JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier

JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier

by Steven Watts


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From very early on in his career, John F. Kennedy’s allure was more akin to a movie star than a presidential candidate. Why were Americans so attracted to Kennedy in the late 1950s and early 1960s—his glamorous image, good looks, cool style, tough-minded rhetoric, and sex appeal?

As Steve Watts argues, JFK was tailor made for the cultural atmosphere of his time. He benefited from a crisis of manhood that had welled up in postwar America when men had become ensnared by bureaucracy, softened by suburban comfort, and emasculated by a generation of newly-aggressive women. Kennedy appeared to revive the modern American man as youthful and vigorous, masculine and athletic, and a sexual conquistador. His cultural crusade involved other prominent figures, including Frank Sinatra, Norman Mailer, Ian Fleming, Hugh Hefner, Ben Bradlee, Kirk Douglas, and Tony Curtis, who collectively symbolized masculine regeneration.

JFK and the Masculine Mystique is not just another standard biography of the youthful president. By examining Kennedy in the context of certain books, movies, social critiques, music, and cultural discussions that framed his ascendancy, Watts shows us the excitement and sense of possibility, the optimism and aspirations, that accompanied the dawn of a new age in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250049988
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 11/08/2016
Pages: 432
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

STEVEN WATTS is an award-winning professor of history at the University of Missouri. He has been a consultant and on-screen expert for several documentaries appearing on PBS, the History Channel, NBC, CNBC, CBS, Bloomberg News, and Fox.

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JFK and the Masculine Mystique

Sex and Power on the New Frontier

By Steven Watts

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Steven Watts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5115-3



In November 1958, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. published an urgent essay in Esquire. This influential man of letters had ranged widely through American public life over the previous twenty years. A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian at Harvard, he had made his mark with massive presidential studies, The Age of Jackson (1945) and The Age of Roosevelt (1957–1960). A political writer, social critic, and political activist, he had published magazine pieces on a host of contemporary issues as well as polemical books about contemporary politics such as The Vital Center (1949) and What About Communism? (1950). An operator in the Democratic Party, he had led the liberal anti-Communist movement that purged the party of leftist radicals in the late 1940s, helped found Americans for Democratic Action shortly thereafter, and played a key role advising the presidential candidacies of Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956.

In other words, when this public intellectual spoke, people tended to listen. Intelligent, articulate, ambitious, and effervescent, with his oval-shaped glasses and jaunty bow tie, Schlesinger was firmly ensconced among the American intelligentsia and had his finger on the pulse of the country's public life. Now, he insisted, the United States stood in the throes of a crisis. But this was no emergency involving the Cold War, or civil rights, or a floundering national economy. Instead, according to the title of his piece, it involved a "crisis of American masculinity."

By the middle of the twentieth century, Schlesinger argued, "the male role had plainly lost its clarity of outline. Today men are more and more conscious of maleness not as a fact but as a problem." Men were now performing tasks once relegated to women — "changing diapers, washing dishes, cooking meals" — while growing numbers of females were becoming doctors, lawyers, bankers, and executives. In this scene where a "blurring of function" had become the norm, women had emerged as an "expanding, aggressive force, seizing new domains like a conquering army," while men adopted a defensive posture "hardly able to hold their own and gratefully accepting assignments from their new rulers." In addition, it was no accident "that homosexuality, that incarnation of sexual ambiguity, should be enjoying a cultural boom new in our history." Thus an important question loomed: "What has unmanned the American man?"

Schlesinger noted that the fashionable answer to this question pointed to the aggressive nature of modern women and a growing "feminization of American society." But such an explanation was too pat, too simplistic, too unrealistic, he contended. Instead, an understanding of male malaise could only be reached by digging deeper. In Schlesinger's words, "Why is the American man so unsure today about his masculine identity? The basic answer to this is surely because he is so unsure about his identity in general." He explained that the growth of a democratic society had steadily substituted opportunity and fluidity for traditional community and stable social roles; that postwar technological development and economic growth had fostered bureaucracies and the ideal of the "organization man"; that modern suburban life had elevated "adjustment" into the greatest social ideal. This cluster of developments, the author lamented, had created a process wherein people felt uprooted and adrift, and the "loss of a sense of identity is obviously a fundamental step in the decay of masculinity."

Schlesinger was no lone voice crying in the wilderness. In fact, during the late 1950s a chorus of complaints about masculine degeneration sounded from all corners of American life. Many of them picked up on themes identified by Schlesinger, while others pointed to different culprits in the social, cultural, and economic circumstances defining the contemporary scene. But they all agreed on a central point: the modern American man was in trouble.

Look, for example, a very popular middle-class magazine of the period, presented an extensive and gloomy analysis in a three-part series in early 1958 titled "The American Male." It unfolded one long tale of woe. Look's essential argument was that "in the years since the end of World War II he has changed radically and dangerously; that he is no longer the masculine, strong-minded man who pioneered the continent and built America's greatness." The first installment detailed the growing domination of women over men in family life, the workplace, and society and pointed to a resulting flurry of problems — fatigue, passivity, anxiety, impotency, lesser life span — that laid men low. It inspired a plaintive warning from a female psychiatrist, Dr. Irene Josselyn: "We are drifting toward a social structure made up of he-women and she-men."

The second installment explored the pressures for conformity that pressed in upon millions of middle-class males as they labored in a milieu that stressed the virtues of fitting in. Working for a corporation or other large entity, likely living in a suburb, probably attending a comfortable middle-class church, the American male faced daily an overarching standard: "If the individual does not fit the mold, he is 'maladjusted.'" In postwar America, such social pressures (reinforced by the scientific vogue for psychology) made clear that the modern man "had his single duty: adjust." As a result, the American male "was not really happy. ... He had lost his individuality." The third installment examined men's work life and the contemporary "rat race." The frantic pursuit of productivity and advancement during the workday, and equally frantic pursuit of leisure in the off-hours, had enlisted nearly every life activity in the service of getting ahead. In this pressurized atmosphere, escalating stress was inevitable: "The American male is working much of the time he is not sleeping. And judging from the growing consumption of tranquilizers, barbiturates, and alcohol — to say nothing of the sale of how-to-relax books — he seems to be working pretty hard at sleeping too."

Look offered no dramatic solution to this masculine crisis, only advising men to slow down, relax, and search for perspective and equilibrium in their endeavors. "The answer," it concluded rather haltingly, "is for the American male to grow up emotionally so that he can learn to live with the pressures of this society and balance the demands of job, community, and home without ruining his health and disposition. This is a large order." It was indeed, and strikingly short on specifics.

Other publications sounded similar warnings about the degeneration of modern manhood. In a special issue of May 1957, Cosmopolitan, a popular family magazine in the 1950s, noted that many critics viewed modern men as "worried, harried, and insecure, and they base their arguments on the very factors that have taken him so far on the road to success — his drive to get ahead, his urge to do everything better, his inability to relax easily." Modern American males, the magazine posited, were caught between an old-fashioned model of male behavior based on "brawn, bravado, toughness, sternness, and stoicism" and modern demands for gentler qualities such as "sympathy, kindness, tenderness, softness, sentimentality and refinement." The modern male life cycle, it concluded, had become a depressing series of crises ranging from adolescent torment over girls and future career to middle-aged restlessness over the restraints of family and job to old-age depression over retirement and vanishing usefulness.

Woman's Home Companion, in an article titled "Uncertain Hero: The Paradox of the American Male," argued that many contemporary men had been denied a sphere of vigorous action and had become "uncertain and ill at ease in a world that robs [them] of [their] chance of heroism." Sitting behind his office desk or sprawled in an easy chair at home, he yearned to somehow recapture the robust masculinity of a younger America when men were building railroads, draining swamps, erecting cabins and fencing the land, and protecting their families with firearms when necessary. It would be wise, the article concluded, if modern society would quit inhibiting "certain deep and perfectly normal masculine drives." This rhetoric of male crisis, in fact, became a mainstay in a wide range of publications. Today's Health offered grave warnings about "the suicidal cult of manliness," while The New York Times Magazine, in a piece by the noted anthropologist Margaret Mead, warned that modern social arrangements had "hamstrung the men." The professional journal Marriage and Family Living explored "the new burdens of masculinity" that had arisen from the disjuncture between traditional expectations regarding male behavior and new conditions, and the subsequent "difficulties in establishing a satisfying new role."

Hollywood contributed to the portrait of modern male malaise in a parade of popular films that featured lost, degenerate masculine figures. In Rebel Without a Cause (1955), an anguished adolescent, James Dean, yearns for a model of male behavior as he confronts his emasculated father, Jim Backus, tongue-tied and memorably outfitted in a frilly apron, and pleads, "What can you do when you have to be a man?" In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Tennessee Williams created in Brick Pollitt a memorable protagonist who refuses to embrace any of the standard male roles — father, husband, son — and takes to alcohol as he wrestles with the "unnatural love" of homosexual urges. Some Like It Hot (1959) offered a comedic version of male disarray in a clever story starring Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Marilyn Monroe. This male masquerade of gender role-playing features Lemmon and Curtis pretending to be women, complete with dresses and makeup and vampy gestures, to save themselves from mobsters after witnessing a gangland killing. The pair subsequently, and hilariously, become entangled in various difficulties and romances with both men and women as they scramble to avoid detection. Drifting wildly atop these crosscurrents of gender confusion, Lemmon and Curtis represented a marked, if humorous, decline from the strong, masculine image of an earlier era.

What were the underlying causes of this festering social problem? Analysts pointed to several sources. For many critics, the roots of masculine degeneration lay entangled in what was perhaps the distinguishing structure of modern American life: the large, complex organizations that increasingly dominated business, labor, education, and government by the mid-twentieth century. Bureaucracies, many commentators feared, while undergirding much of the productivity and prosperity of contemporary society, had also emerged as a scourge of modern manhood.

* * *

As part of its series "The American Male" in 1958, Look magazine took a hard look at the work life of the typical modern, middle-class man. Most men now worked a forty-hour week in an office or organization in a job that, admittedly, seemed leisurely compared with the physical grind of farm labor, craft production, or assembly-line toil of an earlier generation. But at the same time, work in postwar America had taken on a new burden as it became the foundation for both a "career" and an abundant standard of living. Taking into account commuting time, entertaining for business rather than enjoyment, honing your "personality" for white-collar advancement, serving on committees and boards to maintain your community reputation, laboring to be a good husband and father, and embracing the "active leisure" that denoted a worthwhile and fulfilled life, the very idea of work had broadened dramatically. And it seemed to never stop. When one considered "the sum total of energy-consuming, tension-building activities to which he devotes himself," concluded Look, the "American male is working at something much of the time he is not sleeping."

The magazine put its finger on an issue that troubled many who were proclaiming a masculinity crisis in the late 1950s. For many men in postwar America, the nature and quality of modern work had emerged as a powerful problem in daily life. The key influence, of course, was the increasing domination of large bureaucracies in industry, marketing, retail business, government, education, and medicine that provided the bulk of white-collar, executive-style jobs. Millions of middle-class men, whose families were flocking to the suburbs of America's cities, were now laboring in these bureaucratic structures and enjoying the fruits of a generous salary. Moreover, their earnings had become the basis of a booming consumer economy as postwar America turned its massive capacities from the war effort to peacetime abundance. But it soon became clear that the material blessings of bureaucratic labor had come at a heavy emotional price. Unfamiliar burdens emerged that prompted resentment and unhappiness among many men and fear among some.

The characteristic of modern work that most obviously troubled men was its frantic, unrelenting pace. A mid-decade study of white-collar workers gave form to such an impression. It examined several hundred executives and concluded that the great majority worked between fifty and sixty hours a week; when they did go home, it was often to a "branch office"; and pursuit of leisure hobbies was often measured by "a yardstick of business relevance." Such an unrelenting pace escalated tension, fatigue, and poor health. In Today's Health, a physician concluded that many men were killing themselves because of a work compulsion. According to another observer, "because of the cult of manliness" men "drive themselves to the point of exhaustion."

Equally corrosive to men's well-being, if more subtly so, was the nature of the success code in modern bureaucracies. In the corporations or law firms or hospitals or insurance agencies or public universities dominating the work life of postwar America, advancement no longer followed the traditional trail of hard work, individual skill and expertise, relentless effort, and firm moral character. In a modern bureaucratic setting, the employee was defined as a team player whose success depended on smoothly interacting with others, deploying a sparkling "personality," and gaining consensus and cooperation from one's fellow laborers in the organization. As one analyst noted, successful white-collar workers were "now expected to demonstrate manipulative skill in interpersonal relations. ... [They] must be free with the glad hand, they must impress others with their warmth and sincerity (rather than as formerly with their courage and honesty and industry), they must be trouble shooters on all fronts."

Two popular and influential books added breadth and depth to this discussion. The sociologist David Riesman, in his magisterial The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the Changing American Character (1950), provided postwar Americans with a vocabulary for talking about bureaucracy and male decline. This book so captured the public imagination that its author, an academic at the University of Chicago, appeared on the cover of Time magazine. The volume identified the modern male as an "other-directed personality," a character type that reflected the demands of a bureaucratic society. Instead of listening to his own voice and following a set of embedded moral principles, he cultivated "an exceptional sensitivity to the actions and wishes of others. ... While all people want and need to be liked by some of the people some of the time, it is only the modern other-directed types who make this their chief source of direction and chief area of sensitivity." This type picked up signals of approval or disapproval, enthusiasm or resentment, from a wide circle of colleagues and plotted his course accordingly. Thus the management, or manipulation, of self and of others had become the key skill for individual advancement in a bureaucratic atmosphere.

But a problem lurked within the other-directed ethos, The Lonely Crowd noted. Bureaucratic men with their facile personalities had no hard core of self but instead donned a series of masks as they adapted to circumstances with glad-handing and false bonhomie. A specter of inauthenticity haunted the proceedings. The other-directed individual, wrote Riesman, "is, in a sense, at home everywhere and nowhere, capable of a rapid if sometimes superficial intimacy with and response to everyone." Yet he was never quite sure he was reading the signals correctly. Thus he was characteristically beset by "anxiety" as he constantly struggled to gauge his own impact and the intentions of others. Look picked up on this theme of other-directed manipulation, noting that in modern bureaucracies "teamwork and personal relations reigned over all. This meant you had to like everyone, give careful consideration to every proposal, no matter how trivial, handle every employee with the velvet gloves of insincerity. ... It meant you put aside personal convictions and developed instead a personal radar, sensitive to the moods of others who made up The Group. Everyone ended up groping for the right way, the Group way, while phony politeness and synthetic good intentions resounded through the corridors." Such pressures forced men to be inauthentic. Manly assertion and sturdy principle had given way to milquetoast maneuvering.


Excerpted from JFK and the Masculine Mystique by Steven Watts. Copyright © 2016 Steven Watts. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: Kennedy Adonais 1

1 The Crisis of Masculinity in 1950s America 11

2 Style Makes the Man Candidate John F. Kennedy 39

3 Hollywood Cool: Frank Sinatra and the Jack Pack 72

4 Existential Tough Guy Norman Mailer 104

5 Secret Agent Men Ian Fleming James Bond 132

6 A Philosophy for Playboys Hugh Hefner 162

7 Vigor and Virility President John F. Kennedy 186

8 Celebrity Journalist Ben Bradlee 227

9 Modern Warriors Maxwell Taylor Edward Lansdale 260

10 Spartacus Syndrome Kirk Douglas Tony Curtis 289

11 Mercury Macho Alan Shepard John Glenn 323

Epilogue: The Masculine Mystique 356

Notes 369

Index 403

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JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
AuldMunro More than 1 year ago
fascinating account of JFK and his cultural influence. Loved the chapter on Spartacus, JFK's favorite movie, and the James Bond connection.