Jamilah Lemieux, Ann Friedman, and Heather Havrilesky

“Hey Ladies! Blame Yourself for Society’s Ills!”

Matter and MSNBC.com are rereading
Susan Faludi’s feminist classic, Backlash. Here’s
our conversation on Chapter 12.

“In the first half of the ’80s, the advice experts told women they suffered from bloated egos and a ‘fear of intimacy’; in the second half, they informed women that atrophied egos and ‘codependency’ were now their problems. In the decade’s war on women, these popular psychologists helped fire the opening shots—then rushed to the battlefield to bandage the many wounds.” — Susan Faludi, Backlash, “Chapter 12 — It’s All in Your Mind: Popular Psychology Joins the Backlash.”

Ann Friedman (a freelance writer in L.A.): The self-help industry sits directly at the intersection of the personal and political. In Faludi’s recounting, “Change your politics, change your life!” was the primary advice directed at women in the 1980s. The backlash-era feminized self-help movement presented both a tidy explanation for women’s unhappiness — it was the result of too much liberation — and a DIY solution. Your feminist impulses have made it tough for you to feel fulfilled at work and in your relationships, the argument went, so abandon your illusions of equality to find happiness.

While I loved judging the dewy-eyed, shoulder-padded poster women for re-feminization, I feel like Faludi also overstates the benefits of connecting one’s personal dilemmas with broader societal problems. Sure, it helps to hear that your daily struggles are rooted in complex and widespread issues that are bigger than you. But leaving an abusive relationship or dealing with a boorish boss at work? These are still individual battles. Faludi seems to present ’70s consciousness-raising groups — which she describes as free and accessible to all, when really they were mostly for women with privileged social connections and time to spare on meetings — as a better self-help solution than gurus on the speakers’ circuit. Maybe so — supportive friendships are indeed transformative. But even if you’re plugged into a supportive community that makes you feel less crazy or alone, you’re still going to have to figure out how to leave that partner or get the raise you deserve. Sometimes you’re going to want to look beyond your community for help.

Faludi writes that the advice writers who targeted women in the ’80s encouraged women “to learn to fit the mold rather than break it.” While I would be the last person to argue that conformity will be our collective salvation, I also know it’s exhausting to think of every personal struggle as a battlefront in a war for women’s equality, wherein one traditional decision can somehow set all women back by decades. Many younger feminist writers have written about the shame they’ve felt about their conventional desires to meet a man or lose weight — things that the mainstream self-help movement wants for them, but are the very molds that their feminist impulses tell them to break. Or, to take a different example, I know a few successful women who say a little bit of flirting in the workplace can go a long way. If those women ultimately use this decidedly non-Sandberg-endorsed tactic and end up with a dream job, are they playing by the rules of the backlash or did the just score a feminist victory? It can be hard to tell. As long as women with feminist beliefs live in a world that is anything but, there will always be a desire for advice to help navigate it. And maybe sometimes mold-breaking is not the answer.

Heather Havrilesky (Ask Polly columnist for The Cut): I’m pretty sure my divorced mom owned both Smart Women / Foolish Choices and Women Who Love Too Much, and both struck me as insightful, yes, but also the clear territory of world-weary divorced women who wore tinted Barbra Streisand glasses and muttered profanities about their ex-husbands after their third glass of Riunite rosé.

It’s strange, because I never saw the ’80s self-help movement as existing on a continuum with every other, “Hey Ladies! Blame Yourself For Society’s Ills!” paradigm, until now. But as easy as it is to throw all of these sobbing, boxed-wine drinkers in a room together and lament that they’re blaming their own attraction to addicts and narcissistic lotharios on society instead of burning their bras and marching in the streets, I feel like Faludi willfully overlooks the cultural sea change therein. The realization that you could be unknowingly replicating the dysfunctional dynamics of your family of origin—probably best known from the John Bradshaw books about adult children of alcoholics—didn’t really leak into the mainstream until the mid ’80s. And while it’s true that the message here—“It’s your fault! You chose that abusive husband!”—is exactly as insidious and regressive as every other message women got from mainstream culture, before and since, pointing your finger squarely at this admittedly clumsy process of empowerment seems a little harsh. Faludi can argue that these women aren’t leaving their abusive husbands, they’re blaming themselves for choosing them and staying put anyway. But I think late-1980s divorce statistics tell a different story.

To be clear, I absolutely buy the argument that female empowerment gurus had a bad habit of blaming the shoulder-padded fish while ignoring the deeply fucked, insidiously sexist sea they were swimming in. As an advice columnist, I often find myself telling women, “Look around you, at the poison we eat and drink and breathe, before you fault yourself for feeling inadequate or confused or unsure when you assert yourself.” What’s really alarming is how little the culture has evolved since the ’80s. Knotty societal troubles are repeatedly recast as women’s troubles, and dissatisfaction or discontent is always explained away as the result of individual women making stupid choices, rather than examined through the lens of social reproduction or systemic failures.

Still, I sometimes found Faludi’s rhetorical style argumentative to the point of being reductive. When she explains that Susan Norwood, author of Women Who Love Too Much, “moved to a cottage by the sea, and retreated into a shell-like existence” after the failure of her third supposedly great marriage to a nice “boring” guy, that sounded just like a typically unfair, backlashy story about a single woman. Can’t a former guru get a little peace and quiet? Who wants to stay on the speaking tour after failed marriage number three? Are any of us above failed marriages?

So I agree with you, Ann, about Faludi’s high expectations of women. Even though “consciousness raising” is never really Norwood’s goal, stated or unstated, Faludi insists that it’s the ideal (for all women, in every profession?), and then she writes, “But Norwood was very much alone—more alone, in fact, than when she began her treatment. So, too, were some of the ‘codependent’ women in treatment who took their dolls home and slammed the doors behind them.” Who’s infantilizing women now, Susan?

Obviously it took Faludi a giant head of rhetorical steam to power through this formidable feminist tome. But she does have a habit of making her point clearly and then undercutting her own message by twisting the knife for no reason. Ironically, it’s not hard to imagine profiles of Faludi with the same unfair angle: “Where is Susan Faludi now? Why, she’s taken her feminist ideals home and slammed the door behind her—to work on a book about men!” Women shouldn’t be expected to perfectly embody their ideals or wage an endless battle against injustice any more than men are. We don’t do ourselves any favors when we expect too much of each other, and disrespect each other’s personal choices along the way.

But mostly what I felt after reading this chapter was a deep longing for a cottage by the sea. Maybe that’s the modern, high capitalist equivalent of A Room of One’s Own: “A woman must have a cottage by the sea and a shell-like existence if she is to write fiction.” Mmm, shell-like existence. Very much alone. Yes!

Jamilah Lemieux (Senior Digital Editor at Ebony): I definitely recall seeing Smart Women, Foolish Choices on my mother’s bookshelf while growing up and feeling rubbed the wrong way for reasons I couldn’t articulate. I’m rather certain that even the most grim of predictions from Faludi and other critics of the self-help industry could not have seen the rise of today’s most trusted voice in the field of helping untamed women find the happiness they deserve: Steve Harvey. I would like to meet the person who could’ve predicted that; they probably could guess the Powerball.

I agree with Faludi’s overall sentiments about the self-help mafia and their predilection for getting women to shell out big bucks to be told what a mess of their lives they’ve made for violating certain norms and stepping out of “a woman’s place.” (Might the purchase of these books count as a masochist fetish? Dr. Toni Grant may agree.) Still, Faludi seems to delight too much in handing down a very heavy-handed, high-minded standard for feminism, and it doesn’t leave room for flirting your way to success. Or resist taking a shot at a divorcee for needing a cottage by the sea.

For all that I appreciate about Backlash, it’s almost a case study in the flaws of talking feminism without grounding it in any attempt at being intersectional (or simply acknowledging your limitations in being able to do so). Did any black female authors get in on this self-help explosion of the ’80s? Were women of color as rapt by these books as white women? I probably shouldn’t take my greater frustration with the book out on Chapter 12, but it nagged me the entire time. Susan Faludi is mad white, yo.

Speaking specifically about black women, we were certainly exposed to that same 1980s explosion of anti-feminist self-help gobbledy gook dressed up as women’s empowerment, but I think the idea that we make a mess of our lives when we prioritize achievement, career, and independence over our “responsibility” to create families is an accusation that has been lobbed toward us more recently than it was in the past. And even for the suggestions that black women have destroyed the black family thanks to feminism (which is crazy for more reasons than I can name here), I don’t think we have been told that we would be happier if we abandoned the whole liberated woman bit so much as we’ve been ordered to just get our shit together and serve our men.

I really got a chuckle from the exploration of Dr. Toni Grant’s condemnations of “feminist infected” women. From the suggestion that masochism is an inherent feminine trait (or, perhaps, our responsibility), her appropriation of the phrase “feminine mystique,”…I almost wish she still had a show so I could hate-listen to it. She said she was going to reemerge like Coco Chanel, and I feel duped.

Encountering Backlash for the first time during the increasingly visible public conversation about black feminism/ists is certainly… appropriate. I wonder how some of the pro-black, anti-feminist folks who attack myself and others would feel knowing that they are parroting someone like Grant almost word for word. Maybe I will call my book Blacklash, and it will be about getting your ass kicked from both sides for the dual crimes of being black and a woman. (I kid, but I predict that a black Republican will use this exact title in the next two years. Oh, and do NOT tell Tyler Perry about Women Who Marry Down and End Up Having It All, that will undoubtedly become his next movie.)

I’d be interested in reading a Backlash­-inspired volume of essays by contemporary feminist writers about the new new wave of resistance to and attacks on our values. Faludi has certainly produced a meaningful tome that rings largely true today and a richer, more diverse exploration of the anti-us would be a powerful follow-up.

Lots of ways to read along and join in: Post your own Backlash response on Medium/MSNBC.com, tweet at @readmatter with #BacklashBookClub, or comment on MSNBC.com. We’ll be featuring some of your posts and tweets as we go.

Read more of the Backlash Book Club, featuring Tressie McMillan Cottom, Salamishah Tillet, Adam Serwer, and others.

Illustrations by Hannah K. Lee