[Theme: Social Structures & the Practices of Identity]
[Approach: Cultural & Social Analysis]
Questioning American Masculinity in Death of a Salesman, A Raisin in the Sun, and Rebel Without a Cause
The turbulent years of the Great Depression and World War II caused peaked anxiety in the 1950s, which led to changing notions of nearly all aspects of American life. The decade’s confusing and conflicting views of American males and their societal expectations epitomize this cultural anxiety. Three distinct fictional characters – Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), Walter Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959), and Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – all represent different assertions about American men in the 1950s based on differences in race, class, and age. Willy Loman, an ordinary salesman simply following the American dream, represents desperation and failure while questioning the roles of father figures in American families. Walter Younger, an African-American man trying desperately to assert his manhood, emphasizes the unique struggles of African-American males and what the American dream comes to mean to black Americans. Finally, Jim Stark, a middle-class teenager labeled as a dangerous deviant, questions what manhood means in America, particularly to his generation. Ultimately, these three distinct characters together represent a changing notion of American masculinity based on cultural and social tensions and shifts of the decade, the failure of traditional manhood, and an overall criticism of the classic American dream.
Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman focuses on Willy Loman and his failed quest for the American dream. Willy is an ordinary American salesman. Although he always exaggerates his actual importance, claiming “they know me up and down New England” (31), Willy seems to merely be an average worker if not simply a bad salesman. Willy’s constant pretending is a problem throughout the novel, and eventually leads to his suicide. While pretending to be prosperous and on the cusp of reaching his dream, Willy hides his failures, especially economic, as best as he can. Willy continuously attempts to fit in with the 1950s ideal, which was largely based on the new mass consumer culture and the rise of advertising and branding. Willy is a victim of American advertising; he bought the refrigerator with “the biggest ads,” which he takes to mean that it is a “fine machine” (35). Later, however, when the refrigerator breaks, Willy angrily proclaims, “I told you we should’ve bought a well-advertised machine. Charley bought a General Electric and it’s twenty years old and it’s still good” (73). Advertising implies, to Willy anyway, better quality products and offers a standard of comparison to other Americans. Willy pretends to be interested in expensive consumer goods like his boss Howard’s new wire recorder (76), but is struggling to pay his own mortgage and is in fact asking Howard for a new job. At the end of the play, after Willy’s suicide, his wife Linda “made the last payment on the house… and there’ll be nobody home” (139). When the success that Willy craved for so long is finally achieved, no one is around to appreciate it and Willy has gravely succumbed to societal pressures. The American dream has effectively collapsed, even though Willy would prefer to pretend otherwise.
Willy Loman certainly represents a crumbling of the American dream, and his character also emphasizes two very different ideas of manhood present in the 1950s. The first, exemplified by the television program Father Knows Best, portrays a centrist man as the core of a nuclear family. The children depend on him; the wife supports him and loves him unconditionally. In stark contrast to this idea was Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Magazine, which was first published in 1953. Playboy portrayed a new social type, swinging bachelors, young single men that challenged the popular image of 1950s family stability (Self, 9/16/10). While neither a perfect father nor a swinging bachelor, Willy Loman does represent these conflicting visions of American masculinity. He is, first and foremost, a father figure, and his wife Linda is hopelessly in love with him. Centrist fatherhood comparable to Father Knows Best is found throughout the book in Willy’s flashbacks to his family in the past, when his children still believed in him and would “love to go with him” on a business trip sometime (31). Willy cherished these memories and continuously strives to be the perfect father by pushing his children to greatness. He contradicts this notion of familial honesty, however, by having an affair with a woman while traveling as a salesman. While not exactly a swinging bachelor, Willy is certainly not the perfect husband or father, and his familial pride is shattered when his son, Biff, finds out about the affair. Willy, however, pretends that Biff does not know and continues pretending to be happy and successful until his suicide.
Much like Willy Loman, the character Walter Younger in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun struggles to define his own manhood. Walter’s situation is unique, however, because he is African-American. While America’s stance in World War II may have suggested a new racial equality, racism was still a major issue during this time and plays a significant part in Walter’s story. Walter’s manhood especially is subject to race, as suggested in Jean Carey Bond and Patricia Peery’s “Is the Black Male Castrated?” The article alleges that this theory of black male emasculation is based on the idea that “black men have failed throughout history to shield their women and families from the scourge of American racism and have failed to produce a foolproof strategy for liberating black people” and that “black women have castrated them by… playing their economic ace in the hole” (114-115). The criticism seems harsh, but Walter’s manhood is certainly questioned based on his relation to the women in his life. Mama, Walter’s mother, controls the wealth in the family because she is receiving a life insurance check from her late husband. Walter has no control in his own household, he pleads for somebody to “please listen” to him, but Mama responds that she “don’t ‘low no yellin’” in her house (70). Walter is unable to assert any control, even within his own family, and is thus emasculated. He completely concedes his manhood when he decides to succumb to the white man. Mama Younger chooses to use the life insurance check to buy a house in a white neighborhood, but the neighborhood’s homeowner association, represented by the character Mr. Lindner, offers money to the family in exchange for them staying out of the neighborhood. After Walter loses a large amount of money in a failed business deal, he decides to give in “and say, ‘All right, Mr. Lindner – that’s your neighborhood out there! You got the right to keep it like you want!’” (144). By portraying desperation and powerlessness, Walter is effectively emasculated. His family is embarrassed for him and ashamed of the failure of his masculinity.
Walter only comes to realize his own manhood by gaining economic independence and ultimately standing up to the white man for his family. Mama decides to give Walter some of her money for his own use and tells him “to be the head of this family from now on like you supposed to be” (107). Walter, now full of hope, promises his son that he will give him whatever he wants and that he will “hand [him] the world” (109). His masculinity and power, as well as his new role as a good father, can come only from economic independence. His manhood is cemented when he decides not to give in to Mr. Lindner. Walter tells Mr. Lindner that he “comes from people who had a lot of pride” and that they have decided to move into their house because his father “earned it for us brick by brick” (148). Although Mr. Lindner ominously warns them, “I sure hope you people know what you’re getting into,” the family still celebrates Walter’s assertion of manhood and black pride (149). The play closes with Mama happily commenting on the fact that Walter had “finally come into his manhood” that day (151). Walter’s manhood is very clearly related to standing up to whites, which indicates the racial tension prevalent in 1950s America. Walter’s is certainly a distinctly black struggle, but his striving for economic independence is easily comparable to Willy Loman’s. Both characters dream big, but Walter’s dreams are intimately tied with his race. Although Mama suggests that freedom was once enough, Walter continues to dream of economic prevalence. His dreams of successful business ultimately prove fruitless, but he still finds his manhood through economic independence and racial integrity.
The character Jim Stark in the 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause is very different from Willy Loman and Walter Younger, but still comes to question what manhood means in 1950s America. To Jim, a middle-class teenager in the suburbs, manhood means defending his own “honor” (Rebel). To assert his manhood, Jim agrees to race stolen cars over a cliff – the man who jumps out first is a “chicken,” so Jim feels he must participate to prove himself otherwise. Throughout the film, his manhood is in direct contradiction with his father’s seeming lack of masculinity. Jim asks his father for advice about participating in the car race, inquiring, “if you had to do something very dangerous – where you have to prove something you need to know – a question of honor. Would you do it?” (Rebel). His father fails to answer effectively, avoiding the question and dismissing the problem by simply saying, “I wouldn’t do anything hasty” (Rebel). The father’s masculinity is continuously questioned, as Jim’s mother seems to control the family and Jim’s father lacks any power. With no help from his father, Jim can only follow his own ideas of masculinity, and thus enters the race. He proves his honor by surviving, and later finds his parents’ approval by introducing them to his new girlfriend. Honor and the traditions of teenage relationships are the two things that prove Jim’s masculinity. Willy Loman and Walter Younger both seek masculinity through economic power and dominance over women, which is comparable to Jim’s teen honor and budding romantic relationship. The crumbling of the American dream is found not in the character of Jim, but in his father – who lacks masculinity and thus is a failed father, with a possibly delinquent son.
Jim Stark and Rebel Without a Cause further represent 1950s America by showing the prevailing anxiety about delinquency and the growing importance of a new teen mass culture. The three main characters in the movie – Jim, his girlfriend Judy, and their friend Plato – first meet at a police station, where they are detained. These teenagers are all labeled as child delinquents, which was a growing worry of Americans in the 1950s. Juvenile delinquency was often blamed on poor parenting because of the rise of Freudian psychology – and these three characters all lacked positive parental care (Self, 9/16/10). Jim’s father clearly lacks the upper hand in the family, Judy’s father apparently hates her and calls her a “dirty tramp,” and Plato’s parents are never around (Rebel). These ideas of delinquency are present throughout the movie, and come to represent the new mass teen culture that was largely sparked by this film. New trends like rock ‘n’ roll were based around teen audiences and the attractiveness of so-called deviancy. Another important shift of this teen culture is the shift of male characters from models of manliness, like John Wayne, to wounded, vulnerable men longing to be understood, like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (Self, 9/21/10). This shift is another representation of the changing notions of masculinity in the 1950s. As the American dream collapsed, traditional manliness was replaced by seeming weakness; the idea of American masculinity expanded to include failure.
Willy Loman, Walter Younger, and Jim Stark are all fictional characters that represent real men in a time of vast social change. While common notions of the American dream were still widespread at this time, these characters represented realistic depictions of those not fortunate enough to have it – the failed salesman, the struggling African American, and the juvenile delinquent. While the 1950s is often understood as a decade of abundance and consensus, these characters reveal underlying tensions and set the stage for the jarring turbulence of the 1960s.
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. New York: Random House, 1995.
Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. New York: Penguin Books, 1976.
Rebel Without a Cause. Dir. Nicholas Ray. Perf. James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, and Ann Doran. Warner Bros, 1955.
Self, Robert. “Consumption, Suburbanization, and the 1950s Zeitgeist.” Politics and Culture in the U.S. Since 1945. Brown University. Wilson Hall, Providence, RI. 16 September 2010. Lecture.
Self, Robert. “Where the Boys and Girls Are: Gender and Popular Culture.” Politics and Culture in the U.S. Since 1945. Brown University. Wilson Hall, Providence, RI. 21 September 2010. Lecture.