Taking a brief break from grading to summarize my lecture today:
In my men and masculinity class an hour or two ago, I lectured on the advent of Playboy magazine in 1953. I always put Playboy in the following context: it made its appearance at a time when the "greatest generation" (those who fought the Second World War) were turning 30. Men who had fought the Germans and the Japanese at 18, 19, or 20 were now husbands and fathers; they had gone to college on the GI Bill or taken jobs in the expanding economy. They had transitioned from boyhood to service to nation to service to family without any real "time off" for themselves.
Though he came from a far more privileged background than most of his fellow warriors, I always use the example of former President GHW Bush. He survived being shot down in the Pacific, returned home to Barbara and immediately started a family. The former president fathered the current president a month after his 22nd birthday; countless veterans became husbands and fathers at similar ages. In a sense, they imagined themselves ready for the responsibility of family because they had already borne such tremendous burdens in wartime. How could they worry about "sowing more wild oats", when they had watched friends die all around them? These men were boys for only a moment -- and then they were men, ready to rebuild (and repopulate) the world.
Playboy's title is no accident: "Play/Boy". "Play" is the antonym of work and responsibility, just as boy is the antonym of "man." Hugh Hefner's philosophy was a radical redefinition of masculinity. He made it clear that he believed -- and still believes -- in a "masculine right to pleasure". The sacrifices his generation had made had earned them the right to "play" as it were -- or, at the least, fantasize about "playing." Hefner surmised, correctly, that the men of his generation were, for all their youthful heroism, over-burdened by duty. If only for a little while, the Playboy fantasy could help them slip that weight from their shoulders. (Barbara Ehrenreich's Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment was a key component here.)
Men of George W. Bush (and Bill Clinton's) generation hit adolescence in a culture in which Playboy and its imitators were increasingly visible and increasingly accessible, if not entirely accepted. Young men of the "baby boom" era saw the sacrifices their father's generation had made, and recognized quickly that among the many things their fathers had given up was the opportunity to prolong adolescence into their twenties and beyond. The feminist movement and the increased access to birth control meant that these baby boomer boys could also expect to have access to women's bodies as their father's generation could never have hoped to have.
As a result, boomer men either got married later or at least postponed having children. The current president Bush did not have children until he was 36; Clinton until he was 34. And compared to their father's generation, both prolonged their adolescence well past what nature required -- Clinton may still be in it, and Bush remained in "party mode" until he was born again at 40. In different ways, these two most recent of our presidents lived out the Playboy philosophy with which they were raised.
The lecture tends to go over well. We have some quibbles over whether Playboy is "porn" or not, but for the most part, the students seem to get it. I usually try and close by asking them to think about the proliferation of films about World War Two that have appeared in the past decade. I've argued for years that our love of these films (Saving Private Ryan being the prime example) has to do with our wistfulness about a lost masculine culture, a culture of premature sacrifice and early manhood, a culture where men accepted responsibility and met their commitments gladly and without complaint.
Sweeping over-generalizations to be sure, but plenty to chew on nonetheless.