On Sept. 11, 2001, Susan Faludi fielded an unusual call from a reporter. What, he asked, would the terrorist attacks do to the American social fabric?
He soon answered his own question, quipping, Well, this sure pushes feminism off the map!
The leap seemed bizarre, but more queries followed for Faludi, the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Buildings were falling; bodies were burning. What did the tragedy of that day have to do with the status of women?
As it turned out, Faludi posits, quite a bit.
In The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, Faludi probes the cultural response to Sept. 11 and the familiar American mythology that framed our reaction.
In times of crisis, we reach for comforting fictions. After 9/11, a vulnerable America would do almost anything to feel strong again, and Faludi draws a compelling portrait of a nation riveted by comic exaggerations of manly heroes and feminine victims.
The swaggering president repeated lines from Westerns. The defense secretary became a rugged sex symbol, at least in media accounts. Firefighters were lionized as heroes who ran deep into the twin towers knowing they would die – even though they couldn t have known, since their radios weren t working.
While the media proclaimed a return to manliness, they also concocted trend stories about women nesting and opting out of the work force. Faludi shows that those stories had little to do with reality.
At first blush, The Terror Dream might sound like a tirade in service of an agenda. But Faludi accumulates the evidence drop by drop, until there is simply too much to be ignored.
Perhaps most emblematic of the post-9/11 myth was the rescue of Pfc. Jessica Lynch, the American soldier who came to be portrayed as a frail young girl, clutching her teddy bear.
Much has been said about the Lynch episode, a time when movie-style theatrics seemed to trump a less dramatic reality. Faludi frames it as a defining fiction of our time: A strong man is nothing without a woman to rescue.
Lynch s story could have been a rewrite of an old Western, or an even older frontier captivity tale starring a fragile woman captured by savages and a daring man who saves her. Those stories, Faludi notes, were fictions in their own right: Real stories of captivity by Native Americans feature markedly less brutality from the Natives, less heroism from the white men – and more fight from the women.
In cultural terms, though, reality is less important to a story than its themes. Faludi draws the thread of those oft-repeated Western narratives through other times of crisis – the years after the Civil War and World War II – and up to our present situation.
By retreating to a comfortable myth, she asserts, the nation essentially closed its eyes.
By September 12, our culture was already reworking a national tragedy into a national fantasy of virtuous might and triumph, Faludi writes. No doubt, the fantasy consoled many. But rather than make us any safer, it misled us into danger, damaging the very security the myth was supposed to bolster. There are consequences to living in a dream.
Faludi s portrait of the post-9/11 man as valiant hero, woman as hearth-tending victim is a tableau that could easily be overlooked as we watch a woman run for the White House. If the premise seems exaggerated, Faludi amasses 41 pages of footnotes to make a skeptic wonder how he or she might have missed the billboard.
Of course, every coin has two sides, and Faludi can be adept at ignoring the tail. While Lynch becomes a symbol of the feminine condition, Faludi ignores that other iconic woman soldier: Lynndie England, the grinning face from the Abu Ghraib photos.
At times, Faludi gives too much weight to the fringes – the pundits out for a contrarian sound bite, the hate that fills internet message boards. But largely, the weight of the evidence falls on Faludi s side, as she finds culprits throughout the media, including NBC, Time, The New York Times and The Associated Press.
Faludi intends The Terror Dream not as an indictment, but as a revelation. On both counts, she succeeds.
The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (Metropolitan Books, 368 pages, $26), by Susan Faludi Associated Press