October 2007

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

The Terror Dream

Challenging the mythology of 9/11 is tantamount to blasphemy. It’s equally unpopular to attribute social problems to anything related to gender. In her mostly excellent if somewhat unfortunately titled new book The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, Susan Faludi does both. Her brave takedown of the post-9/11 zeitgeist builds on her two earlier books, 1991's Backlash and 2000's Stiffed, to untangle the roots of another backlash.

This latest Big Feminist Book argues that old-fashioned ideas about the roles of men, women, and family gained new footing following September 11, 2001. "Why did we perceive an assault on the urban workplace as a threat to the domestic circle?" Faludi asks. It’s a line of inquiry that’s unlikely to make her any new friends: those who want to attack her as unpatriotic and man-hating will find plenty of opportunities to do so. She’ll be accused of opportunism, as if looking at 9/11 through a feminist lens is more offensive than using the events of that day to justify any number of destructive policies.

It’s difficult to read The Terror Dream without anticipating this kind of reaction, since Faludi is specifically concerned with showing the costs of such dismissiveness. September 11th made everyone a little crazy, but she thinks it’s no accident that so much of the insanity took the form of gender-based proscriptions. With 9/11 came a nearly gleeful assumption that feminism was finally meaningless, that something had happened that was big enough to get those women to shut up. It seemed to go unnoticed that the terrorists hated feminists, too.

Pretty quickly, we saw (even) fewer women’s voices in the media. Firefighters were fetishized as ideal men (the women in their ranks were strangely invisible). We were told that 9/11 was making people re-think the importance of family, and the media breathlessly predicted a baby boomlet nine months after 9/11 (it never materialized). Surveys reported that women were "considerably more gunned up about fusing into a post-September 11 domestic cocoon than men," but didn’t take into account the fact that women had been bombarded by a "matrimonial media campaign" following the attacks, one that resulted in a resurgence of virginal, hyper-romanticized bridal fashion, and turned Mayor Giuliani into a Brides magazine cover boy.
From trivial details to major episodes, Faludi has compiled a staggering amount of evidence, and this litany of news coverage and commentary forms a terribly familiar picture of the world we inhabit. Faludi is especially interested in how the media heroes of 9/11 were constructed, kept in line, and/or subsequently knocked off the national pedestal. Women whose husbands were killed on 9/11 were valorized, but only if they were exactly the right kinds of wives and mothers. A pregnant Lisa Beamer, whose husband Todd was credited with uttering the famous phrase "Let's roll" on Flight 93, was heralded as a celebrity widow. Meanwhile, a group of 9/11 widows calling themselves the Jersey Girls channeled their grief into activism. Politically engaged rather than “perfect virgins of grief,” they faced hostility and outright misogyny.

A chapter devoted to dissecting the Jessica Lynch spectacle is a stunning piece of media criticism. While the facts surrounding private Lynch’s capture by an Iraqi army regiment are widely disputed, it seems clear that her rescue by U.S. troops was intricately staged for publicity purposes. Faludi argues that because Lynch was a necessary symbol in a myth that "demanded male rescuers and female captives," her actual experiences were hijacked in favor of the story the military and the media needed to tell. In transcripts of Lynch’s numerous TV appearances, she says that her Iraqi captors treated her well. Though she repeatedly denies that she was raped, one interviewer after another insists that she is too traumatized to remember (this is also the handy perspective advanced by Rick Bragg’s sensationalist book I Am a Soldier Too: The Jessica Lynch Story, which Faludi skillfully eviscerates). Considering the blame so often heaped on feminists for their attention to sexual assault, it’s stunning to see the mainstream media’s attachment to Lynch's fictional rape.

In the book’s second section, Faludi delves into American history, arguing that the country's response to 9/11 was the continuation of a long-standing American tradition, a “lethal, albeit curable, cultural affliction.” While fascinating, this is where the book loses momentum. After reading so much intense analysis of where we’re stuck right now, it’s hard to look backwards for an earnest history lesson.