Just as Prohibition ended, Hollywood agreed to censor itself and suppress the erotic. Walt Disney attained huge popularity with his sanitized, asexual cartoons. In his movies, write Robert Jewett and John Lawrence, “Sex had become sufficiently innocent, trivial…that every family knew it could trust itself to go to the movies.” It was a kind of mass compromise between Puritanism and opportunism. America traded away one mild manifestation of the Pagan sensibility (Aphrodite in the movies) to get another (Dionysus) back in his literalized form as alcohol.
The period before World War Two marked the transition to the consumer culture. After the war, the bulk of industrial activity became the manufacture of “goods.” Rather suddenly, as youth became an ideal, advertising suggested that things people bought would make and keep them young. Prior to this time, elders almost everywhere had enjoyed the highest respect, while adolescence had been a brief period of intense preparation for adulthood.
A society that was in some ways diminishing the possibilities of life for millions of young people declared that it was best, like Peter Pan, to never grow up. Maturity implies transcending innocence and confronting memory. In 1930, former slaves and survivors of the Wounded Knee massacre were still alive. There was much to remember and much to deny. Staying young is a way of “killing time” (the god Kronos). But in doing so, we leave little to the next generation. We trade experience for innocence.
And we fall back upon one-dimensional images of what it means to be a man. After the war, John Wayne modeled a powerful yet restrained and sexually detached masculinity. As a primary figure in the cult of celebrity, Wayne’s stereotyped roles merged with his public persona and his political statements. His image would be overwhelmingly present in the psyches of three generations of American men. Robert Bly once joked that the only images of masculinity available to young men in the 1960s were Wayne and his reverse-image, the “wimpy” Woody Allen.
In many of his films (Sands of Iwo Jima, Red River, The Searchers, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon, The Horse Soldiers), his characters are widowed, unrequited in love, divorced or loners who reject any erotic relationships. They symbolize the man who has failed or never even attempted the initiatory confrontation with the feminine depths of his own soul.
The classic heroes of myth often find beautiful maidens, enact the sacred wedding (hieros gamos) and produce many children. But many heroes of popular culture (with exceptions such as James Bond and comic antiheroes) don’t get or even want the girl. Even Bond remains a bachelor. Often the hero must choose between an attractive sexual partner and duty to his mission. Some (Batman, the Lone Ranger, etc) prefer male “sidekicks.” Hawkeye, the Virginian, Superman, Green Lantern, Spiderman, Rambo, Sam Spade, Indiana Jones, Robert Langdon, John Shaft, Captains Kirk, America and Marvel: all are single. Their sexual purity (or at least their avoidance of committed relationship) seems to ensure their moral infallibility, but it also denies both complexity and the possibility of healing.
This hero has inherited an immensely long process of abstraction, alienation and splitting of the western psyche. He exemplifies, wrote Hillman, “…that peculiar process upon which our civilization rests: dissociation.” He refuses any relationship with the Other, demonizing it into his mirror opposite, the irredeemably evil. He requires no nurturance, doesn’t grow in wisdom, creates nothing, and teaches only violent resolution of disputes, which reinforces our own denial of death. His renunciation justifies his furious vengeance upon those who cannot control their appetites for power or sex. He defends democracy through fascist means. He offers, write Jewett and Lawrence, “vigilantism without lawlessness, sexual repression without resultant perversion, and moral infallibility without… intellect.”
Post-war optimism created a large shadow that Noir films expressed. Men had won the war; shouldn’t they be happy? Wayne’s cowboy movies were allegories with clear social overtones. Tim Riley writes, “It was as if the cold-war curtain came down both across Europe and across some imaginary field in the American male psyche…” To Clarissa Pinkola-Estes, the war created “a culture turned back on itself… one that had become dry from much loss of blood.” In On The Road, Jack Kerouac spoke for many men: “…wishing I were Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.”
Women, millions of whom lost their jobs to the returning soldiers, were also in a bind. Betty Friedan described a deep sense of depression, frustration and resentment. Magazines that had encouraged women to go to work before the war now praised “homemakers,” with “a single purpose… to sell a vast array of new products…”
Here is where we have to take a step or two away from history or even psychology into a more poetic imagination. Both resisting and longing to heal the mind-body split so perfectly represented by John Wayne, America dreamed up a moistening archetypal presence, at least one living soul who might enact the needed mysteries. Years later, John Lennon would sum up the situation: “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”