Something for the Boys

Iron John: A Book About Men

by Robert Bly
Addison-Wesley, 268 pp., $18.95

Fire in the Belly: On Being A Man

by Sam Keen
Bantam, 272 pp., $19.95

Transformation: Understanding the Three Levels of Masculine Consciousness

by Robert A. Johnson
HarperSanFrancisco, 105 pp., $14.95

King Warrior Magician Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine

by Robert Moore, by Douglas Gillette
HarperSan Francisco, 160 pp., $9.95 (paper)

Prisoners of Men’s Dreams: Striking Out for a New Feminine Future

by Suzanne Gordon
Little, Brown, 324 pp., $19.95

Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism

by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
University of North Carolina Press, 347 pp., $24.95

The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women

by Naomi Wolf
Morrow, 348 pp., $21.95

Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women

by Susan Faludi
Crown, 552 pp., $24.00

Dorothy Parker is said to have remarked to the authors of Modern Woman, the Lost Sex, “I bet you say that to all the sexes.” Reading these books together is like being locked in the coat closet at a cocktail party to overhear a muffled cacophony of half-truths, partial insights, and entrenched wrongheadedness, from which emerges the general impression of a society foundering in reproachful cries of loster-than-thou from all the sexes (cries which the events surrounding the Clarence Thomas hearings and the William Kennedy Smith trial have intensifed). The male writers, as usual, tend to find women essentially peripheral to their lives, and seem more interested (or more free of practical cares) to address existential questions of individual moral and emotional progress, while for most of the women writers, men are still the problem. Underlying the discussion are the abiding central questions of definition: What ought “real” men to be like? What are women really like? What is “masculinity”? Does a real man “feel”? Are “caring” and “nurturing” the essence of femininity?

While in all of these many books about men and women the reader may object to an absence of historical perspective and an abundance of arguable assertions, oversimplifications, esoteric private vocabularies, global abstractions, and naive prescriptiveness—Sam Keen’s Fire in the Belly has lists and quizzes—it should be said at the outset that something emerges from this profusion of viewpoints that, though not necessarily scientific or even sound, adequately describes what many people feel subjectively to be the state of things about men, or women, or themselves.

One has only to look at magazine photographs of anorexic fashion models wearing chains and decorative bruises to agree that Naomi Wolf is probably right (in The Beauty Myth) to see in the discomforts of fashion some sadistic backlash against women. (This is in fact something people have always said about fashion, designers who “hate” women and so on—but recent fashions for dog collars and penciled-on wounds and other references to torture and masochism make the perception somewhat more explicit.) Most people would instinctively feel that Suzanne Gordon is right to regret (in Prisoners of Men’s Dreams) that people consider nurses lower than doctors, or that an uneducated male janitor is paid more than a woman teacher. The deluge of books, especially on the “men’s movement,” also reminds that according to some unexpressed principle, by the time books about certain social problems come to be published they are already slightly out of date; that is, while Wolf sees an epidemic of victim-anorexics, the federal guidelines on ideal weight have actually been recently increased, and there’s a new fat Barbie doll called “Happy to be me.” And while men proclaim their wish to get back to masculinity, it is probably the emotional values acquired since the Sixties, of cultivating the “feminine side,” that make them aware of the need to do it.

Several new and best-selling books describe the process by which sensitive modern men …

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Letters

Do Women Care More? April 23, 1992