On James Baldwin’s Radical Writing for Playboy Magazine
Masculine Fantasy and the Subversive Possibilities of Androgyny
James Baldwin submitted an essay, “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” to Walter Lowe Jr., the first African American editor of Playboy magazine. Its radical thesis—that misguided notions of masculinity were at the root of America’s moral quandary—was new for Baldwin (at least in emphasis) and a direct challenge to the magazine’s primary demographic.
Founded in 1953 by Hugh Hefner, Playboy originally targeted and appealed to white, heterosexual, middle- and upper-class male consumers, depicting a life of glamor, status, sophistication, and sexual freedom. As Elizabeth Fraterrigo notes in Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America, in the postwar era the magazine was considered the “premier arbiter of American beauty” and possessed “tremendous cultural power.”
For its critics, however, the magazine’s elevation of men as swinging bachelors and women as objects of lust made it an egregious example of sexism in the media. Gloria Steinem, feminist activist and founding editor of Ms. magazine, responded to Hugh Hefner’s claim that Playboy celebrated the beauty of the female body by countering: “There are times when a woman reading Playboy feels a little like a Jew reading a Nazi manual.” Its popularity, however, was in many ways connected to its reliance on sexual conventions and “girl next door” fantasies as well as its subversion of traditional racial, sexual, and gender constrictions.
Hefner’s sense of the magazine’s social and cultural role developed gradually. It began for the express purpose of offering “a little diversion from the anxieties of the Atomic Age.” Yet it didn’t take long for the magazine and its “brand” to assume other roles. Although Playboy featured white women exclusively as centerfolds in its first decade, its late-night television program, Playboy’s Penthouse, frequently included black entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sara Vaughn, and Ray Charles. In the 1960s, Playboy became a prominent platform for interviews with major black figures, including Miles Davis, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. In 1965, the first black playmate, Jennifer Jackson, appeared in the magazine.
“What did it mean to be a man? How was masculinity represented in films, television, ads, and celebrity culture? How did it converge with race and sexuality?”
By the late 1960s, Playboy had established itself, somewhat strangely, as one of the premier popular magazines in the country for serious journalism on civil rights issues, featuring work by Alex Haley, James Farmer, and James Baldwin (Baldwin’s first essay in the magazine, “The Uses of the Blues,” appeared in 1964). In the 1970s, realizing that while the magazine often covered black issues and featured black writers, it had no editors of color, Hefner directly ordered his human resources department to “go out and find a black editor.” They found Walter Lowe, a talented young writer and editor from Chicago. Not long after he was hired, Lowe reached out to James Baldwin. They would work together on three major articles in the 1980s, including Baldwin’s award-winning 1981 piece about the Atlanta child murders, “The Evidence of Things Not Seen.”
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. Baldwin’s “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” appeared in the January 1985 issue, which featured actress Goldie Hawn on the cover. His subject matter was aimed squarely at the magazine’s readership. What did it mean to be a man? How was masculinity represented in films, television, ads, and celebrity culture? How did it converge with race and sexuality? And what were its implications for the nation as a whole?
The article situates such questions in the context of the 1980s, offering a confessional account of Baldwin’s own complicated sexual coming-of-age, framed by a broader social and cultural exploration of what it means to be a man in America. While not immediately recognized as such, “Freaks” has become one of his most widely regarded and cited essays. 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 1980s. Baldwin’s interest in the subversive possibilities of androgyny aligned in many ways with the rising black feminist movement and anticipated subsequent developments in queer theory and cultural studies. Surveying the landscape of the Reagan era, he recognizes the tensions between the era’s more traditional representations of masculinity (symbolized by President Reagan and many Hollywood blockbuster movies) and its queer alternatives (represented, among other ways, in the emerging New Pop Cinema). In place of America’s longstanding myths about what a man should be, he calls for a new vision of identity, not constructed by fear of the Other or violent hierarchies, but by reciprocity, complexity, border crossing, and becoming.
“Masculinity,” writes Abigail Solomon-Godeau, “however defined, is, like capitalism, always in crisis. And the real question is how both manage to restructure, refurbish, and resurrect themselves for the next historical turn.” It was certainly a relevant question at the dawn of the 1980s. 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. In the 1970s, explained Robert Bly, poet and leader of the mythopoetic men’s movement, we “began to see all over the country a phenomenon that we might call the ‘soft male.’ . . . [T]hey’re not interested in harming the earth or starting wars. There’s a gentle attitude toward life in their whole being and style of living. But many of these men are not happy.”
This unhappiness, Bly elaborated, had to do with no longer having role models, in the home or in popular culture, of strong, authentic masculinity. 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. Far from being “Masters of the Universe,” a term popularized in the 1980s to describe the hyper-masculine hero (He-Man) of a children’s cartoon series, as well as the Gordon Gekko-like characters in Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), many white men, in reality, no longer felt in control of the small orbit that was their lives. In 1979, film icon and conservative activist John Wayne died, symbolically representing the passing of a more traditional, triumphant vision of white masculinity. What America lost and desperately needed again, Bly and others declared, were real men—men who reclaimed a “deep masculinity,” a warrior mentality that had gone missing in post–civil rights culture.
For many, Ronald Reagan—voted the “most admired man in America” for eight consecutive years (1980–1988) in Gallup polls—answered the call. Reagan’s slogans called for a return to simpler times and ideals: traditional values, unambiguous strength, order and power. “No pale pastels,” as he put it in a 1975 CPAC speech. At home and abroad, clear distinctions were made between us and them, good and evil, tough and weak. It was a bridge back to an idealized, pre–civil rights Golden Age—before the Vietnam War and Watergate, before the assassinations, riots, and protests of the 1960s, before the inroads of the racial and sexual revolutions—to a time when men were men, when main streets were safe and white, and no one could doubt America’s strength and power.12 Reagan’s famous 1984 campaign commercial declared that it was “morning in America”—only the morning was mythologized so as to be eternal and universal. 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. Reagan’s America was “prouder and stronger and better,” the ad declared, because it “returned” us to the way things were.
“In place of America’s longstanding myths about what a man should be, he calls for a new vision of identity, not constructed by fear of the Other or violent hierarchies, but by reciprocity, complexity, border crossing, and becoming.”
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. “Reagan is a symptom of the American panic just as Maggie Thatcher is a symptom of the British panic,” he wrote. “They want to thrust themselves, you and me, back into the past.” Reagan’s “Morning in America” was nowhere close to the world Baldwin grew up in, nor was it the reality Baldwin witnessed in the 1980s. “There is an unadmitted icy panic coiled beneath the scaffolding of these present days,” he wrote in his 1984 preface to Notes of a Native Son. The country, Baldwin recognized, had changed—just not in the ways most Americans assumed. For all of the country’s institutional, sociopolitical, and technological advances, Baldwin contended that America’s dominant narratives remained much the same.
At the root of America’s failure to mature as a country, Baldwin argues in “Freaks,” are the mostly unacknowledged ways in which racial anxieties overlap with issues of gender, sexuality, desire, and power. “There seems to be a vast amount of confusion in the Western world concerning these matters,” he writes. Part of this confusion had to do with the tendency to reduce all concepts to simplistic either/or categories. For Baldwin, these binaries pervaded the American psyche and its resulting myths, narratives, and representations: there were “cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys, punks and studs, tough guys and softies, butch and faggot, black and white.” Such a rigidly bifurcated view of identity, Baldwin argues, is so “paralytically infantile that it is virtually forbidden—as an unpatriotic act—that the American boy evolve into the complexity of manhood.” How, he wondered, was it possible for a black man—indeed, any individual—to escape, resist, or reimagine these limiting types?
In a 1983 conversation with Audre Lorde at Hampshire College, excerpted in Essence in 1984, the two authors grappled with this very question. In a passionate but civil exchange, Lorde lays out some of the most pressing concerns of black feminists, directly challenging Baldwin and other black male writers to get on board. “I accept [the challenge],” Baldwin says. While at times slipping into defensive, patriarchal positions, he shows a genuine desire to listen to women’s concerns and tackle the problems accompanying American masculinity: “I don’t quite know what to do about it, but I agree with you,” he says. “And I understand exactly what you mean. You’re quite right. We get confused with genders—you know, what the western notion of woman is, which is not necessarily what a woman is at all. It’s certainly not the African notion of what a woman is. Or even the European notion of what a woman is. And there’s certainly not a standard of masculinity in this country which anybody can respect. Part of the horror of being a Black American is being trapped into being an imitation of an imitation.”
Lorde responds: “I can’t tell you what I wished you would be doing. I can’t redefine masculinity. I can’t redefine Black masculinity certainly. I am in the business of redefining Black womanness. You are in the business of redefining Black masculinity. And I’m saying, ‘Hey, please go on doing it,’ because I don’t know how much longer I can hold this fort, and I really feel that Black women are holding it and we’re beginning to hold it in ways that are making this dialogue less possible.” In many ways this plea seems to be the direct inspiration for the subject matter of “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood,” which was written soon after the conversation.
“Freaks,” however, was also a kind of sequel to Baldwin’s often-overlooked 1949 essay, “Preservation of Innocence,” Baldwin’s first text to deal primarily with homosexuality, gender labels, and the fallacy of “natural,” essentialist roles. Indeed, while Baldwin frequently explored homosexuality in his fiction, “Freaks” and “Preservation of Innocence” are two of only three essays (the third, “The Male Prison,” was originally published in the New Leader in 1954).
Of the three, “Freaks” offers by far the most personal and developed analysis of sexuality and masculinity. It also offers his most compelling thesis: that in spite of received dualistic expectations about what it means to be a boy or girl, man or woman, we are all in fact both. This notion of “androgyny,” as he terms it, does not obviously mean that everyone is biologically both male and female, but that the “hermaphrodite reveals in intimidating exaggeration, the truth concerning every human being—which is why the hermaphrodite is called a freak.” The androgyne, similarly, evokes both fascination and fear in American culture—fascination because she/he seems exotic and different, and fear because he/she feels uncomfortably familiar. In embodying a liminal space “in the middle,” in ambiguity, the androgyne becomes problematic for those invested in protecting established borders of identity.
Baldwin’s essay, however, is not just about the androgynes we think we see. It doesn’t require that a man wear eyeliner or a woman have short hair. Regardless of one’s physical appearance or perceived characteristics, he argues, “there is a man in every woman and a woman in every man. . . . The last time you had a drink, whether you were alone or with another, you were having a drink with an androgynous human being.” That is, even the most masculine figures, whether or not they reveal or understand it, contain the “spiritual resources” of both genders. “I know,” says Baldwin, “that the macho men—truck drivers, cops, football players—these people are far more complex than they want to realize.”
From James Baldwin and the 1980s: Witnessing the Reagan Era by Joseph Vogel. Used with permission of the University of Illinois Press. Copyright © 2018 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.