Terror dreams and women after 9/11

In the introduction to THE TERROR DREAM: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, Susan Faludi says the genesis of the book was the calls from reporters she received after 9/11, asking how she, a feminist writer, felt now that feminism was dead.
She: Feminism’s dead?
Them: Of course it is! Women won’t want careers after this, they’ll want to marry a big strong man who will protect them from terrorists while they stay safe at home.
And as Faludi chronicles, the next few years generated a string of articles on just that premise: Women, trembling and terrified for their families, wanted nothing more than male protection. Or the attacks made them realize how meaningless careers were—what if they were caught in a terrorist attack and didn’t have a significant other to call and say goodbye to? Doesn’t that show how hollow feminism is? (these articles would often start out talking about “people” but rapidly turned into a focus on “women” specifically).
Even odder, in a disaster where the majority of the victims were men, the imagery portrayed Helpless Female Victims, rescued by Strong Male Protectors. The existence of female protectors—flight attendants who may have participated in the counter-terrorist fight on Flight 93, the three female responders who lost their lives in the WTC—were ignored (a documentary focusing on female responders on 9/11 was blasted as a feminazi effort to snatch credit from the Real Heroes).
The sexualized handling of the war on terror continued with the emphasis on Bush, the Rugged Cowboy (look at him clear brush off his farm like a Real Cowboy) and Gutsy Jet Jockey (never mind that he’d been grounded as a pilot for 30 years) and the rewriting of POW Jessica Lynch’s story: A woman who received good treatment from Iraqi doctors was portrayed as trapped by rapists in a dungeon of horrors from which only our heroic military was able to save her (the fact Lynch was a soldier who chose to enlist and re-enlist was washed away in favor of her image as a delicate creature).
Baffled by all this, Faludi came up with her own explanation: The founding American myth is not the taming of the frontier but the untamed frontier attacking us. She looks back to the 17th and 18th century when New England towns were subject to brutal Indian attacks (despite giving out plenty of brutaility of their own). Women were carried off, despite their men’s best efforts, sometimes because the men ran and hid. In some cases the women preferred life with the Indians; in others they escaped by violence or cunning, without male help.
Much of this would be rewritten to show a more conventional, palatable narrative of heroic men defending their docile women (one 19th century commentator grumbled that women who would actually fight for themselves had sacrificed their femininity). In the 20th Century, the film The Searchers would pull a similar trick, reworking a less than heroic cowboy and a strong young women into John Wayne’s indomitable searcher and Indian fighter and a woman who does little more than stand around.
Faludi’s conclusion is that the horror of those early attacks burned this kind of thinking into our cultural DNA: The efforts to wipe out the shame of those wimpy New England men who failed to protect their women have made the Heroic Male/Passive Woman image a permanent fixture in our thinking, one we automatically revert to in times of stress. I’m not so sure about cause-and-effect here (are we wildly different from England or other countries in this regard?) but she does make a good case that this stereotype has been around a long time and how much it influences our interpretation of recent events.


Filed under Politics, Reading

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