Cowboys and Damsels

Susan Faludi oversimplifies post-9/11 America
November 29, 2007

Since September 12, 2001, the American media have churned out a remarkable body of work on our nation’s response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The issue has been hashed out in newspapers and magazines, fiction and nonfiction books, documentary and feature films; yet the question of why we reacted the way we did—with a paroxysm of muscular rhetoric and military might—has never been addressed head on. Instead, the dialogue has generally centered on whether the way in which we reacted was appropriate, and, if it wasn’t, what we should do about it. Now, nearly six years later, Susan Faludi, the feminist author and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has written a sweeping historical analysis of why our nation—as reflected in the American media—reacted to the 9/11 attacks by “cocooning ourselves in the celluloid chrysalis of the baby boom’s childhood,” a domestic Leave it to Beaver-like fantasy. According to Faludi, our return to a fifties-era culture of masculine strength and feminine weakness was an attempt “to repair and restore a national myth” of invincibility. Faludi, whose previous two books, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women and Stiffed: The Betrayal of The American Man, were devoted to gender issues, broadens her scope in The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, yet sticks with gender as her true north. “This is not a book about what September 11 ‘did’ to women or men, no matter how absurd or insulting the mantras of post-9/11 ‘new traditionalism’ may have been to its targets,” declares Faludi. “This is a book about why we responded the way we did to 9/11.” Our cultural regression, Faludi argues, belongs “to a long-standing American pattern of response to threat, a response that we’ve been perfecting since our original wilderness experience.”

Much like in Backlash, Faludi begins The Terror Dream with an elegant and highly readable introduction in a searing critical tone. Weaving together post-9/11 media snippets, bits of antiquated scientific and psychological theory, and film history, Faludi lays the groundwork for her most ambitious book yet: an explanation of the American psyche. If her aim is a bit grand, it’s hard to notice as Faludi wields her rhetorical prowess. And though she bolsters her introduction with evidence that is at times questionable (interpretations of Americans’ post-9/11 dreams) and unsubstantiated (“the most showcased victims bore female faces”), Faludi makes up for it in the first—and much stronger—half of her book with a highly detailed documentation of our reaction to 9/11. What she reveals is startling.

In the days after the attacks, Faludi received numerous calls from the media, “among them a New York Times reporter researching an article on ‘the return of the manly man’ and a New York Observer writer seeking comment on ‘the trend’ of women ‘becoming more feminine after 9/11.’” The irony of “heralding feminism’s demise” after an “attack hatched by avowed antagonists of Western women’s liberation” is not lost on Faludi, and it makes her account of the American media’s response all the more disturbing. From The National Review to The New York Times, Faludi cites endless columns and articles declaring that feminism was over and that America had grown soft and needed to reassert its strength. My favorite is an excerpt from a December 2001 Times column by John Tierney (I’ve quoted a slightly longer passage than Faludi used):

Since Sept. 11, the ‘culture of the warrior’ doesn’t seem quite so bad to Americans worried about the culture of terrorism. The ‘male paradigm of confrontation’ didn’t prove so worthless to the men who defeated the Taliban—or the women benefiting from the defeat. American males’ fascination with guns doesn’t seem so misplaced now that they’re attacking al Qaeda’s fortress. No one is suggesting a Million Mom March on Tora Bora.

Even more frightening than the chest-thumping and often misogynistic responses splashed across the pages of the American press were the media’s reactions to the thoughts of a handful of women writers who expressed anything less than a nationalistic call to arms. In response to the published opinions of Susan Sontag and Barbara Kingsolver, Newsweek’s Jonathan Alter wrote, “Talk about ironic: the same people always urging us to not blame the victim in rape cases are now saying Uncle Sam wore a short skirt and asked for it.” Faludi lets quotes like these speak for themselves, but she knows how to make an argument, and so is careful to cite examples of liberal male public figures who expressed opinions similar to Sontag’s or Kingsolver’s but were not greeted with the same hostility as their female counterparts. Such instances were only made worse, says Faludi, by a noticeable decline in female representation in newsrooms, on op-ed pages, and on the Sunday morning talk shows. This erosion in women’s equality was precisely what she so convincingly documents in Backlash. But in this book, it’s only the beginning.

In The Terror Dream, Faludi also dedicates several chapters to the media’s post-9/11 lionization of masculinity. She cites articles with headlines like AS WAR LOOMS, IT’S OK TO LET BOYS BE BOYS AGAIN (Chicago Tribune) or “The Stud: Donald Rumsfeld, America’s New Pin-Up” (The National Review), and notes that Time and Newsweek referred to President Bush as “the lone ranger” and “dragon slayer,” respectively. Faludi also uncovers a series of trend stories trumpeting traditional gender roles—firemen as hot commodities, a rise in marriage and pregnancies, women abandoning the workplace for family. As she pointed out in Backlash, “trend journalism attains authority not through actual reporting but through the power of repetition….A trend declared in one publication sets off a chain reaction, as the rest of the media scramble to get the story, too.” Though Faludi uncovers the shortcomings of each story—either a misinterpretation or complete lack of hard data—her main point is that these stories, regardless of their veracity, hyped a new era of domesticity marked by traditional gender roles. And, as further proof of our return to fifties culture, Faludi convincingly demonstrates how the 2004 presidential race became a competition in masculinity.

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In a thirty-page examination of the Jessica Lynch affair, Faludi attempts to show America’s mythmaking at its fiercest. Faludi describes how the media, led by the American military’s spin machine, rewrote portions of the Lynch saga to fit a female-rescue narrative. According to Faludi, “the story of a helpless girl snatched from the jaws of evil by heroic soldiers was the story everybody wanted.” But through personal interviews with Lynch and foreign-press reports, Faludi leaves no doubt: Lynch had never needed “rescuing” from the Iraqi hospital where she was being treated for the severe injuries she sustained in an ambush-related car wreck. “The nurses were wonderful,” Lynch tells Faludi. As she shows in several damning excerpts from major American press outlets, journalists happily ate up the briefings from Central Command declaring that Iraqi military forces were occupying the hospital and Lynch was in need of a highly militarized rescue operation. And throughout the affair, observes Faludi, the media tirelessly played down Lynch’s profession as a soldier, choosing instead to focus on her femininity—her small size, her blonde hair, her childhood love of Barbies and the color pink.

But Faludi’s retelling of the Lynch saga is misleading on several counts. Faludi cherry-picks evidence to support her (largely legitimate) point that the media exaggerated the Lynch “rescue” operation. She quotes The Washington Post’s description of the rescue in all its bravado but then leaves out the paper’s acknowledgment, in the same June 2003 article, that Lynch’s “full-scale rescue…ultimately was proven unnecessary” since “Iraqi combatants had left the hospital almost a day earlier, leaving Lynch in the hands of doctors and nurses who said they were eager to turn her over to Americans.” Nor does Faludi mention a stand-alone sentence in that article in which the Post unequivocally acknowledges the motivations of the military’s P.R. machine. In fact, Faludi pulls all of these quotes (though she doesn’t tell the reader so) from a Post article intended to be what the paper’s then-ombudsman Michael Getler later called a “corrective” to its initial Lynch reporting. Unfortunately, in an attempt to make the Lynch story fit her theory, Faludi stacks the evidential decks—even when she doesn’t have to.

The “rescue” was not the only part of Lynch’s saga misreported by the press; there was also the matter of Lynch’s capture. When the story first broke, Lynch was portrayed as a brave warrior who went down fighting. Though the facts soon proved otherwise, initially the media—led by the Post —eagerly embraced the story of a female Rambo engaged in a heroic struggle. What does Faludi do with this portion of the Lynch story that does not fit so tidily into her black-and-white world of a media preoccupied with male might and female frailty? She asserts that the Lynch-as-warrior storyline made the media “uncomfortable” and that reporters were relieved when it was discredited. This is pure conjecture on Faludi’s part.

In Faludi’s eyes, the media’s version of the Lynch story had all the trappings of the national myth our country created after 9/11. It is a tale, as Faludi tells it, of feminine vulnerability and masculine strength, a tale that, as Faludi argues in the second half of The Terror Dream, “wasn’t improvised just to deal with 9/11. It was much older. At pivotal moments in our cultural life extending back to the Puritans—moments when America was faced with a core crisis—we restored our faith in our fragile invincibility through fables of female peril and rescue.” It is at this point—in the second half of the book—that The Terror Dream falls apart.

Faludi attempts to explain America’s response to 9/11 as a resurgence of “the captivity narrative,” a popular colonial-era plot in which brave male settlers rescue their women from the hands of brutal Native Americans. This argument, though no less painstakingly researched than the book’s first half, is a stretch. In many ways, the basic plot is indeed analogous to the Jessica Lynch affair. Captivity narratives were based on actual instances in which women were captured by Native Americans, but, much like in Lynch’s case, they were rewritten to follow an increasingly simplistic storyline—one that airbrushed out, over time, any sign of male ineptitude or female resilience and evolved into brave-man-rescues-helpless-woman. Yet this reflex is hardly unique to America. What about the damsel-in-distress trope that has been around at least since the Middle Ages? If Faludi wants to pin America’s reaction to 9/11 on a single historical precedent—an effort I find problematic to begin with (more on that later)—shouldn’t she choose a narrative truly indigenous to our nation?

Oddly, especially for a left-leaning feminist, Faludi equates the clashes between the Native Americans and white settlers with those brought about by terrorism: “A young nation was struggling to make sense of a troubling legacy of episodic rampant terror in the homeland, a terror that the male protectorate had not been able to check at the familial front door.” To make the analogy fit, Faludi conveniently overlooks the fact that early America was not the settlers’ homeland, and she fails to wrestle with the obvious question of who was terrorizing whom. European and early American imperialism was hardly “our original war on terror.” But even if we suspend our judgment on Faludi’s interpretation of terrorism, what is the purpose of examining—tediously at times—this historical parallel? Does understanding the captivity narratives of early America (and their later incorporation into Hollywood westerns) really yield any fresh insights into our country’s character? Ultimately, Faludi loads too much consequence on a thin strand of history. And saying that “we live at a moment of great possibility,” because, “faced with a replay of our formative experience, we have the opportunity to resolve the old story in a new way that honors the country and its citizens” is merely platitudinous. It’s certainly a disappointing way to conclude an impressive body of research.

Faludi’s real strength is as a muckraker of popular culture—notably the media. The Terror Dream is at its most effective when it shows how the American media cheated the public with their simplistic, retrograde narratives and utter failure to move beyond repeating the obvious: that the attacks of 9/11 were ruthless acts of terrorism committed in cold blood. Though Faludi’s impulse to explain away our reaction to 9/11 with a historical precedent is understandable, it isn’t helpful. Regardless of its underpinnings, which I fear are more complex than Faludi has acknowledged, our reaction to 9/11 in many ways marked the retreat of journalism produced in the public interest. Thankfully, Faludi dedicates much of The Terror Dream to demonstrating how the press failed us, and for this she should be applauded. It is now up to the public to demand better—and the press to deliver. 

Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.