So I just read Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, by Susan Faludi. I had this book on my list because I considered it required reading for anyone who wants to understand the current landscape of women’s rights; when the book was published in 1991, it was hailed as a feminist mythbuster, a possible catalyst for change. And indeed it should have been—this book demonstrates the ways in which culture (news and entertainment media, fashion, politics, and popular psychology) has pushed back against the changes in women’s lives brought about by the historic events of the 1960s and 70s. Faludi exposes the false messages women have received, the ways in which our culture—both consciously and unconsciously—has sold us the idea that equality causes misery, that in gaining power we’ve lost femininity. After reading this book, I do indeed consider it essential: it gave me the history that happened after history, the backdrop for our current lives. And it gave me a deep understanding of the forces at work, socially and psychologically, when power dynamics change.
Although the cultural specifics—the TV shows, the news stories, the ad campaigns, the accounts of individual women’s lives—are from the 1980s, this book doesn’t read like old news. As I was reading it, I understood why Faludi used “war” in the title—often, I felt as though I was reading battle accounts. Sometimes the battles were consciously fought, but more often, it has been a silent, unconscious war. As Faludi asserts, “The backlash is not a conspiracy, with a council dispatching agents from some central control room, nor are the people who serve its ends often aware of their own role; some even consider themselves feminists.” (p. 13)
If the backlash isn’t a coordinated attack, what is it?
At its core, it is a reaction—a stance, sometimes ferocious, sometimes insidious—against the idea that a woman’s place isn’t solely in the home, serving as a willing incubator and curator for children. Depending on who’s doing the reacting, it can be violent—as in the case of Operation Rescue, the antiabortion group that bombs abortion clinics and intimidates pregnant teens—or it can be intellectual, as in articles with incomplete or misinterpreted data.
Faludi details backlash in:
- Print news media: You know that oft-quoted adage that a woman is more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to get married after 40? Classic backlash. It was a joke floated by a bureau reporter that was picked up by the mainstream media— the joke was based in misinformation, as the whole idea of a “man shortage” for women who delayed marriage was based on a flawed, unpublished study that was touted in the media, which ignored more credible data that said no such shortage existed. Similar misinformation existed around claims of infertility, the misery of single working women, and the economic status of divorced women. The misinformation became common knowledge, taken for granted—and the facts, which presented a very different picture (one in which male, not female, anxiety took center stage), were not widely circulated.
- TV and movies: From Fatal Attraction to Murphy Brown, Backlash details the ways in which entertainment media excoriates the single working woman. The story of Fatal Attraction is particularly telling—in the original script, writer James Dearden “…wanted to understand how this man who inflicted pain, no matter how unintentionally, must eventually hold himself accountable.” (p. 130) After the studio executives, director Adrian Lyne, and Michael Douglas finished with it (both Lyne and Douglass espouse decidedly non-feminist views about the roles of women, including their sexual empowerment), the film went from empathizing with single women to demonizing them.
- Fashion and beauty: “The beaten, bound, or body-bagged woman became a staple of late-‘80s fashion ads and editorial photo layouts.” And she still is—but the internet has upped the ante on the sex and violence theme. Read Backlash to hear the thoughts of Paul Marciano, the misogynist behind the Guess jeans ads who abused his models. A real charmer, that one. But of course it isn’t just the sensationalism of objectification and violence that the beauty industry uses: “…the formula the industry has counted on for many years—aggravating women’s low self-esteem and high anxiety about a ‘feminine’ appearance—has always served them well.” Indeed.
- Politics: Here is where things get mighty conscious, and manipulative, as the “New Right,” (which today holds the same ideology and uses the same tactics, but is far from new) formed an agenda against equality. Faludi quotes a New Right minister: “We’re here to turn the clock back to 1954 in this country.” (p. 242) And oh, the ways in which they try: cutting programs, undermining women in politics, making stars of women who verbally espouse patriarchy, living feminist lives while undercutting the opportunities of other women to do the same.
- Academia: TV talk shows and morning news shows were filled then, as now, with experts espousing their opinions. And many of them painted a picture of women as inferior to men, women who preferred not to work or who were miserable because they were trying to “have it all,” and of feminists who caused all the trouble. In fact, many feminists began to publish works that recanted or revised their former statements about women and equality. Faludi examines Betty Friedan’s The Second Stage: “She is reacting to the backlash rather than setting her own agenda, even referring to the women’s movement now as ‘the feminist reaction’.” (p. 335)
- Popular psychology: “In an era that offered little hope of real social or political change, the possibility of changing oneself was the one remaining way held out to American women to improve their lot.” (p. 347). And examples abound, most notably the victim-blaming of Robin Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much.
- Work: Faludi exposes media myths about working women—the closing of the pay gap, women invading the male work force—with the facts. The pay gap was worsening, and the few inroads women had made, both in the white-collar and blue-collar workforces, were under consistent attack. Here, the stories of individual women loom large: Diane Joyce fought for seventeen years before she could become the first skilled female crafts worker in Santa Clara, California. The sexism and threats she endured along the way would have sent many people packing. The road to equality in work is paved with the blood, sweat, and tears of women like Ms. Joyce. Let us never forget it.
- Reproductive rights: And here, we arrive at all-out, bloody war—one that is still raging, pitting women against our own wombs, our own progeny. As Ms. Faludi puts it is so succinctly: “If the early judicial decisions separated mother and fetus, then the later ones set mother and fetus against each other.” And so it goes.
In the preface to the 15th anniversary edition of the book, Faludi says that backlash isn’t still happening—but something worse is: “Yes, there are still periodic reprimands, though generally they are presented as the products of a woman’s ‘choice.’ The backlash is now said to be a strictly self-inflicted affair.” I’d agree that choice has become the language of choice for arguing away the impetus for social change, but I think there is still a form of backlash going on. Backlash, as Ms. Faludi says, occurs in a “….closed system that starts and ends in the media, popular culture, and advertising—an endless feedback loop that perpetuates and exaggerates its own false images of womanhood.” That system is alive and well—so well that backlash itself has become a buzzword, often used to describe a manufactured catfight.
For those who want to know precisely what the war on women is, and how to overcome it, I highly recommend this book. It is, as I suspected, an absolute must for understanding the zeitgeist in which we all live, breathe, and struggle toward equality.