The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America

By SUSAN FALUDI

In the febrile days after September 11th, the United States was gripped with a collective psychosis about gender roles. Apparently lusting for a national father figure, a great many Americans hallucinated some crazy amalgam of John Wayne and Jesus in the blank smirk of our hapless president. Pundits crowed about the return of square-jawed and taciturn manly men and predicted, with scarcely disguised relish, that women would race back to home and hearth. And as Susan Faludi argues in her new book, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, those who declined to play damsel in distress were excoriated with a fury far exceeding the anger directed at male critics of the new militarism.

In The Terror Dream, Faludi aims to elucidate the subterranean sexual politics underlying the country’s recent hysteria. On the surface, after all, it’s rather odd that, in fighting an enemy obsessed with policing the boundary between men and women, America would give itself over to the same fixation. “Of all the peculiar responses our culture manifested to 9/11, perhaps none was more incongruous than the desire to rein in a liberated female population,” Faludi writes. “In some murky fashion, women’s independence had become implicated in our nation’s failure to protect itself.” Faludi’s explanation for this phenomenon — that the attacks recapitulated the primal trauma of settlers vulnerable to Indian attacks — isn’t entirely convincing, though it’s to her considerable credit that it seems much less far-fetched by the end of the book than it does at the beginning. One doesn’t have to buy her thesis, though, to be engrossed by her exploration of the way myths of virile, capable men and meek, needy women have functioned to reassure an anxious nation whenever it’s been threatened.

For anyone who has forgotten just how shrill the national mood was just a few short years ago, The Terror Dream offers abundant reminders. The day of the attacks, Faludi got phone call from a reporter doing a story about how the tragedy would affect America’s social fabric. Taking a “bizarrely gleeful tone,” he announced, “Well, this sure pushes feminism off the map!” “In the ensuing days,” she writes, “I would receive more calls from journalists on the 9/11 ‘social fabric’ beat, bearing more proclamations of gender restructuring — among them a New York Times reporter researching an article on ‘the return of the manly man’ and a New York Observer writer seeking comment on ‘the trend’ of women ‘becoming more feminine after 9/11.’ By which, as she made clear, she meant less feminist.” Pundits predicted a baby boom but kept having to push back the due date when it failed to appear. At the same time, one commentator after another pilloried the women’s movement for essentially castrating the country and leaving it open to attack. Dissenting women — from Susan Sontag to the Dixie Chicks — would be met with barrages of sexualized rage. (As Faludi writes, liberal Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter “charged the ‘haughty’ Sontag with dressing the nation in girl’s clothes. It was ‘ironic,’ he wrote, that ‘the same people urging us to not blame the victim in rape cases are now saying Uncle Sam wore a short skirt and asked for it.’ “) More insidiously, as Faludi documents, women in general largely vanished from the op-ed pages and the TV talk shows. In the weeks after the attacks, the number of women on the New York Times op-ed page fell from 23 percent to 10 percent, with even more precipitous drops in other publications. For the first half of 2002, she reports, more than 75 percent of Sunday talk shows on CBS, Fox, and NBC featured no female guests at all.

Meanwhile, America’s leaders (the ones whose negligence actually left the country vulnerable) were envisioned as any army of ?bermenschen. Newsweek called Bush America’s “dragon slayer” and “a boyish knight in a helmet of graying hair.” That magazine’s Howard Fineman turned the president’s compulsive exercising — which in a woman would surely be interpreted as a sign of vanity and frivolity — into the mark of a warrior, calling him “a fighting machine who has dropped 15 pounds and cut his time in the mile to seven minutes.” Other publications hymned the studliness of Donald Rumsfeld (a “babe magnet,” according to Fox) and Rudy Giuliani (“Tower of Strength,” trilled a Time headline). To read these purple panegyrics is to remember that before the blustering jingoism of Stephen Colbert was farce, it was tragedy. For this country, the consequences of such madness have been severe — the war in Iraq, the ire of the world, and the general debasement of the political atmosphere. Truths that refused to conform to the country’s heroic fantasy were twisted and suppressed — witness the sordid lies told about soldiers like Pat Tillman and Jessica Lynch. Grappling with the cultural factors that made America so susceptible to what Faludi calls the “terror dream” is an important job, and one that the author, who scythed through countless anti-feminist canards in her classic book Backlash, seems uniquely suited for.

Unfortunately, her new book doesn’t totally succeed. While she provides enormously interesting insights and crucial bits of recovered history, her central argument just doesn’t hold up. Faludi traces the country’s irrational response to 9/11 to the buried shame of the frontier, when fathers frequently failed to protect their families from Indian raids and women embarrassed men with their self-sufficiency. “The humiliating residue still circulates in our cultural bloodstream, awaiting provocation to bring it to the surface,” she writes. Only when this primal wound is healed, Faludi suggests, can the country move forward.

Her explanation of the way mythmakers rewrote the history of the frontier to valorize men and diminish women is fascinating — especially when she documents the evolution of the historical narrative that inspired The Searchers, the 1954 novel by Alan Le May that later became an iconic film starring John Wayne. (She takes her title from a passage in the book.) Both were based on the ordeal of Cynthia Ann Parker, kidnapped by Comanche warriors as a child. In real life, she was taken in part because her bumbling family failed to protect her. She eventually adopted a Comanche name, married, and had children before being bought back to settler society, very much against her will, by James Parker, a self-promoting uncle with a criminal background. She tried desperately to run away and return to her Comanche family; unable to, she eventually starved herself to death.

Faludi shows how a series of fabulists would turn this grim tale into a story of stoic white male valor, feminine helplessness and Indian savagery (although, in making her case, she downplays the film’s ambiguities). “John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers bears little resemblance to the feckless James W. Parker, on whom he is thinly modeled; while they share a shady past, Edwards outlawry is Confederate-heroic and, unlike his progenitor, Edwards is the consummate effective protector,” she writes. Such revisionism, Faludi argues, is typical of America’s broader encounter with its settler history. She suggests our macho archetypes — the frontiersman and the cowboy — are devices the culture uses to cover up the memory of male insufficiency and terror.

Going further, she draws fascinating parallels between Cynthia Ann Parker and Jessica Lynch. “Like Lynch, Cynthia Ann Parker was a young white woman who fell hostage during a bloody battle and was subsequently held in the desert by people her countrymen viewed as rapacious non-Christian murderers, until she was rescued in a gunfight trumpeted later as heroic, though it was not,” she writes. “As with Lynch, her plight was misconstrued, for her ‘captors’ were people who meant her no harm and for whom she held no animosity. As with Lynch, her fabricated rescue would be played and replayed in breathless newspaper accounts.”

That’s persuasive, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that memories of settler terror, buried in our national subconscious, account for the country’s response to September 11th. The United States is far from the first country in the world to react to national crisis with an outbreak of extreme social conservatism. In times of deep stress, it’s common for societies to become more rigid in their gender roles and determined to resurrect an imaginary heroic past. The scholar Roger Griffin has described the mobilizing vision of all fascist movements as “that of the national community rising phoenix-like after a period of encroaching decadence which all but destroyed it.” (His italics.) This is not to say that the United States has gone fascist — only that the American right was acting the way that many ascendant right-wing movements have acted before.

The cultural signifiers change — America naturally invoked cowboys instead of Norse gods or samurais — but the broader pattern is sadly constant. Thus Faludi’s hope that reckoning with “the original trauma that produced our national myth” will lead to more progressive policies is unrealistic. Whatever it is that makes people respond to calamity by frantically asserting a brittle sexual dichotomy, it goes even deeper than our own half-forgotten history.