Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture.
In Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture, James Penner contends that the mid-century literary, cultural, and political debates over masculine identity resemble a "vicious cockfight" where "the preferred mode of attack is the gendered critique (or virility test)" (9). Penner's study explores this "vicious cockfight" in the years spanning the Depression and the sexual revolution, focusing in particular on what he sees as an obsession with disseminating specific types of masculinity shared by writers and critics alike, an obsession that fosters a preoccupation with "the business of policing texts for feminine and effete motifs and references" (9). Building on existing work in the fields of American literature and masculinity studies, Penner surveys a host of literary and cultural forms--fiction and film, poetry and drama, literary criticism, and psychological and social studies--to investigate the array of distinctively male and particularly American stereotypes that emerged between the 1930s and 1970s. The rise to prominence of various forms of "macho criticism" during these years leads Penner to suggest that the rhetoric of masculinity has played a crucial role "in the practice and production of literary culture," and that "both as a subtext and as a central concern, masculinity cannot be divorced from the important literary and political debates of the various decades" (8).
The risk of writing a critical study focused on the ways writers and critics participated in public forms of policing each other's masculinity, of course, is that Penner too might be charged with engaging in a similar form of "policing." Yet he adroitly avoids this pitfall by casting a wide critical net and refusing to buy into the notion at the heart of these debates: namely, the idea of "masculinity in crisis." In fact, Penner sees the very phrase "masculinity in crisis" as problematic, "because it implies that one form of masculinity is approaching its end and that a new form of masculinity will somehow emerge and replace the previous form," when, in reality "it is a foregone conclusion that the crisis in masculinity will never end" (15). A central question in Pinks, Pansies, and Punks is thus how to conceptualize the opposing types of masculinity that appeared and contested one another across the mid-century decades. To address this question, Penner suggests the existence of a cultural "soft/hard binary" wherein "softness" is seen as "effeminacy" and "feckless impotence," while "hardness" is founded upon "traditional masculine concerns and phallic potency" (2). It is a binary where hardness "is tacitly encouraged and understood as a social ideal, while softness is overtly stigmatized" (16). Pursuing this system enables Penner to interrogate "the so-called crisis," mapping the ways this binary is central to a male socialization process where "to be male is to encounter, confront, and internalize" the dictates of softness and hardness "whether one likes it or not" (15).
Through the lens of this soft/hard binary, the chronologically ordered chapters in Pinks, Pansies, and Punks highlight the ways literary criticism intersects with political, social, and cultural refashionings of masculinity in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Beginning with an analysis of the tough-guy masculinity of the 1930s, Penner uses Lewis Terman and Catharine Miles's 1936 psychological study Sex and Personality to define the contours of what he terms "the hypermasculine ideal" (23). Through an exploration of the scandal surrounding radical critic and writer Michael Gold's attack on the leisure-class softness of author and playwright Thornton Wilder, as well as close readings of the hard-boiled novels of James M. Cain and the social realist plays of Clifford Odets, Penner concludes that the 1930s was a decade "dominated by the masculine cult of virility and the overthrow of the so-called effete genteel tradition" (23). Such delineations of masculinity grow more complicated in the second chapter, which considers the 1940s as a decade in flux, one that begins with a "culture of compulsory masculinity" (80) that marked "various attempts to harness hypermasculine myths to the war effort" and the subsequent "anti-Communist crusade" (23); yet this decade also saw a fundamental shift take place in the years immediately following the Second World War, when a "willingness to treat aggression as a social problem" emerges (75). However, the move away from dangerously aggressive masculine hardness in the late 1940s ultimately leads to the privileging of a problematic masculinity that is "both tough and honorable" (77), a move Penner illustrates through examinations of post-war Hollywood films such as 1947's Crossfire and the Hiss-Chambers espionage trial at the end of the decade.
Anxiety over literary and cultural representations of the male body continues to reverberate through Pinks, Pansies, and Punks' third chapter, which investigates the ways different youth cultures of the 1950s--squares, Beats, hipsters, and white Negroes--navigated the Cold War articulation of the soft/hard dichotomy. Focusing on the emergence of sex role theory as "the dominant paradigm for discussing masculinity in American psychology" (111), Penner provides close readings of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie and Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman as key responses that question both softness and hardness in the age of anti-Communism. Although similar concerns underlie Penner's consideration of the struggle between the Old and New Left for a more 'authentic' form of maleness in his fourth chapter, he argues that the 1960s marked a significant change in representations of masculine cultural norms. Indeed, he proposes that the "Dionysian masculinity" of counterculture proponents such as Timothy Leary, William S. Burroughs, and the performers of the Living Theatre led to the privileging of a more progressive, softer form of masculinity by the decade's end (165).
Although Pinks, Pansies, and Punks is largely focused and convincing, trying to cover so much historical and intellectual ground does in a few places stretch Penner's study a little thin. This is especially noticeable in its final chapter, which broadens the study's scope to bring race and feminist gender concerns to the foreground. Penner sets up a tantalizing line of inquiry in this concluding chapter through readings of Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice and Kate Millet's Sexual Politics, but readers seeking expansive treatment of African American engagement with, or second-wave feminist responses to, the soft/hard binary may perhaps be somewhat disappointed.
Nevertheless, Penner's study is an ambitious and provocative look at mid-century delineations of masculinity in American literary culture. More than a mere survey, Pinks, Pansies, and Punks asks readers to reconsider and expand the horizons of their understanding of twentieth-century male identity, and to reflect on their critical efforts to fit writers, artists, and other critics into specific categories and definitions. In many ways, this is what makes it such a rich and potentially valuable a contribution not only to masculinity and gender studies, but to American literary and cultural studies as well.
Andrew M. Hakim
New York University
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|Author:||Hakim, Andrew M.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2012|
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