Did 9/11 kill feminism?

Writer Susan Faludi sees a connection between terrorism and a return to traditional gender roles.

Because I seem to be one of an ever-dwindling handful of women under 50 who still call themselves feminists (and, therefore, am allowed to make fun of feminists with impunity), let me say this: Anyone who blames the weird, conflicted state of contemporary womanhood on the cultural fallout of 9/11 isn't just burning her bras but smoking them.

Not that Susan Faludi, the prize-winning journalist and author of the just-published book, "The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America," hasn't shoe-horned plenty of compelling evidence around this slightly whacked-out notion.

In a succinct 354 pages (shockingly brief for the normally prolix Faludi), she argues that in the months and years following the 9/11 attacks, the rhetoric surrounding various notions of national security (some of it appropriate, much of it overly simplistic and reactive) enabled the media to more or less announce that the whole nation was returning to traditional values and gender roles.

Citing changes such as the sudden and precipitous drop in the presence of female print journalists and news anchors right after 9/11, or what she saw as a marked upsurge in trend pieces about educated women choosing motherhood over careers, Faludi laments that we have responded "to real threats to our nation by distracting ourselves with imagined threats to femininity and family life" and have "base[d] our security on a mythical male strength that can only measure itself against a mythical female weakness."

One of the few things I'll defend more vigorously than the rights of women is the right of social critics to make sweeping, dangerously elastic connections between ideas that may have as much to do with one another as pegged jeans and North Korea. So I'll admit that I was cheering Faludi on from Page 1. Despite the dissertation-like qualities of her Big Idea -- that the ultra-masculine mythos of the American frontier has long belied a deep shame about not being able to fend off attacks from Indians -- her writing is so deft that the work of many of her ostensible peers (Kate O'Beirne, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, Danielle Crittenden) reads, by comparison, like transcripts from "The View."

That said, I'm not sure that much or even most of what Faludi is putting forth has any basis in reality. As someone who has spent a lot of time thinking about why increasing numbers of American women seem to have whittled their ambitions down to the size of engagement rings and baby booties (or inflated them into silicon breasts or collagen-filled lips), I'm about as rapt an audience as Faludi could hope for. But her assertion that the return of domestic goddesshood is not only a result of post-9/11 psychological vulnerability but actually a media creation didn't fascinate me as much as it made me wish things were that simple.

Anyone who's visited a shopping mall, college campus or a happy hour at TGI Friday's lately may well be under the impression that a sizable portion of the female population has just finished "What Color Is Your Parachute?" and decided their true calling is either in the kitchen or the porn industry. Whether they're wearing skirts the size of handkerchiefs or unabashedly sitting in public places moving their lips as they read books on how to find and marry hedge-fund managers, some members of the species aren't exactly representing themselves with the dignity -- or accuracy -- the gender as a whole deserves.

But is our sartorial and emotional exhibitionism really the result of some kind of terrorism trickle-down effect? Can we blame the media's preoccupation with Britney Spears on Osama bin Laden or President Bush? Should we blame Spears herself? There are, after all, plenty of people who believe exports like her had a hand in making the Islamic world hate us in the first place.

Despite the many wonderful uses of blame, I suspect the real culprit is deeper and more elusive than any single entity. If I recall correctly, before 9/11 teenage girls were dressing just as provocatively, (Spears became an international star in 1999); unmarried women were just as ring-obsessed (the guerrilla dating guide "The Rules" was published in 1995); and the fetishization of the homemaker was arguably at its zenith (1995 was also the year that Martha Stewart, dubbed "the definitive American woman of our time," appeared on the cover of New York Magazine).

So if we can't blame 9/11 for the supposed dismantling of what used to be called "feminist consciousness," what -- or whom -- can we blame?

How about something even scarier than Bin Laden or Bush or Britney? How about anxiety over the word "feminist" itself? If so many women weren't trying so hard to live it down, maybe it would be easier to spot the even greater numbers who (even if they don't say the word) are still holding it up.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com

CHICAGO

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