Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

This site is archival. Please visit for up-to-date content.

President John F. Kennedy and the Masculine Mystique

In his new book, MU scholar suggests JFK’s popularity was rooted in his carefully cultivated masculine image

November 28th, 2016

Story Contact: Jeff Sossamon, 573-882-3346,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – President John F. Kennedy was in the White House less than three years—a presidency marked on the international stage by the rise of Fidel Castro’s regime and the Cuban missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs invasion and a failed summit with Russian President Nikita Khrushchev. Yet, Kennedy is revered as one of the most popular presidents of the past century. Steven Watts, professor of history in the College of Arts & Science at the University of Missouri, says that JFK’s careful cultivation of his masculine image was the key to success with the American public.

In Watts’ new book, JFK and the Masculine Mystique: Sex and Power on the New Frontier, he suggests Kennedy’s masculine traits of vigor, toughness, and cool sophistication made him a new kind of “celebrity” leader in public life.  It was culture, as much as politics that pushed him upward.

“Kennedy understood the power of image in an increasingly media-saturated society,” Watts said. “In a time when television was taking off, he recognized that the way politicians advance is through the image they project. By carefully controlling his masculine image, he not only won the presidency but challenged certain social traditions and plowed the ground for the seeds of the radicalism that followed in the 1960s.

“In the postwar era, there was a widespread crisis of manhood where American men were pictured as falling victim to the drudgery of bureaucracy and the softness of consumerism,” Watts said. “Men who had fought overseas in World War II had come home to the normalcy and abundance of middle-class life. The timid, domesticated suburban father and husband became a lamentable figure in the Age of Eisenhower, who, at the time, was the oldest president in American history. Then, the strapping and vigorous JFK burst on the scene. He was assertive, perceived to be physically fit and glamorous, and became the youngest president elected in American history. He promised a new ethic of ‘tough-mindedness,’ energetic assertiveness, and ‘cool.’

“Kennedy was a cultural figure whose charismatic image was firmly rooted in his crusade to reinvigorate masculinity,” Watts said. “He established the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and surrounded himself with virile icons like Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack, Norman Mailer, Hugh Hefner, author Ian Fleming of James Bond fame, General Maxwell Taylor, the Green Berets, and the Mercury 7 astronauts. Even the womanizing that was widely rumored in the early 1960s and revealed after his death fed into that manhood mystique.”

Watts specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of the United States.  Two of his biographies led to key roles in the PBS films American Experience: Walt Disney and American Experience: Henry Ford.  He has appeared on the History Channel’s “The Men Who Built America” and on a variety of programs for CBS, NBC, NPR, Fox News, Bloomberg News, and the BBC.

Editor’s Note: For more on the story, please see: New Book Explores JFK’s Cultural Legacy

For more on the book, please visit: