Review of Lynne Luciano, Looking Good: Male Body Image in Modern America and John Pettigrew, Brutes in Suits: Male Sensibility in America, 1890-1920
The historical evolution (or de-evolution, depending on one's perspective) of what makes modern men "men" and how this awareness influences the way individuals dress, eat, and present themselves in public is the central focus of Brutes in Suits and Looking Good. As a matter of fact, looked at from the perspective of the long "American Century," the books read like a two-volume set. Chronologically, the work focusing on the Progressive Era flows nicely into the next on male body image in Contemporary America.
Readers should be aware, however, that although both books are written by professional historians, there are significant differences in how the information is presented, which speaks to the contrast between popular and academic history. Published by Hill and Wang and directed at a non-scholarly audience, Looking Good by Lynne Luciano (now Lynne Loeb, associate professor of history at the University of California, Dominguez) is lighter in tone and formality, yet still intellectually rigorous, within the confines of a general history book. On the other hand, Brutes in Suits by John Pettegrew (associate professor of history at Lehigh University), published by Johns Hopkins University Press, is denser, more detailed, printed in smaller text, and longer. As a matter of fact, the two books serve as an almost perfect case study in the differences between general and academic publishing.
Given the similarity in content matter, an easy trap to fall into as a reviewer is to privilege one type of book over the other based on these significant differences. Yet, on closer inspection, the authors under review took great care in addressing the needs of their target audiences. My own bias is that I would probably rather read Pettegrew's book but write Luciano's.
Either could be useful in a college classroom as a supplemental text: Brutes in Suits for advanced undergraduate or graduate courses, while Looking Good is better suited for undergrad studies. A shared strength of both books is that they include an essay on sources. These pieces—becoming more atypical as publishers look for ways to cut costs—provide readers with an overview of their research and further analysis of the theoretical foundations.
Pettegrew's Brutes in Suits examines what he labels the "de-evolutionary turn in U.S. masculinity," focusing on the progressive era. Pettegrew explains, "rather than trying to outrun the brutish aspects of early human history, [normative masculinity] circled back and embraced predation like never before, breaking down along the way barriers between animal and human, and savagery and civilization [page 36] that had been so endemic to earlier ideals of white middle-class American manhood" (pp. 15-16).
Through deep research and insightful analysis, Pettegrew reveals how the idea of man as brute spread via scientific, social, and cultural forces to become the dominant notion of manhood. Men did not, as the author notes, come to this kind of thinking through instinct. Rather, "de-evolutionary masculinity spread in the manner of a contagion, insinuating itself through language and ideas as well as through the less-conscious transference of habits and dispositions" (pp. 18-19).
In five chapters and an epilogue, Pettegrew tackles post-Civil War institutions, including professional historians, literature aimed at men, college football, the military, and the legal system. The real strength of Brutes in Suits is the way Pettegrew researches specific topics within these broader categories, building an airtight case for de-evolutionary masculinity as a construct that infiltrated men's thinking about themselves and the broader society.
Readers will appreciate his wide-ranging source material, from advertisements and drawings to literary texts and songs. For example, by citing college football chants, cheers, and songs, Pettegrew demonstrates how the sport's brutality became central to its allure and growing popularity. In addition, while the author's focus is on the progressive era, he also provides examples drawn from recent history to show the pervasiveness of hyper-masculinity in American thought. To illustrate this point, Pettegrew draws on a number of sources, from cold-blooded statements made by Timothy McVeigh to the rhetoric surrounding the Iraq War and war on terror. Pettegrew shows hyper-masculinity as an enduring trope used to understand men in contemporary America.
While Brutes in Suits and Looking Good seem like a continuum in many respects, there is a challenging transformation revealed as well. On one hand, Pettegrew shows how the idea of "man as warrior" permeated culture from a variety of influences. Luciano, however, takes on a different (but strangely related) challenge. She asks, "What caused American men to fall into the beauty trap so long assumed to be the special burden of women" (p. 5)? There is no single answer to what she labels "the new cult of male body image in postwar America," but certainly the same impulses that caused Pettegrew's de-evolution/hyper-masculinity in the earlier period also worked to embed body image as a central facet of male thinking in the later era.
Looking Good addresses in chronological fashion the many ways in which men became obsessive about the way they looked, with chapters devoted to each decade from the 1950s to 1990s. The strength of interrogating the subject in a sequence of decades is that readers can think about each era in these terms, such as the "Organization Man" of the 1950s. The challenge of presenting the material this way is that most issues do not unfold in neat, little boxes. Luciano's stylistic prose, however, helps smooth the transitions between eras, despite the limitations of imposing restrictions on time periods in this manner.
Each chapter in Looking Good examines male attitudes and experiences with body image, hair, fitness, plastic surgery, and sexuality. There are strengths and weaknesses to this layout. On one hand, returning to these topics enables the reader to understand their evolution over time. However, it limits the analysis by focusing on these ideas at the expense of others. For example, in the fine chapter on the [page 37] 1970s, Luciano provides powerful analysis following the template described above, but other ideas are undervalued, such as the rise of the pornography industry, disco, and recreational drug use. The latter is presented as a laundry list of side effects rather than viewed as a transformational aspect of culture in the decade.
Luciano is at her best when providing insight on specific topics within a decade and synthesizing ideas from several media into a new way of looking at male body image. Her analysis of Playboy, for example, uncovers how founder Hugh Hefner actually promoted a more conservative attitude than critics imagined, reinforcing consumerism and materialism rather than sexual freedom. According to Luciano, "Playboy promoted the same images of the good life as General Motors and Listerine…men were portrayed much as they were in mainstream magazines: well-dressed, usually fully clothed, looking less sensual than successful, less vain about their bodies than about their clothing and cars" (p. 81).
Taken together, Brutes in Suits and Looking Good give men a broader understanding of the forces that have impacted the way they view themselves and have been measured by society since the late 1800s. Interestingly, contemporary male culture still revolves around the ideas presented by Pettegrew and Luciano (though the obsession regarding male body image may, in some respects, be softening the earlier de-evolutionary masculinity). Take, for example, the rise of "bro-mance" films, which give men permission to be emotional with one another, though in a comedic context, or the popular saying "hug it out," another instance of society allowing men to touch without fear of being labeled homosexual.
Today's man, for better or worse, is expected to be tough, aggressive, and successful, but also sensitive, well groomed, and stylishly dressed, almost a perfect melding of Pettegrew's brute and Luciano's metrosexual. Certainly, what these books uncover is the depth of the male burden to portray an image mentally and physically that may or may not have anything to do with who he actually is or believes himself to be.