STIFFED By Susan Faludi William Morrow 662 pp., $27.50
If 1990s America offers one overarching lesson, it is that the cultural labels we once used to define our societal tribes are increasingly worthless. In a world with 500 cable channels, niche marketing, and the Internet, it has become nearly impossible to place large groups of people into neat little boxes.
Lines are blurring. Subcultures are merging across the old boundaries of race and gender. At the close of the 20th century, American society resembles a kaleidoscope, fragmented and constantly shifting.
And therein lies the real problem with "Stiffed," Susan Faludi's new 650-page sociological tract bent on telling us about "the betrayal of the American man." Lumping half the population under this simple two-word category heading, she tries to "understand the perilous voyage to manhood undertaken by men I once knew as boys" in 12 chapters that roughly break down into a series of character and group sketches. The approach creates problems that extend beyond the enormity of the topic.
Faludi's sketches are often interesting, even engrossing. In particular, the chapters concerning Citadel cadets, the Promise Keepers, and the porn industry (parts of which appeared in The New Yorker) show a reporter in top form.
She gives the reader a peek into the world of these men, examining their cultural icons, exploring their hopes, fears, and neuroses. The approach is similar to the one Faludi employed in her well-received feminist tome "Backlash" (1991), which substantiated interviews with pages of data.
But in "Stiffed," Faludi, now a contributing editor at Newsweek, is surprisingly short on supporting information. She resorts to the all-too-familiar newsmagazine practice of using vivid anecdotes and colorful characters in place of facts and figures. And this raises questions for the reader.
The Promise Keeper phenomenon is certainly interesting, but is it indicative of a larger societal trend, or something occurring within a small subculture? Are men as a whole really anything like cadets at the Citadel?
Faludi, seemingly aware that her book would be vulnerable on this front, tries to deal with the issue early in "Stiffed." She explains that one interview subject, "a self-described 'patriot' and avid fisherman," told her: "If you want to see what's happening in the stream called our society, go to the edges and look at what's happening there, and then you begin to have an understanding."
Well, no offense, but isn't that what you'd expect a "self-described patriot" to say? It's a bit like asking a fascist about politics or a badminton player about sports in America. You have to expect a slightly skewed answer.
What's worse, however, is the often-tortured logic Faludi uses to make her fringe cases relevant. In a chapter on Sylvester Stallone, she explains how the actor was unable to break out of the action-movie realm with the film "Copland" because he was trapped in the new male "ornamental culture" that values looks over acting skill.
But she neglects to mention that Stallone created and reveled in the muscle-bound Rambo image and didn't mind the "ornamental culture" when he was commanding millions for his performances. And is "ornamental culture" really a new development in Hollywood? After all, the role of life-size action figures extends far back beyond Stallone to actors like Rudolf Valentino, Tyrone Power, and Errol Flynn.
None of this, of course, completely discounts Faludi's arguments. Men, particularly those white men on the bottom of the skills and education ladder, have lost a lot in the last 20 years. The departure of industrial jobs, the societal focus on glamour over substance, and the changing roles feminism has brought, have left many men in the lurch.
But as the author herself has compellingly pointed out in the past, women have not emerged unscathed from this cultural and socioeconomic reshuffling either. For every man who wants to look like Brad Pitt and walk like Stallone, there is a woman who wants Cindy Crawford's body and Madeleine Albright's job. There are points in "Stiffed" when Faludi seems to have forgotten the lessons she tried to teach readers in the past.
The male landscape Faludi lays out here is likely to seem foreign to most men - and women. But more interesting, by focusing so intently on a handful of male caricatures, the author has created a work of irony.
Feminism's greatest lesson had less to do with equal rights than it did with seeing beyond and through the common myths and stereotypes of gender. In "Stiffed," Faludi's anecdotal quest for the mythical soul of American maledom has actually turned the clock back. And when she writes breathlessly about how shipyard workers "grounded their own worth and identity not in the masculine model of warrior, but in that of builder," you can almost hear men chuckle - and feminists sigh.
*Dante Chinni writes political commentary from Washington.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society