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GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12.3 (2006) 507-510

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Tackling the "Masculinity Crisis"

Male Identity in the 1950s

Men in the Middle: Searching for Masculinity in the 1950s James Gilbert Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. x + 269 pp.

Of all the totalizing narratives Americans tell about themselves, the one about the 1950s seems to have the most sticking power. While the old story about the 1960s, for example (youth rebellion and drug-induced haze), is being gradually superannuated or at least supplemented by the new one (fiery crucible of neoconservativism), the 1950s have held firm as the paradigm of suburban conformity, soulless corporatization, and homophobic red-baiting. Certainly, alternative narratives have emerged. One can read Audre Lorde's biomythography Zami, a New Spelling of My Name as tracing a very different geography of the 1950s that stretched from black working-class communities in New York and Connecticut to the lesbian bars of Greenwich Village to the Union Square protests supporting the Rosenbergs. Similarly, memoirs by Hettie Jones and Samuel K. Delany limn a decade that was, for them at least, queer, inter- and multiracial, and insistently bohemian.

What all these accounts have in common, though, is their self-consciously oppositional stance against a stifling hegemony, against a vision of race and particularly gender and sexuality that demanded acquiescence to a narrow repertoire of affects and performances. But what if that hegemony was in fact much more fragmented, much more fragile than anyone has so far imagined? As James Gilbert puts it in his study of masculinity in the 1950s, "Which is a better guide to the masculine ideology of the period: John Wayne or Tennessee Williams? Or have we just got the question wrong?" (32–33). [End Page 507]

Gilbert's method for answering the question, or perhaps asking the right one, is a layering of different kinds of mainstream masculinities available to white men in the 1950s. Exploring the public personae of men both fictional and real—from the "organization man" and the Ozzie Nelson of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, to Alfred Kinsey, Tennessee Williams, Billy Graham, and Auguste Comte Spectorsky (the originator of the Playboy philosophy)—Gilbert works through a variety of white masculinities that jockeyed for prominence during the decade.

Masculinity in the 1950s began with the publication of David Riesman's study The Lonely Crowd (1950). A mixture of sociological commentary, Freudian psychoanalysis, and examination of American "national character," The Lonely Crowd launched a critique of consumer culture and political and social conformism among the American middle classes that would resurface throughout the decade. Like the majority of its descendants, Gilbert notes that The Lonely Crowd is "the story of society told around the problems of men" (47). The book located much of the blame for these problems firmly in the domestic sphere, arguing that middle-class men were increasingly forced by the corporate environment and suburban lifestyle to take on the qualities identified with women: consensus building, conciliation, manipulation (no coincidence that the paradigmatic organization man was in advertising), teamwork, domestication. There was, Riesman declared, a crisis of masculinity, in which the necessary differences between women and men were being eroded, as women, in their roles as homemakers and (most important) mothers, gained unseemly levels of power over men and children, and men lost the ability to express themselves as individuals, as leaders, as men.

As Gilbert argues, it is not clear whether this crisis ever actually existed, or whether the majority of middle-class men believed that it did. However, among intellectuals, social commentators, and journalists, the masculinity crisis was a donnée that was as severe as it was self-evident. Certainly, much of the raw material of this supposed crisis was real: the precipitous rise in consumerism and mass culture, the rush to the suburbs, the ambient terror of the Cold War and the arms race. But, as Gilbert points out, the articulation of these phenomena to gender was characteristic of the era. Socially...