|Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
By Susan Faludi
Crown Publishers, 1991
If in 50 years, historians wanted to document the cultural status of the women’s rights movement in the 1980s, Backlash would be a good start. Written from the perspective of a journalist who is concerned that the legal rights and gains of the 3rd wave feminist movement could be rolled back, Faludi employs a series of different modes of inquiry and analysis to make her point. The point being, that the 1980s represented an era of backlash against gains made by women since the 1950s. That backlash is documented through the analysis of popular culture; interviews with leading anti-feminist activists of the era; and a recounting of governmental and business policies of the era which together resulted in a backslide against previous feminist gains.
As a whole, the book’s strengths outnumber its weaknesses. The strengths tend to be the personal interviews and mini biographies of anti-feminist activists, where Faludi’s journalistic skills shine through. The weaknesses are limited largely to her cultural analyses.
The book begins by laying out her thesis, that the 1980s constituted a period of backlash against advances made in gender equality since the 1950s. Throughout the book, she empirically proves her case over, and over again. If there is a criticism to be had here, its that she tended to treat the cultural and political and legal backlash as occurring virtually simultaneously in each of these different arenas with no differentiation between the rate, scope, and depth of that backlash. It seems at least intellectually possible that backlash in one area may be more severe, occur more quickly, and perhaps last longer, than in another arena. Instead, Faludi seems to treat the backlash like the cultural version of gravity or speed of light; it moves or affects everything at the same rate all the time.
For example, I believe a case can be made that a cultural backlash against feminism occurred in the popular culture, but was perhaps less severe in most cases, and was less uniform than the backlash in other arenas. This is not to say that culture is not important, nor that the backlash in the popular culture did not occur, or was not serious. Rather, my point is that the evidence for backlash in the popular culture is more nuanced, and is more replete with counter-trends and counter-examples than the political or legal sphere.
Perhaps this is due to the nature of the beast when it comes to analysis of popular culture. Here, more than in the other areas, beauty, or the lack of it, is much more largely in the eye of the beholder.
For example, she makes the point that in pop culture, the single, politically and sexually independent assertive woman became the villain in the 1980s. However, her main (but not only) example is the movie “Fatal Attraction”. For Faludi, the lesson to be learned from Fatal Attraction is: the only good single professional woman is a dead professional woman. Perhaps Faludi was engaging in a bit of projection here, because for me, the lesson I got from Fatal Attraction was: do NOT fuck around on your wife, no matter WHAT! Perhaps we were both engaging in a bit of projection there. Plus, evil women in movies is, I believe, more of a constant than a variable throughout movie history. Kathleen Turner’s character in the pre-backslide 1970s Body Heat trumps Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin.
Her summary of women in movies in the 1930s is also at odds with Homeward Bound. Faludi is able to pick and choose 1930s movies indicating women were largely portrayed as being very traditional and compliant, gaining in image in the 1940s, only to become compliant again in the 1950s. Homeward Bound, relying on a different set of movies and movie stars made the case that 1930s Hollywood women were much more take charge and independent than women in the 1950s.
Of course, by focusing on different stars and movies, the two analyses talk past each other. I think a more fruitful analysis of women in movies would focus on how women were portrayed in the most commercially successful films of their respective decade (forget about whether departmentalizing years by decades is a good idea for now). In order for a movie to impact cultural expectations of gender roles, it seems to me the movie must have had some widespread success.
Just for grins, I looked up the 10 highest box office grossing movies of selected decades to 1998. They are as follows:
The top 10 grossing movies in the 1930s: Gone with the Wind (1939), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), The Wizard of Oz (1939), King Kong (1933), San Francisco (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Lost Horizon (1937), Hell's Angels (1930), Maytime (1937), City Lights (1931). The "top 10" in the 1940s: Bambi (1942), Fantasia (1940), Cinderella (1949)1, Pinocchio (1940), Song of the South (1946), Mom and Dad (1944), Samson and Delilah (1949), The Best Years of our Lives (1946), Duel in the Sun (1946), This is the Army (1943). The 1950s: The Ten Commandments (1956), Lady and the Tramp (1955), Peter Pan (1953), Ben Hur (1959), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Sleeping Beauty (1959), South Pacific (1958), The Robe (1953), Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), This is Cinerama (1952).
For the 1980s: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Return of the Jedi (1983), Batman (1989), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Ghostbusters (1984), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Back to the Future (1985). The 1990s, (thru 1998): Titanic (1997), Jurassic Park (1993), The Lion King (1994), Forrest Gump (1994), Home Alone (1990), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Terminator 2 (1992), Home Alone 2 (1992), Batman Returns (1992), Ghost (1990).
While Fatal Attraction could well be considered a cultural setback for women, there were plenty of counter-examples of strong-willed heroines in both the 1930s and the 1980s. The book was written too soon for Jody Foster in Silence of the Lambs; and it ignores the strong, independent know it all women in the Capra movies of the 1930s. Conversely, made at the height of the portrayal of the independent women of the 1940s, there’s no way Ingrid Bergman’s character in Casablanca is a feminist hero.
In her analysis of women on TV in the 1980s, she mentions how attempts to bring back Charlies Angels in 1988 was an indication of backslide vs. 1970s TV women like Mary Tyler Moore. However, Mary was the exception in the 1970s, not the rule. Charlie’s Angels itself, along with Fantasy Island and the Love Boat were feminist exploitation shows at their worst, and yet, aired and peaked pre-backslide during the 1970s. Post-backslide shows like Rosanne and Murphy Brown are mentioned, but minimized by the comment that, although independent and head-strong, they were “in the minority”. Yet, Rosanne was #1 year after year. Murphy Brown drew tremendous ratings. Rosanne Barr’s vilification for her performance singing the national anthem was post-TV ratings success, and the show remained popular for several seasons afterward, until they “jumped the shark” and had Rosanne win the lottery. Faludi does not even broach the subject of women on TV in the pro-feminist 1960s, where the two most popular TV women have magical powers. One a witch, one a genie. One completely subservient to her “master”; the other completely in charge. Faludi’s analysis of the Wonder Years is completely off. It’s almost as if she never saw the show. I haven’t read anything she has done lately, so I have to plead ignorance as to her impressions of Sex and the City and the 1990s (and after) Law and Order and CSI women. She mentions Cheers only in passing, and with good reason. Sam, the macho, sexist pig bartender played the fool, not the hero more often than not in the Backslide 1980s, undermining her analysis. Conversely and conspicuously missing is the post-backslide (1989) When Harry met Sally, where the audience can practically hear Meg Ryan’s biological clock striking midnight.
Yet, my criticism to this section of her work is disproportional to the work as a whole. The latter 2/3rds of the book, and her opening critique of the deeply flawed marriage crisis studies are beautifully written, although not meticulously documented. It reads as more of an editorial than historically compelling document. In the interest of brevity, I will simply list other thoughts which occurred to me as I read through the book (in no particular order of importance or chronology).
I have, since 1968, typically prided myself on being up on current events and who’s who. Yet, I had never heard of Faith Popcorn prior to reading this book. Yet, Faludi asserts (with no data to back this up, a sin of omission of others she is quick to rightly point out and condem) became a household name in the 1980s
She does not footnote her own assertions very well, while meticulously pointing out methodological problems in social science studies which the press passed on because they were careless.
Christie Heit did not deserve any defense. Her study of the impact of violence etc. on women’s depression was even more deeply flawed than works like Carol Gilligan. And, with Carol Gilligan, it seems that Faludi is implying that social science studies or psychological studies like Gilligan’s should not be made public unless they can confirm feminist assumptions. She points out that Gilligan’s findings regarding male and female based decision-making was misused by anti-feminists and contributed to backsliding.
Outrageous sexist quotations attributed to famous people are not footnoted. I have no doubt they said these things, but if you are criticizing others for their carelessness, it does not do well to be careless with quotations. There is little or not way to independently verify many of her assertions.
The studies favorable to her viewpoint are not critiqued nearly as deeply, while others which are unfavorable are (rightly) taken apart paragraph by paragraph.
On p.80: Quote on the new abstinence; ”While in the ‘80s AIDS remained largely a male affliction these media directives were aimed almost exclusively at women. In each case, women were reminded to re-embrace “traditional” sex roles or suffer the consequences” My impression, and the country’s impression for the longest time in the 1980s was that AIDs was a gay man’s disease, and not something (initially) that heterosexual couples could get, except through intravenous blood transfusions. Religious calls for female chastity pre-date and post-date the 1980s backslide era.
Faludi really missed an opportunity with Patti Rocks and 3 men and a baby. She says Patti Rocks, a movie with depicts a single woman having consequence free sex, had no chance for commercial viability anyway, as if to discount her own comparison between it’s initial X and eventual R ratings vs. the 3 Men and a Baby PG rating and box office success. How come Patti Rocks was an independent film, struggling for an audience while 3 Men never had to struggle? She seems to avoid an analysis of market-driven sexism just when it may have paid off.
One could argue that the Wicked Witch of the West was an anti-feminist portrayal of a single woman, and then construct or deconstruct a feminist critique of the Wizard of Oz. And what about Glenda, the good witch of the North? If I point this out, am I contributing to backlash?
The strongest part of the book is her coverage of high fashion. It restores my faith in the wisdom of the common person. Elites try to drive women back into submission or the Victorian age in the 1980s with lace and corsets, and it didn’t work, except for guess jeans. The personal interviews are really quite compelling. And, BTW-hooray for Jockey for Women.
The foibles of the cosmetics industry in the 1980s, including the Retin-A craze, can be attributed to the growth of an aging population just as well as to an institutional-structural sexism. Many men used Retin-A. Fear of aging is seemingly universal, and not in itself an indication of backslide, although of course, its considered a more serious cosmetic problem for women than men. According to Faludi, a cosmetic doctor did offer to saw women’s legs to make them shorter, but once again, no specific citation is given for this reference. It is also unclear how making women’s legs shorter would in any way be desirable under any circumstances whatsoever. Presumably, the service would be available to men as well
Before I read this book, it had not occurred to me how a class perspective could explain gender bias. Now, having read the chapter on the cosmetics industry, I understand how capitalism imposes a structural sexism on women. I am so glad I am not a woman, at least, not until later this summer.
Elites oppose civil rights and equal rights because it brings us closer to a meritocracy. Most elites hold their positions because of birth, not because of merit. The last thing they want is a level playing field.
She blows it on the gender gap, but it’s not her fault. The gender gap was not caused by women voting for Democrats in the 1980s, but rather, from men voting for Republicans. She does get it right when it comes to the pay gap. The pay gap dropped because male wages dropped, due to outsourcing, more so than women gaining.
The hypocrisy of anti-feminist women really comes through. I believe much of the backlash against the sensitive male in the 1980s was as much driven by homophobia as sexism or “backsliding.” For Faludi, everything is about the sexism, about the backlash. Some of it may be about racism, classism and homophobism as much as sexism.
The Cyanamid women and fetal fetish portions of the book were familiar, enlightening, and infuriating. Angela Carder’s story should be required reading at the DMV and on citizenship exams.
Faludi concludes with a hopeful, if not prophetic epilogue, regarding the prospects for women in the 1990s. 1992 did in fact become the “Year of the Woman”. If the 1980s was a backlash period, the 1990s was a backlash against the backlash in many ways, at least symbolically. The Casey decision that year did not result in Roe being over-turned, and in some ways made its eventual over-turning more difficult, at least for the time-being.
And yet, while pro-feminist (or at least, not anti-feminist) candidates win 3 elections in a row, the hypocrisy of the political right is still out there; feminism is still a four letter word, although the deepest wrath of the right seems reserved today for gays and not women.
Faludi does not attempt to identify the root source of sexism, or racism in the first place, although a clear case can be made that religious bigotry is the root cause of both. She mentions the religious right in passing without addressing the issue of religion as perhaps a more retroactive force in American culture than even classism. However, her theme, that progress with human rights is not always linear and forward moving, reminds us all that there is practically no past victory which cannot be unwon.