History News Network

How hypermasculine narratives in Cold War men's magazines set the stage for fear of America's 'pussification'

Of all the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States—ranging from debates over mask wearing to school closings— perhaps the most bizarre is the suggestion that this deadly disease can be avoided simply through manliness.

Nowhere was this made more explicit than when former US Navy Seal Robert O'Neill shared a photo of himself, unmasked, on a Delta Airlines flight. "I'm not a pussy," declared O'Neill on Twitter, as if to suggest that potent, masculine men, like those on Seal Team 6, would not be cowed into wearing cowardly protective gear (Never mind that a passenger sitting one row behind O'Neill, in a US Marine Corps baseball cap, was wearing his mask).

O'Neill's use of the "P-word" was far from an outlier; in fact, it has been employed near and far in recent months. Adam Corolla stoked public outcry only weeks later when he maintained, incorrectly, that only the "old or sick or both" were dying from the virus. "How many of you pussy's [sic] got played?" the comedian asked.

Nor were these remarks limited to COVID-19. Not to be outdone by such repugnant rhetoric, President Donald Trump—who elevated the word during the 2016 presidential campaign for other reasons—reportedly lambasted senior military leaders, declaring that "my fucking generals are a bunch of pussies." On the opposite end of the military chain of command, 2nd Lt. Nathan Freihofer, a young celebrity on TikTok, recently gained notoriety for anti-Semitic remarks on the social media platform. "If you get offended," the young officer proclaimed, "get the fuck out, because it's a joke…. Don't be a pussy."

What should we make of these men, young and old, employing the word as a way to shame potential detractors? Perhaps the most telling, and least surprising, explanation is that sexism and misogyny are alive and well in Trump's America. Yet it would be mistaken to argue that the epithet has regained popularity simply because the president seemingly is so fond of the word. Rather, such language—and more importantly, what it insinuates—is far from new.

In July, after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) was verbally accosted on the Capitol steps by fellow representative Ted Yoho (R-FL), the congresswoman delivered a powerful speech on the House floor. The problem with Yoho's comments, Ocasio-Cortez argued, was not only that they were vile, but that they were part of a larger pattern of behavior toward women. "This is not new, and that is the problem," she affirmed. "It is cultural. It is a culture of lack of impunity, of accepting of violence and violent language against women, and an entire structure of power that supports that."

She's right. This "violent" language—calling women "bitches" and men "pussies"—and the understandings that accompany it has a long history in American popular culture. And few cultural artifacts depict such sexist notions more overtly than Cold War men's adventure magazines.

These "macho pulps" were an outgrowth of earlier men's periodicals, including Argosy and Esquire. In the aftermath of World War II, magazines with suggestive titles like Battle Cry, Man's Conquest, and True Men, exploded in popularity. The February 1955 issue of Stag, for example, sold more than 585,00 copies nationwide. The stories that filled these magazines portrayed the ideal man as physically tough, sexually virile, and unabashedly patriotic. Women, conversely, were represented either as erotic trophies of conquest or as sexualized villains to be overpowered.

Take, for example, an illustrative story from the March 1963 issue of Brigade. In "Castration of the American Male," pulp writer Andrew Petersen decried how the "manly virtues—strength, courage, virility—are becoming rarer every day…. Femininity is on the march," Peterson claimed, "rendering American men less manly." To put a finer point on the message, Brigade included with the article a photograph of a sullen husband, in floral apron, doing the dishes. The message seemed clear. The masculine ideal of sexual conqueror and heroic warrior, touted in nearly every issue of the pulps, was under assault.

Indeed, in Cold War men's adventure magazines, "real men" were never "pussies." They courageously defeated former Nazi henchmen and evil communist infiltrators. They exposed femmes fatale who were engaging in "sexological warfare," using their physical bodies as weapons of war. And they seduced women across the globe, one navy vet describing himself in the pulps as a virile "bedroom commando."

Yet just below the surface of these hypermasculine narratives, a subtext of anxiety loomed. Read a different way, the pulps might also be seen as a form of escapism from deep anxieties about not measuring up in a rapidly changing postwar society. Fears of being emasculated by Cold War suburbia and a consumeristic society pervaded these men's magazines. Pulp writers, as seen in the Brigade article, habitually expressed concerns over American men becoming "soft."

Arguably, these fears of losing one's masculinity engendered not only hostility toward women but spawned a backlash against those supposedly "weak" men who weren't holding the line against supposedly aggressive feminism. As Betty Friedan argued in The Feminine Mystique (1963), male outrage was the result of an "implacable hatred for the parasitic women" who apparently were denying husbands and sons a more vigorous, manly lifestyle.

The Vietnam War, at least in the pages of men's magazines, seemed only to widen the gap between "real men" and their "pussy" compatriots. Saga lashed out at members of the "new left" and the blatant "draft dodging underground" taking hold on college campuses. Man's Illustrated condemned the "cardburners" and "slackers" who had worked the system to stay out of uniform. One antiwar activist recalled hearing epithets of "faggots" and "queers" as often as "commies" or "cowards." In the pulps, the best American men went to war, while the weaklings stayed home.

Such narratives outlasted the pulps themselves, which died out in the early 1970s. Stories glorifying war and sexual conquest seemed out of step with the cultural revolutions rippling through the United States in the immediate aftermath of a failed overseas war. Yet the macho pulp storylines retained their attraction enough to resurface only a few years later.

By the mid-1980s, "re-masculinized" men returned in full force. A finely chiseled Rambo deployed back to Vietnam to save American prisoners of war still held captive there. So too did Chuck Norris's Colonel Braddock in the Missing in Action films. Even President Ronald Reagan took his cue from these tough-minded action heroes, quipping in 1985 that he would now "know what to do" if faced with a hostage crisis after watching Rambo: First Blood Part II. Would anyone call Rambo or Braddock a "pussy"?

The militarization of masculinity portrayed in the Stallone and Norris action movies had clear roots in the Cold War macho pulps. Nor should we be surprised by former Seal team O'Neill's use of the term "pussy." Because the veteran had achieved his manhood through military service, especially in an elite unit, he could be secure in demeaning others who didn't meet his masculine ideals—which apparently also inoculated him from deadly viruses.

Yet it's not only the militarization of the "P" word that resonates, but the politicization of it as well. When Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tx) recently claimed that "many liberal males never grow balls," he was purposefully contrasting his own supposed conservative masculinity with the femininity of his political rivals, whether they be male or female. One wonders, though, if Cruz truly fashions himself as the new archetype for twenty-first-century manhood or simply hopes to score a few cheap political points via social media name-calling.

Or, conceivably, Cruz is channeling what has underscored a decades' long anxiety over American masculinity: that "real men" are on the verge of extinction because of political correctness gone awry or a feminist movement subverting traditional gender norms or any other imagined threat that stokes fears among mostly white, young, angry men.

Perhaps the most revealing expression of these anxieties comes from right-wing, all-male groups like the Proud Boys who see themselves as "aggrieved, marginalized, and depressed." These traditionalists extol the imagined superiority of western culture, believe they are being disenfranchised by the left, and have found in Trump's America a "place to put [their] political resentment." As if to demonstrate their masculinity, the Proud Boys, according to one critic, "like to spoil for a fight."

According to the "pussy" narrative, it's not just the sensibilities of persecuted white men who are under attack, though, but the nation's security as well. When I posted to social media a few covers from the macho pulps to promote my forthcoming book, one retired colonel who believes conservatives must win the current "culture war" replied that we all should focus more on crafting a militarized notion of masculinity "because a lot of Americans are pussies." Another Twitter respondent claimed that the "pussification of America's youth is a matter of national security. We need a touch of testosterone added to the water with fluoride," he argued. "No more cavities and fewer softies." By this logic, if only US soldiers and marines were equipped with more hormones, they might have achieved more lasting results in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, what to make of this perceived "pussification" of America? Most importantly, we need to accept the fact that real violence stems from imagined grievances and misogynistic language. A congresswoman being verbally assaulted. A group of wrathful white men seeing themselves as a "right-wing fight club." A militarization and polarization of society based on outdated gender norms.

For those who don't want to examine the violence they perpetrate—against women or minorities or immigrants or any other perceived social or cultural threat—the "pussification" of America provides a warped justification for violent means.

Popular narratives of what it means to be a man, to paraphrase Josephine Livingstone, need not rest on connecting "the vulva with weakness" for those men who don't act like chiseled Hollywood action heroes. In the Cold War men's adventure magazines, "real men" were depicted as heroic warriors and sexual champions. More than a half century on, such depictions continue to resonate far too widely across American society. It seems well past time to evolve beyond mid-1950s mindsets and begin conversations about alternate models of masculinity. Chances are, America will survive, even if all men aren't Rambo.

Trump's 'patriotic education' commission is yet another battle over the meaning of words

On Thursday, President Trump announced that he would be creating a “patriotic education” initiative called the “1776 Commission” that will develop a “pro-American curriculum” for the nation’s schools. Attacking the New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project and other anti-racist educational frameworks as “toxic propaganda,” a “crusade against American history,” and “a form of child abuse,” Trump claimed that “patriotic moms and dads are going to demand that their children are no longer fed hateful lies about this country.”

Keep reading... Show less

Historian explains how belligerent patriots rode a hot-tempered wave of Americanism from 9/11 to Donald Trump

Belligerent Patriots have been on the march since 9/11. Loyal Americans who love their country more than many of the people in it have been pledging their allegiance through outbursts of anger and bigotry. In their aggressive worldview myths prevail; painful truths are ignored. They cast the nation itself in a glow of grandeur in order to avoid coming to terms with its most pressing problems. Intolerance and violence become weapons deployed by forceful loyalists intent upon inflicting their will on national and international life. Americans have certainly been lured into such parades before. Eruptions like the revival of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s or the McCarthy "witch hunts" of the early 1950s demonstrated clearly that citizens could be drawn to a vision of the nation imbued with hostility and devoid of liberal ideals like justice for all. In our times Donald Trump has taken up this mantle of belligerence, but George W. Bush had already handed him this menacing baton.

Keep reading... Show less

Historian explains the huge mistake 'increasingly desperate' evangelicals make in backing Trump

The latest Pew Research poll shows that 72% of white evangelical Protestants approved of Donald Trump’s work as president in June, and 59% strongly approved. That number was slightly lower than his approval earlier in the year. But about 82% of white evangelicals said they would vote for Trump, even higher than the proportion who voted for him in 2016. 35% say that Trump has been a “great President” and 34% say he has been “good”. No other religious subgrouprates Trump positively.

Keep reading... Show less

Here's what the faithless electors decision says about SCOTUS and originalism

The outcome of Chiafalo v. Washington (a unanimous decision that states may compel presidential electors to cast votes for the candidate to which they are pledged-ed.) was a foregone conclusion. In this troubling time, SCOTUS was not about to upend our system of selecting a president. To achieve the desired result, however, the justices were forced to turn the clear intent of the Framers on its head. This does not mean they made the wrong call; it simply shows us, point blank, that originalism is no more than a pragmatic tool, to be used or ignored at will.

Keep reading... Show less

Historian outlines a terrifying scenario that could happen if Trump loses

It looks like Biden will beat Trump badly and the Republicans will suffer disastrous losses across the country in November. Although the polls have just been inching toward the Democrats, suddenly articles about what Trump might do if he loses are multiplying, herehere, and here.

Keep reading... Show less

The Hate-Mongers: Characterizing racism in comics

In 1963, as the Civil Rights Movement was making its presence increasingly felt, writer Stan Lee and penciler Jack Kirby introduced the Hate-Monger in the pages of Fantastic Four #21. Wearing purple KKK-style robes, inciting xenophobic outbreaks with his hate speech, and wielding an H-ray that could transform even peaceful heroes into unthinkingly enraged combatants, the Hate-Monger stokes the American animosities towards nonwhites that civil rights activists struggled against. Ultimately defeated by the Fantastic Four, the Hate-Monger is unmasked as… a clone of Adolf Hitler! The big reveal at story’s end affords Mr. Fantastic—and, through him, Lee—the opportunity to deliver a brief but clear sermon on the importance of building a world like that the activists at the time were fighting for, one in which “men truly love each other, regardless of race, creed, or color…”

Keep reading... Show less

What Trump will do if he loses is the wrong question. What matters is what his supporters will do

It looks like Biden will beat Trump badly and the Republicans will suffer disastrous losses across the country in November. Although the polls have just been inching toward the Democrats, suddenly articles about what Trump might do if he loses are multiplying, herehere, and here.

Keep reading... Show less

Why is America exceptional? A historian explains

The debate about American exceptionalism is not really about whether America is exceptional (unique), but about whether it should be.   Virtually everyone who encounters American culture can tell that Americans are different – they have their own sports, a fondness for guns, a fear of government that is unmatched in other democracies (and even many dictatorships), anantagonism to socialism and attachment to religion that likewise stand out in the Western world, a peculiar political system, a preoccupation with race, a distinctive approach to criminal justice, a materialist and consumerist ethos, and a pop culture that is easily identifiable as American (from rock ‘n roll, jazz, soul, hip hop, and country music to Hollywood blockbusters, westerns, comic books, and talk radio).

Keep reading... Show less
BRAND NEW STORIES
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.