Philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers talks to TWQ Editor Charlotte Hays about why Susan Faludi STILL hates men and America’s undeclared war on boys — the subject of Sommers’ next book
TWQ: Let’s start with much lauded author Susan Faludi. Faludi became a feminist icon seven years ago with the publication of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Now she’s back with her newest offering, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man. The famous feminist now says men have been cheated, that there is a “masculinity crisis.” What are Faludi’s thoughts on the masculinity crisis? Is it real?
SOMMERS: She believes that American men are victims of the patriarchy. Just as women are oppressed, so too are men. Men, she claims, are captive to a system that imposes on them outmoded and unrealizable standards of manhood. Because of their confusion over the male role, men are suffering a psychological crisis. She describes them as being “in agony.” Speaking of the decimated lives of boomer males, she says it is as if a generation of men had stood by to watch a rocket carrying all of their hopes and dreams explode on the launch pad. So it’s a very dark and melodramatic picture of where men are.
But I can’t find any documentation for her thesis. If men are experiencing the agonies Faludi speaks of, they are doing so with remarkable equanimity. I recently attended a lecture she gave at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. During the question-and-answer period, I asked her if she could cite a single piece of significant research that showed men are in crisis. She said (and I paraphrase), “Oh, it’s been documented many times.” But she could not mention a single article. She referred vaguely to the scientific literature on depression, anxiety, and suicide.
In fact, that literature shows little or no significant change in men’s mental health over the past decades. Suicide has gone down slightly among middle-aged men. As for other disorders, the statistics remain fairly constant. A small percentage of men are depressed and anxious. But 3 to 4 percent is the highest I’ve ever seen for depression among men, and there appears to be no increase.
The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which has been tracking levels of general happiness and life satisfaction in the general population since 1957, consistently finds that approximately 89 percent of Americans describe themselves as happy with their lives with no significant differences between men and women. I recently asked its survey director, Tom Smith, if there were any unusual signs of distress among men in the last few decades (the years Faludi claims their hopes and dreams exploded before their eyes). The very professional Mr. Smith replied, “There have been no trends in a negative direction during those years.”
TWQ: What does Faludi make of the World War II generation, the fathers of the baby boomers she believes to have been stiffed?
Sommers: She is confused. On the one hand, she seems to admire the World War II generation for their heroism, loyalty, and self-sacrifice. But then, oddly, she says that the fathers of the baby boomers are the ones who betrayed them by giving them “dangerous” notions of masculinity. And she never really explains what she has in mind when she suggests today’s men need new versions of manhood. She’s wise to avoid the subject, because as soon as feminists start describing new concepts of manhood they usually end up describing women.
TWQ: So she doesn’t tell us where things, in her opinion, went wrong?
Sommers: No, she just laments a general loss of innocence and the loss of happiness in men. Again, one would expect that if she had identified something genuine, it would have been noticed by conventional social science. It has not. It is, of course, possible for a perceptive amateur observer to see something not yet understood by social science. But Faludi is not that observer. Her commentaries are implausible to the point of being absurd.
Consider her remarks about how men are in thrall to the “ornamental culture.” Academic feminists often argue that the culture dehumanizes women by treating them as ornamental objects. Faludi says that contemporary culture is now doing that to men — treating them as objects and “images” rather than as persons. Men, she says, now suffer because of an “enslavement to glamour.” How true is that? Can anyone go into a bar or a ball park and come away with the impression that men are slaves to glamour?
TWQ: Why has this book had such a fantastic reception?
Sommers: It’s getting a tremendous amount of publicity because there is a kind of old-girl network among reporters. Feminist journalists think she’s important. They think she’s a careful thinker. The cover of Newsweek? Newsweek is supposed to be about news. And news is supposed to bear some relation to truth. It was just wrong for Newsweek to print this factually challenged polemic.
TWQ: Well, as you know, Faludi is a contributing editor of Newsweek, and I want to read a quote from a story she wrote for Newsweek shortly before Stiffed came out. The headline was “Rage of the American male,” and it was about Mark Barton, the day trader who went on a murderous rampage in Atlanta, Georgia, and the thirty-four-year-old Alabama man who killed three people at his job. Here’s what she wrote: “We can’t quell the suspicion that their crimes reveal something meaningful about our society, about us. Particularly, since the shooter is always the same sex, we wonder: What does it mean about the struggles of American men?”
Sommers: It’s an old trick favored by bigots. You take the worst case example from a group and then say that it reveals the truth about the whole. A racist will take someone like O.J. Simpson as representative of African-Americans. A male basher will take Mark Barton. But even among mass murderers, Barton was at the extreme. The man bludgeoned his own children to death before he went on his shooting spree. This is not a normal man. This is not a representative man. For Faludi to suggest that Barton should prompt us to contemplate the struggle of the American male is outrageous. It is like suggesting we take Susan Smith (who made headlines in 1994 when she drowned her two sons by pushing her car into a lake) as a metaphor for the struggle of the American mother.
Where men are concerned, it is now a normal and accepted practice to generalize from criminal extremes. The killings at Littleton provoked any number of articles on the “rage” of the American boy. But there were all sorts of young men at Columbine High that day. Some behaved heroically. Why don’t they inspire disquisitions on the inner nature of the American boy?
Anyone who thinks that Stiffed is male-friendly is badly mistaken. It is true that the new book is less rancorous than Backlash, but the price for men is still high. Instead of presenting men as oppressors, she presents them as pitiable.
TWQ: It’s interesting that the article on the rage of males with these bizarre conclusions appeared in Newsweek magazine — you can’t get much more mainstream than that.
Sommers: Right. But apocalyptic alarms about looming disasters in the population sell well. Books and magazine articles that identify large groups of Americans as psychologically infirm are immensely popular. It didn’t begin with Faludi. First it was women who were identified as a victim class-unhappy, unfulfilled, desperate. Next it was girls. Mary Pipher’s Reviving Ophelia describes American girls as “crashing and burning.” Harvard’s Carol Gilligan has them “drowning and disappearing in a sea of western culture.” Not to be outdone, psychologist William Pollack soon followed with Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, claiming that boys too are in crisis. He refers to boys as “young Hamlets who succumb to an inner state of Denmark.” If these authors are right, the entire nation is going to hell in a handbasket.
Perhaps this fashion in literary victimology will soon wane — it has nothing left to feed on. With women girls, boys, and, now, men all identified as stricken populations, the genre seems to have run out of victims.
TWQ: One of the things that I found interesting is that Faludi embarked upon her research for Stiffed by attending meetings of men who had battered women. I think she even went to the meeting that O. J. Simpson was at one time ordered to attend (but found a way to get out of going). What do you make of this?
Sommers: She went looking for trouble and she found it. Obviously men who were in therapy for battering their wives are not the healthiest subjects. She also interviewed men who act in pornography films. She spent time with the Spur Posse, a gang of teen sex predators. How did she miss the Menendez brothers?
TWQ: Did she interview any perfectly normal men?
Sommers: No. Or, if she did, she made them seem strange. Take the Promise Keepers. During her recent media tour, journalists asked her for evidence that men are miserable. She often replied that men did not gather together for the Million Man March or for Promise Keepers conventions because of strong feelings of well-being. Well, I happened to be in Washington, D.C., when the Promise Keepers were in town for a rally. Most of the men I saw were quite cheerful. Faludi takes the Promise Keepers as a measure of disorder in society or of psychological misery among men. But there was a festive mood at the rally, and a lot of men who’d come to the gathering were having a good time. They would be very surprised to be described as depressed, betrayed, or mentally fragile. I suspect the same was true of most of the men who attended the Million Man March (although the mental stability of the gentleman who organized that event is questionable).
By the way, it’s at feminist gatherings that you find true agony. I have never seen more disgruntled, unhappy people than those I encountered at the annual meetings of the National Women’s Studies Association. The women were bitter, chronically offended, and full of resentment. My friend, psychiatrist Sally Satel, got a similar impression at a NOW conference she attended last year.
TWQ: It’s impossible to discuss Stiffed without talking about Susan Faludi’s fisherman. Faludi interviewed a fisherman who said, “If you want to know what’s happening in a stream called our society, go to the edges and look at what’s happening there, and then you begin to have an understanding of what’s going on in the middle.”
Sommers: Faludi would have us believe that the fringe elements tell us about the mainstream. In fact, social science operates on the opposite premise: anecdotes (especially from the edges) are regarded as misleading, unless backed by some conventional studies using data with proper controls. Faludi’s six years of “researching” seem not to have included going to libraries to look at the formal studies on how men are faring in American society. She needs more than the assurance of an unnamed fisherman to justify her research techniques. And Newsweek should have required more than a fisherman’s assurance that her methodology was sound.
TWQ: You are writing a book called The War on Boys, which is scheduled to come out this summer. What is the war on boys? And where is it waged?
Sommers: There have always been societies that favored boys over girls. Ours may be the first to deliberately throw the gender switch by preferring girls. Little boys are politically incorrect. It begins in elementary schools, which are increasingly female-friendly domains — boys are there on sufferance. Just to give one example: boys, far more than girls, enjoy rough-and-tumble play. And that means running, chasing, fleeing, playful fighting, and wrestling. It’s a very positive behavior, it is a critical part of boys’ healthy development. And it is very different from aggression. In rough-and-tumble play, the children enjoy themselves, there is a lot of laughing, and the participants part as friends.
In aggression, there is no laughter, children are often hurt, and they part as enemies.
Increasingly, parents and teachers are failing to make the distinction. The failure of parents and teachers to respect and understand the distinction poses a serious threat to boys’ welfare and normal development. Teachers have always rightly prohibited rowdiness in their classrooms, but they made proper allowances for it on the playground. That is changing. Today, many educators regard the normal play of little boys with disapproval and some ban it outright.
Recess — the one time during the school day that boys can legitimately engage in rowdy play — is now under siege and may soon be a thing of the past. In 1998, Atlanta eliminated recess in all its public elementary schools. In Philadelphia, school officials have replaced traditional recess with “socialized recess” in which the children are assigned structured activities and carefully monitored.
TWQ: What do they do?
Sommers: They do organized activities. The move to eliminate recess has aroused little notice and even less opposition. It is surely not a deliberate effort to thwart the desires of schoolboys. Just the same it betrays a shocking indifference to boys’ natural proclivities, play preferences, and elemental needs. Girls benefit from recess — but boys absolutely need it. This is just one example of boy-averse attitudes and policies.
Another is that many teachers are now insisting that boys and girls “integrate,” as they call it. They must play together and sit together. Often, they don’t want to. The girls don’t want it, and the boys especially don’t want it. Between kindergarten and sixth grade, the children prefer same-sex play. (They discover each other again in junior high at which time they are all too happy to “integrate.”)
In researching my book, I found schools throughout the country forcing boys to play with girls, and to play like girls. School officials have young boys playing with dolls, quilting, playing female roles in non-sexist fairy tales. The boys are not cooperating, I am happy to say, but why subject them to such treatment? We cannot allow our schools to become places where typical male behavior is viewed as some kind of disorder.
TWQ: Can you tell me just a little bit more about how the war against little boys is waged? Is it mostly in schools?
Sommers: Yes. Which is where children spend a good deal of their time. But some of the problem is in the home. Mothers too may be growing less tolerant of the antics of sons. This may explain the rapid rise in the number of boys diagnosed with attention-deficit disorder. One school administrator from Michigan told me of calls and visits from mothers worried because they have “an immature four-year-old boy.” Their sons seem to be less cooperative than girls the same age. They have more trouble sitting still, have shorter attention spans, and are on the whole less tractable. What should be done? She tells the parents not to worry: Their boys are fine. But she worries about a growing intolerance for boys.
TWQ: Other than the abolition of recess, what are some other ways the war is waged on boys?
Sommers: Part of it is, as I said, just ignoring their needs. For example, if we were as concerned about the well-being of boys as we are girls, we would find a way to address the reading gap. Boys are seriously behind girls in mastering this critical skill. One Department of Education publication reports that boys are one-and-a-half years behind girls in reading.
The gap in writing is even more dramatic. Feminists have put pressure on schools and publishers to make educational materials girl-friendly. They may have gone too far. One reading expert, commenting on a sample of elementary school readers, noted that students may come away thinking the West was settled by teenage girls traveling with their parents.
Another way the war is waged is by applying sexual harassment laws to young boys. Harassment laws are confusing to adults. Imagine applying them to kindergartners and first graders! Children need guidance and discipline, they do not need divisive gender politics. The problem is going to get worse because of a recent Supreme Court decision that makes schools legally vulnerable if they don’t take action against what feminists regard as the sexist behavior of little children.
TWQ: Does a little boy even know he is sexually harassing a young girl when they are in elementary school?
Sommers: I don’t think so. I don’t deny that young boys act out in unacceptable ways. When they do they need to be corrected. But the girls also behave badly. It’s not just boys against the girls. It’s kids. The best research that I’ve seen on school harassment shows that both boys and girls engage in harassing conduct. Schools have a right and a responsibility to prohibit it and to impose a clear code of discipline. That is the proper way to approach children: discipline and ethics. It is wrong to bring in law suits, courts, “gender experts,” and “harassment workshoppers” when it comes to the misbehavior of ten-year-olds!
TWQ: Do you mean they actually have “experts” holding workshops on harassment by kids in the fourth grade?
Sommers: The Department of Education has funded anti-harassment programs for children as young as five. One curriculum guide, Girls and Boys Getting Along, has children, including kindergartners, practice reciting, “Stop it. That’s sexual harassment, and sexual harassment is against the law.” It also includes a special anti-harassment pledge for second and third graders: “I pledge to do my best to stop sexual harassment.” I guess they say it along with the pledge of Allegiance — or perhaps in place of it. Another guide, also funded by the Department of Education, considers schoolyard chasing behavior. The game of tag, for example, which may seem an innocent playground pastime, has features that promote fear and aggression. The authors suggest a non-competitive version of tag, “where no one is ever out,” called Circle of Friends. This is ridiculous.
These “gender experts” are politicizing kindergarten. They are treating normal healthy boys as predators. Most parents have no idea what their children are facing. As for the children themselves, they are in no position to complain.
Christina Hoff Sommers is the author of Who Stole Feminism? Her new book, The War Against Boys (Simon & Shuster), is scheduled for publication in July. She is the W. H. Brady Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.