A significant legacy of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, according to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Susan Faludi, was the return to a distinctly American mythology involving a lone hero and a maiden in need of rescue—the result of years of frontier attacks. Feminism, she contends, was among the first casualties of the war on terrorism: She noticed fewer female bylines, a spate of stories about women falling for firefighters, and an exaltation of a cowboy-hat-wearing commander in chief. Her new book, The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America, discusses the dangers of embracing a national myth.
What changed after 9/11?
What struck me was the strange and fevered dream our country seemed to fall into after 9/11. Our leaders and media seemed fixated on bringing back traditional family arrangements, a John Wayne masculinity, a Doris Day femininity. Consider how the story of "Let's roll" was discussed endlessly, while the stewardess who boiled water to throw on the hijackers was forgotten.
Is that conservative anti-intellectualism or antifeminism?
The two tend to go hand in hand. It seemed to me that rather than deal with the actual threat and taking actual protective measures to make us safer, we turned away from the real stories and reinforced those old stereotypes. That mythology has a gender drama at the center of it, a very particular American mythology: the damsel in distress and a brave and capable man come to rescue her.
How did that originate?
We have a particular history of repeated frontier attacks inside the homestead and repeated failed rescue attempts. Our mythology was created to essentially cover up that vulnerability and the fear and shame that the early settlers felt. As much as we talk about the West being a triumphant conquest, what we're ignoring is the first 200 years of violence. Time and again, male leaders were unable to protect their families in frontier towns. Repeatedly, women defended themselves or, in a remarkable number of cases, chose to live with Indians. It is all these humiliations that the mythology is designed to conceal.
What about the many women who are now in the military?
A culminating event in the post-9/11 world was Jessica Lynch. It shows how we reacted desperately as a culture by rewriting this story into consoling fiction. In the media accounts, she ceased to be a soldier who enlisted and was sent there to do a job. She became a tiny girl who liked pink and talked quietly. The military supposedly braved bloodthirsty fedayeen to rescue her. Of course, there was no battle to rescue her. But the story of the daring raid is very important to us as a culture.
Yet there are many powerful women—Hillary Clinton, for example.
Hillary Clinton is finally a response to where this mythology has led us. The American public is finally asking questions about whether this is where we want to be, in a fantasy spun by political leaders. One of Hillary Clinton's campaign speeches talked about bringing an end to "cowboy diplomacy."
Hasn't the liberation of Muslim women been central to the war on terrorism?
Feminist leaders were getting calls from the White House and State Department in the lead-up to the war in Afghanistan. Eleanor Smeal, head of the Feminist Majority [Foundation], was called to give briefings at the State Department. But it was all over after a couple of weeks into the invasion. The Bush administration was never really interested in liberating women; they knew that the rescue fantasy would appeal to the public at large.
All war is a mythology, to some extent. Was this mythologizing a conscious effort?
It's hard to say. Karl Rove met repeatedly with Hollywood executives to get them to make pro-American movies, which were heavy on John Wayne themes. The Spirit of America [a short Hollywood film about American themes] was the film that came out of those discussions. It featured characters that go out and rescue people.
But Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and 24 were both popular after 9/11.
There's a culture that we wrap ourselves inside like a security blanket; then there are deeper cultural themes. You can look at the stories of women wanting to bake more cookies after 9/11, or all wanting to get married, or the baby boom that was supposed to happen. None of that stuff really happened. But our popular shows tell a different story. 24 is very much a western. There's all this talk on 24 about protecting the family, which turns the terrorist threat into a family protection drama. That is quite striking and central to the American fantasy of hero and victim—ideally a daughter, blond and white.