Chatterbox was a bit surprised to see Susan Faludi’s forthcoming book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, get the red-carpet treatment from Newsweek. The magazine put Faludi on this week’s cover, and inside ran a lengthy excerpt with no fewer than four sidebars (to read them, click here and here and here and here) and, to top it all off, an extremely sympathetic interview with the author. Perhaps Chatterbox wouldn’t have been so surprised had he known that Faludi recently became a Newsweek contributing editor. But that’s surprising, too.
Why? Because Faludi’s hugely successful previous book, Backlash, was in large part an attack on, well, Newsweek. Backlash is remembered as a broadside against 1980s culture as a whole, and (to quote its subtitle) its "undeclared war against American women." That culture is represented in Backlash mainly through the news media, which (if you read the book quickly) comes off as uniformly hostile toward feminism. But if you take a closer look, you’ll notice that some news outlets come off worse than others. Faludi doesn’t make a big deal of this, presumably because she never really intended Backlash to be a critique of particular news organizations so much as, well, a broadside against the culture as a whole. (That the culture as a whole quickly turned Faludi’s book into a runaway best-seller has always suggested to Chatterbox that Backlash’s thesis was an oversimplification.)
According to Faludi’s acknowledgements, Backlash began as a story for the San Jose Mercury News’s Sunday magazine debunking an unpublished academic study by David Bloom, a Harvard economist, and Patricia Craig, a Yale graduate student, purporting to show that never-married college-educated women faced, at age 30, only a 20 percent chance of getting hitched in their lifetimes. The findings became famous when they landed on the cover of … Newsweek. Much of Backlash is dedicated to demolishing both the Bloom-Craig research itself and Newsweek’s further distortion of it—most famously, Newsweek’s preposterous claim that a single gal was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than to find a mate. Faludi writes that
[a] former Newsweek bureau intern who was involved in the story’s preparation later explains how the terrorist analogy wound up in the magazine: "What happened is, one of the bureau reporters was going around saying it as a joke--like, ‘Yeah, a woman’s more likely to get bumped off by a terrorist’—and next thing we knew, one of the writers in New York took it seriously and it ended up in print."
Newsweek also gets cuffed about in Backlash for decrying "the emotional fallout of feminism"; for hyping "cocooning," a trend pretty much invented by Faith Popcorn; for attacking the "myth of Supermom"; for running two covers on the "trend of childlessness"; and for exaggerating the problem of drug addiction among pregnant mothers, among other sins. In many instances, Faludi’s digs at Newsweek are actually somewhat unfair. (The conflict between women’s traditional motherhood role and their increased participation in the workplace isn’t just something dreamed up by newsmagazine writers.) But that isn’t the point. The point is that an implicit theme running throughout Backlash is that in a world plagued by stupid, superficial journalism, Newsweek is stupider and more superficial than most print outlets. That doesn’t make Faludi a hypocrite for becoming a contributing editor at Newsweek. Even if she thinks the magazine is no better now than it was in the 1980s, she probably figures she’ll help it improve. But look at this week’s Faludimania cover package from Newsweek’s point of view: They’re heaping laurels onto someone who’s called them a bunch of sexist ninnies! Is this an admirable show of open-mindedness, a pathetic demonstration of low self-esteem, or inevitable mindless worship of whatever is "hot"? Perhaps a bit of each.