Male Consumerism and Identity Formation

In the 18th century American men were the primary household consumers. Outfitting their homes in a manner befitting their rank, these men sought to show their power as patriarchs through consumer goods. The 19th century’s placement of the home as women’s purview changed this. Women became those who bought the things that would show the world how genteel they and their families were.[1] This image of women as consumers and men as producers has colored our thinking about consumerism ever since. The 20th century saw the emergence of a mass consumer culture based on advertising. Many historians have taken it for granted that women were the main targets of the ad men’s efforts. Historians are discovering that men were also consumers and the target of advertisers. Scholars of masculinity in the 20th century find that consumption by men was a way of expressing masculinity, and some historians have focused on it as a particular locus of identity formation.

Kevin White’s The First Sexual Revolution explicitly ties the advent of modern masculinity to consumer culture. White is interested in mapping the change in heterosexual masculinity from Victorian ideals of character and restraint to the modern incarnation of the man who performs his masculinity through his body and personality. Consumer goods were important to this performance. He explains that after the turn of the century the culture became more visual, and men were expected to be as compelling visual as women were. Concomitant with this new visual culture was a change in advertising.[2]

In the 19th century advertising was seen as “a little dubious, not entirely respectable.” By the early century, ads were ubiquitous and lost their stigma. White says that “ads were, then, arguably more widely diffused than any other artifact of the culture of personality, yet their effect on meanings of manliness has been entirely missed by historians.” He goes on to show how ads drew on both the desire for youthfulness and the related desire for “sex appeal” in men to promote goods running the gamut from sports equipment to toothpaste. White argues that this pressure to perform a version of individualism and personality that conformed to advertisers’ visions instead led to “wholesome, crass, corn-fed, clean-cut conformity.” The Victorian, according to White, was a true individual. Early 20th century men were the conforming puppets of marketers.[3]

This argument shows that White believes that heterosexual men in the early century had less room to perform variant masculinity than the Victorians, and consumer culture explains it. Pushed to the background are other pressures, such as those Gail Bederman described in Manliness and Civilization, where middle class white men felt they needed to perform a vigorous masculinity in order to successfully fulfill their imperial destinies.[4] White does talk about how a change in the parameters of acceptable, normative sexual expression allowed marketers to seize on an opportunity to make men feel insecure in order to move products, and he argues that advertisers became part of a set of hegemonic experts on the new stress on “instant gratification and fulfillment through consumption.”[5]

White identifies the dance hall as a consumer space where men and women could enjoy heterosocial socializing and be part of the youth culture.[6] George Chauncey in Gay New York also shows how consumer spaces were the site of gay socializing. He argues that these spaces allowed those interested in gay life, in varying degrees of visibility to the straight world, to find one another and form communities. His object is not to show that consumer culture imposed a standard of homosexual performance on his male subjects, rather he shows how men used these spaces for their own purposes. Unlike White’s dance halls, Chauncey’s cafeterias, bathhouses, and entire neighborhoods were not built with a gay male consumer in mind. These places became gay spaces after men saw opportunities to both be visible to each other, and somewhat hidden from those not in the know, in them. When their visible presence became intolerable to the public after Prohibition, they continued to use the spaces in ways that were necessarily less open.[7] This view gives the power back to the individuals making identities for themselves from White’s powerful marketers.

Moreover, White argues that it was sexual success with women that defined the modern heterosexual man, thus it was women who determined acceptable masculinity. In Chauncey’s New York, it is other men who recognized one’s identity as a gay man. Women were not part of the equation. The commonality, of course, that one’s identity as a man was determined in both instances by recognition by the objects of sexual desire. In both studies, consumer goods and spaces were used in order to find and attract those who had the power to recognize one’s masculinity.

Consumer spaces, consumer goods, and being the object of sexual desire are also themes in Martin P. Levine’s Gay Macho. Writing about gay culture in New York in the 1970s, Levine’s argument is much like White’s in that Levine shows how gay men’s choice of spaces and goods resulted in a stultifying conformity to the extent that men in this culture were termed “clones.” However, unlike White’s argument, Levine does not contend that it was marketers who played on gay men’s insecurities to create a market for their products. It was instead gay men themselves, wishing to assert their masculinity, who took their cues from straight male working-class culture to create their identities.[8] This is as much a commentary on the extremely limited acceptable straight masculine performance as it is on gay masculine performance. Gay male “clones” needed to differentiate themselves from the straight men they emulated, and they did this through both the careful use of consumer goods and by congregating in spaces coded as gay.[9]

While all of these authors talk about masculinity performed through consumer culture, Mark A. Swiencicki in “Consuming Brotherhood” shows that men’s consumerism started long before White’s modern man shaped by advertising came into being. Writing in 1998, Swiencicki argues that historians had “done a remarkable job of investigating the impact of consumerism on women and femininity,” but that “American men’s experiences with consumption and consumerism have been left virtually unexplored.” He finds that consumerism has often meant the consumption of household goods, which women actually did more of. He argues that consumer services should be included in analyzing consumerism, and he finds that men actually spent a lot of a families’ disposable income on leisure services such as saloons and fraternal lodges. When he finds that when historians research male consumption it is often tied to a “’new’ male consumerism” that supposedly emerged in the 20th century. Swiencicki’s research found male consumerism was nothing new. In fact it had been around “since at least the 1880s.” The result of this neglect is the reinforcement of “the dichotomy of productive males and consuming females.” Part of the blame for this lies with advertisers, who often marketed to women.[10] Historians have perhaps taken their claims that women were consumers at face value, and not recognizing that they believed in the consumer/producer dichotomy.

Interesting in Swiencicki’s findings are that men spent their money in the 19th century in homosocial spaces. Chauncey and Levine’s gay men also did this, showing that gay men were repurposing normative male behavior for their own community building. White emphasized that heterosocial spaces where heterosexual men could test out their “sex appeal” on women became important as the 20th century progressed. Thus straight men lost the desire to consume in homosocial spaces.

Howard P. Chudacoff also finds a male consumer culture in the 19th century, and he argues that it was the bachelor who created a space for marketing to men. Bachelors in the late 19th century were considered “an ever visible social problem.” They were also envied for their ability to “freely roam the city and enjoy the new commercial and consumer culture.” These are Swiencicki’s 19th century consumers, although he included married men in his analysis. Chudacoff states that “a new kind of male mass consumerism” that began in the late 19th century “emerged to link males of all social classes through joint consumption.” Thus bachelors who had been a problem were classed merely as men and consumed the same services as married men.[11] The bachelor lifestyle became normative, with some backlash in the 1930s and to a greater extent in the 1950s.

Stuart Cosgrove explores how masculinity was performed differently based on class and ethnicity in “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare.” The mostly black and Hispanic zoot-suiters ignored wartime proscriptions on the amount of fabric that a suit could contain, thus making themselves overt outsiders. This defiance of normativity was met with violence as white servicemen at home battled with these men, literally stripping them of the markers of otherness. Showing how problematic masculine performance is when it crosses with class and ethnicity, Cosgrove notes that women participated in zoot culture as well.[12] But as the 19th century has shown, masculine performance has been appropriated across class lines before, and it is not impossible to imagine the zoot style becoming normative.

Kenon Breazeale’s “In Spite of Women” deals only with bourgeois masculinity, and he too questions the male producer female consumer dichotomy. Looking specifically at Esquire magazine, he calls it “the first thoroughgoing, conscious attempt to organize a consuming male audience.” Arguing against the idea that Playboy created the “male socio-sexual identity,” Breazeale finds that the Depression brought the “marketing industry to new levels of influence” and set the stage for the production of the creation of the male marketing target. Esquire used its non-fiction content and images of eroticized women “to represent women in order to negotiate its relationship with the feminine.” Since its mission was to create a consuming male, it needed to distance that man from both the housewife and the homosexual. It accomplished this by saying that men were superior consumers and denigrating women’s consumption skills and presenting images of heterosexual men’s sex object choice, eroticized for their easy enjoyment. Breazeale argues that Esquire laid the groundwork of creating the consuming male and putting women in their place as servicers of men years before Playboy, allowing Playboy to enjoy the received truth of women’s inferiority without contention.[13]

While male consumption has been shown to exist pre-Esquire, especially in spaces of consumption, the magazine allowed heterosexual men to find a virtual homosocial space they could enjoy without actually being in a homosocial space. When they consumed in public, they preferred heterosocial spaces, as White has shown. The trend of differentiating men from women as consumers, and casting women as objects on which one could test one’s personality and sex appeal based on display of consumer products surely influenced the heterosexual migration away from homosocial spaces.

Tom Pendergast’s Creating the Modern Man, like White, shows that there was a break between the Victorian and Modern Man. Pendergast uses the content of early century magazines to illustrate the change. Pendergast dives into intersectionality as well when he shows how magazines marketed to African American men retained the Victorian ideals of manhood much longer than magazines that were marketed to white men. He argues “the very nature of the commercial magazine mitigated against the expression of Victorian masculinity.” Nonetheless, the early men’s magazines “were so indebted to the Victorian cult of character that they celebrated the old styles of masculinity regardless.” He, like so many other historians, believes that the modern masculine role was a creation of “modern corporate consumer culture” that brought more and more “groups of men of every race and socioeconomic group” into “the embrace of an ideology that celebrates self-creation through enlightened consumption.”[14]

His view differs notably from White’s in that he finds the relationship between consumption and masculinity as being successful because it was meeting the needs of the men doing the consuming. White’s argues that the relationship was more hegemonic with corporate interests imposing advertising techniques on otherwise unwilling men. Pendergast has a far more positive view stating, “the rise of consumer culture invigorated emerging notions of masculine selfhood with largely positive consequences.” He also uses the example of black men’s magazines as one in which consumerism was gladly embraced once they were able. The ever-shifting consumer market does create insecurity for men in Pendergast’s view, but this insecurity “is common to all people, a part of the human condition.” What is unique is the contemporary willingness to discuss this private insecurity.[15]

John Kasson’s Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man offers a further complication to the idea that consumerism was hegemonic and corporate controlled. Eugen Sandow was a very successful businessman who marketed himself as the perfect man. As Kasson argues, Sandow’s success was based on the fact that he helped bridge the gap between the Victorian and Modern man. Kasson states, “he adroitly tapped antimodernist sentiments and fears of an emasculating civilization” while e “raised a new, potentially more punishing ‘scientific’ standard against which to measure one’s inadequacy.” Kasson credits Sandow with taking the male body away from being a site of productive labor to one where men could express individual desire and pleasure. The male body became a place where consumerism could take hold. Houdini’s escape abilities showed how men could remain free in an age that felt very confining, and his disrobing, or throwing off the markers of consumerism, showed men that they were not bound by consumer goods, that they could leave anytime they wished. Edgar Rice Burroughs created a character that was both white and wild, which personified masculine freedom and innate qualities. What he created as a consumer good that men could use to create their own masculine selves.[16]

While other historians have credited magazines and advertising with creating the modern man, even if the break was contested, Kasson shows that it took an interest in the male body as a site of modern masculinity to allow room for marketers to move in. A Victorian who thought of his body as a site of production would not be swayed by the bodily insecurity that the marketers promoted. But men concerned with presenting their masculinity with the perfection of their bodies would be very interested in finding, privately, what their faults were. That is what is so brilliant about magazines as a virtual replacement for homosocial spaces. With a magazine one could be alone to search out insecurities based not on comparing oneself to peers, but with comparing oneself to idealized bodies, marketed for consumption. The intersection of masculinity created by fears of imperial defeat with a new corporate culture that wished to make men consumers created the modern man.

The male body as a site of production was further complicated by the blurring of the line between work and play that Woody Register outlines in “Everyday Peter Pans.” Childlike impulses were a key to success in the early 20th century’s consumer capitalism. Men who claimed boy-like qualities were on the defensive, according to Register, since vigorous manhood and even Victorian manhood were higher on the masculine scale than boys. But these men marketed a childlike freedom to consumers eager for pleasure and escape. Their chosen personas as boy-men were “new kinds of consuming men who used the concepts of play and eternal childhood to remap the coordinates of manliness to defuse the emergent associations of consumerism with women and femininity and to reconcile their expectations – social, political, and cultural priority – with the destabilizing, carnivalesque tendencies of the new economic world.” Register has found yet another masculine performance that needed to distance itself from women when it necessarily consumed. These men “blurred the boundaries between work and play, production and consumption, masculine civilization and feminine disorder, needs and desires.” They were the incarnation of the change from staid Victorian manhood, to vigorous manhood, to a man who self-consciously pursues pleasure through consumer goods.[17]

These men were both the producers of the goods with which a man could create a type of free masculinity and performers of a new masculinity that valued play over work. Enjoying every moment of life was the new goal, and this fit right in with the new male consumerism. But in order to enjoy this life, men had to be sure they did not appear too feminine or homosexual. This is where Esquire et al fit in. Enjoyment of manhood meant constant reassurance that consuming was manly and women were in their place. These men were the future consumers of Playboy magazine. They did not insist too much on embodied vigorous masculinity.

This denial of the homosexual into normative masculinity is evidenced by the late-1970s backlash against disco. Gillian Frank outlines the events in “Discophobia.” He calls the backlash “anti-gay” and argues “The attack on disco was informed by the general perception that disco was gay and elitist, and the discourse surrounding disco was highly sexualized and framed by ‘homo/heterosexual definitions.’” The backlash was violent, not only symbolically, but threats were made to people who appeared to enjoy disco, as coded by their consumer tastes. Heterosexual men, who it has been noted, enjoyed expressing their sex appeal in heterosocial spaces. Frank argues that disco’s gay roots threatened heterosexual men’s access to women and “privileged an inauthentic masculinity.”[18] The type of heterosexual masculinity that was described by White and others had come under threat by the 1970s, and the idea that anyone other than normative men could be cultural leaders was so intolerable that the backlash was violent and lasting.

Access to women as sex partners is important to modern heterosexual masculinity, and threating that access met with punishment. As Breazeale argued, Esquire and Playboy are examples of magazines that allow men to consume and put women in their places in service to men. A couple of female historians have recently looked at Playboy magazine and tried to turn back the idea that the magazine objectifies women. In Bachelors and Bunnies, Carrie Pitzulo argues that  “Playboy’s renegotiation of postwar heterosexuality was more pro-woman, even quasi-feminist, than previously acknowledged.”[19] Elizabeth Fraterrigo’s Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America concedes that “the magazine and its founder fell back on essentialist assumptions that men and women were naturally endowed with different characteristics that gave them a corresponding place in the social order,” but notes that Playboy had a “distaste for traditional domestic roles” and was against the double standard and for birth control, thus making Playboy something of a liberating force.[20] Both authors support Breazeales idea that the magazine was a way of getting men to consume a lifestyle, they differ with him in their interpretation of the meaning of the nude women in the magazine. To Fraterrigo she represented a willing, liberated partner.[21] For Pitzulo, the opportunity for women to do something other than enter into marriages made Playboy a liberating force.[22] Both books tend to see Playboy in its context of the 1950s, where opportunities for women were few indeed, whereas Breazeale traces Playboy to its predecessor Esquire and shows how eroticized women were part of the project to make male consumption safe and decidedly masculine.

Stefan K. Cieply’s “The Uncommon Man” looks at Esquire magazine in its 1950s incarnation. Cieply identifies a problem with the historiography of male consumption, arguing that most historians treat the male consumer as a rational being, unlike the female consumer who is treated as both rational and irrational. His argument is that desire and “the channels that sanction, regulate and reproduce acceptable consumer longing and fantasy” shaped men’s consumption. He shows how one of these channels, Esquire, changed in the late 1950s to appeal to men who wanted to perform as the “Uncommon Man.” These men were considered a niche, and differed from the Intellectual in that they understood that to be sophisticated one needed to “become a better-informed and more discriminating consumer.” This consumption was used as resistance to post-war conformity; a man could only individuate through his discerning consumption. There was an obvious tension between the critique of conforming consumption and the needs of advertisers that this “Uncommon Man” sought to smooth over. Cieply’s goal is to show that consumerism is “a productive site where the gender order is enforced, contested and secured.”[23]

Identity formation through consumerism is a theme of David K. Johnson’s “Physique Pioneers.” Johnson argues that a national gay community was formed via common consumerism before there was a gay political community. Like Cieply, Johnson finds that “consumption mediates the production of social identities.” Where Johnson differs is that he argues that even though the consumer goods the gay community used in identity formation were not explicitly “gay,” gay men repurposed them. Johnson finds that this consumer-based community led directly to the later formation of the political community.[24]

It is interesting that the male body as displayed in the physique magazines that were popularized by the forces driving male identity that Kasson outlines was one of the consumer goods that gay men later used for community formation, much to the consternation of the magazine editors themselves. The tension between heteronormative viewing of the male form and the homosexual use is one of the classic tensions in the history of male consumerism. Male consumerism was acceptable as long as it did not seem feminine or gay. When gay men appropriate your masculine consumerism it becomes less usable in heterosexual male identity formation.

When gay men formed a political community, it did not impinge on the consumer community. Alice Echols’ Hot Stuff shows how gay men embraced disco and that this music, and the spaces in which it was played, gave these men a way to perform both Levine’s “Gay Macho” and a reemerging effeminate style. Like the late-1950s readers of Esquire who wished to buck conformity through consumption, a segment of the gay community wanted to reclaim effeminate style from a gay macho conformity they saw as stultifying. Disco gave these effeminate men room as performers even as disco’s gay consumers were most often “clones.” Gay men took the lead, as they did in Johnson’s article, by offering the spaces and goods that gay men could use for identity formation in discos. And the music, style, and spaces came to become popular throughout American culture, until the backlash that Frank outlines occurred.[25] For perhaps the first time, straight men were encouraged to consume like gay men in heterosocial spaces if they wished to exercise their sex appeal towards women.

The ability for gay men to teach straight men how to consume in order to appeal to women is a theme of “Masters of Their Domain” by C. Wesley Buerkle. He points out how “changing tides of capitalism” resulted in a very recent change in gender ideology from one “grounded in modern/industrial ideals to one directed toward neoliberal/consumerist ends.” As an example of the former, he uses an episode of Seinfeld in which the characters have a contest to see which of them can refrain from masturbating the longest. Buerkle traces masculine restraint back to the Victorians, and notes that the neoliberal pleasure seeking performance is concomitant and in contestation with the Victorian restraint performance. In the Seinfeld episode, the winners of the contest are punished feeding into the idea that restraint is not rewarded. In the second part of his analysis, Buerkle shows how the gay men of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy “instruct men in the precise means of perfecting their bodies and behaviors to meet aesthetic standards.” He argues that this utter abandonment of older, restrained masculinity signals that the cultural transformation to neoliberal consumption is complete. Consuming as masculine identity formation is trading one set of regimented masculinity for another, but what is interesting is it is gay men who teach straight men to consume in order to be successful sexually with women. This is a real break with early-20th century consumption, which had to distance itself from homosexuality in order to be seen as acceptable.[26] While other historians have noted the break between the Victorian and Modern Man, Buerkle is unique in showing how the Victorian ideal of restraint still resonated a hundred years after the Modern first contested it.

Historians of 20th century masculinity have necessarily shown that male consumerism not only existed, but was essential in creating the Modern Man. At first needed to distance itself from female consumption and associations with homosexuality, and later fighting against the conformity that consumerism necessarily creates in rationalized markets, consumerism has now become an absolutely acceptable way for men to perform their masculinity. As in the late 1970s, straight white men may again backlash against those who are aesthetic leaders (gay men and straight women), but even they are performing a type of masculinity through their choice of consumer goods. As scholars continue to study male consumerism it will be interesting to see how the tension between consumption as a cage and consumption as a liberating force plays out.



[1] Richard Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities, 1st Vintage Books ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 441.

[2] Kevin White, The First Sexual Revolution: The Emergence of Male Heterosexuality in Modern America, American Social Experience Series: 27 (New York : New York University Press, c1993., 1993), 9–10, 19.

[3]  White, The First Sexual Revolution, 19, 27.

[4] Gail Bederman, Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880-1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[5] White, The First Sexual Revolution, 13.

[6] White, The First Sexual Revolution,  80–105.

[7] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940 (Basic Books, 1995), 224–225, 176–177, 227–267, 347–348.

[8] Martin P Levine and Michael S Kimmel, Gay Macho: The Life and Death of the Homosexual Clone (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 28–29.

[9] Levine and Kimmel, Gay Macho, 59–61, 67.

[10] Mark A. Swiencicki, “Consuming Brotherhood: Men’s Culture, Style and Recreation as Consumer Culture, 1880-1930,” Journal of Social History 31, no. 4 (1998): 773–775.

[11] Howard P. Chudacoff, The Age of the Bachelor: Creating an American Subculture (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1999., 1999), 47–48, 227–228.

[12] Stuart Cosgrove, “The Zoot-Suit and Style Warfare,” in The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 342–353.

[13] Kenon Breazeale, “In Spite of Women: Esquire Magazine and the Construction of the Male Consumer,” in The Gender and Consumer Culture Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 226–227, 230, 232, 239.

[14] Tom Pendergast, Creating the Modern Man: American Magazines and Consumer Culture, 1900-1950 (Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 27–29.

[15] Pendergast, Creating the Modern Man, 262–265.

[16] John F. Kasson, Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America (New York : Hill and Wang, 2001., 2001), 19, 75–76, 154–155, 218, 223.

[17] Register, Woody, “Everyday Peter Pans: Work, Manhood, and Consumption in Urban America, 1900-1930,” in Boys and Their Toys? Masculinity, Technology, and Class in America, Hagley Perspectives on Business and Culture (London: Routledge, 2001), 203–205, 223–224.

[18] Gillian Frank, “Discophobia: Antigay Prejudice and the 1979 Backlash Against Disco,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 16, no. 2 (May 2007): 280, 306.

[19] Carrie Pitzulo, Bachelors and Bunnies: The Sexual Politics of Playboy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 7.

[20] Elizabeth Fraterrigo, Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America (Oxford ; New York : Oxford University Press, 2009., 2009), 10, 210.

[21] Fraterrigo, Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America, 132.

[22] Pitzulo, Bachelors and Bunnies, 178–179.

[23] Stefan K. Cieply, “The Uncommon Man: Esquire and the Problem of the North American Male Consumer, 1957–63.,” Gender & History 22, no. 1 (April 2010): 152–153, 161, 165.

[24] David K. Johnson, “Physique Pioneers: The Politics of 1960s Gay Consumer Culture,” Journal of Social History 43, no. 4 (2010): 867–871, 887–888.

[25] Alice Echols, Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), 132–133, 141–143, 150–157.

[26] C. Wesley Buerkle, “Masters of Their Domain: Seinfeld and the Discipline of Mediated Men’s Sexual Economy,” in Performing American Masculinities: The 21st-Century Man in Popular Culture (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2011), 9,15, 23, 25, 30.

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