As I’ve been working on my book, I’ve noticed that the theme has slowly drifted away from my original plan. My outline had such a nice, rigid structure with a tripartite division among the three moral panics that originated in 1947, the Red Scare, the Lavender Scare, and the UFO scare, with discussion of how these panics resulted from defining groups of outsiders against a conformist mainstream culture. But as I wrote, the separation between the parts started to break down, in large measure because the social aspects of all three moral panics rather quickly subordinated themselves to a broader concern about redefining masculinity after the crisis of the war years. Hence, the Red Scare devolved into panic over gays, gay panic plunged into disputes over effeminacy and weakness, and from the very first day of the UFO flap, everyone measured witnesses’ credibility by their masculinity. The very first flying saucer articles even talked about Kenneth Arnold’s high school football salad days and how muscular and tall he was, as though masculinity equaled credibility.
The drift is my fault, really. When I decided I needed a point of view character to tie the story together, it opened a can of worms. One of the truisms of writing is that characters tend to have minds of their own, despite an author’s plans. The original structure I had planned came about when I toyed with the idea of making Rebel without a Cause director Nicholas Ray the point of view character. He was quite involved with the House Un-American Activities Committee and had a lot of thoughts about communism, sexuality, etc., and was superficially well positioned to serve the role. But he was also an unpleasant character and probably a statutory rapist, and I had no interest in trying to work with that. I saw how the effort to steer a story about him out of gross territory undermined the book about the making of Rebel without a Cause, which took him for its lead, and I didn’t want to go down that path.
But switching the main character to James Dean ended up undermining my plans because he came with his own baggage, and in remaking the narrative quite literally gave me the book’s thesis: “Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world,” he said. “You are all alone with your concentration and imagination, and that’s all you have. Being a good actor isn’t easy. Being a man is even harder. I want to be both before I’m done.” And who am I to turn down a gift-wrapped roadmap, however much it has changed my plans?
Anyway, it turns out that this lens has produced some rather compelling insights. I listened recently to Edward R. Murrow’s April 1950 CBS radio documentary about flying saucers, and it’s interesting to listen to the show using witnesses’ traditionally masculine virtues, particularly military affiliation, as evidence that they saw flying saucers, while the only woman interviewed thought she saw an airplane until her husband corrected her and she went on to tell Murrow about how her husband had to be right.
But it was more interesting to read J. Allen Hynek’s books from this perspective. Most readers focus on his UFO evidence, of course, but if you start looking at what he felt made a reliable witness, and how that changed over time, it starts to become pretty obvious he, too, had some clear biases. In the beginning, he seems to have become troubled by his inability to reconcile his initial UFO skepticism with his sexist belief that traditionally masculine men, particularly men in uniform, couldn’t suffer from effeminate hysteria or the psychological errors—which in those days were treated as a weakness, and therefore something that classified a person with women, queers, etc. on the outside of mainstream culture. He isn’t doctrinaire about it, and he certainly refers to women on occasion, but the overarching theme comes through pretty clearly, particularly when describing how his initial skepticism gave way to belief through repeated work with enlisted military men.
I didn’t know how hard to push this theme, however, until I read the opening chapter of The Close Encounters Man, the recent biography of Hynek. It’s spotty on the first several decades of his life, condensing them all down to a couple of pages, but I found this anecdote particularly telling:
Finally settled on a career in science, he made the unlikely decision to pledge Alpha Tau Omega, a predominantly athletic fraternity.
If I read between the lines correctly, it sounds like the undersized science nerd bought his way into a frat by basically doing athletes’ homework for them in exchange for help getting dates. He even changed his name to fit in better, and kept the new name for the rest of his life. It seems that his high school and college experiences gave him a strong affection and respect for a certain stereotypically masculine archetype, if his later conclusions are any guide, and as much as I don’t like to psychoanalyze dead people, it’s hard not to draw a line straight from this to his difficulty in separating his feelings of admiration for airmen, soldiers, and other grownup frat boys from the utter lack of evidence that the things they claimed to see were actually alien or occult machines flying in the skies. It was easier to imagine space poltergeists than to imagine that real men might be in error, or even irrational.
I especially liked this anecdote because I love parallelism, and it allows me to create an echo between Hynek’s experience and James Dean’s. Dean also joined a fraternity dominated by jocks, but he had the opposite experience. Rather than spending four years trading favors to be part of their world, Dean lasted about four months. He got mad at what we would today call their culture of toxic masculinity, and it all ended at a party when the brothers called him gay and he punched one in the nose. Like I said, I like parallelism, and the unintentional echo makes for good art—and also an object lesson.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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