Interview: Susan Faludi on 9/11 Myths

In the late 1980s, Susan Faludi noticed a glut of media stories depicting professional women as unable to find a man, desperate for children, and emotionally unfulfilled. In "Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women," (Crown, 1991) she debunked the myth of the dissatisfied career woman, and exposed the growing anti-feminist sentiment behind the stories. In the months after 9/11, when the media was awash with stories of heroic firemen, take-no-prisoners political leaders and domesticity-craving women, Faludi noted what she saw as a similar myth-spreading mechanism at work in the culture, this time replicating a "captivity narrative" dating back to the earliest days of modern U.S. history.

In "The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America," (Metropolitan Books, Oct. 2007) the Pulitzer prize-winning social critic traces the narrative to 17th-Century conflicts between New England tribes and white settlers during the nation's founding, which she calls "the characteristic and formative American ideal." When, more than three centuries later, terrorists flew hijacked planes into the World Trade Center, Faludi contends that the captivity narrative re-emerged as the organizing principle for our national identity, re-configured to star a heroic cowboy rescuing a weak frontierswoman from a "dark-skinned, non-Christian combatant." Faludi spoke to NEWSWEEK's Jennie Yabroff about her book. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: In "The Terror Dream" you quote from scores of "trend" stories that were written after 9/11 about the return of the 'manly man,' or single women suddenly becoming desperate to get married, or working mothers quitting their jobs to be stay-at-home moms. Did the connections strike you while they were happening, or was it only when you went back, a few years later, and read all the coverage, that you noticed the pattern?
Susan Faludi: What makes it all the more disturbing is that seems so normal at the time, as ingrained mythology does in times of crisis when you're not thinking clearly. For me, I was somewhat more aware of it than the average person simply because I do so much writing and thinking about sexual politics. But I didn't know exactly what it meant. It really struck me when I was in Europe during the London terrorist bombing in 2005, and I was reading the British press, watching the BBC. That's when the light bulb went off. I noticed they were not reacting the way we reacted. Both the government and the press reaction was pretty matter of fact: let's deal with this as a criminal matter, bring the perpetrators in and prosecute them. I, at least, didn't see stories about how "7/7" [the date of the London transit attacks] was going to bring about a return of the British manly man. For me, what was eye-opening about looking at our history was how so much of the idea of America the invulnerable, America the dominant is based on a story that we've told ourselves to cover up a very long period of vulnerability and even shame. And yet we would be so much better off if we came face-to-face with our vulnerability and learned to live with it without retreating into comfortable fictions.

Do you think Americans are especially susceptible to mythologizing national events?
We probably rely more on our mythic constructs to compensate for our lack of ancient history. We may tend to cling to our mythology more than older nations that have societal glue based on things other than movies and TV shows. But we have notably put that mythology aside at times: First of all in the days of the founding of the country, which came right on the heels of a long period of what colonists referred to as a time of terror, the Indian wars. Yet our founders responded by embracing a social vision for the country that was not about dominance, it was about liberty and tolerance, expanding civil liberties. The other example is World War II, thanks in large measure to government leadership that was not about chest-beating and go it alone militarism. Tellingly, that was a time when women were encouraged to take more of a role in society, encouraged to enter the workforce, and when we had government-subsidized daycare. So, clearly, we are capable of rising above this mythology given the right leadership.

But didn't we see a backlash against feminism immediately following World War II, when women were told to give their jobs back to the returning soldiers and go home and start having babies?
At the end of World War II, it wasn't just about men coming back from the warfront. On top of that we had the dropping of the atomic bomb, the long-range bomber, guided missiles. If you read the stories in the press after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were full of anxiety, fear about entering the atomic age and how terrifying that was. Stories about how we're not as protected as we once were.

You write in the first chapter of the book, in an anecdote that's gotten a lot attention already, that a reporter called you the morning of 9/11 and said the attack "pushes feminism off the map."
If it had just been one reporter I would have written it off, but it wasn't just him. And I don't know if his story ever ran, which is why I didn't use his name. My aim is not to pick out individual bad guys. Particularly after 9/11, what we were getting from the media was not a jaundiced eye on government behavior, we were getting the media caught up in shock and awe, marching lockstep with the government.

Some critics have accused you of cherry-picking quotes and metaphors that journalists have already apologized for or retracted, such as Graydon Carter's assertion that 9/11 marked the "end of the age of irony." Isn't it inevitable that national crises can initially inspire some overwrought prose or hasty conclusions, and isn't one of the roles of the media to create a narrative for national events?
If we go back and look at what the founders said, freedom of the press was created not to give citizens consoling fiction, but to educate with real facts, and to counter government propaganda. I think it's tragic that the media believes its role is to create some nice narrative that has nothing to do with [the] real world. And it wasn't just a temporary thing, it went on and on and had real world consequences. With the media's willingness to go along with the government about weapons of mass destruction, a one-line apology is not sufficient. If you look at other countries and their responses to national crises, this is something that is specific to America. That said, this is not about beating up specific writers. It's about the nature of modern American journalism.

In writing about the way the press used [hijacked ] Flight 93 to perpetuate the heroic cowboy myth, you quote from stories about the manliness of four male passengers who reportedly fought the hijackers: Mark Bingham, Jeremy Glick, Todd Beamer, and Thomas Burnett. But you don't mention that Mark Bingham was gay, a fact that was included in many of the stories written the time, and would seem to defy the stereotypical version of masculinity you claim is central to the captivity narrative.
I think the way they got around that was by saying what a great athlete he was. There was an acknowledgment that he was gay, but also what a great ballplayer he was. He was just sort of brought into the manly man orbit. I think I didn't mention it because I'm looking at how mythology plays out, and mythology is defined by sex, not by sexual preference. The story I was looking at was the process by which we create a mythological drama around sex.

You paint a grim picture of feminism following 9/11. Yet we currently have our first female presidential contender, a female speaker of the house, more women in Congress than in 2000…. Do you think the setbacks to the feminist movement were lasting?
"The Terror Dream" is not a diagnosis of where feminism stands today. It's not about what 9/11 did to women, or to men, for that matter. The problem wasn't that women went back to the home, or men decided to put on ten-gallon hats. The problem was what that myth did to the political sphere. It had terrible consequences to our moral standing in the world. It was introduced to the cultural bloodstream as a domestic story, but the toll it took was in the erosion of our civil liberties, the endorsement of torture. This is not "Backlash Two," I'm not looking at the state of women's equality, I'm looking at underlying historical forces and how they played out. 9/11 offered a window to look into the abyss and see when we're faced with fear and shame, how we instinctively react based on this mythology. The mythology itself takes on a gendered form. The system of heroism depends on women to be weak so men can be strong.

Do you think the myth is still active in our culture today?
I do think things are beginning to crack open, that this sort of sleepwalking in a fantasy world since 9/11 has been significantly eroded, especially since Hurricane Katrina. After 9/11, we really wanted to buy into the idea that if our leaders looked strong, played a tough guy on camera, those images would be enough. What happened with Hurricane Katrina was the American electorate was forced to look at what lay behind the veneer of chest-beating. We all saw the consequences of having terrible government leadership. I think the 2008 campaign is the beginning of the realization that cowboy bluster and rhetoric is not going to save the country, that it has made us less safe, and has made the world less safe.

Interview: Susan Faludi on 9/11 Myths | News