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Susan Faludi.

Susan Faludi, author of the best-selling Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, recently gave a speech to a standing-room-only audience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Afterwards she appeared on "Second Opinion," a radio program hosted by The Progressive's Editor Erwin Knoll, and then she spoke with me in the studio for an hour or so. I've incorporated some of her remarks from Erwin's show here, and some she made when we talked again on the telephone after she returned to California, where she is a visiting lecturer at Stanford University. Throughout the interviews, she spoke softly but intensely about her book, her mother, her sudden rise to stardom, and feminism in post-Bush America.

Susan Faludi grew up in New York City and graduated from Harvard in 1981. She went to work as a copy girl at The New York Times, and then as a reporter for The Miami Herald, the Atlanta Constitution, the San Jose Mercury News, and The Wall Street Journal. In 1991, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her exposed of the Safeway leveraged buyout. Since Backlash was published last year. Faludi has become a media star, dubbed the torch-bearer for a new generation of feminists. Yet, she says, she's more comfortable when she's out of the public eye, working as an anonymous reporter, poking holes in the myths that constrain American women.

One powerful section of Backlash is devoted to the movie Fatal Attraction, which Faludi says both represented and reinforced backlash resentments and fears about women. Faludi paints director Adrian Lyne as a sexist bully who badgered and humiliated actresses, and went to great lengths to transform the originally feminist script for Fatal Attraction into a fable in which the uppity single woman is violently suppressed. In Lyne's most recent movie, Indecent Proposal, he takes a passing shot at Faludi - the camera zooms in on a copy of Backlash in the hands of a blonde and apparently air-headed secretary. In the next scene the secretary is shown vamping in front of the movie's hero. So much for feminist enlightenment.

Q: Did you see Indecent Proposal?

Susan Faludi: Yeah, I did.

Q: What did you think of it, and of Backlash's little cameo in it?

Faludi: Well, I actually heard a reporter who had talked to Adrian Lyne explain that Lyne said he wanted to "tweak me," because I had been so hard on him about Fatal Attraction. To which - I don't know - I say tweak away. I think he just threw it in. I don't think there was much thought behind it. I suppose one could spin out a grand textual analysis of why he assigned the reading of Backlash to some gum-chewing secretary in spandex, but I think that would be giving more intellectual heft to his reasoning than it deserves.

Q: The reviewer for the Village Voice called Indecent Proposal "the Zeitgeist shocker for the 1990s." (In the movie, Robert Redford's character offers a couple $1 million to let him sleep with the wife.) The reviewer says you won't be able to catch this one in "such easy feminist pincers" as you did Fatal Attraction, because it's the wife's choice - it's very subtle and complex. What do you think of that?

Faludi: I didn't find that so subtle and complex. That's one of the standard hallmarks of a lot of backlash cultural artifacts, that they take feminist rhetoric about choice and use it to attack the whole agenda of feminism.

Q: Do you think it was a backlash movie the way Fatal Attraction was?

Faludi: Sure. I mean it's not the same movie. I'd have to read this review, but I guess what I find irritating is the assumption that anything that is subject to feminist analysis is "easy," that there are only certain reductive feminist ideas. The fact that this movie might have a slightly different spin to it or shows a woman who supposedly is choosing to have an affair doesn't mean it's not open to feminist analysis.

Anyway, you have to see this movie in the context of all these new movies that are coming out about the bartering of women. I see it as more a movie about masculine anxiety. A number of movies out in the last year - from Falling Down to Mad Dog and Glory (which I actually liked for other reasons) - all seem to express extreme anxiety over men's ability to attract women, hold onto them, support them. And this movie seemed to me to be more about that kind of economic male fear. It seems that it was a struggle between two men, and the woman was really irrelevant. She's the object that's being traded. She has no personality. The movie's about who is going to claim this piece of property. Then there's this very calculating insertion of a scene in which she says, "No, I made the choice to do this." Which I think was just Lyne's attempt to get the feminists off his back.

Q: Do you think there's some hostility there - that the movie is really lashing back at Backlash?

Faludi: I think the way he dealt with it in the movie, by dismissing it - and in his mind, I'm sure, trivializing it - by putting it in the hands of a dippy blonde secretary is an expression of hostility, sure. That's often how we dismiss what we fear. On the other hand, usually feminist theory is equated with some beast with an SS outfit. I mean that's generally how men who are hostile toward feminists like to portray them.

Q: That brings me to my next question, which is about Camille Paglia.

Faludi: Speaking of dominatrixes.

Q: What do you think of Paglia's claim that the backlash isn't against women, it's against doctrinaire feminism? I think you've used the phrase "the heiresses of Puritanism" to describe the way feminism is often portrayed. Is there any grain of truth in that?

Faludi: Well, that assumes that most people are so familiar with feminist doctrine that they would find it pervasive and overwhelming. I mean, she's speaking from within the academy, which is a very different brand of feminism than the average woman on the street is exposed to. Having now spent a year in academia, I can to a degree understand the point she's driving at. I mean, sure - not just in feminist studies but in academia in general there's this sort of narrowing specialization and use of coded, elitist language of deconstruction or New Historicism or whatever they're calling it these days, which is to my mind impenetrable and not particularly useful.

But I think to claim that the backlash was inspired by doctrinaire feminism in the world at large is to make the false assumption that people are that deeply steeped in feminist theory, and that so-called doctrinaire feminism has that much sway in the general popular culture, which I don't think it does. I don't think the average American woman was turned off by feminism because of the effect of French feminism in the academy.

Q: But Paglia also has a lot of snappy, vicious things to say about Gloria Steinem. Do you think it's possible that a lot of people share her perception that feminism is just not particularly useful to your average woman?

Faludi: Well, if you look at public, opinion polls, the vast majority of women say that the women's movement is very relevant to their lives. They think the only problem is the women's movement hasn't gone far enough and hasn't made enough change. Gloria Steinem is also consistently one of the most popular women in those polls of "who do you admire most?" She's always up there with Princess Di.

What galls Camille Paglia is that she's not on the Top Ten list. We should just stick her there so she'll be happy and stop haranguing us. If you go back and read her complaint against the so-called feminist establishment, there's this recurrent theme of Camille as an outsider battering down the door trying to get in. The bone she has to pick with feminists is not an intellectual one. It's not over theory. It's the fact that she hasn't been invited to the party. There's something a bit sad and certainly misbegotten about this notion she has that there is this feminist establishment that's yucking it up till three in the morning. I mean, in fact, I don't know what parties she's talking about. I haven't been invited to them either. And she should just relax and not feel so left out. I don't want to psychoanalyze her, but it seems that a lot of this resentment is the resentment of someone who perceives herself as an outsider, which is doubly sad because there is no inside club except in her imagination. And if she is spurned by feminists it's because she goes around making claims that no self-respecting feminist woman would want to be identified with, such as sneering at sexual harassment, sneering at feminists for calling attention to the high rate of rape.

Q: Did you see the television coverage on this high-school gang, the Spur Posse, accused of raping girls for points?

Faludi: No, unfortunately that was when I was out of the country What was your impression of it?

Q: It was sort of amazing. I saw several boys on a talk show, bragging about their conquests. And then the camera would pan across the high-school campus and show girls' legs in mini-skirts walking back and forth.

Faludi: It's like the coverage of the William Kennedy Smith rape trial. First you think, great, at least they think this is worthy of coverage. But then you realize that they think it's worthy of coverage because they think of it as an excuse to show body parts or, you know, the offending torn panty-hose in the William Kennedy Smith trial. I don't know how many times they showed the defense lawyer dangling her black, push-up bra. And it sounds like this was another case of a chance to do some cheesecake.

Q: Have you ever been sexually harassed?

Faludi: In ways that are not particularly dramatic, but fairly mundane and common. At The New York Times, when I was a copy girl, one of the editors was notorious and had been reprimanded for sexual harassment, although only with a slap on the wrist, so he continued to harass mostly younger women who were copy girls. He took me out to lunch and sort of ran his hand up and down my leg, telling me how "talented" I was, and how much he wanted to assist my career.

Q: And how did you respond?

Faludi: You know, like most twenty-one-year-old women on their first job, I guess I responded like a deer in the headlights. I just sat there and then sort of gingerly moved my leg away and said thanks so much for the words of support but I need to get back to the office now. I talked to all of the other copy girls I knew and I sort of let the story get out, but I didn't go formally report it. Part of the reason was the reason why all women hesitate before reporting such things when they're in positions of little power and they're at the bottom rung and desirous of moving up a few rungs. But part of the reason was that I knew it wouldn't help any because of this other woman just a year ago. He had gone a great deal further with her, sort of hauled her back to his apartment and jumped on her. But nothing happened. So for me to go knock on the door of human resources and say, well, this guy put his hand on my knee, was not going to go anywhere. You know, it was also a different climate. This is back in the early 1980s, and sexual harassment was not something that one even complained about. I wonder now if it would be different.

Q: What do you think of the debate over sexual harassment - Catharine MacKinnon's theory of the hostile work environment versus the concern that punishing sexual harassment threatens free speech?

Faludi: On the one hand, as a journalist I'm not in favor of banning pornography or anything that smells of censorship. For one thing, it's just not very productive. It doesn't make things go away. On the other hand, I do like the ways in which, as women enter the law, because of our social experiences, we approach ideas of law and of what should be a basic right, and what shouldn't, differently. I think if all the founding fathers were founding mothers, the right to bear arms would not necessarily be the first right to pop into our minds. Perhaps the right to have some control over our child-bearing capacity would be a more important place to start. In Canada there's some interesting work being done now with recasting the definition of political refugee to include women who are victims of sexual violence.

Q: In Canada they also now ban pornography. How do you recognize the damage that pervasive misogynist images do and respond to it in a way that isn't restrictive of speech?

Faludi: On the sexual harassment front, I don't know-part of me thinks we've barely gotten to that point. For all the kicking and screaming about how men can barely flirt without 11 woman slapping them with a sexual harassment complaint, sexual harassment is still vastly underreported. And women don't rush off to the court when a guy says, "Oh, you're looking cute today." I mean, it just doesn't really work that way.

But my gut feeling is that it's one thing to expand the definition of political refugee and another thing to start slapping restrictions on what can be in printed material or on the air. And I just become very queasy whenever anyone starts saving that certain material is unsuitable for publication, because that can easily be turned against us. Which is why one defends the right of neo-Nazis to march down the streets of suburban America.

Q: So what do you do if you're feeling overwhelmed in a hostile work environment? Or about the proliferation of images of violence against women everywhere in advertising and television?

Faludi: It's this horrible chicken-and-egg problem because the ultimate solution is to have vast numbers of women in positions of influence and power and presumably few of us will be tacking up pinups of the Playmate of the Month. But that's part of the reason we're not in those positions of power, because of that kind of hostile climate that we're working in. If women were running advertising agencies, if women had control in a real way of television stations, of radio stations, we'd be seeing a whole different world. Maybe the place to start is revising FCC regulations to grant radio licenses to women. Starting at that sort of macro level rather than the level of the pinup. Again, I guess it's the sort of raising hell rather than prohibition approach. Just because I say I feel uncomfortable about banning pornography doesn't mean I don't think women should be screaming bloody murder about it. The best way to get rid of pornography is to change people's way of thinking to the point where it doesn't sell anymore.

Q: I want to ask you another question on the micro level. I gave a speech to a group of high-school kids and the girls' big complaint was that they didn't speak in class and they got shouted down. I watched it happen. Even when I was speaking there were guys leaping up in the audience and interrupting to deliver their opinions on abortion. What would you say to those students?

Faludi: I have a friend who's writing a book based on that American Association of University Women study that shows that girls have a big plunge in self-esteem at adolescence, and this gender gap occurs between boys and girls. She's been spending a lot of time observing high-school kids in San Francisco Bay Area public schools. And even in the most enlightened classes, where the teacher thinks about it and is very consciously calling on girls, it's still horribly unbalanced.

I saw this myself last year. I was doing a volunteer project teaching writing at the public schools in San Francisco. And the boys, in particular the boys who have nothing to offer, are the ones who are the loudest and just drown out the girls. I don't know. I have a couple of practical thoughts on it. Personally, I wish someone had forced me to go through public speaking and debating classes. I mean a lot of it is that girls don't have the tools. Nobody has taught them how to raise their voices, how to use their diaphragms to project. How to be heard. I went through much of my childhood and college years feeling very oppressed by the fact that no one was listening to me. And then finally someone pointed out, well, no one can hear you.

But this goes on endlessly. In Italy, I was on this show that's billed as the Phil Donahue show of Italy - the Maurizio Costanzo show. It was a panel, me and eight men, and it was as if I wasn't there. The men would talk, and if I would say something, they'd just keep talking right over me. But if one of them spoke up, they would fall silent. Partly there were certain little tricks they used to do that. The male voice is deeper and all that. Also, we are so trained to be polite, and there's something so awful about a woman who speaks in a loud voice, it's so unfeminine. Maybe that's the area to work on, to change notions about femininity. Teachers could do girls a world of good by glamorizing the loud-mouthed girl. It's still going to be a problem though, no matter how many voice lessons you give to girls. It's a real argument for going to a girls' school. They do learn to speak up.

Q: Surely something has to be done for the guys as well. Isn't it disturbing to read all of the self-esteem literature that tells women if you just fix yourself then all these social problems are going to go away?

Faludi: Right. That's really true. I mean girls could be heard if the boys weren't shouting so damned loud. Part of the problem is how we define masculinity, rewarding boys for talking at the top of their lungs, for interrupting, for pushing girls and for swaggering and being arrogant, and speaking up when you have nothing to say. Part of it is this idea that the public forum belongs to men. It's the realm in which they are comfortable. And they're taught that in a million different ways. Whereas, by the time we women reach adulthood it's so deeply ingrained in us to feel that we're kind of the mouse in the palace in a public situation or at a lectern.

Q: Do you often run across that famous line, "I'm not a feminist, but . . ."?

Faludi: I've certainly run across that. I tend to operate on the assumption that every self-respecting woman is a feminist, and I sort of act as if they are, saying, "Of course you're a feminist, too." Then let them make the case against it if they like. I think underneath it, all women are feminists. It's just a matter of peeling away the layers of denial and self-protection, and all of the reasons why women back off and try to disavow their own best interests.

I find it really curious that people will always ask me, "When did you become a feminist?" That doesn't make any sense to me, because it seems to me that one is always a feminist. It's, "When did you discover that you were at your core, of course, a feminist?" I assume all other women are that way, and eventually something will happen in their lives that will make the light bulb go on. It's just a matter of time and encouragement. And I like to think that it helps just standing up in an audience, especially of undergraduates - young women who tend to be more vulnerable and fearful of stating their opinion - and just saying, here I am - I'm a feminist and it didn't destroy my life. Quite the contrary, everything good that's ever happened to me came from that starting point of declaring my feminist belief. When I was speaking in Virginia at this real frat-and-sorority campus, young women came up to me and said that they had always said that they weren't feminists, but that now they understood that they were. And I thought well, gee, it was worth coming all the way across the country just for that.

Q: Who made feminism attractive to you?

Faludi: I probably owe a lot of that to my mother, who is a strong feminist and never presented it in a pejorative way. In high school, I was already doing my little feminist crusades. I think a lot of women of my generation would have had a similar experience of being in that age group in which your mother experienced the last backlash, the postwar feminine mystique, "a true woman is a woman with a polka-dotted apron, armed with Shake-n-Bake in the kitchen." Observing the women's movement come to suburban America, where I spent most of my childhood, and observing the radical and beneficial effects that wrought in my mother's generation, had a profound effect on me. My mother does not believe in being quiet. She's actually far more assertive than I am. I've always admired that about her. She has a very strong sense of social justice, and belief that one should loudly point out injustice.

Q: Did she like your book?

Faludi: Yeah. She likes to introduce herself now to people as the grandmother of Backlash. She has always encouraged me to pursue my work and I don't think she's ever said, "Why aren't you married?" Or, "Hurry up, you're past thirty." She's always been far more interested in creative pursuits than maternal and marital ones. And by doing that she's cleared away a huge obstacle that I think a lot of other women face. Not only is the culture telling them that they're worthless if they don't have 2.5 kids by the time they're thirty-five, but their mothers are telling them that. And my mother has never pushed that line. She never thought marriage was such a hot idea so she doesn't see why her daughter has to experience it.

Q: Do you think that things have gotten better or worse for American women since you wrote Backlash?

Faludi: I think things have gotten a lot better. I hope they do another one of these polls that asks the question, "Are you a feminist?" The last time they did that poll was in the late 1980s, and it had done a complete turnaround since the early 1980s, when almost 60 per cent of women said yes, they were feminists. By the late 1980s almost 60 per cent said no, they were not. it would be interesting-now that we've had Anita Hill and a series of consciousness-raising events-to do that poll. In the absence of that, all I can go by is anecdotal evidence. I don't know how reliable that is, in that women I talk to are a sort of self-selecting group. They come to my speeches or book readings because they agree with my point of view. Of course, from my perception it seems like the world has turned feminist.

Q: You were just in Europe. When you got home did you feel better or worse about the status of women in American society?

Faludi: Certainly on the level of Government policy, a lot worse. I mean even in Italy - you know American women like to think that we have all this liberty and freedom and a more supportive environment than the Vatican-ruled country of Italy - but there the maternity and social welfare policy is so much more advanced. So it's embarrassing, watching people's jaws drop when you say, "Yes, we're so proud that we finally passed this family leave act where we get three months of unpaid leave."

In a curious way, because American social policy makes no provisions for women's needs, child care, maternity leave, etc., and there's so much violence against women here, the lines are much more clearly drawn. In France, for reasons that have nothing to do with concern about women's rights, but with pronatalism and restocking the population, they have these wonderful policies. If you're in the civil service you can take up to four years of maternity leave, about a year of that paid.

On the other hand, right now, because many European governments from Germany to France seem to be swinging to the Right, the United States is in this curious position of experiencing a feminist revival, where women have a sense of hope and possibility about influencing a more liberal government. We're slightly out of sync with the political cycle of our sisters across the water.

Q: What do you think of the way last year was celebrated in the American mass media as the year of the woman?

Faludi: I think it really was a slogan that sought to buy off women with a few crumbs. It's a way of sort of ending or truncating the revolution, by giving us the veneer of celebratory achievement, a trophy instead of decent pay.

Q: Did it work?

Faludi: I don't think so. As much as those who are opposed to women's advancement would like to imagine that women are no longer eager to press the Government on abortion rights, workplace rights, etc., women have shown no signs of losing interest. If anything, every day there's a new women's-rights organization, a new campaign on everything from RU-486 to the rights of women in Bosnia. But it's a typical strategy in a consumerist culture to offer a kind of celebrity status in exchange for real rights.

Q: One of the things that's so gratifying about reading your book is that you illustrate connections among very elusive phenomena. You connect individual men's misogyny, and larger, economic forces, and expose a whole sexist structure. Can you succinctly say what happens - how sexism is produced?

Faludi: I don't think that you can find an easy starting point. We're born into the cultural loop, so it's hard to know where we first entered. By the time you've reached the age of three, you've been inundated by images of proper female and male behavior, and it's hard to dig your way out of that, if your desire is to be more enlightened.

If you're talking about mass culture, 85 to 90 per cent of the screenwriters and scriptwriters who are doing TV and feature films are men. And certainly in the executive suites, the people who are able to green-light a show are almost solidly white, middle-aged, rather panicky, midlife-crisis men. And I think there's this very complicated, unconcious tendency for men especially in Hollywood to compensate for the fact that it's not a traditionally macho job. This goes back centuries - this anxiety among male writers that what they're doing is somehow sissified, because they're writing, not fighting, and then the compensation for that is to treat writing or filmmaking as if it were some sort of male ritual, and to be more macho and more testosterone-ridden in their approach than a man who's doing a bluecollar or more physical job.

Q: So you think that men in intellectual professions are more macho?

Faludi: Sometimes. I know this is a grotesque generalization. I can think of many examples to counter it. But you do see this in Hollywood - the whole language of "taking a meeting" and t is swaggering and strutting that goes on. Also. it's just the old ruption of power. If you have a desk the size of Madison Square Garden, after a while you think that you deserve it and your ego should be as large. That's part of it, too. I think there's also this problem of the feedback loop, where once an idea is declared the social norm, it's very hard to remove it. So with something like Fatal Attraction, it wasn't just a movie. It became this whole social phenomenon. Mere were constant references to it, and it became this buzzword that you saw in fashion and beauty ads, you saw in greeting cards, you heard over the airwaves, and that repetition that is so fundamental to American pop culture itself breeds conformity of thought.

Q: What about the hostility and extreme violence toward women - for instance, the "audience participation" you've described in theaters that showed Fatal Attraction, where the men were yelling, "Kick her ass" and "Kill the bitch." Where does that come from?

Faludi: Clearly violence toward women is one of the peculiarities of American culture. A lot of the other aspects of sexism - denouncing the career woman, or saying that women should go back to the home - you find the world over. But this extreme, physical violence is, I think, part of our historical origins. There's a wonderful trilogy - the final volume just came out - by Richard Slotkin. The first one's called Regeneration through Violence. The one that just came out is called Gunfighter Nation. He talks about an idea that other historians have laid out as well, that from the very beginning American national identity was wrapped up with the sense that in order to create who we were as a nation we had to crush the culture that was already here. That sort of winner-take-all mentality is bred in the bone from the beginning.

That somehow has transferred itself onto gender relations, where there is no middle ground. There's a sense that if you give women an inch they'll take a mile. They always have to be kept in check through extreme means. That's one reason why the rape rate in the United States is fourteen times higher than in England and other cultures that are quite similar to ours in all other ways. Violence is part of proving not only national identity but male identity, the two of which are very hard to separate in this culture.

Q: Do you get accused of being a conspiracy theorist?

Faludi: I find I do get accused of that all the time, and that's part of the American mentality, too - "who's to blame? Let's get to the bottom of this and find these three people who organized this thing." I mean, Americans love conspiracy theories - Trilateral Commissions and people on the grassy knoll and all that. When the reality is - and I'm sort of baffled by it because it seems so obvious - that far more pernicious than some sort of plot or cabal is that all-pervasive social smog of stereotypes and prejudices. I mean, nobody says that racism is a conspiracy. It's odd.

Q: You once said that within the women's movement, there are things you feel you can't say because you don't want to step on toes. What are those things?

Faludi: I think I was talking about what happens when you go from being the anonymous journalist to being a public figure. In a curious way, becoming a so-called celebrity in American culture silences you. They give you the floor, but then you're suddenly worried about whom you are going to offend. Whereas before, when you're the private journalist, if you're worth anything you want to offend as many people as possible. And that's a very uncomfortable role for me, as a journalist, who would rather, as the Yugoslavian proverb goes, tell the truth and run.

Q: So how do you resolve that tension?

Faludi: Ultimately, I don't know if it is resolvable. But for me, I try as much as possible to say what I think and be aware when I'm censoring myself and fight it. It's difficult. I think a lot of it goes on at the unconcious level. In many cases, one is simply on the same panel as other people and one doesn't want to offend them. That's just courtesy. But it's very destructive not to be able to argue publicly. For example, I got a lot of flak for criticizing the "difference" wing of feminism, the feminist academics who say that women are special, women are more nurturing, women are more cooperative. I don't agree with that. And I did pick up a sense from some feminists that, no, no, no, you shouldn't be criticizing your sisters. But we're better off for not putting up this false united front. I mean, we're united in other ways, but by censoring our disagreements or papering them over, we ultimately set ourselves back.

Q: I've also seen a quotation from you in which you refer to your revulsion against the capitalist system - a wonderful comment from a former Wall Street Journal reporter.

Faludi: Yes, somebody called me the next day and said, Well. I hope you're not planning on returning to The Wall Street Journal." Although, actually, I think the Journal, putting aside the editorial page which is obviously far to the Right of my beliefs, is much harder on businesses, has written much more critical stories than the average front page of a daily newspaper.

Q: But what about that revulsion for the capitalist system" Why do you feel that way?

Faludi: I think this goes to the heart of why feminism is so deeply resisted in this country. On one level, feminism is this very uncontroversial idea that women should be treated the same as men, with the same rights and opportunities, the same access to the goodies that a capitalist system provides. But on a much deeper level what feminism is about is not simply plunking a few more women into what was largely a male-designed set of structures and institutions, but it's about overturning the whole applecart and coming up with a way of life that accommodates both sexes, so that it's a more humane and compassionate world.
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Title Annotation:feminist author
Author:Conniff, Ruth
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:5722
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