Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Review: Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in post 9/11 America, by Susan Faludi

I recently read "Terror Dream" by Susan Faludi. She's an American journalist and author of the well-known books "Backlash" , and "Stiffed". In this book she explores the myth and misogyny in the cultural/media response to 9/11. It's interesting in my opinion, some of the more famous case-studies she talks about are the firefighters, the 9/11 widows, Jessica Lynch, the media's feigned concern for illiterate afghan girls. Faludi's thesis is that there was a dichotomizing between male heroes and female victims; regardless of whether or not this was the reality of the players involved in any situation. The male heroes had to be gritty, masculine, characters of action; whereas the female victims had to be innocent, helpless, preferably virgins. She said this originates in America's historical cultural continuum, going back to John Wayne, and beyond that, to captivity stories from the frontier days.

She draws a very strong analogy between Cynthia Anne Parker* and Jessica Lynch. It was an interesting read for me in particular due to my knowledge-level. At the time of the attacks and in the events following such as the Iraq war, I didn't have much of an awareness of how the media manipulates gender. As Faludi would revisit some of the developments I would remember some of them. In hindsight it seems like it was so obvious what was going on, though I don't think I caught much glimpse of it at the time.

There's a chapter on the firefighters of New York for a chapter. The media portrayed them as heroes, and I remember debating this with people online at the time, if they were really were heroes. Faludi argues that they were actually victims. 343 of them died on 9/11. One fact which I was not aware of was the extent to which they did not need to die. There was a warning put out to rescue workers to get out, as the towers could fall. The warning was never received as the FDNY were using malfunctioning radios. This information was later suppressed. This is well-explained by her thesis, the firefighters needed to be heroes, gritty heroes. Following the events and the media brouhaha, there was a backlash against female firefighters in the country and their numbers actually began to decline. She also discusses some of the accompanying mythology. A viral story on the media at the time was that American women were horny for firefighters, because of how manly they were. She goes through so many of these stories and she fails to find a single specific example of the media use an actual, named woman dating a firefighter; it's all hearsay and assumptions.

Outside of this book, I never heard that the flight attendants on United 93 were making coffee to throw on the terrorists' faces. The media portrayal was entirely that of a few men, in particular Todd Beamer, rising up to the challenge of the situation, finding strength, saying "let's roll" and thus saving the planes from crashing into the white house.

A chapter is devoted to the 2004 presidential election. One thing which I did not recall was the competitive machismo between Bush and Kerry. Kerry spent a lot of time in hunting garb, and talking about how to kill animals. We know the historical verdict: he was not successful in his election strategy. Faludi pointed out a key difference is that while both Kerry and Bush tried to be male heroes, Bush's team also inserted accompanying female victims who needed to be saved. Laura Bush was made a spokesmen for "security moms" and said he husband wanted to keep people safe, and there was this huge TV ad where Bush hugged an ~11 year old girl called Ashley, who had lots her (mom?) in 9/11. I don't recall the ad but she said it was aired 30,000 times, so it was clearly important.

I won't say much about the chapter on Jessica Lynch as I think that event has been successfully dismantled. Faludi did interview Lynch and it seems Lynch didn't know the woman in her own story. She has no recollection of being raped by her Arab "captors" (hospital medical staff), something which the media interpreted as "suppression of memory". She remembers being well-treated in the hospital from which she was "rescued" by American troops who broke down the doors on their way in rather than waiting for the doctors who were planning on opening the door for them.

She has a very strong explanation of the attention devoted to the plight of women in Afghanistan. The propagandist image of "Afghan girls in school" is a lot more about chivalry than about feminism, even if it gets called feminism to be more politically correct. The narrative is that the girls in Afghanistan are helpless against the lesser advanced men of the orient, and they can only be saved by western male soldiers -- "heroes" -- coming in to save them. It fits seamlessly into the dichotomistic 9/11 media mythology of male heroes (Bush, Giuliani, firefighters) and female victims (pregnant WTC widows, Afghan girls). This was used to justify the invasion. She chronicled how the tone of the media's commentary shifted over time once the attention shifted to maintaining occupation. There was a quote from National Review, where it was said that imposing equality on Afghanistan would be justifying the stereotype of the "ugly American".

Evolving media portrayals with time is something Faludi revisited in almost all of her case studies. Lynch was eventually criticized for "seeking" too much media attention (It seems like the media was chasing her). It seemed particularly aggravating with the 9/11 widows. The media sought them out, in particular those that were pregnant at the time for which there was a competition. They would be a given a script which was generally followed early on. Over time many would veer from the script, and the virgin Mary became the evil bitch. Within a few years, there were criticisms of the widows for moving on rather than mourning their man forever. A made-up story about "boob implants" is one example, there was also a scandal when one of the FDNY widows "seduced" a married man. The Jersey girls in particular veered off script.

I recommend reading it, you might find it a bit frustrating to read though it's very annoying, to read about the American media. It's also written, I think, for an audience of slightly higher sophistication than my own. Being a Canadian born in the 1980s I didn't know who John Wayne and what he represented, and I was not as interested in the chapters chronicling gender in the American captivity stories back in the frontier days of wars with native Americans. One thing I wonder about is how Faludi would fit Sarah Palin into this narrative. Palin's media portrayal does not strike me as being that of a helpless victim, I wonder if this means Americans have moved on from 9/11 and shifted to another state of psychosis.

*[Nota Bene: Cynthia Anne Parker was a Texan white girl from the 1800s who wads captured by (Commanche?) tribesmen along with some other people; her uncle is said to have made a strong attempt to rescue her over the years; turns out when she was rescued she didn't want to go back to white society; though that part was suppressed. Her uncle was played by John Wayne in the 1950s movie The Searchers, which is apparently a critical to the historical development of Hollywood narratives.]

No comments:

Post a Comment