Russ Rymer in Beachwood Canyon, has just launched her book tour, and already men in the media are putting up their dukes. In an essay in the October issue of Esquire angrily titled "Are We Not Men? Susan Faludi Says We're Not," Sven Birkerts bridles at the notion that he might feel "stiffed": "This woman is clearly on a mission: Find a soft place in the collective male self-esteem and drive at it until the lance runs red."

In fact, Birkerts and others based their early critiques on a slim pamphlet of excerpts released to the media by William Morrow. Stories about the nearly 700-page book were embargoed until after Newsweek came out with its Sept. 13 issue featuring "Stiffed" on the cover. But then, Faludi's public persona precedes her, and especially when it comes to the arena of sexual politics, much of that persona can be in the eye of the beholder.

"There've been a number of incredibly boneheaded pieces by people who haven't read the book, who've actually said, 'I haven't read the book,' " she says. "What's misunderstood is this is not a book about men in the generic, saying, 'This is how men are at all times.' It's a book about how, right now, many men are facing a crisis, and I know that because I talked to hundreds of men and spent six years investigating this."

Faludi came by her activist bent growing up in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., the daughter of Steven Faludi, a photographer and Holocaust survivor from Budapest, and Marilyn Lanning Faludi, a late-blooming editor who once helped derail a petition that would have prevented a black family from moving to town.

At Harvard, Susan dove into advocacy journalism with the campus paper. She wrote a piece blasting sexual harassment on campus, forcing an implicated professor to take a leave of absence. Later, as a reporter in the Wall Street Journal's San Francisco bureau, Faludi won a Pulitzer for a 1990 article about laid-off workers jettisoned in a $5.65-billion leveraged buyout by Safeway Stores. In between, Faludi reported for the Miami Herald, the Atlanta Constitution and West, the Sunday magazine of the San Jose Mercury News.

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