So I borrowed the book from the library for the third time and sat down with it. Why? Do I feel guilty for opining on a book I haven’t formed a proper opinion on yet? No. Am I going to finish it this time? Probably not. But I’m still too annoyed to put it down. On the one hand, there’s no way in heaven or hell I’m going to be able to read this book without whining in writing about how annoying it is. On the other hand, if it’s so easy to criticize that I have to ask myself why in the world it was published, why would I want to bother reading it at all? But having a blog means that whining in my private notes can be transformed into something that seems almost but not quite like useful activity. Even if nobody actually reads it.
So: one thing, at least, even if the rest of it stays in my scratch files:
(Okay, I feel bad now, because I saw that today is Susan Faludi’s birthday. Happy Birthday! But I’m supposed to write a thousand words and then sit on them for twenty-four hours?)
In the couple of hours I spent with the book yesterday, I was intrigued by Faludi’s treatment of Carol Gilligan and her book In a Different Voice . There’s more about this discussion a little farther down, but I wanted to note a paragraph from a review of Backlash, by Jean Bethke Elshtain, in the conservative Catholic magazine, First Things:
“When I was an undergraduate in the 1960s out in the Western provinces (Colorado, it was), my instructors (Democrats to a man, no women in what was called the History and Government Department at Colorado State University in those benighted times) not only encouraged me to make the most of myself, they taught me that conspiracy theory was the hobgoblin of little minds, like those of the local John Birchers. We studied one of their texts in a Government course, unpacking the way the author crossed every t and dotted every i with his overriding paranoid theory, if it may be called that, that the Communists and their dupes ran everything, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. He had lots of facts too. It all made sense—if you shared the initial paranoid starting point. We mocked this stuff and marveled that anyone could believe it. The Birchers were pretty much defeated by this sort of humorous dismissal, as was a local group that launched a campaign against the Beatles as the instruments of Satan.”
In most of the public libraries where I’ve lived since I graduated from college, Elshtain’s books have been shelved under “feminism.” She is a person whom Backlash does not mention.
The third section of Backlash lists a string of anti-feminist figures of the 1980s, ending with right-wing feminist Sylvia Ann Hewlett (Faludi calls her a “neofeminist”), Second Wave feminist pioneer Betty Friedan, and psychologist Carol Gilligan. What are Friedan and Gilligan doing there? Friedan wasn’t willing to give up the idea of traditional femininity that some of her younger colleagues in the movement wanted to reject. Faludi accuses her of being unaware that her rhetoric is borrowed from the right; and of thinking, or at least writing, in such a muddled way that it’s impossible to tell what she really believes.
As for Gilligan, on close inspection, the chapter is actually in praise of her. Faludi begins the discussion by attacking difference feminism, after correctly noting that it was the preferred stance of feminist academics and theorists throughout the 1980s. She goes on, also largely correctly, to introduce Gilligan as a participant in that same school. She incorrectly claims that those who championed “difference” tended not to care about equality. Then she moves on to the media discussion of Gilligan’s work. At this point, the argument shifts to an attack on the media for taking Gilligan up as an example of their preferred narrative. For several pages, Faludi discusses Carol Gilligan’s own statements, in which she attempted to show that the broad narrative painted by the media wasn’t an accurate representation of her work, and a critique by another scholar, pointing out flaws in Gilligan’s research. (This section could serve as a good illustration of some of the flaws introduced by Faludi’s writing style, which uses the journalistic, faux-objective, non-voice “voice,” in which the point of view and even apparent argument meanders from here to there and back again, following the train of thought of each major source, in turn.) She concludes that Gilligan’s work is very important, and largely correct, but doesn’t actually make the claims most people (misled by the media) believe it does, and (as shown by Zella Luria’s scholarly critique) properly understood, only makes very modest claims in the first place.
So this chapter, like the rest of the book, is an attack on the mass media for promoting anti-feminism. It’s not an attack on Carol Gilligan or her work. It is an attack, also, on difference feminism. But Gilligan, the only scholar Faludi actually discusses , is not (as Faludi argues) a difference feminist, and so her work is not part of difference feminism, and so she’s fine. She’s a victim of the media. It remains unclear why Gilligan was included in the list of horribles at all. Why not describe a more typical member of the difference-feminist crowd? Perhaps it’s only because Faludi wanted to write a book about the state of media coverage of feminism in the late 1980s, and Carol Gilligan had gotten a lot of press.
Is it also an attack on difference feminism? It’s hard to say. By the end of the chapter (save for a cryptic reference to the feminist scholarly journal, Signs), the reader has forgotten that “feminist scholarship conferences [were] awash in papers on women’s special virtues [emphasis added].” We’re back to an attack on the media, and the media’s putative invention of an anti-feminist narrative, and an unnuanced defense of “feminism” with no apparent effort to investigate what people mean by the word. In 1991, to be sure, it could seem unclear whether difference feminism would be a flash in the pan, or whether it would endure. I’ve never been an enormous fan of it myself. But it seems unseemly to attack it in the same breath as Hayes Tim and Beverly LaHaye. (Here, as in other places in the book, I imagine I hear Camille Paglia off in the wings, waiting for her cue.)
Moreover, there’s that huge nugget of cultural criticism clogging up the lion’s share of the book. A commenter at CT pointed out, helpfully, that criticizing popular culture is not, by any means, the only thing Faludi does in Backlash. But actually doing the math shows that the popular culture section makes up a whopping one-third of a nearly 500-page book. It comes as the second section of the book, and the first substantial section, following the kind of historical survey that you might find in an academic book, and that many readers will presumably skip. And much of it consists of the kind of movie and television criticism that is very, very closely affiliated with difference-feminist ideas. In other words, a difference feminist would agree with what Faludi says in this section. A difference feminist, talking to another feminist and finding that she disagrees with Faludi’s criticism of the shows she discusses, would point to theories and writings from difference feminism in support of her own views.
I’m not saying that Faludi is arguing in bad faith in either one of those sections. Here, she appears to be in agreement with what, say, a Second Wave feminist might say: both that difference feminism is wrong and actually anti-feminist, and that those movie and television critiques are actually correct. Feminism in the 1980s and 1990s was fraught and tangled. But, also, this puts Faludi in much the same position as Friedan. Whom she attacked as on a par with Allan Bloom, George Gilder, and Phyllis Schlafly. Why were these writers included in this book in this way? And now the reader is back at the beginning again.
 I look forward to returning this to the library, so my four year old will stop trying to convince me that it’s a book about animals. Because people don’t have different voices.
 She mentions three other books, including Suzanne Gordon’s Prisoners of Men’s Dreams, in introducing the topic, by way of demonstrating that bookstores and publishers were marketing a “difference” narrative.
 For what it’s worth, Google Search completion begs to differ.
 Says Faludi, who writes for the Wall Street Journal.
 Who appear in the index under the name Tim Lataye.