Interview: Judy Kutulas on the “Me Decade” and Man Buns

Judy Kutulas, author of After Aquarius Dawned: How the Revolutions of the Sixties Became the Popular Culture of the Seventies, talks to UNC Press Publicity Director Gina Mahalek about making sense of the “me decade” and whether man buns are here to stay. 

cover image for After Aquarius Dawned: How the Revolutions of the Sixties Became the Popular Culture of the Seventies, by Judy KutulasGina Mahalek: In your book, you challenge the common view that the 1970s were a time of counterrevolution against the radical activities and attitudes of the previous decade. Rather, you see the 1970s as a time of assimilation. Tell us about yourself and what led you to this topic.

Judy Kutulas: I was a young teen in the 1960s, very influenced by the ways the world seemed to be changing, but too young to be out there on the political barricades. College was a revelation to me, full of peers rebelling against their parents’ lives and this interesting blend of ambition and pleasure-seeking. Nobody wanted to be an adult like their parents. Perhaps the 1970s really were the “me decade,” because at some point as a historian, I wanted to make sense of that experience, to explore a topic with emotional resonance to me and the 1970s were that moment.

GM: The revolutions of the 1960s undermined traditional hierarchies of race, gender, and sexual identity, liberating people from traditions, social norms, and rules. What happened when experts, rules, and authorities lost influence?

JK: At some point, authorities just seemed hypocritical or wrong, so ordinary people felt like they could challenge the status quo and get away with it.  When The Rolling Stones appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show and altered the lyrics to “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” but Mick Jagger just rolled his eyes as they did, for instance, young viewers saw a subversive attitude toward authority.

You see enough moments like that and you start to find your own voice and develop what parents used to call an attitude. You start to question both the censorship and what’s wrong with the act itself. You can’t even imagine how your elders can justify not spending the night together or smoking the weed or growing a beard. There’s a lot of generational rebellion going on in the 1970s and baby boomers have the numerical and consumerist strength to have their interests and desires privileged in the popular culture. Nobody is going to sing about saving yourself for marriage when the idea itself lacks credibility. Instead, they want reassurance that they were “born to be wild.”

GM: You say that one of the biggest and most important differences between the established path Americans used to take and the new possibilities is that Americans are no longer marrying young. Instead, they live alone longer, seek satisfying work, and engage in sexual relationships outside marriage. What are some of the things that influenced this trend?

JK: When I started this project, I had no idea how many people’s senses of living single and female where shaped by The Mary Tyler Moore Show, not just white, middle-class girls like me, but, for example, Oprah. There were just no other models for what a single women’s apartment looked like or how the feminism we read about worked on the job. And, of course, the same model also worked for men, who learned a new workplace etiquette premised on equals because the women’s movement defined a new political correctness. Perhaps most importantly, the show suggested that single people might rely on their coworkers and neighbors like they would family. The American normal heretofore was so oriented around family, but here was Mary living this satisfying, attractive life, never lonely, always surrounded by people who loved her. It’s the same fantasy that drove Friends or How I Met Your Mother or dozens of more recent TV shows.

Perhaps the 1970s really were the “me decade,” because at some point as a historian, I wanted to make sense of that experience, to explore a topic with emotional resonance to me and the 1970s were that moment.
GM: What influence did singer-songwriters have on sexual attitudes?

JK: Until the 1970s, popular music mainly supported a set of norms shorthanded by songs like “The Chapel of Love.” There was lots of teen romantic drama that suggested men had the power and women might be tempted by bad boys that they reformed. Along comes Carole King singing that she feels the earth move or that a relationship fell apart, and you have a whole new way of imagining your romantic path forward. People still talk about how influential Tapestry was because it helped define the parameters of what we call relationships, emphasizing pleasure over conventional morality, suggesting alternatives to marriage, imagining that love might have a lifespan. That’s a profound shift in mindset and pretty soon it is echoed in movies and even TV, but people like Carole King, Carly Simon, and James Taylor got there first. Their singer-songwriter music that was very personal really spoke to a lot of young people, especially women. Its short moment in the sun suggests just how quickly relationships become the norm. In a very few years, most Americans regard sex before marriage as a social norm.

GM: Post -1960s America was also a place more tolerant of diversity and difference. How did TV, in particular, open up the culture?

JK: Sitcoms were aspirational before the 1970s and the only people who didn’t follow that model, like hillbillies or witches, still reinforced the values of happy, white, middle-class families with tiny problems solved in half an hour. 1970s TV is gritty, even sitcoms. People have marital problems or money problems. The world is depicted as dangerous and threatening.  1970s TV’s role is not to model ideals, but rather to show reality, and reality is diverse.

That means not only minorities, but gays and lesbians. Certainly no show featured gay main characters, however, even the occasional gay character featured in a single episode taught the audience about being gay just at the moment when medical and psychological opinion shifted away from the idea that being gay was deviant to the idea that being gay is just another form of sexuality. TV was one of the few places where Americans who generally didn’t think they knew anybody gay might see inside a gay bar or hear a gay person talk about discrimination. Many of the themes are relevant today: transgender issues, gays raising children, challenging stereotypes.

The same is true of race. White, middle-class viewers saw and related to poor African Americans on programs like Good Times or Sanford and Son. They could develop empathy as they came to recognize that these were well-meaning people trapped by discrimination. The shared villain of the Establishment helped to bond viewers to characters who were different.

If I was writing on the culture of the present day, I would definitely use man buns as a way into the broader phenomenon of gender fluidity.
GM: There was, however, a backlash. Where did those attitudes come from?

JK: The 1960s gave conservatives the same kind of agency they gave anyone else, and the evangelical movement takes off in the 1970s as mainstream denominations decline. The sorts of changes happening, though, challenge their world view, as they believe in one biblical truth, especially with respect to family roles and sexuality. Conservatives are appalled by TV’s new frankness, especially sexual openness. They self consciously use the tools of the civil rights movement—boycotts—to induce the networks to stop showing so much sex.

Anita Bryant, a former Miss America contestant, launched a “save our children” campaign, the premise of which is that gays recruit or abuse children. The networks compromised by excluding gay characters because, overall, in post 1960s America, sex sells, although gay sexuality was less popular with the general public than heterosexual sex, like on Three’s Company. There was a threatened boycott of Soap, which featured Billy Crystal as a gay man. ABC ran the series anyway. That was 1977. By 1980, with Reagan elected and the Moral Majority exerting power, a series called Hello Sidney, with a gay main character, proceeds with no mention of Sidney’s sexuality. But conservatives can’t hold back change forever and gay characters and, particularly stories about HIV/AIDS, are all over 1980s TV.

GM: You also talk about Jim Jones and Jonestown, and suggest that the mass murder/suicide that occurred there grew out of a paradigm shift that came in part from the Christian right, conspiracy theorists, and the general public response to Watergate. What can you tell us about this?

JK: “If it feels good, do it” was a common counterculture motto, one shaped by pleasure rather than duty, responsibility, or even morality. The postwar era begins as one that celebrates science and rationality. The counterculture, though, emphasizes intuition, the mystical and desire, and all the assassinations and violence bring the concept of evil to the forefront. The People’s Temple began as a sort of 1960s commune and by the 1970s, increasingly members thought they were retreating from a toxic culture. Yet to outsiders, Jones could only be explained as evil. The mass death/suicide of the more than 900 members living in Jonestown in 1978 seemed like an example of an evil leader imposing his will over victims.  I think, though, the story is more complicated, and the public response celebrates the resilience of the human spirit to not “drink the Koolaid” as the saying goes.

GM: Do you see any societal shifts happening today that you think will become more mainstream in the next decade?

JK: If I was writing on the culture of the present day, I would definitely use man buns as a way into the broader phenomenon of gender fluidity. At the risk of sounding old and cranky, there is no earthly reason for man buns to exist—except as an expression of personal style.  The man bun doesn’t so much demonstrate individuality as conformity to a set of implicit stylistic norms that exist within a particular group of white, educated males. Man buns flaunt gender conventions, tend to gently irk elders, and set their wearers apart from the more ordinary Joes outside of big cities or college towns.

They are more effete, I suspect, than tattoos, and certainly less permanent. But just how truly gender-fluid are man buns? All the stylistic expressions of gender fluidity—the man buns, the man skirts, the earrings, and the nail polish that growing numbers of teenage boys sport—go one way: men appropriating women’s styles. The man bun-sporters rebel not against gender roles so much as they borrow the fun parts of traditional womanhood. By putting their hair up on their heads, they mainly call attention to the trendy class of creative types and independent intellectuals with whom they identify. They also say that they are so comfortable with their masculinity that they can wear their hair like a girl.

Certainly some of today’s youth really do identify themselves as gender-fluid and fight real battles to maintain their identity in a world that is pretty gender-binary, as we say in women’s and gender studies classes; but the man bun seems like a faux expression of gender fluidity.

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Judy Kutulas is professor of history and American studies at Saint Olaf College.