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Reviewed by:
  • Playboys in Paradise: Masculinity, Youth and Leisure-style in Modern America
  • Mark A. Swiencicki
Playboys in Paradise: Masculinity, Youth and Leisure-style in Modern America. By Bill Osgerby (Oxford: Berg, 2001. xii plus 232 pp.).

Although a number of scholars have explored how hedonistic, consumer-oriented styles of masculinity were encouraged by magazines such as Esquire and Playboy, Bill Osgerby furthers this work by showing how the emergence of the [End Page 255] unabashed, 1950s, middle-class, male consumer grew out the vibrant, widespread youth culture and youth market that exploded in post-War America.

To begin with, although those readers familiar with Breazeale’s and Ehrenreich’s research on Esquire and Playboy’s efforts to construct a consumer-happy middle-class masculinity will probably feel considerable déjà vu when reading Osgerby’s book, Osgerby breaks new ground by demonstrating how dependent these men’s magazines were on the college youth market. 1 He documents many of the articles and features that Esquire ran on college fashion and style in the 1930s—a wise decision considering how tough it was to find paying customers during the Great Depression (pp. 48–9). “Joe College” appeared in the very first issue of Esquire, and every autumn Esquire magazine ran a feature entitled “Going Back to School” (pg. 49).

Similar economic factors appear to have influenced Playboy’s publishers to actively court male college students in the 1950s. American teens already had a net worth of $9 billion by 1957, so attracting the youth market was critical to protecting the financial future of an unconventional but up-and-coming men’s magazine like Playboy. Eager to portray his new magazine as the spokes piece of America’s youthful, “hip”, and affluent bachelors, Hugh Heffner went out of his way to attract a college-going audience (pp. 139–40). In 1958 articles such as “The Well-Clad Undergrad” were run, and every autumn the magazine ran the “College Checklist” and “Back to Campus” features (pg. 141). As early as 1955, nearly 25% of Playboy’s readership were college men (pg. 140).

Osgerby’s attention to America’s fascination with the flamboyant gangsters of the 1920s (pg. 30), and the outlandish Zoot Suiters of the 1930s (pp. 55–56), suggests that many American men were already being seduced by the joys of consumerism in the 20s and 30s. This observation draws an insightful continuum between the consumerist “dudes” and “mashers” of the late-19th century, and the white-collar men who started reading Esquire in the 1930s. Such research helps to dispel the myth that most American men embraced a conservative asceticism during the Great Depression. 2

One criticism I have of the book is the author’s terminology for discussing socio-economic class differences. Without offering any systematic discussion of who is in each class, Osgerby uses the typology of elites, petite bourgeoisie, working class, and lower classes, and at other times the term “middle classes”. Such a system is too imprecise to separate modestly paid salesmen from such upper professionals as doctors, lawyers, accountants and advertisers. And if the latter are “elites”, then his work leaves out the upper class entirely.

Osgerby also makes a bold assertion about youth, gender and consumerism without providing systematic or objective evidence. He suggests that “[t]he expansion of the youth market during the 1950s and early 1960s also saw the young, male consumer move center stage. More than ever before, young men were addressed as a market of narcissistic consumers.” (pp. 95–6). While this may be true, he provides little historical evidence aside from his self-selected and small sample of ardently pro-consumerist men’s magazines. Esquire and Playboy do not, the media, make. 3

All in all, though, Osgerby’s book is worth reading for all who are interested in the fascinating topic of how post-War marketers and publishers created some [End Page 256] of their most loyal and enthusiastic customers by helping to invent such things as the “teenager” and the “youth market”.

Mark A. Swiencicki
College of Alameda

Footnotes

1. Kenon Breazeale, “In Spite of Women: Esquire Magazine and the Construction of the Male Consumer.” Signs 20...

Additional Information

ISSN
1527-1897
Print ISSN
0022-4529
Pages
pp. 255-257
Launched on MUSE
2003-09-05
Open Access
No
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