80s Week: Backlash and what it got us

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, December 2, 2010 23:21 EDT
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Susan Faludi’s book Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women came out in 1991, but I’m going to include it in 80s week, because it was a book about the 80s. Faludi started from the premise that the 80s were a time where there was a lot of reactionary energy, and she went on to demonstrate, in exhaustively researched detail, how much of it was against women and the gains women had made under feminism. I don’t know when it went into the canon of must-read feminist books, though it feels like immediately. I do know that feminist blogging as we know it owes more to this book than anything. It was Faludi who created the model we often subconsciously follow when analyzing sexism in political organizing, news articles, and pop culture. Faludi created some of the most trenchant and memorable pieces of feminist criticism ever—disproving Newsweek’s assertion that a woman over 40 was more likely to be killed by a terrorist than get married, holding up the film “Fatal Attraction” as a prime example of 80s misogyny, and basically laying down the criticism that anti-feminist women have had to grapple with ever since (which is that they create careers out of telling women not to have them). Faludi’s best work in this book did remake the world in fascinating ways. Newsweek finally took back their article, 20 years after the fact. Conservative women have capitulated and are now trying to create a new anti-feminism that is tolerant of women having careers. “Fatal Attraction” is now understood as the hokey piece of shit that it is. What’s amazing about Backlash is how readable it is still, even though the culture she’s describing are 20-30 years past. She did more than talk about the 80s; she used it as a launching pad to talk about American sexism at large.

In a way, though, the decade she was working with was the best source material imaginable, for the reasons she outlined. The 80s were a reactionary period. The 80s were when culture warriors who opposed everything that had happened, progress-wise, since at least the 1950s on were able to regroup and start to roll back all those gains. The 80s were when the other side of the Boomer generation—the ones who were reactionary, racist, sexist, conservative, and nostalgic for a “Leave It To Beaver” world that never really existed as they imagine it—showed themselves and showed that they actually outnumbered their liberal, hippie Boomer compatriots who got the lion’s share of cultural attention until then. (I’m not—I repeat not—bashing Boomers. I’m just pointing out that there are liberal Boomers and conservative Boomers, and while there are a lot of the former, there are a few more of the latter. That’s it. If you don’t like it, bury yourself in some statistics and then we can talk.) The 80s were conducted with Reagan as President. I’ve blogged a lot about the 80s in terms of the countervailing forces in pop culture, but the dominant paradigm of the time was indeed conservative.

When I first read Backlash, it had only been out about five years. Next year, it turns 20. (This, by the way, is why I cackle like a witch whenever people tell me how “young” I sound when I write about this stuff.) I think when that anniversary rolls around, there will be a lot of asking the question of how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t. I’d like to start that process now, as part of 80s week. There are two areas that I have a lot of questions about and want to toss them to you guys for thoughts.

A lot of Backlash was dedicated to analyzing pop culture, in a way that had been done before, but probably not to the depths and extent that Faludi took it. Ever since, pop culture analysis has been a major weapon of feminists. Every feminist blog that’s got substantial readership engages in Faludi-like analysis of pop culture. An entire magazine, Bitch, exists just to do precisely this. What definitely works about this mode of feminist analysis is that it’s accessible and popular—it brings in readers, starts lively discussions, helps people see things in a light they may not have understood before, recruits newbies to feminism.

But what Faludi and I think most feminist analysts of pop culture want is so much more! We want the entertainment media to stop peddling sexist propaganda. On that front, we have very mixed results. On one hand, you’re seeing some more diversity and respect for women than you did in the 80s. Women on TV and in movies are far more likely to have careers without getting some sort of horrible punishment, for instance. Women are even celebrated for strength and competence. You are beginning to see lesbian characters that aren’t immediately killed for it. There is progress on this front. The hunger that drove women to demand the return of “Cagney and Lacey” has resulted in many shows like it, even some featuring teenage girls as competent but flawed human beings, just like, you know, men have always been portrayed.

On the flip side, some of the issues Faludi brings up are even worse. If anything, the body image standards have gotten worse with the advent of inexpensive digital retouching of photos and an increasingly anorexia-obsessed fashion industry. The proliferation of romantic comedies and other media that promotes the image of women as desperate, man-and-baby-hungry monsters who are unsatisfied because their careers get in the way has only gotten worse. And, in fact, you sometimes get the impression that it’s gotten worse as a fuck-you to feminism, that people feel this lie about women must be more true because feminists disagree with it. In these ways, you have to wonder it the constant drumbeat of pop culture analysis is helping or if it’s actually making it worse.

Then you have the problem of trend pieces that portray women as unhappy because of feminism. The empirical evidence is and always has been against this assertion. Faludi set the model—Newsweek implied women are going to die lonely old hags because they don’t get knocked up and married at 19 and drop out of the work force to raise kids in the suburbs, and Faludi disproved their assertions so thoroughly that they eventually (eventually) issued a retraction. But instead of being shamed, mainstream media has kept on plugging. It’s created this weird cycle. News outlet publishes story about how feminism hurts women. Feminist bloggers and writers bring empirical evidence to disprove it, or otherwise attack the process and unverified assumptions—basically, they follow the impeccable Faludi model of criticism. Everyone agrees the feminists win, but it ends up amounting to nothing, because these stories come out at a faster pace than they can be debunked. And that’s because the burden of proof is entirely on feminists. Those making the sexist assertions feel no obligation to prove it. Pointing to the plot in some episode of “Sex and the City” suffices, because defending sexism is always assumed to be the proper stance until proven otherwise.

I’m not going to quit approaching this problem with the Faludi tools, but I have to ask the question: what’s it going to take? Empirical evidence, logic, rationality, and rigor are all on the feminist side and yet we keep losing out to a sea of bullshit. We need something else, and I don’t know what else.

Some of the trends Faludi spotted and critiqued, she was able to actually able to damage significantly. She was even able, I think, to help usher in an era where women feel more flexibility in fashion than they perhaps used to. But in these two arenas, I feel like we’re spinning our wheels. We’re still in the 80s in these instances, and I don’t know what it will take to move forward.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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