Sunday, May 3, 2009

Backlash by Susan Faludi: The Full Review

I finally finished it last night, and I'm tired of whining about grad school. So here it is. 

Backlash by Susan Faludi, copyright 1991. 

Faludi's book is about what she calles the "Backlash Era" of the 1980's. Her thesis is basically that all of the strides the women's movement made in the 1970's were met with a fierce backlash in the following decade that spread throughout all facets of American life in an attempt to undo all of the progress that women had made. 

It was a bit surreal for me to read this book. I was born in the early 80's, and therefore I was largely blind to everything about the world I grew up in. When you're 4 years old, no one is talking to you about a woman somewhere who was forced to undergo a c-section after a court decided that the rights of her fetus prevailed over her own. At 5 years old, I wasn't flipping through Vogue magazine and seeing all of the ridiculous little-girl fashions that designers were trying to force on women. At 6 and 7 years old, I was not aware of lawsuits being brought against chemical companies that forbid women to work unless they were sterilized because of supposed fetal risks. In other words, this book introduced me to a world I didn't know existed. 

Faludi appears to be incredibly comprehensive and thorough in her examination of women's rights and issues in the 80's and prior. In places, the book hammers you over the head with the same point so many times that you begin to feel dizzy. If she were making a case in a courtroom about whether this backlash existed, an opposing attorney would have a hell of a time proving her wrong. 

I spent many moments in incredible anger and bewilderment while reading this book. She shows instead of tells the hypocrisy of many of the public fugures that played prominently in the backlash. For example, she interviews a man who spent years trying to convince the public that women belong in domestic roles only and should defer to their husbands in all matters. When Faludi visits him at home, she describes how he must negotiate childcare with his wife, who works full-time, and as he sits there and tries to convince her that men should never perform domestic chores, his young son comes in the room with a frying pan and begs his father to show him how to cook an egg (or something), until the father gets up, dons an apron, and saunters into the other room to cook. All the while his wife is sitting there saying how she supports her husband's work. Faludi doesn't comment on this in the book - she doesn't need to. She brilliantly puts it all out there for us without casting her own judgment on the situation, and rests assured that we are all thinking "How do these people reconcile their beliefs with their reality?"

I was frustrated while reading this book. Throughout the entire thing I felt desperate for her to either write a new, updated edition, or write another book that looks at what has happened in the past 20 years. I wanted to know what I have been missing this whole time. I thought to myself "No woman would ever lose a lawsuit nowadays over being forced into sterilization only to lose her job anyway." But am I right? Do I actually know this to be true? No, I guess I don't. 

I wanted her analysis of the life I have known, not the life that came before my awareness of the public sphere. In the 80's, clothing companies and fashion designers suffered because they couldn't get women to wear the feminine clothes they refused to stop producing. Jockey for Women came out in response to female feedback that said they wanted comfort and practicality, not lace and bows, and the company took the vast majority share of the market because they listened. But I think about life now, and the women I know. Many of us eventually gave in - but how and when did that happen? Did it actually happen, or did we just compromise somehow?

I look at my closet, for example, and I see a decent amount of sexy, feminine clothing. I think to myself, "Yeah, we must have given in." But when I look at what I actually wear - tailored suits, jeans, basic cotton shirts, capri pants that are the most comfortable things I've ever worn in my life - what I'm wearing right now and what has become my at-home uniform: sweatpants and a t-shirt - I think "Have we really given in? Or have we just taken it as an option?"

I think about the election last year. A woman ran for president and had a very real chance of winning. I didn't vote for her in the primary because I didn't believe that she was the most qualified person for the job. But I was proud that she was in the race. I don't believe she lost because she was a woman - I believe she lost because when all was said and done, we just liked Obama a hell of a lot better. I think about Sarah Palin. I don't believe she was railed against because she was a woman. I think she was railed against because she is a fucking idiot, and we all saw through what the Republican party was trying to do by putting her on the ticket for VP. Did she face sexism? Yeah, of course. But we didn't vote for her and McCain because she did not represent us - she was against abortion rights and spoke about traditional values even as she supported her deadbeat husband. She represented to us all of the things that are wrong with the right-wing - if abstinence is the only way to go, for example, why is your teenage daughter knocked up and being forced to marry her high school boyfriend? 

As I read the book I wanted to know what Faludi thought of all this. I wanted to know - does all of the progress I believe women have made since I was a child really exist? We're not even remotely there yet - true equality is a long way off. But are we at least still moving in the right direction?

I highly recommend that everyone read this book if you haven't already. It casts light on all the ways in which women's rights can and have been challenged, and will hopefully make us all more vigilant. It's not a man-bashing book. It does not call out any specific enemy that we need to fight. Indeed, she says multiple times that the backlash was not a conspiracy. But she says at the end of the book that the backlash occured because the men knew just how much power the women were gaining and how their world could have been overthrown had we remained organized and focused. The problem, she says sadly, is that the only people who were unaware of this power were the women themselves. 

I finished this book feeling stirred, angry, and hopeful. If we want government-mandated paid family leave policies, we need to fight for them. If we want goverment-sponsored daycare and in-house nannies, we need to fight for it. If we want equal pay for equal work, we need to fight for it. The book reminded me that we are half the population, and the only thing that keeps us from having the things we want and need is ourselves. 

The takeaway message from this book, for me, was to stop being afraid to be labeled a feminist, and to recognize that push-back is a sign of progress. I think we all need to be reminded of that every so often. So do yourself a favor and go get your hands on a copy of this book. Maybe you will be the one to write the next installment. 

As for me, once I finish reading the book I am on right now, I will move on to Stiffed - also by Faludi only the focus this time is on the men. 


Comrade PhysioProf said...

Maybe you will be the one to write the next installment.Maybe you will be the one to write the next installment! Great review!

Psych Post Doc said...

Great review JLK!

You know some psych programs have joint PhD's with women's studies. Maybe you should look into those!

DrL said...

I agree with the comment CPP made - maybe it will be you. When reading through your second last paragraph I was thinking exactly the same! :-) You've got what it takes!

Toaster Sunshine said...

An excellent review. Unfortunately I don't have the time to read much else but science papers and zombie comics anymore.

I'm confused on your stance regarding feminine clothing. At first you made it seem oppressive in the '80s and even hinted at a continuance of this philosophy in your own closet. But the difference is that in the '80s it was oppressive because it was the only option available, whereas today it is not. Therefore, it seems to me that empowerment of feminine clothing comes with having the choice to wear it. It may be that this is what you were saying already and I was just too dense to pick it up.

JLK said...

Thanks everyone! I would love to write the next installment, but I wouldn't even know where to begin. Faludi must have spent YEARS upon years researching for this book, and the whole idea is soooo overwhelming to me. But I appreciate the votes of confidence!

@Psych Post Doc - I would never do a joint thing with women's studies because it's too one-sided for me. I've listened in on women's studies courses before and they completely marginalize issues of masculinity. The philosophy behind those programs is one that I disagree with on a pretty fundamental level. But I had looked it into it at one time.

@Toaster - According to the book, women in the 80's just didn't buy any of that stuff. Companies lost vast amounts of money because of it. But at some point, we started buying it. I don't think it's as simple as the sudden availability of choice. It's like if a restaurant in a convenient location only offered one option on the menu and you didn't like it, so you stopped going to that restaurant. But then you find out that they've expanded the menu so you go back. But instead of getting something different, you order the menu item that used to be your only option but you didn't like it! It doesn't make sense to do that unless something about your feelings toward that menu item changed.

I think, if I am to speculate, that the frustration and unhappiness that the 80's brought to women in the US made them (us) more susceptible to the capitalist, consumerist message that products can bring us happiness. I think advertisers were able to take advantage of women's frustrations, making them think "Maybe if I try being more girly, that will help me feel better and be more successful."

For example, my mom (who was a very young, working mom in the 80's) once told me that wearing nice, sexy underwear can make you feel good about yourself regardless of what you have on over it. My mom is the complete opposite of a girly-girl, working mostly labor jobs in jeans and t-shirts for her whole life, although she does wear make-up. Anyway, I believed her. So when I started buying my own clothes in high school I bought matching bra sets in exotic fabrics and all that shit. I still do it. And it's true - wearing things like that CAN make you feel good about yourself, but somehow I still prefer the basic, comfy stuff. (TMI, I'm sure....LOL)

Anyway, Victoria's Secret (founded and run by a man), tried to sell women this message in the 80's. At some point, we decided it was true. Now, VS has the Pink line, all cotton basic stuff and I'm pretty sure it's their bestselling product. But they still chock their pages full of busty, impossibly skinny models and the VS catalog is the single worst-offender in terms of conveying negative body image feelings to women. But we buy their shit, because many of us are convinced that we can be just as sexy as Gisele as she struts around in a VS suit with no blouse underneath.

So like I said, something changed because women in the 80's for the most part weren't swallowing what they were being fed. The designer that Faludi concentrates on is Christian Lacroix - he was so convinced that women would be "happier" if they looked more like little girls that he nearly destroyed his own company for the sake of seeing his vision become reality. It was oppressive because of what it was trying to accomplish, not just because there were no other choices available.

I wonder if maybe what happened was that women unconsciously gave in so as to ease the backlash. There were a lot of men who were freaking the fuck out about what was happening......maybe we figured out that by convincing the men in our lives that we are still women, that we can still be feminine and sexy behind closed doors and occasionally out on the street, that this made these men more comfortable with the idea of a working wife who has a life outside of the home.

Isabel said...

"Therefore, it seems to me that empowerment of feminine clothing comes with having the choice to wear it."

What is the empowerment part? How does that work? Our feminine power to entrance I guess. Sounds kinda lame.

I remember it being sold as "permission" - don't be AFRAID to be feminine. It's okay! You'll still be taken seriously.

If the evolutionary biologists insist women do the choosing, why are women always working so hard? Save your money women!

Toaster Sunshine said...

OK, I hadn't examined that deeply enough. Thanks for clearing it up.

My perspective is probably biased because the women in my family are all typically very strong/stubborn, don't allow bullshit, and worked when they pleased. My mom had a buzzcut and a rat tail when I was born in the '80s. Later, it was her who taught me how to shave.

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allthedots said...

A quote I like:

"Women don't realize that no one gives you power; you just take it."
--Roseanna Barr

I definitely think that as a society, we have made a lot of progress achieving equality and tolerance. However, anti-feminist sentiments and groups still exist. I think the most prevalent form this exists in the media. Look at the reality TV shows, Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, and romantic comedies, that are catered to girls. Hollywood producers still hammer home the message that in order to be happy, women have to first and foremost be pretty and get hitched.

In "Valentine's Day", they had a pathetic, lonely character played by Jessica Biel who had a phobia of Valentine's Day because every year, she was reminded that she was still single. Once we get some of these ridiculous tropes off mainstream media - replaced by more wholesome images - we will progress further.

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