Reading “Playboy” with Barbara Ehrenreich

An image of toast with an ornamental border
Let’s give her chronicle of middle-class marriage, "Hearts of Men", its due

by Katie Kadue

Women, old stories tell us, are the root of all work. Eve’s impulsive snack led to Adam’s curse to till the soil; in Greek myth, the creation of woman was a divine punishment for Prometheus’ theft of fire, and men ever since have been burdened with wives who, in the poet Hesiod’s telling, “stay at home … and reap the toil of others.” In the 17th century, the English pamphleteer Joseph Swetnam, the first man to be called a “misogynist,” tweaked Genesis to reflect his understanding of contemporary bourgeois shopping habits. “A woman,” he wrote, “was made to be a helper unto man, and so they are indeed: for she helpeth to spend and consume that which man painfully getteth.” The harried husband and the spendthrift wife have stayed together for centuries as a durable cultural unit, playing a starring role in novels, sitcoms, and reality TV shows. A 1963 Playboy article titled “Love, Death and the Hubby Image” could only dream of a world where wives no longer enjoy a “cushy” lifestyle financed by their husbands’ heroic self-sacrifice and marriage is no longer an institution where man and woman “live half-slave and half-free,” respectively. Without the burden of women, these stories suggest, men might be free from work — or, at least, work itself might feel freer.

Such conventional wisdom is the point of departure for Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment, from 1983. Ehrenreich reads Playboy not so much for the articles as for the subversive pleasure it promised: the decoupling of manhood from marriage and, with it, an escape not only into erotic fantasy but from the grueling “bondage of breadwinning” as well. The author of “Love, Death and the Hubby Image” is a militant in what Ehrenreich calls the “male revolt,” a diffuse movement of white middle-class men dissatisfied with the expectation that a (white middle-class) man’s lot in life is to earn a “family wage” at the expense of his own happiness. 

Nothing elides politics like the heterosexual love plot.

From the 1950s to the time of the book’s publication, Ehrenreich maps these men’s routes out of domestic hell. We meet the married mid-century sufferers of the “masculine mystique”; the Playboy-subscribing sophisticates who reassured themselves with centerfolds that there was “nothing queer” about their avoidance of marriage in favor of “urbane and indoor pleasures” like luxury goods and discussions of art and music; the Beats who walked out on work and wives alike. Meanwhile, as some men rebelled against conformity, others were redefining conformity itself as unhealthy. Cardiology, Maslovian psychology, and “men’s liberation” warned of the lethal risks of “stress,” “type A” tendencies, inauthentic “mask-ulinity,” and general constrictive “hardness,” while the counterculture embraced an “androgynous drift.” Finally, Ehrenreich considers the reactionary anti-feminism of the 1970s, and the 1982 defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, as a campaign not against feminism, exactly, but against this ragtag army of male rebels and the female enablers who let them run away from their responsibilities. 

In remembrances of Ehrenreich, who died in September at the age of 81, Hearts of Men has been described as one of her “less expressly political” works, nowhere near as influential as her famous undercover reporting on working-class labor conditions in Nickel and Dimed or her elaborations, with her onetime husband John Ehrenreich, of the concept of the “professional-managerial class,” or PMC. And it’s true that while Ehrenreich calls for a robust welfare state as a provisional replacement for the family wage system, her scope is largely constricted to interior spaces designed or maintained as refuges from politics: the suburban home; the office; the bachelor pad; the titular hearts of men, by which she means both the emotional organ and, in a chapter on how doctors chalked up the epidemic of male cardiac disease to wives’ excessive shopping habits, the physiological one. And the men those hearts belong to represent a narrow demographic — the straight and indeed “compulsively heterosexual” white men of the PMC. Nonetheless, the book resonates with the broad anti-work sentiments that lie at the heart of labor politics in 2022, in part because it seeks to convert the stagnant resentment of the long-suffering husband into mass resistance to drudgery. 

The constraints of scope serve a narrative purpose: Ehrenreich has scripted something like a romantic comedy, shot through with the cheerfully deployed rhetoric of the “battle of the sexes,” the military metaphor that provides the conflict that makes rom-coms tick. An early scene pans over an evenly matched odd couple: the feminist socialist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who saw women’s dependence on men as a grim, naturalized necessity (“The female of the genus homo is economically dependent on the male”), and the caustic misogynist H.L. Mencken, who determined that “under the contract of marriage, all the duties lie upon the man and all the privileges appertain to the woman,” an arrangement that men accepted only because they were stupid. After introducing Gilman’s befuddlement about why men would willingly enter into the “indentured servitude” of marriage, Ehrenreich stages an ideological meet-cute: “Mencken had an answer, though it is doubtful that Gilman would have liked it,” like a libertine Cary Grant character shaking his head and smiling knowingly at a frumpily skeptical Katharine Hepburn. Will they be able to see past their differences and turn their shared diagnosis of marriage as a degrading and unstable institution into a joint passion project? If those constrained in yellow-wallpapered rooms could unite with those in wood-paneled offices to break free of their walls together, could they all live happily ever after? 

An image of a loaf of bread

If Ehrenreich seduces us into thinking we’re reading a romance, she does so to remind us that there’s something political about eliding politics, and nothing elides politics like the heterosexual love plot. The formal symmetry of that plot — boy meets girl, boy marries girl, boy is paid a family wage to support girl — belies an asymmetry of power. Men went into marriage because of social pressure, women because of economic necessity. It also conceals the third member of the modern marriage’s ménage à trois: the boss. “Men have defaulted on a pact,” as Ehrenreich says in her conclusion, “but more to the point, so have corporate employers.” As those employers squeezed more hours of workers while paying them less, these men blamed wives, not bosses, for their unhappiness, sometimes even conflating wife and boss. It was women who worked their husbands to death with their demands for fur coats and then laughed all the way to the bank to cash the life-insurance checks, women who increasingly controlled household finances and drove the consumer economy. Why should women want to enter the workforce when they already ran the world? “They own America by mere parasitism,” as one 1956 article put it. Likewise, Phyllis Schlafly and other anti-feminists of the New Right blamed women for letting men think they had no financial obligations to the weaker sex, rather than “questioning the structural insecurity of marriage.” The misogyny of the anti-feminists, like that of the male rebels, was born of convenience. Why waste energy locating the structural cause of what “benumbed men’s minds and crushed men’s spirits” when “there was always another more accessible and acceptable villain — woman” right there in the kitchen?

Hearts of Men beats in an alternating rhythm, between sharp mockery of male complaint and an expansive appreciation of the sincere and worthy critique at its heart: “the system that bound men to their work and women to men” made everyone involved unfree. Ehrenreich humors her subjects, with humor to spare. She pokes fun at the “gray flannel rebel” who thinks he’s the only one to chafe against “conformity”; he dutifully fulfills his marital and professional obligations, “but (maybe because he was just a little smarter than other men) he knew that something was wrong.” At other times, she adopts the rollicking tone of the misogynist huckster. “Playboy charged into the battle of the sexes with a dollar sign on its banner. The issue was money,” she writes, as if between puffs of a fat cigar. “Men made it, women wanted it.” If part of Ehrenreich’s diagnosis is that these men had a hard time seeing outside their immediate circumstances, part of our collective treatment may be learning to see outside our own. Empathizing with our ideological enemies isn’t just a moral exercise — learning to speak their language might help us write a shared future.

“A woman was made to be a helper unto man, and so they are indeed: for she helpeth to spend and consume that which man painfully getteth.”

Ultimately, the book’s horizon is liberation: freedom from the “bondage of breadwinning” means freedom from restrictive gender roles not just for men but for everyone. The perennially lamented “feminization of American men” as they shed their rigid armor, unblock their clogged arteries, and let their tears flow is, for Ehrenreich, progress. Now, nearly 40 years later, with anti-trans legislation and the rollback of reproductive rights threatening to recalcify the gender roles that Ehrenreich saw slackening, the book feels at once dated and all too topical. “Burnout” might be the new “stress,” and what David Graeber called “bullshit jobs” are as soul-crushingly meaningless as those that led earlier generations of company men to consider opting out entirely. That this alienation has, with the notable exception of incels and their ilk, begun to lose its gendered edge, with young people more likely to blame work than women for their woes, might feel like progress, too. Still, harnessing dissent directed against women, whose conspicuous consumption has been tightly packaged with the necessity of labor since humanity’s mythic beginnings, and redirecting it against the modern forces of capital and the state will take much more work. “The question” for Ehrenreich, in matchmaker mode, “is whether we rebels of both sexes have enough in common to work together.”

Katie Kadue is a writer living in Los Angeles.

Illustrations by Chloe Scheffe. Original photographs courtesy of Mishaal Zahed / Unsplash and Sergio Arze / Unsplash.