"A culture forges myths for many reasons," Susan Faludi writes in The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9/11 America, "but paramount among them is the need to impose order on chaotic and disturbing experience - to resolve the haunting contradictions and contain apprehension, to imagine a way out of darkness." The imposed order and the way out of darkness, according to Faludi's third nonfiction book, occur by re-establishing mythic models of American masculinity and femininity. Faludi is a writer of gripping skill with a knack for reportage that illuminates and explains American culture and The Terror Dream may well be her masterpiece (quite an accomplishment since she had already written the masterful Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women). To start her cultural analysis of 9/11, Faludi does not start on the day "that changed everything."
Instead, she begins, with her title and her epigraph, in the mid-1950s with Alan Le May's novel, The Searchers (1954) and the film adaptation staring John Wayne (1956). From this, Faludi takes us on a journey through the post 9/11 world to show the re-emergence of the John Wayne/ Daniel Boone mythos that defines male (active and strong hero) and female (passive and weak victim) roles in American culture.
But first, some things that The Terror Dream is not. It is not an attack on the War in Iraq or the build-up to that war (the war itself is only briefly mentioned near the end of the book, though there is a chapter that reads the Jessica Lynch "rescue"). Nor is it a partisan criticism of George W. Bush (in fact, nearly as many pages are spent on Senator John Kerry as Bush, which is also true of Laura Bush). The book is neither a history of the September 11, 2001 attacks nor is it a criticism of the those events. It is a gender analysis of America's reaction to 9/11, socially, culturally and politically.
The Terror Dream is a smart, engaging and enraging gender analysis of the American response to 9/11. Faludi argues, through carefull cultural research (which includes forty pages of footnotes) how the response to 9/11 became a return to the American pioneer myths that defined gender roles in America until the feminist movement of the second half of the twentieth century. In this myth, the roles are clear: men should be "manly men" and are always heroes, protectors and saviors (like John Wayne in The Searchers). Women are always victims, damsels in distress in constant need of protection by their male counterparts. The weaker the women, the stronger the men will be. The stronger the women, the weaker the men, and therefore the country, will be.
She charts this by analyzing cultural artifact, most commonly newspaper articles and TV news reports but also television shows and movies. And her gaze moved quickly over cultural items I enjoy, including John Kerry (whose attempt at über-masculinity with his gun poses during the 2004 election, she says, played right into the myth's hands), Sex & the City (which, after 9/11, started marrying and impregnating all four of the fabulous, sexual and single women on the show) and Marvel Comics (which aided the transformation of the Bush Administration into real life superheroes). In fact, her descripiton of the reaction of Andrew Sullivan, a blogger I often read, toward Susan Sontag's September 24, 2001 article from The New Yorker (he called her an "ally of evil" and "deranged") had me running to this blog to take him off my links list. In a wonderful reversal of the 9/11 gender roles (a common occurance in my pro-feminist marriage), my wife came to Sullivan's rescue, reminding me that Sullivan has learned a lot in the past seven years and not to jump too quickly. But Faludi's book has me reconsidering (and re-analyzing) much of the past seven years (I suddenly know why, less than a week after 9/11, while I was working in a video store, the movies in the Western section were constantly checked out).
It is a fabulous read full of insights into the attacks against feminists, from both the rightwing and the mainstream media, the hyperbolic nature of gender in our recent political elections, and the transformation of unwitting and often unwanting average Americans into heroes and victims. She defends the 9/11 widows who, supposedly, spent their money on plastic surgery. She looks at the real numbers regarding the influence of supposed "security moms" during the '04 election. She analyzes the capture, rescue and the national/political/media narrative of that capture and rescue of Private Jessica Lynch. She looks deeply into the use of fear to convince women to get married (quickly) and start having babies (just as quickly) immediately after 9/11. And she brings it all into perspective with a detailed account of how this hero/victim myth started during early pioneer America. She then tracks the myth as it re-emerges during various crises of American history.
Her writing is sharp, vivid and intoxication. At times, she her language is shockingly, bitterly and wonderfully caustic (as she leads into her analysis of masculinity during the 2004 Presidential election, she writes, "In the post 9/11 effort to restore Americans' confidence in the country's impregnability, national politics would become increasingly deranged."). And her words are sorrowfull as she describes the atatcks on strong minded women who had the courage to question the media and the government in the aftermath of 9/11. Her discussion of the viscious and brutal response toward Barbara Kingsolver (one of my favorite novelists) is heartwrenching. But Faludi understands Kingsolver's, and the other women who were told to "shut-up, we're at war". She's experienced it herself as she has charted the socio-political gender wars over the past twenty five years (an example: one reviewer at Amazon.com wrote of Faludi and The Terror Dream, "I'd hoped that this woman had disappeared, but here she is again, like recurring rash [sic]." The title of the post is "Put a cork in it, Susan" and the poster goes on to say Faludi's thesis "holds on for dear life" in the face of a history that discredits the thesis. Of course, the writer then lists a litany of examples of male hero/female victim motifs and myths that confirm Faludi's thesis.)
In the end, Faludi asks simple questions: "For a moment on the morning of September 11, we were awakened to the reality of our weakness and vulnerability. The revelation was too disturbing to bear and we soon turned away. What if we hadn't? .... What if the nation had responded to 9/11 differently? What if we hadn't retreated into platitudes and compensatory fictions? What if we had taken the attack as an occasion to 'confront the truth'?" Unfortunately, we didn't do those things. Which is why The Terror Dream is so important and so necessary.
For a preview of The Terror Dream, check out this op-ed by Faludi from the New York Times (9/7/07): "America's Guardian Myths".
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