Elvis the Pelvis: Jarrett Schindler

Elvis the Pelvis:
An Analysis of Elvis Presley’s Relation to the Sexual Revolution, 1945-1960
Jarrett Schindler
HIST 395
Spring 2011
Dr. Steven A. Reich
In the midst of a postwar American society built with “a strong emphasis on relationships
and family life,” Elvis Presley, the rising son of Memphis, Tennessee, swept through the nation
with a suggestive style that made teenage girls proclaim, “everytime [sic] I hear his records I get
weak in the knees. Oooooh. . .” This young musician had an enormous cultural impact, forever
changing sexual attitudes in America. Gender roles during this era were “divided accordingly”
and “good girls did not have sex before marriage.” When Alfred Kinsey1 published Sexual
Behavior in the Human Male in 1948, Life magazine called it an “assault on the family” and a
“celebration of licentiousness.” Presley gained mass fame through his sexually innovative
performance style, earning the nickname “Elvis the Pelvis” for the way he danced onstage.
Presley was the “master of the sexual smile, treating his guitar as both phallus and girl” while
making sounds that resembled “the male approaching an orgasm.” Elvis aroused his female
adorers and reached a god-like status among male admirers. He channeled his sex appeal in
order to reach unparalleled celebrity as the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Elvis Presley introduced sex
into the mainstream culture of mid-20th century America, sparking a moral panic among critics
that helped transcend attitudes on sexual behavior and gender leading to the sexual revolution.2, 3
Alfred Kinsey was an American biologist who researched human sexuality and
published “The Kinsey Reports,” in 1948 and 1953. In these reports Kinsey analyzed the sexual
attitudes and habits of males and females, including issues of homosexuality, causing a
controversial stir in a society that kept conversation about sex quiet.
Marilyn Coleman, Lawrence H. Ganong, and Kelly Warzinik, Family Life in 20thCentury America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007), 212; Phyllis Battelle, “Rock ‘n’ Roll
Music Is Tops With Teen-Agers,” Washington Post and Times Herald, June 24, 1956, p. F-10;
William L. O’Neill, American High: The Years of Confidence, 1945-1960 (New York: Free
Press, 1986), 3, 45; George Melly, Revolt into Style: The Pop Arts in Britain (London: Allen
Lane The Penguin Press, 1970), 37.
The 1950s marked a period of transition for America, with “rural change, urbanization,
science, technology, racism, and popular culture” all factoring into an evolving landscape. The
rise of rock ‘n’ roll coincided with these movements, as this innovative musical blend of “negro
rhythm ‘n’ blues” and country gained wide attention. Rock ‘n’ roll primarily affected the
teenage audience, as it symbolized something new and exciting. Kenny Puncerelli, a sixteen
For a comprehensive look at American culture in the mid 20th century, see William L.
O’Neill, American High: The Years of Confidence, 1945-1960 (New York: Free Press, 1986);
and Pete Daniel, Lost Revolutions (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000). For
information regarding the sexual revolution and sexual views in postwar America, read Marilyn
Coleman, Lawrence H. Ganong, and Kelly Warzinik, Family Life in 20th-Century America
(Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007); Pitirim A. Sorokin, The American Sex Revolution
(Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher, 1956); and Beth Bailey, Sex in the Heartland (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 1999). For an in depth look into life in Memphis, Tennessee,
examine Margaret McKee and Fred Chisenhall, Beale Black & Blue: Life and Music on Black
America’s Main Street (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981). To read the best
comprehensive biography on Elvis Presley consult Albert Goldman, Elvis (New York: McGrawHill Book Company, 1981). Information on the early years of Elvis can be found in the work of
Peter Guralnick, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (Boston: Little, Brown, and
Company, 1994). In Patricia Jobe Pierce, The Ultimate Elvis: Elvis Presley Day by Day (New
York: Simon and Schuster, 1994), Pierce provides an extremely thorough chronology on the
activities of Elvis and the times he lived in from 1933 to 1977. For further information on the
life of Elvis Presley refer to Dave Marsh, Elvis (New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1982); and Bill
DeNight, Elvis Album (New York: Beekman House, 1991). For information on the rise of rock
‘n’ roll and the social effects that went with it, see Nik Cohn, Rock From the Beginning (New
York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1969); Trent Hill, “The Enemy Within: Censorship in Rock
Music in the 1950s,” in Anthony DeCurtis, Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture (Durham,
NC: Duke University Press, 1992); and Michael T. Bertrand, Race, Rock, and Elvis (Urbana:
University of Illinois Press, 2000). Bertrand’s book is an excellent analysis of the racial attitudes
toward Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll. The multitude of images of Elvis Presley is examined in Erika
Doss, Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith & Image (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1999).
For a brilliant analysis of Elvis’ role as a sex icon, read Sue Wise, “Sexing Elvis,” Women’s
Studies International Forum 7, no. 1 (1984): 13. For more information regarding Elvis and sex,
refer to Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie, “Rock and Sexuality,” in On Record: Rock, Pop,
and the Written Word, ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodwin (New York: Pantheon Books,
1990). For information on homosexuality in the early 20th century, refer to George Chauncey,
Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940
(New York: Basic Books, 1994); and Marjorie Garber, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing &
Cultural Anxiety (New York: Routledge, 1992). To read about racial issues and sexuality in the
1950s, see Renee C. Romano, Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America
(Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006); and Matt Wray and Annalee Newitz, White
Trash: Race and Class in America (New York: Routledge, 1997).
year-old, stated, “It’s the rhythm. It’s easy to listen to,” while others endorsed that sentiment
describing it as “music we can understand.” However, not everyone favored rock ‘n’ roll music,
as the legendary Frank Sinatra described it as “sung, played and written” by “cretinous goons”
and “the music of every side-burned delinquent.” This new style of music captivated youths
with its sexual undertones, much to the dismay of older audiences. They described rock ‘n’ roll
as “an incentive to teen-age unrest,” and compared it to “Dionysian revels in Greece, where the
god of sex (Priapus) and the god of drink (Bacchus) were feted in the same two beat rhythms.”
This lively music had teenagers hooked from the start, and all rock ‘n’ roll needed was a star.4
On January 8, 1935 Elvis Aron Presley entered the world, born to Vernon and Gladys
Presley in their Tupelo, Mississippi home. He remained in Tupelo until age thirteen, when the
family moved to Memphis, Tennessee in 1948. While attending Humes High School Presley
began to distinguish himself, developing the unique dress and lavish hairstyle that garnered him
much fame throughout his life. Upon graduation Presley worked several blue-collar jobs, but his
passion rested with music. After several failed attempts at joining a band, he recorded a
rendition of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” with a few local musicians at Sam
Phillips’ Sun Records office in 1954. The song aired on the radio, and Elvis became an
overnight success with over five thousand orders placed the first week it played. However, Elvis
did not make his real mark until his first genuine, live performance as a professional musician on
July 30, 1954 in Overton Park . There Elvis performed “That’s All Right Mama” along with
“Blue Moon,” and the ruckus crowd demanded an encore. Elvis asked his band members what
had the crowd in such a frenzy and they replied, “It was the way you were shakin’ your left leg.
Daniel, 7; Cohn 9, 22; Gertrude Samuels, “Why They Rock ‘n’ Roll—And Should
They?,” New York Times, January 12, 1958, p. 17, 19; Rock ‘n’ Roll Condemned,” Washington
Post, July 24, 1956, p. 14; Battelle, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Music Is Tops,” p. F-10; Guralnick, 121.
That’s what got ‘em screamin’.” In a 1956 interview Elvis stated, “I went back out for an encore
and I kind of did a little more and the more I did the wilder they went.” Elvis the Pelvis was
officially born.5
The sexually suggestive style that Elvis perfected in his rise to glory drew harsh criticism
from many members of the elder generation, who labeled him a “whirling dervish of sex” and
“boasting of sexual prowess.” Many critics saw Elvis as a threat to teenaged girls and he “was
deemed different, defective, [and] dangerous.” Postwar Americans placed an emphasis on
sexual control with censorship issues arising around literature such as Vladimir Nabokov’s
Lolita, Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place.
However, this moral panic primarily focused around teens and sex, as “husbands and wives were
no longer expected to have sexual relations just to bear children.” Adults embraced sexual
relations outside the realm of procreation, hoping to “maximize their sexual fulfillment within
marriage.” This differed from how critics viewed America’s youth, as “American adults became
increasingly concerned about juvenile misconduct.” Pitirim A. Sorokin, writer of The American
Sex Revolution, warned, “we are completely surrounded by the rising tide of sex which is
flooding every compartment of our culture,” and predicted teenagers growing up in this setting
“will become rudderless boats controlled only by the winds of their environment.” Parents made
efforts to limit teen’s exposure to anything deemed sexual, as “many high schools established
dress codes that prohibited tight blue jeans and excessive makeup.” A growing sense of terror
Goldman, 63, 73, 76, 82, 110-111, 120, 113-120; Elvis Presley, interview by Paul
Wilder, Lakeland, Florida, August 6, 1956; Guralnick 12, 28, 32-33, 51, 58, 85, 89-121.
developed among adults, as the thought of their young children having premarital sex frightened
Elvis’s antics placed siege on these conservative mindsets, as his widespread popularity
alarmed many elder critics. Jacob S. Potofsky, president of Amalgamated Clothing Workers of
America, stated, “Elvis Presley has more influence on young people than our educators.”
Teenagers went wild for Elvis, carving his name into their arms and mobbing theaters he played
in. He performed in an “animalistic and violent” manner, and America’s youth responded by
making him their idol. Critics of Elvis’s openly sexual style cringed, as “with Elvis Presley’s
rockabilly music and hip-shaking moves, mainstream adolescents found their route into a
teenage culture that had a strong flavor of rebellion.” The Reverend Lucius F. Cervantes
complained of teenager’s “hyperemotional eroticism” after twenty year-old girls rated Elvis the
fifth most desirable husband in a 1958 poll. Teenagers throughout the country placed Elvis on
the pedestal of idolism, much to the dismay of his older critics. According to critics like writer
Eugene Gilbert, “through an alliance of the spirit with Presley, the teenager is able to act out of
his infantile desire of striving for power through the destruction of adult standards and symbols.”
The fear of Presley’s impact on America’s youth propelled his fame even further, as criticism
only elevated his status among teenagers who “resented being told what to do.” This sense of
“Presley Termed a Passing Fancy: Minister in Village Asserts Singer Gives Teen-Agers
‘a Vicarious Fling’,” New York Times, December 17, 1956, p. 28; Melly, 37; Doss, 135;
Coleman, Ganong, and Warzinik, 19, 217; Sorokin, 54, 55.
apprehension among critics manifested itself in the form of public condemnation of Elvis
through the press.7
Elvis greatly impacted the sexual revolution through his musical performances, which
made sex a topic of the national media. Never before had the general public scrutinized a public
figure so closely for his sexual promiscuity. The media labeled Elvis as “unspeakably untalented
and vulgar” and the Reverend Billy Graham even proclaimed, “I wouldn’t let my daughter walk
across the street to see Elvis Presley perform.” These sentiments echoed throughout the country,
as “for some he was the devil risen up to claim the nation’s children.” Adults, such as New York
Times writer Jack Gould, deplored Elvis and remarked on how he “disturbed adult viewers” due
to his “striptease behavior;” yet they feared the way in which he “instantly became a martyr in
the eyes of his teen-age following.” This fear of Presley’s monumental impact on America’s
youth culminated in a war of the press, in which writers denounced Elvis for his sexual openness.
The media seemed to focus on Elvis for everything they disliked about the younger generation,
as his “brain trust [was] having a harder time keeping his name out of the papers than getting it
in.” Elvis’s teenage fans fiercely came to his defense, claiming, “he has romantic appeal,” and
sternly defining his gyrations as “not vulgar.”8
“Elvis Presley’s Effect on Clothes Deplored,” New York Times, November 17, 1957, p.
122; Goldman, 191,192; Doss, 135; “Music: Teener’s Hero,” Time, May 14, 1956; Coleman,
Ganong, and Warzinik, 216, 217; “Religion: Thoughts for the Family,” Time, July 28, 1958;
Eugene Gilbert, “Elvis Fans Shape Up as ‘Rebels’ Who Can’t Face Adult World,” quoted in
DeNight, 78.
John Crosby, New York Herald Tribune quoted in Pierce, 20; The Tampa Tribune in
Pierce, 24; Jack Gould, “Elvis Presley: Lack of Responsibility is Shown by TV in Exploiting
Teen-Agers,” New York Times, September 16, 1956, p. 13; Dorothy Kilgallen, “Elvis Keeps
Brain Trust Rocking,” Washington Post and Times Herald, June 4, 1956, p. 32; Paul Sampson,
“Youths in Dither Over Elvis’—What?,” The Washington Post and Times Herald, November 26,
1956, p. B1.
The nation’s obsession with Elvis’s “sex-tinged gyrations” only increased mainstream
conversation on sex, taking it out of the bedroom and placing it in the public forum. Elvis’s
performance and the negative response it garnered from critics “were part of a larger moral panic
about sexual control and identity in postwar America.” Parents quickly sympathized with
Gould’s attack on Elvis’s antics, commending Gould for his excellent comments, sensibility, and
common sense that “all well-intentioned and thinking people” understood. However, Mrs.
Rhonda Frank of New York brought up a valid argument when she stated that, “teen-agers were
not aware of this interpretation until it was presented to them by the unhealthy few,” in reference
to Elvis’s sexually suggestive performances. Frank argued the media brought attention to Elvis’s
sexuality, and that teenagers simply felt “puppy love” for Elvis and his music. This is easily
disputed by the testimonies of teens such as Amy Taubin, who recalls feeling aroused by Elvis’s
“rhythms, his breathing, and facial expressions” upon watching him in 1956. However, the
media significantly exaggerated and focused on Elvis’s sexuality, making it an acceptable public
topic of interest. Writers across the country explored sex as a main area of concern, revoking the
dated idea of sexuality as a taboo in the public forum. Elvis had successfully brought sex into
the columns of newspapers and magazines throughout the country, mimicking the effectiveness
in which he displayed sexual ideas to teenagers.9
Taubin did not stand alone in her feeling of passion for Elvis, as “hundreds of thousands
of women and girls were physically aroused by his sexual gyrations.” Elvis represented sexual
liberation for these girls, which teenager Royce Harris described as, “just a raw sexual urge that
he projected that just turned on all the young girls'.” Elvis “wasn’t afraid to express himself,”
Lawrence Laurent, “Looks Like This Elvis Is a Latter-Day Liberace,” Washington Post
and Times Herald, June 23, 1956, p. 31; Doss, 130, 135; “Television Mailbag: Mr. Presley,”
New York Times, September 23, 1956, p. 133.
and his sexual openness supported these female’s own passionate pursuits. A fifty-two year-old
female in Erika Doss’s book, Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith and Image, she remarks on how
“Presley rose to power on the heels of the Kinsey Report[s],” in which “Kinsey told women it
was unusual for them to be easily or rapidly sexually aroused.” She contends, “Presley showed
them it wasn’t,” as the combination of Elvis and “the pill brought about Women’s Liberation.”
Elvis made women feel secure in their sexual fantasies, emancipating their subconscious desires.
He constantly flirted with his female fan’s emotions, tantalizing them until, “just as every girl in
the audience leaned forward in anticipation of ecstasy, Elvis would stop.” Elvis transported
mannerisms traditionally reserved for the bedroom into his performances, exciting his feminine
aficionadas to an unprecedented degree and causing “the daughters of Suburban America to have
public orgasms.” In doing so he illuminated his fan’s repressed sexual emotions, and mastered
the art of using sex to propel his fame. However, Elvis did not only affect teenage females, as
his contribution to teenage males and their sexuality also deeply influenced the sexual
Young men saw Elvis as a role model, a magnetic figure of legendary proportions; “a
butch god.” Elvis represented everything “stereotypically macho, always the red-blooded
American boy, and always pursued by countless pretty girls,” a “super butch sexual hero” who
could “lay girls with ease.” He “said something which had never been admitted so openly in
public, that most young men are promiscuously inclined.” Elvis exposed these suppressed male
feelings, as he “was the first male white singer to propose that fucking was a desirable activity,”
Doss, 131, 147; Royce Harris, quoted in Michael Rose, “Elvis: The King of Rock ‘n’
Roll Turns 75,” Elvis Australia, http://www.elvis.com.au/presley/elvis_the_king_of_rock_
n_roll_turns_75.shtml (accessed March 26, 2011); “Elvis—a Different Kind of Idol: Presley’s
Impact Piles Up Fans, Fads—And Fears,” Life, August 27, 1956, 102; Fan from Omaha quoted
in Doss, 131; Goldman, 191; Wray and Newitz, 253.
and that “it was possible for a man to lay girls without any of the traditional gestures or
promises.” Elvis personified a new form of the male ego in a sexual respect, thrashing prewar
notions of courtship and chivalry with his “pure fuck-me splendor.” Presley represented the
epitome of the sexual rebel, as demonstrated when he answered, “Why buy a cow when you can
get milk through the fence?” when asked whether he planned to get married.
He substantially
impacted the way males approached sexuality, as Elvis proposed sex as a hobby, encouraging
womanizing and promiscuity in males. He influenced males by demonstrating his flirtatious
mannerisms with females, as evidenced in his frequent kissing of attractive fans (Figure 1).
Elvis’s male admirers saw him in a heroic fashion, and hoped to model after his perceived
success with women. Whether intentionally or not, Elvis encouraged teenage males to engage in
premarital sex, revolutionizing the way in which men approached relationships.11
Elvis Presley mastered the art of selling sex to propel his fame, as his management
realized the allure of his appeal and successfully marketed it. During the 1950s he amassed great
wealth as fans flocked to his concerts and bought his records and memorabilia on top of the
lucrative contracts he received for television appearances and acting. Phyllis Battelle, a writer
for the Washington Post and Times Herald, described Presley as “a 21-year-young man who
makes more than $40,000 a week for rockin’ from his heels.” Presley’s fame did not primarily
lie with his musical talents, but with his image and performance style. Jack Gould claimed Elvis
“is a rock-and-roll variation of one of the most standard acts in show business: the virtuoso of the
hootchy-kootchy.” Elvis captured the heart of teenage girls with his seductive act and image,
reaping the monetary benefits from his obsessed following. Washington Post and Times Herald
writer Lawrence Laurent remarked on how Elvis and his associates “convert outrage into cash
Wise, 13; Doss, 139; Melly, 36-37; Marsh, 55; “Music: Teener’s Hero,” Time, May 14,
when the freak followers line up at the box office,” in reference to Presley profiting off a teenage
following inspired by the criticism he received from angered critics. Presley’s perceived rebel
persona helped catapult him to the top of the charts, as his use of sexually suggestive gestures
repelled a traditionally conservative performance etiquette. Presley naturally denied this,
claiming in a 1956 interview, “Ma’am, I’m not tryin’ to be sexy. I didn’t have any idear of tryin’
to sell sex. It’s just my way of expressin’ how I feel when I move around.” It is of little doubt;
however, that Presley’s sex appeal played a major role in his rise to stardom, as it distracted
young audiences from him musical shortcomings.12
Presley’s innovative usage of sexual appeal as a vehicle to achieve celebrity changed the
way popular figures constructed their images. Elvis saw great success in selling sex, providing a
model for future entertainers to achieve stardom. Presley’s “aggressive, dominating, and
boastful” style influenced “rock stars like Mick Jagger, Roger Daltrey, and Robert Plant.”
Presley integrated an act “built around techniques of arousal and climax” that teenage girls could
not resist. His movements coincided with the rise of sexual consumerism, as magazines like
Playboy, True Confessions, and Confidential grew in popularity. In her book, Sex in the
Heartland, Beth Bailey remarks on this stating, “this sexualization of mass culture was largely a
matter of renegotiating the boundaries of respectability, for much more sexually explicit material
had been available before this postwar turn, but it had been under-the-counter stuff.” Presley
helped bring sex into the national marketplace, as “the mechanism of our industry, trade, and
Phyllis Battelle, “Elvis is King: Presley Rocks and Money Rolls In,” Washington Post
and Times Herald, June 25, 1956, p. 25; Jack Gould, “TV: New Phenomenon: Elvis Presley
Rises to Fame as Vocalist Who Is Virtuoso of Hootchy-Kootchy,” New York Times, June 6,
1956, p. 67; Lawrence Laurent, “Looks Like this Elvis Is a Latter-Day Liberace,” Washington
Post and Times Herald, June 23, 1956, p. 31; Elvis Presley, quoted in Phyllis Battelle, “Elvis is
King: Presley Rocks and Money Rolls In,” Washington Post and Times Herald, June 25, 1956, p.
commerce seems to have become increasingly powered by sexual secretions.” This phenomenon
occurred in stark contrast to prewar marketing, where suggestive advertising “would have been
violently protested by the public, and outlawed by religious, moral, “watch and ward” and other
organizations.” Sexual advertising had grown into a means of reaching out to the masses; “a
must in commercial advertising.” Elvis profited from magnifying his sexual image, as he
“employed the sexual sell directly, whereas popular music as a whole was still discreet.” By
incorporating his sexual appeal into advertising, Elvis elucidated a new way to reach out to the
American consumer.13
Elvis blurred gender lines through his image, which hinted at the unspeakable ideas of
homosexuality and transgender in postwar American society. Elvis Herselvis, a famous female
Elvis impersonator, urges people to view Elvis as “that dangerous boy who was crossing the sex
barrier.” However, the “many diverse and conflicted images” Elvis presented makes it difficult
to label him as strictly feminine or masculine. Simon Frith argues Elvis is a “cock rocker,”
which he defines as, “an explicit, crude, and often aggressive expression of male sexuality.” The
“cock rocker” viewpoint is supported by “male writers, who have created ‘Elvis in their own
(fantasy) image,” while the view of Elvis as a transvestite is evident in his emulation of Liberace.
Elvis flaunted himself with mascara and glitzy outfits, which prompted record producer Chet
Atkins to state, “I couldn’t get over that eye shadow” and proclaim watching Elvis, “was like
seein’ a couple of guys kissin’ in Key West.” Both the male and female viewpoints of Elvis are
easily visible in his image, and both are factors in Elvis’s role in the sexual revolution.14
Frith and McRobbie, 374; Bailey, 42; Sorokin, 36-38; O’Neill, 268.
Sharon Cowan, “The Elvis We Deserve: The Social Regulation of Sex/Gender and
Sexuality Through Cultural Representations of ‘The King’,” Law, Culture and the Humanities 6,
no. 2 (June 2010): 229; Doss, 4, Frith and McRobbie, 374; Wise, 13; Goldman, 122; Garber,
The image of Elvis as a cross-dressing, feministic performer revolutionized gender, as his
near androgynous style transcended gender lines. In the 1950s Elvis “helped destabilize
conventional understandings of masculinity” with the way he dressed and constructed his
appearance. Elvis often wore outfits with pink, “the female color of the 1950s,” in them, and put
on black mascara and eye shadow. Elvis’s appearance separated him from the typical male
norms of the time, as “his face was almost pretty” and his hairstyle resembled the female
“pompadour” when most males wore their hair short. Marjorie Garber, author of Vested
Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, writes, “one of the hallmarks of transvestic
display, as we have seen recently, is the detachable part.” She goes on to describe how wigs,
false breasts, and codpieces are used to make a male look female or vice versa. Here Elvis also
suggested at ideas of cross gendering, as “rumour [sic] had it that into his skin-tight jeans was
sewn a bar in order to suggest a weapon of heroic proportions.” David Houston, a county singer
and friend of Elvis, supported this notion claiming before Elvis got on stage he would tie a
cardboard roller to a “string around his waist” and let it “hang down outside his drawers” with
the intention of appearing “like he had one helluva thing there inside his pants.” However,
Elvis’s manhood or sexuality is not of uncertainty; rather, the question comes in asking why did
he dress, perform, and display himself in a way that violated gender norms?15
Elvis appealed to both sexes through his gender-destabilizing image, which helped bring
about less defined gender roles in America. His rabid teenage following took after his lead,
emulating Elvis’s androgynous style. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, over one thousand girls cut
their hair to look like Elvis’s in less than six weeks, as teenage girls sought to resemble Elvis’s
masculinity. On the other side of the gender spectrum, males grew their hair long and parents
Doss, 126, 127; O’Neill, 266; Garber, 367; Melly, 37; Goldman, 157.
feared their sons would take after Elvis’s perceived feministic and homosexual qualities. After
Romeo Community High School suspended Robert Phernetton, a sixteen year-old junior, for
violating a school policy that prohibited students from wearing “the fancy hairdos and long
sideburns favored by rock ‘n’ roller Presley,” Phernetton defiantly proclaimed, “I’m still not
going to get my hair cut.” A sense of panic enveloped the nation’s parents, as “the socialization
of middle-class children in the 1950s was focused on assuring that boys and girls grew up with
gendered interests.” Part of this fear stemmed from Elvis’s imitation of Liberace, as “Elvis
became a cause of feminine virile display.” Garber describes “a famous moment” in 1956 when
“Elvis and Liberace themselves changed clothes,” as Elvis put on Liberace’s gold-sequinned
[sic] tuxedo jacket.” Elvis continued to wear costumes of feminine grandeur after this instance
(Figure 2), rejecting the accepted gender norms of the time. Society viewed him as “a boy, a
eunuch, or a woman—as anything but a man,” and parents feared their children’s love for an
androgynous figure could lead to homosexuality.16
Elvis hinted at homosexuality at a time “where heterosexuality was the accepted norm,
homosexuality a closeted and mostly illicit deviance, and sex in general a taboo topic.” He
brought these unmentionable ideas to the forefront of American culture, much to the elder
generation’s dismay. Parents experienced great anxiety over these notions, and “sons who were
not exposed to the influence of their fathers were considered at risk for inappropriate gender
development, including homosexuality.” Postwar America shunned homosexuality, as “the
specter of the invisible homosexual, like that of the invisible communist, haunted Cold War
America,” and “a new wave of assaults on gay men in the postwar decade” began. Presley’s
“Ain’t Nothin But A Hairdo: In Grand Rapids 1,000 girls trick up locks for love of
Presley,” Life, March 25, 1957, 55; “Student Loses Court Fight For Presley-Type Haircut,”
Washington Post and Times Herald, November 17, 1956, p. A3; Coleman, Ganong, and
Warzinik, 215; Garber, 363, 368.
perceived feministic qualities and challenging of “traditional male behavior” led teenagers away
from conventional ideas of masculinity. He helped revolutionize ideas on gender, foreshadowing
the escape from gender roles that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s. Elvis’s “sexually liquid
image” influenced teenagers around the country, as they felt acceptable crossing the once strict
gender line. Elvis taught males to embrace the feminine side of themselves, while at the same
time encouraging females to pursue desired male traits. His overall message seemed to preach
equality no matter one’s sexual orientation, or, even more surprisingly, one’s race.17
Postwar America remained a nation rife with racism, as white adults feared the alleged
consequences of intermixing with blacks. Georgia Baptist preacher Jack Johnston claimed black
men “want to have our women and wipe out the white race.” White Americans strongly opposed
interracial relationships in the 1950s, with a 1958 national poll reporting “that 96 percent of
whites disapproved of marriages between blacks and whites.” In 1954 the legislative act Brown
v. Board of Education passed, banning the segregation of separate white and black schools. This
prompted an intense reaction from many white adults, who feared their children would have
interracial relationships from going to school with black children. These sentiments remained
particularly strong in the south, where “southern political leaders, and many ordinary white
southerners, claimed that the Brown decision would lead to an explosion of interracial sex.”
Interracial sexual relations deeply scared prominent whites like Alabama state senator Walter
Givhan, who in 1955 claimed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
(NAACP) had a goal of “opening the bedroom doors of our white women to the Negro man.”
Doss, 128, 130, 161; Coleman, Ganong, and Warzinik, 20; Chauncey, 360.
White American adults feared of “the ‘cultural miscegenation’ of emerging youth culture;” a
culture led by Elvis Presley.18
Elvis adopted the style of African-American musicians like Rufus Thomas and Arthur
Crudup, as he “mixed and blended black and white music and black and white modes of
performance into the emergent hybrid of rock and roll.” Writer Trent Hill describes rock ‘n’ roll
records as “off color in both the moral and racial sense” and writes that “while sexually frank
lyrics had long been accepted in r&b songs, it was only when these records became objects of
consumption for white kids that anybody had any kind of problem with them.” Much to their
parent’s ire, white teenagers reveled in a sexually explicit rock ‘n’ roll culture rooted with black
musical styles and tradition. Black and white teenagers alike flocked to Elvis’s concerts, with
girls from both races sharing an obsession for Presley. Doss remarks on how “postwar black
teens were drawn to Elvis for the same reasons as other teens—he embodied a kind of dynamism
and sexuality that they found appealing,” and “Elvis’s respectful emulation and
acknowledgement of black style was perhaps seen by many African-Americans as vindication
for centuries of cultural marginalization.” After a 1956 show, disc jockey Nathaniel Dowde
Williams described how “a thousand black, brown, and beige teen-age girls in the audience
blended their alto and soprano voices in one wild crescendo of sound that rent the rafters.”
Williams expresses that in the aftermath of the concert “many of the brethren in black, brown,
and beige” felt “plumb flustered” and “wondering if these teen-age girls’ demonstration over
Presley doesn’t reflect a basic integration in attitude and aspiration which has been festering in
the minds of most your folk’s womenfolk all along.” Presley’s concerts provided a public forum
Jack Johnston, quoted in Daniel, 154; Romano, 2, 146; Walter Givhan, quoted in James
W. Vander Zanden, “The Ideology of White Supremacy,” Journal of the History of Ideas 20, no.
3 (June-September 1959): 401.
for teenagers of both races to freely mix, provoking the fears of white parents opposed to
The youth culture of 1950s America embodied a growing spirit of racial equality that
their parents feared and rejected. Teenagers saw Elvis Presley as a leading figure in this
movement, as his “edginess, his rebellious enthusiasm for testing the boundaries of both race and
sex, made him the central icon for a body of mixed-race, mixed-gender fans equally committed
to rejecting postwar America’s repressive racial and sexual codes.” The thought that their
children might develop an intimate relationship with a member of the black race alarmed many
white parents. These critics saw him as “the poor white messenger of poor black sexuality,” as
“the double whammy of Elvis’s transgressive sexuality and subversive racial mixing made him a
potent mainstream threat.” Presley’s adoption of black culture made him, whether intentionally
or not, a figurehead for racial equality during an era of widespread racism. As teenagers from
both races attended his concerts, Elvis delivered parent’s “true fear: the message of pure sex,
received like an arrow, straight into the White, middle-class heart of America.” Parents
perceived Elvis as promoting interracial relationships, and labeled him “a kind of virus that had
to be reckoned with by any means necessary.” To southern whites in particular, “the prospect of
racial intermarriage or amalgamation” represented the “taboo of taboos,” and the racial openness
Elvis seemed to symbolize frightened many. The fact that his sexually charged performances
impacted both whites and blacks contributed to the moral panic of white parents regarding
Doss, 168, 175; Hill, 48; Nathaniel Dowde Williams, in Philadelphia Courier, 22
December 1956, quoted in Doss, 175; Nathaniel Dowde Williams, in Philadelphia Courier, 22
December 1956, quoted in Mckee and Chisenhall, 95-96.
interracial relationships. Elvis represented a new form of sexuality, in which whites and blacks
rejected past racial restrictions on sex.20
Postwar America defined the concept of an evolving nation, as in the short decades after
World War II the country underwent a rigorous social, political, and industrial transformation.
Elvis Presley embodied this change; a celebrity of celebrities that rejected societal norms and
hinted at ideas of cultural rebellion through his innovative musical style. As Garber puts it,
“whether through his mascara, his dyed hair, or his imitation of black music and style, Elvis was
always crossing over.” Royce Harris, a teenager who attended Presley concerts in the 1950s,
recalls, “I think if you talked about it in the ‘50s we wouldn’t have said the word sex aloud, but I
think that’s what Elvis was,” referring to the way in which Elvis made sex a public issue in
society. Elvis’s sexually explicit style of performance shocked elder critics, as his actions
brought up issues previously reserved for the private sector of people’s lives. Critics described
him as “utterly nauseating,” and after viewing a Presley concert an Oakland, California
policeman went as far as to state, “If he did that in the street, we’d arrest him.” Presley’s sexual
connotations alarmed a generation of elder Americans, who feared the potential effect of Elvis
on teenage youth. A moral panic overcame these terrified critics, as they perceived Elvis as
holding values they did not want transmitted to teenagers.21
The moral panic that arose in the wake of Presley’s sexual openness helped lead to a
sexual revolution in America. Presley had a unique style that hinted at ideas often shunned in
postwar America, and foreshadowed a changing sense of morality in the 1960s and 1970s. Due
Doss, 176, Hill, 55; Walter Givhan, quoted in Zanden, 401.
Garber, 368; Royce Harris, quoted in Michael Rose, “Elvis: The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll
Turns 75,” Elvis Australia, http://www.elvis.com.au/presley/elvis_the_king_of_rock_
n_roll_turns_75.shtml (accessed March 26, 2011); Francis McGuire, quoted in “Letters,” Time,
June 4, 1956; “Music: Yeh-Heh-Heh-Hes, Baby,” Time, June 18, 1956.
to Elvis’s enormous popularity the press feared his blatantly sexual performances, and constantly
criticized him for his suggestive mannerisms. This helped make sex a topic of conversation for
the national media, as it became acceptable to talk about sex in the public forum. One of the
main issues that critics feared in Presley revolved around his impact on teenage youth, as these
members of the younger generation worshipped Elvis. Elvis liberated the sexual feelings of
teenage girls through his suggestive performances, as Elvis taught young females that they could
freely embrace their sexual passions before marriage. Teenage males looked up to Elvis as a
“butch god” and hero, and his womanizing ways crushed traditional ideas of courtship and
significantly altered the way young men pursued sexual relationships. Elvis also impacted how
future artists approached marketing, as he sold his sexuality and reaped the benefits. In the
generations that followed Elvis, sex would be a key way to reach out to the American consumer.
Elvis’s near androgynous image transcended traditional gender roles, as he constructed his figure
with conventionally feminine traits like mascara, glitzy outfits, and long hair. By crossing the
gender line, Elvis taught a generation of teenagers that they did not have to remain complacent
with the accepted gender roles of their parents. He also helped eliminate prominent fears of
homosexuality and transgender that existed in postwar American society. Both white and black
teenagers enjoyed Elvis’s sexually suggestive style, and freely mixed during his concerts. White
parents feared their children might develop interracial relationships, and Elvis’s adoption of
black culture seemed to support their fears. Although Elvis may not have intended to promote
miscegenation and racial harmony, the way he conducted himself in a racist society helped
revolutionize sexual relations between blacks and whites. Ultimately, Elvis confronted many
closeted issues through his sexual openness, helping to destabilize traditional attitudes on sex and
leading a youth culture responsible for the sexual revolution.
Figure 1 Elvis kissing fans, March 1956, St. Louis.22
“Elvis with Fans: March 1956 – St Louis,” ca. March 1956, Elvis Australia,
photograph, http://photos.elvispresley.com.au/kisses/elvis.html (accessed April 20, 2011).
Figure 2 Elvis in gold lameʹ′ suit23
“Elvis wore his full gold lameʹ′ suit for the last time,” ca. April 2, 1957, Maple Leaf
Gardens, Toronto, Canada, Elvis Australia, photograph, http://www.elvispresleymusic.com
.au/pictures/1957_april_2.html (accessed April 7, 2011).
I. Primary Sources
“Ain’t Nothin But A Hairdo: In Grand Rapids 1,000 girls trick up locks for love of Presley.”
Life, March 25, 1957.
This article contains valuable information regarding teenage girls who got their hair cut
to resemble Elvis Presley. Used as evidence of Elvis’s gender defying image.
“Elvis—a Different Kind of Idol: Presley’s Impact Piles Up Fans, Fads, and Fears.” Life, August
27, 1956.
This article remarks on Elvis’s impact on fans, as his sexually suggestive style scared
members of the elder generation.
“Letters.” Time, June 4, 1956.
This article contains letters written to the editor after the publication of an article on Elvis
Presley. Great primary source information regarding how critics viewed Presley.
Melly, George. Revolt into Style: The Pop Arts. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1971.
This book contains Melly’s first hand observations on Elvis while he was still
performing. In one quote Melly remarks on Elvis’ sexual effect on the youth of the time.
Melly was a musical critic, writer, and lecturer during his lifetime.
“Music: Teeners’ Hero.” Time, May 14, 1956.
This article discusses the suggestive style of Elvis Presley, and provides great primary
information on how teens viewed him.
New York Times. 16 September 1956—12 January 1958.
This collection of articles provides a substantial amount of information regarding Elvis
and his sexuality. From these articles I have drawn many examples of critics
condemning Elvis for his open sexuality.
“Religion: Thoughts for the Family.” Time, July 28, 1958.
This article contains the condemnation of Elvis and the youth culture by the Reverend
Lucius F. Cervantes. I used this to demonstrate how elder adults despised Elvis’s
Rose, Michael. “Elvis: The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Turns 75.” Elvis Australia.
(accessed March 26, 2011).
This article reflects on the life of Elvis Presley on his 75th anniversary. From this article I
drew primary source information from Royce Harris, who was a teenager during
Presley’s concerts in the 1950s.
Sorokin, Pitirim A. The American Sex Revolution. Boston: Porter Sargent Publisher, 1956.
This book examines the growing sexual culture in postwar American culture. Pitrim
Sorokin was a sociologist from Russia that founded the Department of Sociology at
Harvard University.
Washington Post and Times Herald. 4 June 1956—26 November 1956.
From this wide breadth of articles, I gained extremely valuable primary source
information to back up my assertions of Elvis’s relation to the sexual revolution.
“Music: Yeh-Heh-Heh-Hes, Baby.” Time, June 18, 1956
From this article, I gained a valuable primary source in the form of a quote from an
Oakland, California policeman condemning Elvis.
Zanden, James W. Vander. “The Ideology of White Supremacy.” Journal of the History of Ideas
20, no. 3 (June-September 1959): 385-402.
In this article, Zanden examines the idea of white supremacy in the postwar American
south. I used this article to demonstrate resentment toward interracial relationships and
miscegenation in the American south during Elvis’s career.
II. Secondary Sources
Bailey, Beth. Sex in the Heartland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.
In this book, Bailey examines the sexual revolution of the 1960s in America, specifically
focusing on the town of Lawrence, Kansas. Bailey is a social and cultural historian that
works at Temple University.
Bertrand, Michael T. Race, Rock, And Elvis. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.
In this book, Bertrand provides an excellent background on the social environment in
which Elvis Presley thrived. Bertrand specifically takes a look at the racial attitudes
toward Elvis and rock ‘n’ roll. Bertrand is an assistant professor of history at Tennessee
State University and a native of the American south.
Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male
World, 1890-1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.
In his remarkable book, Chauncey chronicles gay culture in New York from 1890 to
1940. Of specific interest to me was the epilogue that led into postwar American gay life.
Chauncey is a Professor of History at Yale University.
Cohn, Nik. Rock From the Beginning. New York: Stein and Day Publishers, 1969.
In this book, Cohn chronicles the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll from its beginnings in the
mid-fifties to the late sixties. Cohn speaks extensively about Elvis Presley’s use of sex
appeal, and this book has led to primary sources. Cohn is a British rock critic who lived
during the peak of rock ‘n’ roll.
Coleman, Marilyn, Lawrence H. Ganong, and Kelly Warzinik. Family Life in 20th-Century
America. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2007.
This book gives an extensive analysis of all aspects of family life in 20th century
America. Marilyn Coleman and Lawrence H. Ganong are professors at the University of
Missouri, while Kelly Warzinik obtained a MS at Missouri.
Cowan, Sharon. “The Elvis We Deserve: The Social Regulation of Sex/Gender and Sexuality
Through Cultural Representations of ‘The King’.” Law, Culture and the Humanities 6,
no. 2 (June 2010): 221-244.
This article gives a background on the changing image of Elvis as a sex icon throughout
his lifetime, as well as how society viewed this. Dr. Sharon Cowan is the senior director
of studies and medical jurisprudence at the University of Edinburgh School of Law.
Daniel, Pete. Lost Revolutions: The South in the 1950s. Chapel Hill, University of North
Carolina Press, 2000.
This book examines life in the American south during the 1950s, focusing on issues like
race, values, and popular culture. Pete Daniel is a retired ex-curator of the Smithsonian
National Museum of American History and an expert on the American south.
DeNight, Bill. Elvis Album. New York: Beekman House, 1991.
This book examines the life of Elvis Presley from his birth in 1935 to his death in 1977.
It includes extensive primary source information stemming from news articles and
pictures from Presley’s career.
Doss, Erika. Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith and Image. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas,
In this book Doss includes images, letters, and information about fans reactions toward
Elvis Presley. This book has led to numerous primary sources, as it is extremely valuable
in evaluating different aspects of Presley’s image.
Frith, Simon, and Angela McRobbie. “Rock and Sexuality.” In On Record: Rock, Pop, and the
Written Word, edited by Simon Firth and Andrew Goodwin. New York: Pantheon Books,
This article examines the role of sexuality in rock ‘n’ roll music, with Frith and
McRobbie arguing Elvis’s place as a masculine “cock rocker.” Frith is a rock critic and
sociologist, while McRobbie is a Professor at London that specializes in youth culture.
Garber, Marjorie. Vested Interestes: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety. New York: Routledge,
This book examines transvestism and issues of gender, providing an interesting
examination of Elvis’s gender bending characteristics. Garber is a Professor of English
as Harvard University.
Goldman, Albert. Elvis. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1981.
Goldman’s book provides an excellent look at the evolution of Elvis Presley throughout
his career. The chapters “The Early Days of Sexually Inspired Mass Hysteria” and “The
Last Days of Elvis the Pelvis” are of particular interest and have references to good
primary sources. Dr. Goldman taught at numerous schools in New York, including
Columbia University.
Guralnick, Peter. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. Boston: Little, Brown and
Company, 1994.
This book chronicles the early years of Elvis’s life in a biographical way, providing a
good background on the rise of Elvis Presley. Guralnick is a popular American music
critic with a master’s degree from Boston University.
Hill, Trent. “The Enemy Within: Censorship in Rock Music in the 1950s.” In DeCurtis,
Anthony. Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture, 39-72. Durham, NC: Duke University
Press, 1992.
This article focuses around censorship issues in rock ‘n’ roll during the 1950s. It contains
valuable information regarding public reaction to Elvis’s sexually suggestive
Marsh, Dave. Elvis. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1982.
This book details the life and career of Elvis Presley, including pictures and news
clippings from events throughout his career. Dave Marsh was a music critic at Newsday
and an associate editor of Rolling Stone.
McKee, Margaret, and Fred Chisenhall. Beale Black & Blue: Life and Music on Black America’s
Main Street. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
This book provides an in depth look at Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee, as well as
the blues musicians who hailed from this region. The book examines the evolution of
these musicians and the area in the 20th century.
O’Neill, William L. American High: The Years of Confidence, 1945-1960. New York: Free
Press, 1986.
This book provides information regarding the changing landscape of American culture
between 1945-1960 and the sexual revolution that went with it. Dr. O’Neill is Professor
Emeritus of History at Rutgers University.
Pierce, Patricia Jobe. The Ultimate Elvis: Elvis Presley Day by Day. New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1994.
This book provides a day-to-day insight into the life of Elvis Presley, including his role as
a sexual icon. Pierce is an expert in American art and President of Pierce Galleries, Inc.
Romano, Renee C. Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America. Gainesville,
FL: University of Florida Press, 2006.
This book examines attitudes reflecting interracial marriage and miscegenation in
postwar America. Romano is a specialist in 20th century America history, and an
Associate Professor at Oberlin College.
Wise, Sue. “Sexing Elvis.” Women’s Studies International Forum 7, no. 1 (1984): 13.
Wise’s article examines Elvis’ role as a sex icon, and how males have formulated this.
This article brilliantly connects Elvis and sex, and has led me to valuable primary
sources, such as George Melly’s book. Wise is the Professor of Social Justice at
Lancaster University.
Wray, Matt, and Annalee Newitz. White Trash: Race and Class in America. New York:
Routledge, 1997.
This book details the history of people considered “white trash” in America, focusing on
cultural issues of race and class for poor Americans. In this work Newitz and Wray
examine Elvis’s emergence from poverty and his adoption of black style.