Gloria Steinem, feminist activist and founding editor of Ms. In the s, Playboy became a prominent platform for interviews with major black figures, including Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr. In , the first black playmate, Jennifer Jackson, appeared in the magazine. How was masculinity represented in films, television, ads, and celebrity culture? How did it converge with race and sexuality?
Not long after he was hired, Lowe reached out to James Baldwin. Playboy , then, offered an odd juxtaposition of titillation, fantasy, serious journalism, and cultural commentary, illustrating many of the paradoxical possibilities and seductive illusions inherent in American popular culture. What did it mean to be a man?
And what were its implications for the nation as a whole? It offers some of the clearest evidence against the conventional wisdom that the author was in decline and no longer producing original work in the s. And the real question is how both manage to restructure, refurbish, and resurrect themselves for the next historical turn. By the end of the Carter presidency, the American ideal of manhood was perceived to be in trouble. Men had gone soft, the narrative went, and the nation, as a result, was weaker, more vulnerable, and uncertain.
But many of these men are not happy. Instead, argued Bly, we saw everywhere domesticated, emasculated men. White men in particular felt anxious about their new roles in the wake of inroads by minorities, feminists, and gays. In , film icon and conservative activist John Wayne died, symbolically representing the passing of a more traditional, triumphant vision of white masculinity. At home and abroad, clear distinctions were made between us and them, good and evil, tough and weak.
This is the way things were, are, and should always be, it suggested. The reality it presented was exclusively white, suggesting whiteness was synonymous not only with wholesomeness, hard work, and integrity, but with Americanness itself.
It also offered clearly demarcated, heteronormative gender roles, culminating in a traditional marriage between a white man and white woman. For James Baldwin, seductive as this worldview might be, it was a fantasy—a fantasy America had been telling itself for decades while evading its more complex realities.
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James Baldwin was a uniquely prophetic voice in American letters. His brilliant and provocative essays made him the literary voice of the Civil Rights Era, and they continue to speak with powerful urgency to us today, whether in the swirling debate over the Black Lives Matter movement or in the.
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