Twilight of the He-Man

Signs that the epidemic of he-manliness is nearing its peak are encouraging. The turn is probably still to come, but the cry of the male is carrying so far and his chest beatings are so loud that the whole cult of masculinity — if that’s what we are expected to call it—may soon become only a memory. It was not so long ago, one recalls, that the irresistible riposte on a commuters’ train of a morning was, “Vas you dere, Sharlie?” and there was a considerable period some years later when everyone was eating chlorophyll, and alert manufacturers were putting it into toothpaste and chewing gum. These preoccupations did not prove durable, and it may well be that the he-man of 1967 will have a place only in our photograph albums by the time summer is here. He-manliness is boiling so hard that it can’t possibly last.

One symptom of acute virility was the New York newspaper advertisement by a midtown clothing store offering a turtleneck black sweater. The price was $17, and quite a bit was made of the fact that the sweater was imported—from France, no less! The shop could fairly be described as attuned to the well-dressed office boy or the harddriving assistant branch manager, and one assumes that the importation of a sweater from France would not in itself dazzle the clientele. A more pertinent appeal was called for in the caption for the advertisement’s text: the single word “Danger.”

Hammering home the concept that the purchaser of the $17 sweater can thereby pass for a really tough nut was a drawing — quite a good one — of a young man who is wearing it. He’s not angry — yet—just grim, and in his right hand, pointing it upward at about forty-five degrees, he holds a large automatic pistol, a Luger I should judge.

The implications of the pistol are not clear. Without it the young man would not seem especially dangerous; disagreeable, yes, but nothing to frighten anyone. What, then, causes the danger? Only a general unfamiliarity with firearms, we are forced to conclude. Put a pistol in his hand, and it may go off any old time at almost anything, but the same could be said of a six-year-old. The logic of all this as a come-on for a $17 sweater is hard to follow.

The he-man is putting up another last stand with his automobiles. The ferocious names Detroit has devised for mass-production models are several years old by now, and we are all accustomed to the he-man as he plods through the traffic in a car named after some predatory animal or fish or poisonous snake. The names must have acquired a certain amount of goodwill, one supposes, and continue in use, although they lack novelty, so that the copywriter has to rummage around and talk it up on the side.

“Crouched low for action” was the copywriter’s description of a perfectly normal Detroit hardtop, the sort of car that fills the parking lots of supermarkets, where the heman owner, his automatic pistol laid aside for the moment, is often seen off-loading bags of purchases from his shopping cart into its ever so spacious trunk. (To reach the innermost recesses of the trunk and stow the Big Economy Size carton of detergent, the he-man must indeed be crouched low for action, just like his car, unless he is to fetch himself a nasty bump on the trunk lid.)

As symbols, these signs of hemanliness are harmless enough, but the times are against them. Not even the six-hundred-cubic-inch Viper can crouch low enough to hurry through a jam at a turnpike tollgate. How much “danger” bespeaks the black turtleneck sweater if all Viper owners are wearing one, and why in that circumstance should anyone at all wear one? The he-man is fighting his last desperate rearguard action in a veritable uniform of the day: sweater, dungarees, loafers. Is this the garb of an individualist or of a conformist? What if everyone has muscles on Muscle Beach? Or, in town, what is so distinctive about a dirty neck if all are unwashed?