A few weeks ago, I began to blog about gender issues over at Slate's "XX Factor" just as I was finishing Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America. There is nothing like scanning the news every day with a gender lens at your eye to make you notice what Faludi has made a career of pointing out: how insidious (and ubiquitous) the pull of traditional ideas about femininity and masculinity can be. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign has certainly stirred up all kinds of confusion about how we conceptualize female power and independence. But there's also nothing like watching Hillary to make you feel that in The Terror Dream, Faludi herself is too transfixed by what she identifies as a post-9/11 "illusion of a mythic America where women needed men's protection" to pay full attention to how interesting, and strange, a moment this is for gender in America.
The first half of The Terror Dream consists of an exhaustive parsing of how the media (and, more broadly, the culture) construed gender roles in the months following 9/11—from the New York Observer pronouncing that women would become "more feminine" to Peggy Noonan announcing the return of "manly men." There are persuasive examples of just how quickly some old gender signposts were unfurled, along with American flags, in the shivery days after the attacks. But the most interesting part of The Terror Dream—which has been reviewed more extensively here and here—is Faludi's argument about the reason Americans were so quick to invoke a "girl-in-need-of-rescue script." The impulse to do so, she suggests in the book's second half, "belongs to a long-standing American pattern of response to threat, a response that we've been perfecting since our original wilderness experience." It dates back to anxieties fostered in our frontier days, when pioneers saw their families attacked, captured, or killed by Native Americans (on the "home soil," no less). Standing on the shoulders of historians, Faludi suggests that these attacks instilled a sense of shame ("a largely male burden, the result of recurring attacks in which the captivity of women and children served to spotlight male protective failures"), which found its expiation in an emerging genre of redemptive captivity narratives that recapitulated this "social trauma."
Such narratives were immensely popular in the Puritan era—the most famous of them, Mary Rowlandson's, went through four printings in its first year and became "America's first best-seller," in Faludi's phrasing. But they also resurfaced during the expansion of the frontier in the 19th century, and in the aftermath of Reconstruction in the American South, when they took the form of a white preoccupation with the threat black male sexuality posed to white women. Some of the best-known are white-washed versions of real events, replotted to make the men look braver and the women less resourceful. Others focus closely on the captivity experience of the woman herself.
The shame they embody or seek to correct, in Faludi's view, functions as a kind of latent virus; once infected, we have never shaken it off. It lurks in our national subconscious until, provoked by another attack on American home soil, it flares up in new ways, inspiring new correctives. Consider the Cold War Western, with John Wayne providing solace both as an on-screen purveyor of strong justice ("Don't apologize—it's a sign of weakness," runs one famous line) and as president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Values.
All this history is fascinating, even if it isn't entirely fresh. Yet it remains unclear what, if anything, the trauma at the heart of these captivity narratives really has to do with how America metabolized the trauma of 9/11. It's true, as Faludi cites, that the exaltation of fireman in New York City offered a clear-cut embrace of traditional ideals of masculinity. And the emergence of Rudy Giuliani as a tough-guy action hero—the platform he's now using to run for president—exemplifies her point about our (briefly) uncritical valorization of male brawn. Nor would many argue with her contention that contemporary masculinity is still shaped by the pioneer myth of self-determination. She persuasively argues that for a few months after 9/11, traditional gender scripts enjoyed a retro-chic resurgence.