Thursday, July 9, 2015

How Esquire Engineered the Modern Bachelor

The social connotations of being a single man in America have changed a lot over the past three centuries. According to John Gilbert McCurdy in Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States, the word “bachelor” was first enshrined into American law in 1703, as part of a New York City ordinance taxing unmarried men at the same rate as married men for a new city project. This ordinance was one in a series of laws that determined that single men were capable of financial contribution to the state, even if they did not own property. After the Revolutionary War, American leaders were intent on differentiating the new nation from their former British masters, and redefining manhood became part of that change. John Adams saw British bachelors as “effeminate,” yet touted American bachelors as virtuous and able to resist temptations of vice. McCurdy writes that once bachelors were seen as equal to married men under the law (a common regulation by 1800), the image of the bachelor became associated with masculine independence and autonomy, even as he remained a subject of suspicion when it came to morality; the common sentiment at the time, according to McCurdy, was that “a bachelor may make all the wrong decisions and devote himself to a life of luxury, but this was the bachelor’s prerogative, which few Americans felt any compunction to hinder.”

The bachelor remained a fixture of public life and popular culture throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One of the most important developments in bachelor culture was the emergence of sporting-male societies in the early eighteen hundreds, which celebrated male friendship, exclusive clubs, and vigorous exercise. In American sporting-male culture, middle- and working-class men spent time together in gambling houses, brothels, and billiard clubs; their independence and autonomy were held up as markers of masculinity among their peers—having a wife and children was a trap to be avoided for any man who valued his freedom. Some sporting-male bachelors had left their families in other countries or in other parts of the country, resulting in less surveillance from relatives and communities. And even though many bachelors held down steady white-collar jobs and lived with family members, many who had blue-collar jobs lived alone in boarding or rooming houses (some of these houses were exclusively held for bachelors, and became clubhouses as well as lodging). One example of this celebration of homosocial (and sometimes homosexual) bachelor subculture is the -essay collection by writer Donald Mitchell, called Reveries of a Bachelor, published in 1850:
Can a man stake his bachelor respectability, his independence, and comfort, upon the die of absorbing, unchanging, relentless marriage, without trembling at the venture? Shall a man who has been free to chase his fancies over the wide-world, without let or hindrance, shut himself up to marriage-ship, within four walls called Home, that are to claim him, his time, his trouble, and his tears, thenceforward forever more, without doubts thick, and thick-coming as Smoke?
By 1900, the image of the bachelor had become firmly intertwined with the image of the rugged American man—a Marlboro Man-type who embodied a frontier spirit of self-reliance and separation from workplace hierarchies, salaried jobs, and the demands of marriage and family life. Around this time, a growing parenting movement encouraged middle-class men to be more involved in their children’s lives, to a point; it was thought that fathers could provide necessary moral and career knowledge to their sons. So while more middle-class men engaged in childrearing activities that kept them closer to home, popular literature, film, and advertising celebrated the lone wolf persona of the bachelor in his many forms: hardboiled detective, rugged adventurer, artist, or writer. In all of these situations, it was the detachment of the man from his environment, along with his rejection of class structure that made him an appealing character to readers and viewers.

In the twenties and thirties, the bachelor rose to prominence in pop culture as a symbol of a hedonistic life that some men were leading, and others wished they could. Unmarried or married, George Chauncey writes in “Trade, Wolves, and the Boundaries of Normal Manhood,” the bachelor subcultures of nineteen-twenties New York, particularly for working-class immigrants, were home to men who “forged an alternative definition of manliness that was predicated on a rejection of family obligations.” This rejection was often based on immigration or migration circumstances, but in other cases, it was a choice to be a bachelor, or at least to pretend to be one to avoid responsibility or to meet other men.

This wishful thinking fuelled Esquire’s approach to the bachelor lifestyle. (...)

This ideal reader was sophisticated, rich, and interested in the finer things in life. He also did what he wanted—freedom from obligation was crucial to the Esquire brand, and that obligation extended to freedom from women. Instead of highlighting the realities of single life, Esquire‘s portrayal of bachelorhood was based on looking and acting the part of the swinging ladies’ man, even though most of the magazine’s readers were married. Esquire’s idealized postwar bachelor had no obligations outside of his own desire for women and luxury products (often considered one in the same). He bought his own clothes, drove his own car, and took solo vacations to exotic places. The bachelor became a symbol of postwar consumerism and hedonism, and as a result, became a symbol of freedom for white American men looking for a way to feel important again. Because Esquire relied on corporate advertising to continue existing, overthrowing corporate hierarchy and stratification didn’t factor into their discussions of masculine rejuvenation. In the Handbook, women were presented as an obstacle to men’s success at entertaining, which reinforced the theory that women were ultimately responsible for men’s inability to control their lives.

The ideal life of the bachelor may have been one of absolute freedom, but the instructional elements of the Handbook made it clear that there was a right way to live a bachelor life, and it involved buying the right clothes, d├ęcor, food, and drinks. By lumping bachelors and married men together, the book’s editors implied that one could be a bachelor in every way but semantics, if he could follow the rules. Esquire encouraged both groups to consider themselves part of a new revolution in bachelorhood that didn’t actually require a man to be single, but to act like he was one by purchasing the luxury clothes, food, and other items necessary to convey a hedonistic lifestyle.

by Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite, The Awl | Read more:
Image: Esquire