“It’s easier to be killed by a terrorist than to find a husband over forty,” a man of Meg Ryan’s character Annie said in the 1993 movie “Sleepless in Seattle.” He repeats a statistic that was, at the time, a favorite subject of the media – the dramatic results of a 1986 study of marriage models that had exploded onto magazine covers, television specials and the screens of movie theater. Annie, however, knows better. “That statistic is not true!” she says. “There’s practically an entire book on how that stat isn’t true!” The book in question didn’t even need to be named: it was “Backlash,” by Susan Faludi.
Released in 1991, “Backlash” quickly became an era-defining phenomenon. Faludi (who also wrote for the new yorker) presented a damning methodical assessment of the status of women in Reagan-era America. The gains made by second-wave feminists in the 1970s, she writes, inspired a vicious backlash from protectors of the status quo. After a brief window in which corporate and media interests had sought to commercialize feminism (the period of Virginia Slims’ “You’ve come a long way, baby” commercial), they had instead turned to demonizing single working women, advocating stay-at-home motherhood, and inventing trends like the “new traditionalism”. Whether offered by screenwriters, journalists, politicians or experts with dubious credentials, the backlash often took the form of an insidious double message: first, that feminism had already changed everything and, second, that feminism itself was the reason women were now “miserable.” If a woman of the 80s struggled to balance work and family, for example, it was because feminism had given her the reckless confidence that she could “have it all”. Its difficulties were presented as a sign that the movement had gone too far, not that it still had much to do.
The release of “Backlash” coincided with Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court, and outrage over Anita Hill’s testimony and treatment helped propel Faludi’s book onto the bestseller list. Yet while its resonance with the political moment was clear, “Backlash” was above all a work of media criticism: through advertising, film, television and the news, Faludi cataloged the discrepancies between the stories told and the realities of women’s lives. She focused 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 about 1980s misogyny that only briefly touches on the particular right-wing vilification of black women.) But, where Faludi catches his eye, she goes deep. His approach was cultural analysis bolstered by behind-the-scenes reporting.
This 1986 marriage study caught Faludi’s attention when she was a twenty-six-year-old journalist and gave her the impetus to begin the work that would become “Backlash.” Faludi had seen it on a Newsweek cover, represented by a bridal bouquet next to a plunging graphic: apparently, a college-educated woman who hadn’t married by age thirty had only a twenty percent chance of marrying at all. By age forty, the odds have dropped to 1.3%. Faludi discovered that these figures first surfaced when a Stamford reporter Lawyer contacted Yale’s sociology department looking for numbers to flesh out an article on Valentine’s Day (“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, was quick to acknowledge — was that her “findings” were flawed. They were based on inaccurate assumptions and relied on an unrepresentative data set. (According to Moorman’s calculations, the odds of marriage for this hypothetical thirty-year-old woman were closer to sixty percent.) And the notion that a forty-year-old woman was “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to be married – presented as a fact in Newsweek, and widely taken up as proof that education and independence doomed women to misfortune – was never based on research. “One of the reporters in the office was walking around saying that as a joke,” said a former Newsweek internal told Faludi. “The 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 re-evaluating the study have received little attention. The numbers may have been wrong, but they offered a verdict on the lives of modern women that many Americans were inclined to share. (“This feels true,” a third “Sleepless in Seattle” character says of the terrorist kill statistic.)
Faludi goes on to trace the study movement through cultural blood. “Fatal Attraction,” one of the highest-grossing films of 1987, tells the story of a single, thirty-six-year-old working woman who wreaks murderous havoc after a man rejects her. It was “the psychotic manifestation of Newsweek marriage study,” a studio executive told Faludi. Faludi, however, discovers a startling revelation: the film was originally conceived as feminist. The source material is a short film about a married man who faces his responsibility for causing a stranger’s pain and, when producer Sherry Lansing first watched it, she told Faludi, she was on the side of single women. “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, ready to play, didn’t want to play “a weak and not very heroic character”, remembers the screenwriter. The movie that finally arrived in theaters moved many male viewers to loud displays of misogyny. “Hit the female dog’s face,” shouts a man at a screening Faludi attends; “Kill the female dog,” shouts another. “It’s amazing what an audience participation film is,” Adrian Lyne, the director, told Faludi. “Fatal Attraction” has become a movie that pundits would cite as evidence of real-world sociological trends. The backlash had invented its own proof. Faludi made the connection between the attitudes of a Republican administration and the inability of a demographer to correct the facts, between the vanities of Hollywood men and the vitriol of the public shouting abuse at movie screens. The same year ‘Backlash’ came out, Faludi won a Pulitzer for her the 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 followed how powerful people with particular agendas made choices that reshaped the world around them.
Today, some aspects of Faludi’s “Backlash” argument may seem like artifacts from a distant era of feminist rhetoric. On the one hand, her very white, very heterosexual focus seems distinctly narrow in 2022. Then there’s also the way she comes out in favor of power suits over hyper-feminine high fashion, looks askance at skincare products in general, and considers any claim that cosmetic surgery is somehow empowering as absurd evidence. For a reader accustomed to seeing claimed personal style as a feminist praxis, all of this may be perplexing. But such concerns become, in my view, more compelling in the context of greater anxiety for women’s bodily autonomy. Faludi is wary of any force dictating what women do with their bodies and is aware of the harm such dictates can inflict. This includes fashion brands selling restrictive and impractical clothing and plastic surgeons promoting risky elective surgeries. (Here, too, Faludi takes a look at the statistics. She finds that while the number of plastic surgeons has quintupled since the 1960s, demand hasn’t kept pace—hence the advertisements for procedures and treatment plans. payments multiplying in the magazines of the 1980s.) Above all these concerns, there was of course the question of the right to abortion. Faludi was writing at a time when it was expected that Roe v. Wade falls. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush appointed conservative judges to the federal bench; radical anti-abortion activism was growing in importance and strength. This is what drives Faludi’s distress: the prospect of a world that treats women above all as vessels for procreation.