Silence as virtue

Published : Jan 04, 2008 00:00 IST

Analysing Americas psychological response to 9/11, Susan Faludi points to the subsequent drop in womens voice in the media.

IN her recent book The Terror Dream, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Susan Faludi takes a critical, feminist view of the American response as a nation to the transforming story of 9/11 and the sticky situation in West Asia that involves pre-emptive strikes, regime change and hostage-taking. These archetypes are connected to American history with its baggage of the slave trade and the role of the Barbary pirates or the witch-hunts by the Puritans, which have shades of the present patriarchal, and aggressively feudal, nature of American misdeeds. This ever-present psychosis marks a regression into the childhood of history.

The attack on the Twin Towers is symbolically an attack on American masculinity, on capitalism, and on the domestic space, which psychologically turns, as Faludi writes, back onto a frontier where pigtailed damsels clutched rag dolls and prayed for a male avenger to return them to the home. Women in America, according to Faludis angle of vision, have been nudged back into domesticity after the attack on the rationale that they are always in need of protection from their daring countrymen and that home is their consigned space.

The antagonist for the American is always the horrifying other, demonised as non-white, who is ready to destroy the nation. The demon of nuclear threat from Iran is merely a figment of American fantasy; it is now the turn of Iran, after North Korea, which was the other nation in the axis of evil. Though the gauntlet from the east amounted to a declaration of war, the summons to actual sacrifice never came, Faludi argues. No draft ensued, no Rosie the Riveters were called to duty, no ration cards issued, no victory gardens planted. ... What we had was a chest beater in a borrowed flight suit, instructing us to max out our credit cards for the cause. And do not miss the Presidents swagger and his cowboy image on his Prairie Chapel Ranch in Texas apparently aimed at underlining Americas manhood.

Faludi takes the reader through various literary texts to show that the American psyche thrives on the fear of an attack from the outside world. It could be from the extraterrestrial world, as shown in some American movies; it could be the iconification of the American warrior through the creation of manly heroes such as John Wayne or Rambo. For instance, the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped at age nine by Comanches in Texas in 1836, is reinvented by Alan Le May in his novel The Searchers, in which the uncivilised barbarian creates a terrible fear in the minds of the white Christian, who must fight back to rescue his vulnerable women.

This fear, Faludi maintains, is the leitmotif of American literary tradition from Richard Slotkins Regeneration Through Violence to John Demos The Unredeemed Captive to Mary Beth Nortons In the Devils Snare. A more recent example is Jessica Lynchs capture and then her rescue from an Iraqi hospital by her countrymen, who take on the role of a sheriff and his party, signifying the age-old theme of a male standing up for a damsel in distress or white virgins waiting to be rescued from black savages. This is seen in the rescue efforts reported by the press, which showered praise on the soldiers, who supposedly encountered fidayeen death squads. On subsequent investigation, it was found that there were no Iraqi militants present in the hospital and that it took only six minutes to rescue Jessica. Though Lynch fought bravely until her capture, the chauvinist press could not digest the making of a woman into a hero. She had to be turned into a victim and the rescuers into present-day John Waynes.

Likewise, the media conveniently overlooked the significant role of the women who contributed equally to post-9/11 rescue operations. As David Greenberg, professor at Rutgers, writes, 2008 presidential election is shaping up as a referendum on the very cultural politics that Faludi spotlights. One party is likely to nominate a self-styled sheriff from the urban frontier running on his record as a merciless dispenser of draconian justice and a partisan of extreme measures after Sept. 11. The other is poised to choose, for the first time in history, a woman one who is unfairly derided for her feminism and careerism and caricatured as a Lady Macbeth. The face-off between the Modern Woman and the Macho Man may yet reveal how tenacious and lasting the myths that Faludi so bracingly documents really are.

Sixteen women who

Faludi draws the attention of the reader to the drop in womens voice in the American media in the post-9/11 years. The dream that she had on September 11 was ominous, as she described in a recent interview: Well, I was in Los Angeles, so I was three hours behind the events. And very early in the morning, I had this peculiar dream, where in the dream I was sitting on an airplane next to another woman, and a young man came up to us and shot two bullets. One went into my throat at a sort of odd angle, and one into her throat at an odd angle. And I realised that we were both alive, but we couldnt speak. Now, I dont pretend to be a psychic. I dont know why I had this dream. But later it struck me that it had this remarkable metaphorical quality to it, because when I began to look at our response to 9/11, what repeated over and over was the silence, of the way that women were silenced and, more generally, the way our culture silenced any kind of questioning or examination of our reactions.

On the day of the attack, five women visited hospitals fearing that they had something stuck in their throats. On investigation it was found that there was no foreign object lodged in their throats; it was only a mild constriction, interpreted by Faludi as symbolising the loss of voice in important matters of state. Faludi substantiated her interpretation in the interview: In the first week, the major newspapers the Post, the Times and the LA Times had eighty-eight op-eds; only five were by women. Meanwhile, on the Sunday morning in the, you know, the important Sunday morning talk shows, there was a in the first seven weeks after 9/11, there was a 40% plunge in representation of women guests, even women who you would think would be rather essential.

The valourisation of the fireman as the hero who rescues his brethren overshadows the role of the woman rescuer, thereby watering down the tangible advancements made in the womens movement. It is a known fact that firefighters were as much victims, who suffered and cried, as anyone else, but the press turned them into heroes and made the nation feel secure.

Insignificant mention is made in the press about the airhostess, Sandra Bradshaw, who poured boiling water on the terrorists in Flight 93, but stories about how the men on the flight sacrificed their lives to save the White House found extensive mention in the media. The book is a reminder of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, in which Faludi also argues that there is a diminishing of womens role in a male-dominated society. Men as heroes were foregrounded in the visuals published in Newsweeks coverage of the attack, whereas women were shown as survivors, most fit for staying calm and tending to the children. This image in the media bolsters the idea of domesticity and its significance in American society. Faludi corroborates her argument with statistics: For the first six months of 2002, more than 75 per cent of the Sunday talk shows on CBS, Fox, and NBC featured no female guests.

In this rather radical and unusual point of view, Faludi has given a clear-eyed, anti-conservative assessment that establishes Americas withdrawal into a terror dream on the basis of a false belief of invincibility, which constantly underpins American chauvinist attitudes and aggressive responses to world events. Americas psychological response to 9/11 is deftly analysed here and a thesis built with data collected from the media and popular culture as well as from the thematic concerns of the writers who helped build a mythical history of a nation childishly basking in its male supremacy but paradoxically fearing the enemy constantly. Such a history has negatively helped perpetuate onslaughts on womens freedom and independence, on their space and time, especially in the post-9/11 years.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment