This is the first in a series of excerpts from The Terror Dream by Susan Faludi.
A couple of weeks into the post-9/11 era, the media declared the “trend” of women lusting after firefighters and the phenomenon became international news, hailed under headlines like “Firefighters Are a Hot Commodity in the Dating Game” and “Firefighters Are Hot, Hot, Hot; Unprecedented Female Admiration.” “Suddenly they’re more desirable than Brad Pitt,” New York announced. “Women are willing to go to great lengths to land one.” The article’s evidence: “one 25 year-old magazine editor,” unnamed, who “told herself that she was doing it for America when she made out with several firemen at the event” and “her friend,” also unnamed, who “donated socks to the cause and then slept with a fireman from Miami.” “Down at New York’s ground zero, the yellow ‘Do Not Cross’ sign has become a veritable velvet rope as stories circulate of scantily clad women vamping it up for the rescue workers,” USA Today asserted. “Lately it seems like every single woman in New York is trying to date a fireman,” said an American correspondent for the British Observer, quoting a Manhattan psychotherapist who claimed, “Firemen today are like the cowboys of yesterday.” Dating one of these “Real Men” is “now as de rigueur as toting the latest Louis Vuitton bag or waxing away stray eyebrow hairs,” the Orange County Register insisted, citing—in circular logic—“culture watchers at The New York Times, USA Today and The New Yorker.”
The idea that hordes of women were drooling over the men in boots was promoted by the purveyors of firefighter calendars (sales of the “2002 Hotlanta Firemen” are “going through the roof,” its merchandiser claimed), matchmakers eager to expand their date pool (“They certainly have a lot more glamour and a lot more of that hero mystique,” the proprietor of Misty River Introductions said), and impresarios at celebrity benefits (Denis Leary, the creator and star of the TV firefighter drama Rescue Me, auctioned off two dates with firemen at a Manhattan fund-raiser with this come-on to grown women: “If you’re a girl, kiss a fireman!”). The promulgators of the lustforfiremen trend were hardly feminists, but their declarations were seized upon as evidence that women were shedding their feminist principles. “In three decades, feminism has done a backflip,” New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote. “Once men in uniform were the oppressors. Now they’re trophy mates. Once cops were pigs. Now they’re foxes.”
Few of the stories offered an actual woman in a romantic relationship with an actual fireman. Or even a onenight stand. On CBS, the Early Show’s Lisa Birnbach quizzed Mara Brandon, a massage therapist who had volunteered her services at the local fire station:
BIRNBACH: The firemen are cute. I would—I would massage one.
BRANDON: Oh, yeah. Oh, definitely.
BIRNBACH: Did you do any single firemen?
BRANDON: No. No.
At the Orange County Register, reporter Emily Bittner got around the noexamples problem by paying a fireman to take her on a date. (The newspaper picked up the tab.) After a detour to the nail salon (“When my pedicurist asked what color to paint my toenails, I knew to answer, Fireengine red”), she hurried over to the Santa Ana fire station armed with “a wad of $20s” to meet “my Real Man.” Firefighter Jorge Vargas, whom she described as “5-foot-9, weighs 185 and is pure muscle,” took Bittner out “in his 2001 Ford Ranger—fire-engine red.” If his habits weren’t as macho as she had envisioned—her first sight of him was “washing breakfast dishes” and his restaurant choice was a sushi bar—she assured her readers he fulfilled all the requirements of a dream date. “All day I’d wondered whether the Real Man could kiss. All I can say is wow, can he ever.”