The Real Backlash Never Ended

“It’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than it is to find a husband over the age of forty,” a man tells Meg Ryan’s character, Annie, in the 1993 movie “Sleepless in Seattle.” He’s parroting a statistic that was, at the time, a favored object of media hand-wringing—the dramatic results of a 1986 study on marriage patterns that had exploded onto magazine covers, TV-news specials, and movie screens. Annie, however, knows better. “That statistic is not true!” she says. “There is practically a whole book about how that statistic is not true!” The book in question didn’t even need to be named: it was “Backlash,” by Susan Faludi.

Published in 1991, “Backlash” had quickly become an era-defining phenomenon. Faludi (who has also written for The New Yorker) presented a damningly methodical assessment of women’s status in Reagan-era America. The gains made by second-wave feminists in the nineteen-seventies, she wrote, had inspired a vicious reaction from the protectors of the status quo. After a brief window in which corporate and media interests had sought to commercialize feminism (the period of the “You’ve come a long way, baby” Virginia Slims ad), they’d turned instead to demonizing single working women, extolling stay-at-home motherhood, and inventing trends like the “new traditionalism.” Whether offered up by screenwriters, journalists, politicians, or dubiously credentialled experts, backlash attitudes often took the form of an insidious twofold message: first, that feminism had already changed everything, and, second, that feminism itself was the reason that women were now “miserable.” If a woman in the eighties struggled to balance work and family, for example, that was because feminism had given her the foolhardy confidence to think that she could “have it all.” Her difficulties were cast as a sign that the movement had gone too far—not that it still had far to go.

The publication of “Backlash” coincided with the confirmation of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, and outrage over Anita Hill’s testimony and her treatment helped propel Faludi’s book onto the best-seller list. Yet, while its resonance with the political moment was clear, “Backlash” was foremost a work of media criticism: across advertising, movies, TV, and news, Faludi catalogued the gaps between the stories being spun and the realities of women’s lives. She focussed on the loudest voices in public life and the people they saw as their audience, a slice of the population that was overwhelmingly white, middle class, and straight. (This is a book on nineteen-eighties misogyny that only briefly touches on the right’s particular vilification of Black women.) But, where Faludi trains her attention, she goes deep. Her approach was cultural analysis fortified by behind-the-scenes reporting.

That 1986 marriage study caught Faludi’s eye when she was a twenty-six-year-old reporter, and gave her the push to begin the work that would become “Backlash.” Faludi had seen it on a Newsweek cover, represented by a bridal bouquet beside a plunging graph: apparently, a college-educated woman who hadn’t married by age thirty had only a twenty-per-cent chance of getting married at all. By age forty, the odds dropped to 1.3 per cent. Faludi discovered that these figures had first surfaced when a reporter at the Stamford Advocate contacted the Yale sociology department looking for numbers to beef up a Valentine’s Day article (“Romance: Is It In or Out?”). The research was unfinished and unpublished, but soon it was everywhere. The problem—which Jeanne Moorman, a Census Bureau demographer, quickly recognized—was that its “findings” were wrong. They rested on inaccurate assumptions and drew on an unrepresentative data set. (By Moorman’s calculations, the marriage odds for that hypothetical thirty-year-old woman were closer to sixty per cent.) And the notion that a forty-year-old woman was “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to get married—presented as fact in Newsweek, and taken up widely as proof that education and independence doomed women to unhappiness—was never grounded in research at all. “One of the bureau reporters was going around saying it as a joke,” a former Newsweek intern told Faludi. “Next thing we knew, one of the writers in New York took it seriously and it ended up in print.” Moorman attempted to correct the record, but her superiors at the Census Bureau discouraged her in the name of avoiding “controversy.” Follow-up stories reëvaluating the study received little attention. The numbers might have been bogus, but they offered a verdict on modern women’s lives that many Americans were inclined to share. (“It feels true,” a third “Sleepless in Seattle” character says of the killed-by-a-terrorist stat.)

Faludi goes on to trace the study’s movement through the cultural bloodstream. “Fatal Attraction,” one of the top-grossing movies of 1987, told the story of a single thirty-six-year-old working woman who wreaks homicidal havoc after a man rejects her. It was “the psychotic manifestation of the Newsweek marriage study,” a studio executive told Faludi. Faludi, however, uncovers a startling revelation: the movie was originally conceived as feminist. The source material is a short film about a married man who faces his responsibility for causing a stranger pain, and, when the producer Sherry Lansing first watched it, she told Faludi, she was on the single woman’s side. “That’s what I wanted to convey in our film. I wanted the audience to feel great empathy for the woman.” But the studio wanted the woman to be more predatory, and Michael Douglas, set to star, didn’t want to play “some weak unheroic character,” the screenwriter recalled. The film that finally arrived in theatres moved many male viewers to displays of boisterous misogyny. “Punch the bitch’s face in,” yells one man at a screening Faludi attends; “Kill the bitch,” yells another. “It’s amazing what an audience-participation film it’s turned out to be,” Adrian Lyne, the director, told Faludi. “Fatal Attraction” became a movie that experts would go on to cite as evidence of real-world sociological trends. The backlash had invented its own proof. Faludi connected the dots—between the attitudes of a Republican Administration and a demographer’s inability to correct the facts, between the vanities of Hollywood men and the vitriol of audiences shouting abuse at movie screens. The same year “Backlash” came out, Faludi won a Pulitzer for her Wall Street Journal reporting on the effect a leveraged buyout of a supermarket chain had on tens of thousands of workers. In both cases, she tracked the way powerful people with particular agendas made choices that reshaped the world around them.

Today, certain aspects of Faludi’s “Backlash” argument can seem like artifacts of a distant era in feminist rhetoric. For one thing, her very white and very heterosexual focus seems markedly narrow in 2022. Then, too, there’s the way she comes out swinging in favor of power suits over hyper-feminine high fashion, looks askance at skin-care products generally, and regards any claim that cosmetic surgery is somehow empowering as self-evidently absurd. To a reader accustomed to seeing personal style claimed as feminist praxis, this may all be perplexing. But such concerns become, to my eye, more compelling in the context of a larger anxiety for women’s bodily autonomy. Faludi is wary of any force that would dictate what women do with their bodies, and alert to the harm such dictates can inflict. This includes fashion brands selling restrictive and impractical clothing and plastic surgeons promoting risky elective surgery. (Here, too, Faludi takes a look at the statistics. She finds that, while the number of plastic surgeons had quintupled since the nineteen-sixties, demand had failed to keep pace—hence the ads for procedures and payment plans multiplying in the magazines of the nineteen-eighties.) Looming over all these concerns, of course, was the question of abortion rights. Faludi was writing at a moment when Roe v. Wade was widely expected to fall. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush were appointing conservative judges to the federal bench; radical anti-abortion activism was gaining prominence and strength. This is what animates Faludi’s distress: the prospect of a world that treats women as vessels for childbearing above all.

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