Saturday, March 13, 2010

Susan Faludi: The Terror Dream

I almost wish I hadn't read this book. I couldn't overcome my compulsion to not-finish books until the very end, where I got so frustrated that I started skimming. I remember loving Susan Faludi's Backlash when I was a budding feminist (maybe 12 or 13 years old)- I even remember taking it out of the Oakland public library! Backlash was a reminder that though feminism had come a long way, mainstream culture wasn't ready to accept it, and was in fact doing everything to co opt the concepts, to keep woman in their traditional roles as consumers and homemakers.

Terror Dream is convincing in its similar, but more recent premise: 9/11 was a chance for Americans to return to dominant tropes of women as victims, and a chance to erase women's voices completely. The first half of the book is dedicated to example after example of this, from all sorts of media and political sources- from ultra right to more mainstream and leftist- Time Magazine, the New York Times, even the New Yorker. This part of the book is credible and convincing, but tedious; essentially a string of quotes and media stories to support Faludi's argument. I believe her: the terror of an attack on American soil forced the return to the myth of the strong male rescuing the poor, poor women, which required turning women into poor, poor women. All of this was based on the aggressive, nasty woman who had emasculated men over the last 30+ years, and who had to be put back into her place. Conservatives cackled in glee: see what happens when women take over? Bush and Kerry competed for the most manly man in their Presidential race, Faludi argues, and women got thrown under the bus.

The second half of the book traces this pattern back to the 1600s and the frontier. Women as strong, effective pioneers were erased as men rewrote the narrative to demonstrate that rather than ineffective leaders and protectors, they were actually heroes. Central to this narrative were captivity stories and rape panics that were rewritten by men, in more useful ways. Even as women told their own stories of heroism and generous, chaste captors, men told stories of hapless, sexually traumatized victims.

I can't tell any more of Faludi's argument. I'm too frustrated. This is the story of WHITE feminism. I thought maybe we had moved past this. The first section, the synopsis of the media section, is all about "women," but it's unspoken that Faludi is talking about "white privileged" women. Faludi talks about feminists who attempt to bring challenges to the erasure of women's voices, she talks about the Bush Administration's attempt to co opt Afghani women's plight, and that's about her only analysis deeper than the "erasure" of women. What about the pre-existing erasure of women of color? Faludi goes on and on about the non-conversation about the women heroes of 9/11: the firefighters, the women who helped rescue within and without of the towers, and fails to mention once the people of color in the towers, whether American nationals or foreign-born. Faludi, and the media, were talking about white women. When "opting out" of work and rushing to have children became a national news topic, I'm pretty sure Diane Sawyer was talking about white women. Do you really think that Phyllis Schafley cared if women of color died in the military? According to Faludi's theme of poor, innocent, helpless women, I'm pretty sure she's talking about a fainting blonde.

And there's the second part of the book, which is all about the frontier, and creating this image of the white woman as frail, in need of protection from the marauding Indian. There is discussion of the white woman standing up for the Indian's reputation almost in a pedantic, patronizing way. According to Faludi, white men needed this image because they failed to protect their "borders" as such, so they needed to devalue women in order to have an image of them that they could protect. So captivity by the Indians (she always calls them Indians) and later, the big scary black man were good straw men. But not once does Faludi discuss the obvious racial warfare going on, the "othering" of the Native Americans, or the way positioning the Native Americans and later black men was also part of the white male myth. Not once. I kept waiting for mention of this, or at the very least, an afterword. Eventually, after 10 examples of captivity narratives rewritten to suit white men's purposes with not one mention of how the stories were also being rewritten to further demonize brown people, I gave up.

Really, Faludi? I expected better. This book was published in 2007. It's an embarrassment.

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