Book Review: Faludi’s Terror Dream

Posted February 27, 2008

Susan Faludi, author of Backlash and Stiffed, has with her latest offering, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9-11 America, drawn upon her previous insights into the causes and consequences of the anti-feminist backlash of the last three decades and applied them to period following the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

While many reviews have been positive, Faludi’s reception in the nation’s leading newspapers lends support to her central thesis, that 9-11 set the stage for a kind of media and cultural regression toward vulgar gendered archetypes of heroic, protective men and retiring, weak women. Faludi herself maybe the latest example of the tendency she documents among our nation’s leading arbiters of opinion and culture to come down hard on women who refuse to conform to the role of passive victim, or stick to the script which justifies war, torture and occupation.

In Terror Dream, Fauldi notes that outspoken women who questioned the drive to nationalism and war were attacked for there supposed lack of intelligence an feminine decency: Katha Pollit of The Nation, Susan Sontag, and Pulitzer Prize winner Barbara Kinsolver were all subject to over-the-top and widespread condemnation for what were, in retrospect, fairly mild statements of hesitation. The worst of Faludi’s reviews reprise this theme; according to Mitchko Kakatuni in the New York Times, Faludi’s effort is not only “sloppily reasoned” but gives feminism a “bad name” and is “one of the more nonsensical volumes published about the aftermath of 9-11;”no small feat in a field which includes the resurrection of Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and Niall Fergueson’s Empire.

In fact, the book is not nearly as bad as that. The Terror Dream is impressive in the scope of its documentation of our recent past and in its historical reach. For most readers, the account offers reminders of recent events too easily forgotten, and serves as a primer on a part of American history too often overlooked.

First, Faludi documents the media’s post 9-11 more general campaign to re-domesticate American women apparently otherwise “gone wild”, listing in detail the countless lifestyle, entertainment and even news pieces which extol the virtues of pregnancy, passivity, marriage, motherhood and dependence for women. She homes in on the particular theme of women in need of male rescue—a la The Jessica Lynch Story—linking it to a long tradition of anxious American myth-making, and finding its source on the western frontier, in “captivity narratives” by and about women captured during the long brutal wars of conquest against Native American land and peoples.

During this historical section, Faludi convincingly argues that the myth of feminine passivity on the frontier had to be constructed through a preference for narratives which emphasized captives whose strategies for deliverance relied on Christian humility, physical passivity, and sexual purity. Tales in which captives instead opted for marriage and assimilation into Native American communities, or at the other extreme, those in which women resorted to violent self-defense, fell by the cultural wayside.

It is this latter narrative trajectory which is Faludi’s primary foil for the now mainstream, anti-feminist, rescue narrative. Hannah Duston is Faludi’s anti-hero; a Puritan woman who, abandoned by her husband during an attack on their homestead, escaped her kidnappers through effective, if bloody, use of a hatchet. Her exclusion from America’s foundational frontier myth is symbolized, for Faludi, by the sad state and physical isolation of the one statue raised in her honor.

It is at this juncture that Faludi’s feminism fails to live up to the full potential of its anti-war sensibilities. It is the implicit argument of the book—and its marketing machine—that the anti-feminist backlash following 9-11 helped to ensnare American in our ongoing, ill-advised Iraqi adventure. But, sadly, Faludi’s vision is trapped in the dream it documents; the ongoing war and occupation in Iraq, Iraqis, and even their historical Native American counterparts on the frontier, barely make an appearance in the central analysis of The Terror Dream, existing largely as set pieces whose function is to provoke the racist sexual anxieties of white men past and present.

Given Faludi’s resurrection of Hannah Duston’s cartoonishly violent femininity as an antidote to our collective Terror, one is left to wonder about possible exit strategies from the dreamscape. Duston’s closest modern-day corollary has to be Hillary Clinton’s brand of hard-nosed, pro-war, competence. While her campaign, and Duston’s, may represent a particular brand of Annie-get-your-gun feminism, it offers little hope for the women and men, soldiers and civilians still embroiled in the ongoing horror that is U.S. policy in the Middle East.

One is left wishing that Faludi’s capacity to recognize dreams was a finely tuned to utopia as is to nightmare. Readers may want to approach this book with the intent to expand on Faludi’s limited historical imagination, and with the goal of rethinking America’s past, present and future in ways more open to peaceful possibilities and to American visions not rooted in imperial violence.