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Sexing the Catastrophe

Reviewed by Marla Braverman

Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America
by Susan Faludi
Metropolitan Books, 2007, 351 pages.


To the hammer, the saying goes, the whole world looks like a nail. To the radical feminist, we might add, the whole world smacks of gender politics—even the seemingly incongruous subject of America’s response to the trauma of September 11.
This is evidenced by Susan Faludi’s new book, Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, in which the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist argues that a nation suddenly confronted with the fact of its vulnerability salved its insecurities by conveniently, if unwittingly, reenacting an old script, a kind of “foundational drama” circa the mid-1800s Wild West, when men were men and women were damsels in distress. With a few minor rewrites—president stands in for cowboy, Muslim terrorists for war-whooping Indians, and 9/11 widows for the helpless women of the homestead—America’s culture industry managed to re-conceive of the terrorist attacks as a bugle call for shoving women out of the public eye and back into the kitchen—where, presumably, they either contentedly made casseroles for their families or ate humble pie for putting their careers before their biological clocks.
The denigration of strong females and concomitant beatification of “Betty Crocker domesticity” is familiar territory for Faludi, whose 1991 best seller, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, claimed that a similar effort by America’s media, popular culture, and political life to roll back feminism’s hard-won gains was under way in the 1980s. Then as now, she displays the same indefatigable talent for scouring a diverse array of media—Terror Dream even features a chapter on comic books—for examples of both overt and covert gender discrimination. Her new book also displays the same searing, sarcastic tone and fondness for chapters that read more like deluges of examples than the rising tide of an argument.
Yet here Faludi has set herself an even more ambitious goal than simply exposing the myriad ways in which Americans were summoned—or scared—into reinhabiting traditional gender roles in the wake of September 11. Instead, she seeks to trace the historical provenance of America’s reaction to catastrophe, to fling open the nation’s proverbial closet and force it to acknowledge its mythological skeletons. In particular, she attempts to prove that the country’s reflexive response to the terrorist attacks—enter John Wayne and Doris Day stage right, exit all feminists stage left—forms “a coherent and inexorable whole, the cumulative elements of a national fantasy… [an] elaborately constructed myth of invincibility.” In other words, America reacts to trauma “not by interrogating it, but by cocooning ourselves in the celluloid chrysalis of the baby boom’s childhood”—that is, the fifties Western.
To that end, she takes us on a guided tour from Ground Zero back through America’s original wilderness experience, pointing out parallels between each period’s “rescue fantasies” and the types of men and women who starred in them—all of which makes for an interesting, if nonetheless deeply flawed, reading of post-9/11 America. Though Faludi is undeniably creative in diagnosing America’s alleged mental illness, she falls glaringly short when it comes to suggesting treatment. Indeed, if Faludi’s book can be said to be evidence of anything, it is that while much of today’s academic feminism may be ingenious at interpreting narratives on a page, it is sadly, even dangerously inept when it comes to acknowledging—let alone responding to—the complex realities of our time.

 
Soon after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a reporter pursuing a “reaction story” called Faludi for her response. Explaining that she was initially perplexed by his choice of respondents—she was, after all, hardly an expert on terrorism—she soon realized that such journalists had a very different agenda: “Well,” he exclaimed, “this sure pushes feminism off the map!” And indeed, as Faludi seeks to demonstrate in the first half of her book, that’s just what it did. “Of all the peculiar responses our culture manifested to 9/11,” she writes, “perhaps none was more incongruous than the desire to rein in a liberated female population.”
This “reining in” took several forms, which Faludi describes as “a discounting of female opinions, a demeaning of the female voice, and a general shrinkage of the female profile.” Pointing out that such major newspapers as the Washington Post and the New York Times expanded their opinion sections in the days and weeks following September 11, Faludi derides the accompanying contraction of columns authored by women. She complains that 75 percent of Sunday talk shows featured, in the first six months after the attacks, no female guests at all. And those women who did dare to make their voices heard, let alone—as Faludi rather euphemistically puts it—“challenge the party line,” were greeted with a torrent of wrath: Think Susan Sontag’s famous article for The New Yorker, which placed the blame for the attacks on “specific American alliances and actions,” and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt’s declaration that the American flag, which her daughter sought to fly from their apartment window as a statement of national unity, was historically a symbol of “vengeance and war.” These statements, which to much of the public felt like sanctimonious preaching in the face of undeserved tragedy, were, to Faludi’s mind, disparaged primarily because they were made by feminist-minded women.
Moreover, continues Faludi, when they weren’t disenfranchising women’s opinions on op-ed pages or talk shows, the media were busy guiding women “toward a new veneration of the virtues of nesting.” In an effort to restore the illusion of “a mythic America where women needed men’s protection and men succeeded in providing it,” newspapers and magazines across the country banged out article after article on lonely urban singles, the “return” of long-term relationships, and career women seized by “baby panic,” having put off marriage and children for the sake of professional advancement during their (supposedly) most fertile years. The jewels in the nesting trend’s crown, however, were the “opt-out revolution” stories, which argued that increasing numbers of highly educated, professionally successful women were choosing full-time motherhood over careers. The fact that none of these claims was backed up by data—a point Faludi laudably, if a bit shrilly, makes—was but a forgotten endnote to their burgeoning popularity in the post-9/11 years.
According to Faludi, the need to check “overbearing womanhood” stemmed from the notion that what really lay at the root of America’s failure to prevent the terrorist attacks was a “feminized” society—an America that, lacking in masculine fortitude (and browbeaten by angry, affirmative action crazy feminists), had gone soft. For every “opt-out revolution” story, then, there was a “virile renaissance” companion piece, decrying the end of the sensitive, touchy-feely, “shaved-and-waxed” male era and the beginning of the “alpha male comeback.” Thus did America—or at least that segment of it represented by the right-wing media—suddenly find itself worshipping strange idols, such as leading government hawks Donald Rumsfeld (“America’s New Pin-Up”), Rudy Guiliani (“America’s Tower of Strength”), and, of course, the president himself, dubbed the nation’s Lone Ranger in the fight against foreign evil, whose once famous unintelligibility and cartoonish diction morphed overnight into the kind of straight-talking, straight-shooting qualities most admired in the cowboys of yesteryear.
Arguably, few males fit the alpha male bill better than New York’s finest, who were, Faludi complains, practically apotheosized by the media for months after the attacks—to the point where legitimate criticism of their rescue operation, such as their lack of working radios, either went unheeded or was deliberately quelled. The same went for the “heroes of Flight 93,” honored, Faludi believes, less for their fight against their hijackers than for their battle in the larger “war against the wasting disease suspected to have overtaken the male professional class…. By taking on the terrorists, the white-collar men of Flight 93 were assuring their brethren that the ‘feminized society’ wasn’t irreversible after all.” It therefore comes as little surprise to Faludi that the female heroes of September 11—the six female rescue workers at Ground Zero, for instance, or the Flight 93 stewardesses who planned to use pots of boiling water as weapons—didn’t come in for similar accolades. Instead, the women deemed worthy of praise were the “perfect virgins of grief,” the 9/11 widows who were at home on the day of the attacks, tending to the hearth, and whose sole ambition in the wake of the nation’s tragedy was to laud the valor of the men they had lost. “The widows were the wounded site of the attack,” concludes Faludi, “the violated motherland, expected to await decorously and passively the rescue by the masculine nation.”
 


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