National Post

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Tuesday, September 28, 1999

Das Kapital meets Redbook
David Frum
National Post

The ballot papers are counted, and the results are in: Susan Faludi is now the most famous feminist in America. Eight years ago, Time acclaimed her first book, Backlash, by posing her and Gloria Steinem on its cover in identical black turtlenecks and blue jeans: a symbolic passing of the torch of leadership from one generation (Ms. Steinem was born in 1934) to the next (Ms. Faludi was born in 1959). Newsweek has now saluted Ms. Faludi's second book, Stiffed, with a long excerpt and a second cover photo. This time, Ms. Faludi appears alone.

Some of Ms. Faludi's more radical admirers have expressed distress at the surprisingly glamorous clothes and hairdo the normally severe author adopted for her Newsweek shot. Ms. Faludi has shrugged this criticism off: She wishes, she has told interviewers, that people would stop fussing about her new look and focus instead on her ideas. She ought to try a different answer. For while the new look is a great success, Ms. Faludi's ideas are, to put it kindly, not.

Ms. Faludi became a superstar back in 1991 because of the seeming intellectual rigour of Backlash. For all feminism's fantastic triumphs in law, politics, and daily life, feminism as a system of ideas had become ever more vacuous and silly, when it was not totalitarian and grim. It's a long sad slide from Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex to Gloria Steinem's Revolution From Within, and an even scarier descent from Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique to Catherine MacKinnon's Feminism Unmodified. Ms. Faludi, a cum laude graduate of Harvard and a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter for the Wall Street Journal, promised to restore the intellectual substance of feminism's crusading early days.

The promise was not honoured. While Backlash began well -- by debunking the notoriously dumb claim in a 1986 Newsweek article that an American woman over 30 was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married -- it quickly disintegrated into a mishmash of allegations of media conspiracy. Still, in its own paranoid terms, the book made its case: It did sometimes happen in the 1980s that an unfeminist article or item would appear in the major media, and Ms. Faludi had carefully catalogued each and every one of these unwelcome acts of dissent.

But Ms. Faludi aspired to be something more than a female Noam Chomsky, obsessively snipping offending articles out of the newspaper. She wanted to unburden herself of a major statement on our times. And here it is.

Stiffed purports to be a sympathetic account of the plight of the contemporary American male. In reality, it's a collection of long magazine pieces about odd, pathetic, or radical figures from the fringe of society: male porn stars, chronically unemployed industrial workers, gay activists, etc. It's Ms. Faludi's case that these men are representative, not aberrant. As she repeatedly contends, men are "in agony" -- an agony made all the more hideous by the determination of the vast majority of American men to pretend that things are fine.

What is the cause of this agony? Despite her reputation as a careful researcher, Ms. Faludi is actually not very interested in such things as social science data. Her footnotes show no sign of acquaintance with the lively and extensive debate over what is happening to male earnings and why. Ms. Faludi had her story and her culprit all picked out before she typed her first page.

This, however, is where things get dicey for Ms. Faludi. On the evidence of Stiffed, Ms. Faludi is an old-fashioned, orthodox Marxist. But she also seems to be aware that a writer who uses words such as "alienation" and "proletariat" and "socialism" is going to look about as hip and up-to-date as a 1949 Buick Roadmaster. So while the logic of her book closely follows the antique Marxist script (men suffer because capitalism alienates them from their labour; the only way to overcome that alienation is by overthrowing capitalism and putting the dictatorship of the proletariat in its place), she has dedicated herself to reformulating that script in the language of contemporary psychobabble.

The result is a puzzling jumble. Ms. Faludi's stand-in for "capitalism," for instance, is "consumerism." But she never forthrightly tells us what this consumerism consists of. Are, for example, a $200 haircut and a $1,000 designer outfit manifestations of this agony-inducing consumerism? If so, why does Ms. Faludi look so cheerful in them?

As a book, Stiffed is worse than a flop: It's a bore. But as a sign of the times, it's quite interesting. The most intellectually ambitious feminist of her generation has laboured for eight years to update the ideology for our times. What she produced is an update of Das Kapital, rewritten in the language of Redbook. That is what the doctors call brain-death.

Copyright Southam Inc.