"having a wife and children was a trap to be avoided"
July 16, 2015 7:36 PM   Subscribe

Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite, How Esquire Engineered The Modern Bachelor,The Awl.
posted by the man of twists and turns (24 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
That was a great read. I grew up reading Esquire because that's what my dad had around his house that wasn't woodworking magazines. I had a subscription to it in college. Lots of good fiction. I'm surprised this article didn't talk more about some of the other men's mags since GQ (which I read in the comments is the subject of another MeFi post...) was always posited to be the more metrosexual and queer-friendly mag and Esquire tilted a lot more hetero. So it's interesting that Esquire's also reinvented what it means to be a man into a different sort of competition with women (domesticity) as opposed to conquest and that other stuff. I should pick it up again.

This also explains why I am so good at modern bachelorhood.
posted by jessamyn at 7:46 PM on July 16, 2015 [18 favorites]


posted by the man of twists and turns

'nuff said.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:15 PM on July 16, 2015 [1 favorite]


I don't know why this piece upsets me so much. I think it's the degree of deliberate calculation involved in creating these norms, and yet this is what we get:

Men are still being introduced to activities like consumerism and duties like housekeeping in a way that emphasizes their freedom to choose these tasks and to conquer them as they might have conquered the frontier two hundred years ago. Magazines like Esquire are vehicles to help guide this thinking, and to assure readers that they’re doing the right thing for themselves and for society as a whole. That assurance relies on traditional figures like a lone wolf bachelor who never compromises for a woman, even if he’s compromised a lot more to fit in with other men. For every crisis of masculinity, there is a bachelor ready to face the threat of a woman by beating her at her own game: domesticity.

Seriously? I mean, if there are people out there actually putting this much effort into shaping how men are trained to think about ourselves, would it really be too much to ask that we actually have a non-shitty version? Look, it's great that we're finally being told that it's okay to care about domestic jobs, but it really true that the only way we can get to that point is to start a competition with women? Just for once, couldn't a "Man at His Best" not be an arsehole? Please? I'm kind of sick of this already.
posted by langtonsant at 8:33 PM on July 16, 2015 [7 favorites]


I mean, if there are people out there actually putting this much effort into shaping how men are trained to think about ourselves, would it really be too much to ask that we actually have a non-shitty version?

You could just ignore shit like this, and be a man on your own terms. It's pretty much expected that a man has zero fucks to give about what anyone thinks about him, so why not take advantage of that?
posted by MissySedai at 9:51 PM on July 16, 2015 [4 favorites]


MissySedai: "You could just ignore shit like this, and be a man on your own terms. It's pretty much expected that a man has zero fucks to give about what anyone thinks about him, so why not take advantage of that?"

Because some of us don't actually think that way. I DO care what other people think about me. I give quite a few FUCKS about my fellow humans and their opinions. I can't take advantage of it because there's this empathy thing I've been working on. The whole idea that you can "be a man on your own terms" is nonsensical. It's shallow and thoughtless, and it's really just the "lone wolf" stereotype recast and (in this instance) used to make me feel like shit because I'm not very good at pretending that I don't care what people think of me.

None of us get to define our own terms. It does not work that way, and I think you know that perfectly well.
posted by langtonsant at 10:05 PM on July 16, 2015 [25 favorites]


Playboy is hardly mentioned in the article, and while Hugh Hefner has become a total clown, I'd argue that his magazine ... and the clubs ... and the line of lifestyle accessories ... and the ties with celebs ...and the movies ... and the cable channel ... had a greater impact (for both good and ill) from the 50s to the early 80s on "bachelorhood" than Esquire ever did at any point in its history.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:54 PM on July 16, 2015 [6 favorites]


Ahh, one of the many (delayed) benefits of being an outcast. During my formative years I never really fit in with other boys. I was small for my age, I had bi-focal glasses like an old man...oh yeah and I was way too open with my emotions and way too earnest for my own good. Luckily for me, this resulted in a mutual agreement to reject each other. I didn't hang out with the lads, and as a consequence of that I never really bought into their magazines or other ephemera of that culture.

Not that I didn't like to look at pictures of scantily-clad models (I'm not made of stone), but I guess I just learned to really despise the whole machismo of being an American man, and all the media that extolled such malarkey. It all looked like a bunch of bullshit to me. Just way too many contradictions and double-standards.

I mean, if a being a Real Man(TM) is such a noble fucking ideal, why does it require so much gatekeeping? Everything about that concept is super lame and tedious.

Great article, by the way. I'm going to be sharing this with some of "the lads" at the office tomorrow. Not that I expect them to get it...but one can always hope.
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:31 PM on July 16, 2015 [10 favorites]


Playboy is hardly mentioned in the article, and

yeah, Playboy has certainly had a more overt impact on the overall culture than any other Men's mag. But Esquire was the one guys actually did read for the articles. At least I did. And learned a bunch, I'm sure.
posted by philip-random at 1:13 AM on July 17, 2015


The only magazines we took in our home was (either Look or Life, not sure which one, and not sure it matters) and Ebony, after my father got all super into the civil rights thing in the 1960s. (I'd be willing to bet that our house was the only house in our zip code that got Ebony delivered to it.) Also no doubt some religious magazines came our way, because Jesus.

But no Esquire magazine, no Esquire bachelor life modeled for me.

In fact, no bachelor life modeled at all, Esquire or otherwise.

None. Zero. Zip. Zed. Nada.

My mothers oldest sister divorced, and she was always different after that, not like the rest of the maternal siblings. There were hard times in those marriages -- a good case could be made that my parents should have divorced, for one, except Jesus -- but it was just Not Done, except by my Aunt Beulah, who, as noted, was now different. Very cool, incredibly beautiful, and her new husband accepted immediately and totally, but ... different. They were all of them blue-collar people, working-class sons of the sod, chased from 1930s depression Kansas to Chicago in hopes of feeding themselves. When they were out and into the world, some of my aunts and uncles even had playing cards in their homes -- a sure sign of Satan, almost, were you to ask my mother -- or maybe pinochle cards. There were No Playing Cards Allowed in our right-living home. Some other, Jesus approved games would be okay, so long as you didn't enjoy yourself too much.

My paternal aunts and uncles, divorce would have been so unthinkable to them as if they pulled a ukelele and maybe an accordion from behind the couch and began to play and belt out a full throated "Should I Stay Or Should I Go off the record Combat Rock by The Clash, and this in the 1950s and 1960s. Which is to say: impossible. These people played fucking Parcheesi. Scrabble. They wouldn't have said "Shit!" if they had a mouthful. They would not have cursed if they caught their finger in the car door. There were problems in their marriages -- nothing like on the maternal side -- there were problems in their marriages, but it was Not Talked About.

So here I come, understanding perfectly well that marriage might suck / maybe sucked but No One Got Divorced. It wasn't in the rule book. There were bachelors in the world but not in my world, except for maybe some old geezer great-uncle stuck off somewheres or other. One of my maternal aunts married a man whose father was an alcoholic, he lived by himself in a shanty right next to a river downstate Illinois; he pissed his pants and acted like an asshole, because he was an asshole. There were the two guys from the TV show The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and they were cool and probably kissed women and stuff but they were On TV and even I -- dumb as a sackful of hammers, green as a July apple -- even I knew TV from real life.

I didn't have Esquire magazine to show me how to live right, you see. I had my own cultural references. Just like a fish has the water that it lives in.

I ran into trouble when I married a girl (and she was a girl, too -- 16 when we married, and I 19) I ran into trouble when I married a girl who came from a family where People Did Get Divorced, and, in fact, pretty much Got Divorced A Lot. (Arkansas) (hint hint) But I can't blame it on her, really, or even Arkansas -- any time I see a mirror I get to see what really happened in that little marriage; all I can say is that I truly did not understand that people left when things got totally out of hand. Which they damn sure did. I wasn't an Esquire sort of young man, you see. I didn't piss my drawers like that one old guy downstate did, but I surely was an alcoholic, and an asshole, too.

So I staggered into single life and tried to align my world-view with one that more approximated reality. I never got near an Esquire sort of life. Maybe Parade magazine, more-like. My chief counsel: Yossarian and Ann Landers. An odd couple I know but it's what I had: Yossarian (Heller) understood everything and articulated it so goddamn well, and Ann Landers understood everything, too, and I damn sure did trust her. (Her identical twin sister, Dear Crabbie -- she always took the woman's side. Ann blasted whoever it was that needed blasted. Ann Landers rocked the fucking house. She was all about gay rights and transvestites and god knows what all else, a million years ahead of her time. Hell of a woman.) Samuel Clemons was awfully important, as was Jack London; it was in reading The Sea Wolf by London that I began to understand the gaping holes that I had as a self-edumacated man....

But I found Marcus Aurelius. Ah, Marc! My man, Marc. Marc doesn't tell how to cook a fine meal or suggest what pattern to have on your china but I'll take his words over 17,000 subscriptions to Esquire. I've owned a number of those books, I like to give them to people I like, but I still have the first one I bought; it's been in the glove box of every vehicle I've owned since 1981, underlined and scrawled over, taped together and then re-bound, and then re-bound again, and now spiral-bound, and in the glove box of my pick-up, where it belongs. It's one of my most precious possessions.
(Don't fuck around, get the translation by Maxwell Staniforth, in other translations Marc comes across dry as chalk, but under Staniforth's pen he comes across so human, so wry, his ideals stand like fucking towers, his charity warm as a bath after a hard days work.)

My best friend, Matthew, he and I will drive here and/or there roundabout Texas reading Marc, howling with laughter, I'm over there pounding the steering wheel as Matthew finds this horrific passage or that one, howling til tears at the absolute impossibility of living a life of ideals such as espoused by M. Aurelius, and what a big fat jagoff Marcus is for pointing out to us how flawed and broken and hopeless we are, but it's okay because he's all the time pointing out how flawed and broken and hopeless he is, too. I totally love Marcus; I sit in front of a bust of him in the statuary room in the San Antonio Museum of Art and think of what it would be to talk with him, give him a ride in my pickup, maybe go to the range with my .44, just sleaze through the afternoon heat having some fun.

So, I've got Marc. I've got good friends, people I love, people who love me. How I'd love to have been that Esquire bachelor but it didn't happen and it's not going to, either. I've got the wrong plates and stuff. I'm pretty tacky. I know what class is and I know I don't have much of it. I'm not Lance Romance, not by a long shot. Any love that has come my way, the wonderful women I've been lucky enough to hold hands with, well, they got wise to me, or I to them, or just life, sometimes, just life happening. The ideals I've found, from Marc, from Heller and Landers and Clemons and London and just from Life, well, ideals just aren't near enough, really, but it's what I've got to work with.

Maybe if there is anything to that whole re-incarnation thing, maybe next time I'll get to be An Esquire Bachelor. I'm not counting on it, but hey, what if? Maybe I'd wear a silk ascot, some fine shoes on my big ol' feet, really soft leather. I'd like that, at least the shoes part; the ascot I hope I'd throw in a dumpster, after blowing my nose on it...

~~~~~

Playboy is hardly mentioned in the article, and while Hugh Hefner has become a total clown, I'd argue that his magazine ... had a greater impact (for both good and ill) from the 50s to the early 80s on "bachelorhood" than Esquire ever did at any point in its history.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:54 AM on July 17

Esquire was nothing to me, nor to any of my friends, blue-collar working class mopes all of us. We liked Playboy because we liked naked women, even if there was a pillow strategically placed, hiding the rest of the goods. The models were goddesses, as unattainable to us as were Cadillac Eldorado convertibles or Lincoln Continentals. In fact, the first Lincoln Continental I ever saw was a 1968 model, brand new, gorgeous, white with white vinyl top, a beautiful well dressed blonde stepping from the drivers door. I was across the street from that car and that woman but may as well have been on another planet. I was 13 or 14, standing next to a truck filled with construction tools and equipment, learning fast that if you get dirt on your hands gold does not stick.
posted by dancestoblue at 2:31 AM on July 17, 2015 [29 favorites]


langtonsantBecause some of us don't actually think that way. I DO care what other people think about me. I give quite a few FUCKS about my fellow humans and their opinions. I can't take advantage of it because there's this empathy thing I've been working on. The whole idea that you can "be a man on your own terms" is nonsensical. It's shallow and thoughtless, and it's really just the "lone wolf" stereotype recast and (in this instance) used to make me feel like shit because I'm not very good at pretending that I don't care what people think of me.

None of us get to define our own terms. It does not work that way, and I think you know that perfectly well.


As adults we get to choose which people we care about though. And for the yobs who want to enforce a sense of bullshit masculinity "I'm a man, I do what I want!" is a darn useful tool for me to resist that. It doesn't have to be logical and self consistent. It just has to work.

I guess each of us has our own ways of dealing with the world, and what works for you is best for you, but personally I get a lot of satisfaction out of twisting inconsistency and double standards back on themselves, and that makes it effective, emotionally, to resist societal pressure to conform to a model of masculinity that really isn't true to who I am.
posted by Zalzidrax at 4:38 AM on July 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


For the Playboy side of the conversation, Barbara Ehrenreich's "Playboy Joins the Battle of the Sexes" (1983) (contains nsfw photos):

"When, in the first issue, Hefner talked about staying in his apartment, listening to music and discussing Picasso, there was the Marilyn Monroe centerfold to let you know there was nothing queer about these urbane and indoor pleasures. And when the articles railed against the responsibilities of marriage, there were the nude torsos to reassure you that the alternative was still within the bounds of heterosexuality...In every issue there was a Playmate to prove that a playboy didn't have to be a husband to be a man."
posted by amy lecteur at 5:01 AM on July 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


This piece is solid gold. I was skeptical at first because the title seems too simplistic: of course, Esquire alone isn't responsible for this, and to suggest is overstates the case. Like all productions of pop culture, it was riding the wave of zeitgeist while magnifying some of its elements. But the article draws on great scholarship to situate Esquire's rise and reign in the general arc of American history regarding masculinity and bachelorhood.

Like jessamyn, I also grew up in a magazine-rich environment where Esquire made frequent appearances, and read it growing up - it really was a serious magazine (I have no idea what it is like now) though even at a young age I could tell it was taking a strong editorial stance not favorable to my kind, and the cartoons were outright demaning. I wish the article had gone maybe a little farther in its analysis - the author is right to note that changes in the workplace where the most significant revolutions in men's lifestyles during the 20th century, especially for men of the middle class, and makes the point that Esquire barely mentions it. It's like not mentioning oxygen. At the beginning of the century, the great majority of men worked in physical and/or skilled occupations - farming, shipbuilding, machining, manufacturing, etc. By the end - and newly in the late 40s and 50s, when Esquire ascended - the great majority shifted over to working in hierarchical organizations doing white-collar or service work. One of the most enduring defining elements of American masculinity - strong, skilled worker - underwent an enormous shift. That shift undermined male self-perception and fears of the feminization of the corporate workplace are visible throughout the century. In the pages of Esquire and the like, the search for "freedom" and the railing against control are authentic frustrations, but misplaced, directed at women rather than at an economically-driven change in the structure of employment that gutted previous understandings of what masculinity consisted of and replaced them with very little in the way of new definitions and sources of self-acceptance, self-worth and pride for men.

We're still dealing with the consequences of that shift and the vestiges of pre-industrial conceptions of masculinity. Esquire was involved in it but only a part of it, but it is interesting to see how clearly it (and media like it) suggested to men a convenient target to agree on: it's not your soulless job, reduction to a faceless cog in a wheel, dreary commute and constant competition that's threatening your essential "freedom," it's women.
posted by Miko at 5:47 AM on July 17, 2015 [7 favorites]


As Esquire goeth, so doth Reddit.

It's about the freedoms, you see. Man freedoms. (and a misuse of pseudo elizabethian English)

Most of you would not understand.
posted by clvrmnky at 6:38 AM on July 17, 2015


That's actually the article that I want to see. The direct line between men's magazines in a culture where men still had to interact with real women most of the time--and thus got mitigating counter-messages from real life women who they cared about and who cared about them--to the online male echo chambers where men's made-up ideas about femininity and masculinity just get amplified and exaggerated to the point of parody with bad real-life consequences for men and women.
posted by jessamyn at 7:11 AM on July 17, 2015 [9 favorites]


I find the historical bits at the start fascinating: Is it saying that single men at one point had less legal rights than married men?
posted by clawsoon at 7:28 AM on July 17, 2015


I mean, if there are people out there actually putting this much effort into shaping how men are trained to think about ourselves, would it really be too much to ask that we actually have a non-shitty version?

The guidance provided by Esquire is in line with bachelors having maximum disposable income to spend on their advertisers' products.
posted by bdc34 at 8:20 AM on July 17, 2015 [3 favorites]


It's also interesting that the life of freedom promised by Esquire and Playboy - freedom Prevented By The Domestic Demands Of Women - wasn't possible on a mass scale until large numbers of women, too, decided that they'd like freedom from domesticity.

In other words, Cosmopolitan magazine did more to allow for the free heterosexual male bachelor lifestyle promised by Esquire and Playboy than Esquire and Playboy did.
posted by clawsoon at 8:27 AM on July 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


One might indeed even want to reflect a bit on ye olde birthe controlle methodes when it comes to determining one's domestic fate.
posted by ead at 9:33 AM on July 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


wasn't possible on a mass scale until large numbers of women, too, decided that they'd like freedom from domesticity.

Cosmpolitan a little, the Pill and IUD a lot. (or what ead said)
posted by Miko at 10:03 AM on July 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


So, shit. At the same time the popular press was indoctrinating women that their only function in life was to get married and keep house whether they wanted to or not, and that they were deviant mental defectives if they didn't, the very same popular press was indoctrinating men that women were assholes for wanting to get married and keep house. Nice recipe for happiness you get there, scribblers.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:04 AM on July 17, 2015 [2 favorites]


Is it saying that single men at one point had less legal rights than married men?

Yes, that is true. Some sources:

A History of the American Bachelor: Part I – Colonial and Revolutionary America


Review: Single Men in Early America

posted by Miko at 10:06 AM on July 17, 2015 [4 favorites]


Cosmpolitan a little, the Pill and IUD a lot. (or what ead said)

I think it is less a claim that Cosmo itself caused all the changes, and more a reflection of the cultural importance and consistency of Helen Gurley Brown's articulation of how to be a modern woman.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:09 PM on July 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


My guess is that the same advertising industry that got women to smoke in large numbers also got men to become aware of their independence. This mattered because men were making steady incomes and were ripe to advertise to, in the sense that they spent relatively very little on maintaining themselves. The accompanying articles were likely to support the theme of the independent man as advertised, and because those spending dollars may be claimed by others, it follows that real independence is a key strategy to support the advertising. The modern realities leading men away from fantasizing about family life were largely thanks to the great depression and WW2, where families symbolized failed masculinity. The entire movie genre of film noir artfully exposed these lurking suspicions, until James Bond figured it all out and just blatantly ran with it. I would still credit a simple photograph of a mysterious idealized woman with planting more ideas in any would-be family guy's head than the billions of magazine words printed about this or that.
posted by Brian B. at 1:31 AM on July 18, 2015


That was splendid, dancestoblue.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:02 PM on July 20, 2015 [2 favorites]


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