Trapped in Miss America’s Boudoir

Glyn Maxwell

Susan Faludi’s book ‘Stiffed’ is about ‘The Betrayal of the Modern Man’.[*] What follows is an interview with the ‘Modern Man’.

Can you share any childhood memories with us?

Well ... one night I was lying in bed, pretending to be asleep, waiting for my father to come in. He’d promised that he’d reveal to me a miraculous inheritance.

What was that like?

I remember feeling wrapped in an unexpected and delicious comfort, as well as being enveloped in his hushed exuberance. Then he took me outside and showed me the Echo satellite in the sky. Earlier that evening, while Mom was busy scraping dishes in the kitchen, we’d hunched conspiratorially over Life magazine to look at the satellite. Funnily enough, it reminded me of the time we all sat in front of the Philco and watched a young Presidential nominee on a confetti-strewn proscenium turn his face ceremonially to the west and call on the young men of a new generation to join a race for the mastery of the sky. He’d said it was up to boys like me, and it sure was.

What was your childhood like?

Great. I used to roam the neighbourhood with my cap gun and holster, terrorising girls and household pets. I wore my Superman suit way past Halloween. I blew off part of my pinkie while trying to ignite a miniature rocket in the schoolyard. We were all the same. We were all introduced to the same promise and the same vision by our fathers.

What was your father like, Modern Man?

Well, he often seemed remote, as unreal as those perfect dads on television. I guess his life was altogether too newly out of the box for him to understand it, much less explain it to me. You know, many of our dads were veterans of World War Two or Korea, but those bloody paths to virility were not ones they sought to pass on.

Why do you think he showed you the Echo satellite? Do you think it had some kind of symbolic resonance?

I guess it became a remote point of triangulation connecting his generation of men to mine.

You mean, like a visual marker of vaulting technological power and progress to be claimed in the future by every baby-boom boy?

Uh-huh. Like, the men of his generation had ‘won’ the world and were giving it to us. They’d made us Masters of the Universe, and it felt, as in the time of Alexander, that what they’d created would last for ever.

It didn’t though, did it?

Don’t get me started. Four decades later, I think we all agree that a domestic apocalypse is under way, and that American manhood is under siege.

How do you think that’s come about?

Well, the prevailing American image of masculinity is me, controlling my environment. I’m expected to prove myself not by being part of society but by being untouched by it, soaring above it. I’m to travel unfettered, beyond society’s clutches, alone – making or breaking whatever crosses my path. I’m to be in the driver’s seat, the king of the road, forever charging down the open highway, along that masculine Möbius strip that cycles endlessly through a numbing stream of movies, TV shows, novels, advertisements and pop tunes.

What do you think makes you a man?

I guess it’s that I won’t be stopped. I’ll fight attempts to tamp me down; if I have to, I’ll use my gun.

Okay. I wonder, do you remember the ‘Time’ magazine cover in 1994, the man in the suit with a pig’s face, and the caption ‘Are Men Really That Bad?’

I do.

Well, are you?

Sure, that indicted a swinish wallowing in dominance, but it left unexamined my more common experience – fear at losing my job, or my family, or any context in which to embed my life. Put it this way: if I’m the master of my fate, what do I do about the unspoken sense that I’m being mastered, in the marketplace and home, by forces that seem to be scooping the soil from beneath my feet? If I’m mythologised as the one who makes things happen, how can I begin to analyse what is happening to me?

How indeed. But do you not feel that women, in, say, the 1960s, successfully freed themselves from the box in which they were trapped, by figuring out how it had been constructed around them?

Sure they did. And I feel the contours of a box, too, but I’m told that this box is of my own manufacture. Who am I to complain? For me to say I feel boxed in is regarded not as laudable political protest but as childish and indecent whining.

Quite. How do you see yourself today?

I guess I cling more tightly to my illusions. Like I’d rather see myself as battered by feminism than shaped by the larger culture. But what if women put aside their assumption of male dominance, their feminist rap sheet of our crimes and misdemeanours, and just looked at what we’ve experienced in the past generation?

Fair enough. Well, what have you experienced?

This and that. I lost my job at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, then I lost my job at McDonnell Douglas. So I joined this gang where we scored points for screwing girls, and I got on television. Then my football team moved to Baltimore without asking if I minded. That made me so mad I joined a group called Promise Keepers. Then obviously I was a drag-queen and a porn star.

Now there’s a job that’s not all it’s cracked up to be. But I suppose, if you wanted a kind of symbol of my plight, you could look at what’s been happening to Sylvester Stallone lately.

What has been happening to Sylvester Stallone lately?

He hasn’t gotten any good film roles, so he’s thinking of doing Rocky VI.

Oh, I am glad.

Yeah, if those bastards give him a break.

Given all these personal disappointments and setbacks, can you think of a metaphor that would help us understand?

I guess that all in all, looking back through the years, it’s almost as if I’d stood there at Cape Kennedy to witness the countdown to lift-off, only to watch my rocket –

The one containing all your hopes and dreams?

Obviously – burn up on the launchpad.

Tell me about Vietnam. I’d have thought it was hardly the crucible of courage against a clear and visible enemy that your father had faced.

You’re not wrong. There was nothing clear about any of it. It wasn’t a ‘masculine’ war in the World War Two mode. But then I came home to the domestic continuation of a guerrilla war.

You did?

Mm-hm. I was greeted by women not blowing kisses, but indifferent, even hostile. My loved one – whom I’d imagined I was supporting and protecting – was doing just fine on her own. She didn’t much appreciate my efforts to assert my authority.

That’s terrible, Modern Man.

Worse, as I grew older, the institutions that had promised me a masculine honour and pride in exchange for my loyalty double-crossed me. You know, I’d been told I was going to be Master of the Universe and all that was in it, but I found myself master of nothing.

That must be a little disheartening.

It sucks big time. I mean, have you seen that movie The Incredible Shrinking Man, where Scott Carey gets smaller because of an atomic test by the government and has to live in the cellar and hide in a dollhouse and fight a giant spider with a sewing pin?

Uh-huh.

It’s like that.

The failure to find a new frontier or a clear enemy or a woman in need of protection must have been devastating.

Look. We’ve not simply lost a utilitarian world; we’ve been thrust into an ornamental realm.

An ornamental realm?

Modern culture has reshaped my most basic sense of manhood by telling me that masculinity is something to drape over my body, not draw from inner resources. What passes for the essence of masculinity is being extracted and bottled – and sold back to me. Literally, in the case of Viagra.

But isn’t it the case that you’re simply vain, the product of a ‘self-absorbed’ 1960s generation that doesn’t appreciate your father’s war-forged discipline and sacrifice?

No. It’s that our culture has left me with little other territory on which to prove myself besides vanity. I mean, in the ornamental realm, manhood is defined by appearance, by youth and attractiveness, by money and aggression, by posture and swagger and ‘props’, by the curled lip and petulant sulk and flexed biceps, by the glamour of the cover boy, and by the market-bartered ‘individuality’ that sets one astronaut or athlete or gangster above another.

No wonder you’re in such agony. Not only are you losing the society you were once essential to, you are ‘gaining’ the very world women so recently shucked off as demeaning and dehumanising. Do you blame your father in some way?

Partly. I mean, that betrayal feels like the innermost core, like, say, the artichoke’s bitter heart. My dad made me a promise, and then didn’t make good on it. He lied. The world he promised has never been delivered. But there’s a betrayal deeper than that. It’s all-encompassing. Its tsunami force has swamped all of us, fathers and sons. Its surge has washed all the men of the American Century into a swirling ocean of larger-than-life, ever-transmitting images in which usefulness to society means less and less and celebrityhood ever more. And it has a feminine face.

The tsunami has a feminine face?

It’s the ornamental realm. It’s the world of star turns, hair-sprayed media appearances, and retouched magazine covers. It’s a pink-and-white girls’ world, the dominion of the beauty queen. We are trapped in Miss America’s boudoir. She’s our rival, not to be won over by a show of masculine strength, care, or protection, but only to be bested in a competition where the odds are not on our side. We live in a beauty-contest world.

And women have done this to you?

Oh, no. The gaze that plagues us doesn’t actually spring from a feminine eye. The gaze that hounds us is the very gaze that women have been trying to escape. It is an enslavement to glamour.

An enslavement to glamour. What in sam hell can you do about that?

We must envision a new passage if we are to free ourselves from our pain and paralysis.

What form might this new passage take?

Well, as we struggle to free ourselves from our crisis, our task is not, in the end, to figure out how to be masculine – rather, our masculinity lies in figuring out how to be human. Like I no longer have to live by the ‘scorecard’ my nation handed me. This gives me an opportunity to forge a rebellion commensurate with women’s, and in the course of it, to create a new paradigm for human progress.

Well, good luck with that, Modern Man, we’ll look out for it. And thank you.

Not at all. Thank you.

[*] Chatto, 662 pp., £15, 16 September 1999, 0 70115703 8.