Business is Booming: The Bad Boys of Boomertown

. July 3, 2014.
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By Cynthia Poe The Baby Boom era brought many social changes, beginning when hospital maternity wards were swamped with young mothers. Expectant fathers were exiled to corridors and waiting rooms, as was the custom of the day. Fussing over babies, or emphasizing family involvement, was not portrayed as a manly value back then. When the babies of that boom period grew up a bit and began looking for entertainment—primarily of the TV and cinema variety—the era of the Bad Boy was born. James Dean symbolized rebellion and adolescent disaffection from 1955 until the present day. His striking appearance—longer-than-usual hair, blue jeans, white T-shirt—was popularized in movie posters and set the stage for a decades-long afterlife as the image of rebelliousness. Elvis Presley also rocked the bad-boy look well beyond his national debut in 1956. His image still earns millions from nostalgic fans more than fifty years after his first TV appearances. Cinematic “badness” changed through the 1960s, when movies like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider featured characters who embraced their own criminality. But the arrival of The Godfather in 1972 ushered in a decades-long love affair with criminal business enterprises. While bad boys of the early boom wore working-class clothes, including motorcycle leather, and enjoyed grimy road trips, members of the Godfather Corleone crime family looked like middle-class, middle-America citizens. They lived in nice houses, wore business suits and were rooted in family life. Marlon Brando’s Godfather image and catchphrase (“an offer he can’t refuse”) adorned T-shirts and artwork for several decades afterwards. By the early 1970s, the bad boy as cultural icon was so familiar, it became worthy of parody. One character built around recognizable attributes—black leather, slicked-back hair, a connection with motorcycles and auto mechanics—was Fonzie of TV’s Happy Days. The bad boy managed to keep the appearance of rebellion while pursuing conventional activities like forming family attachments and finishing high school. By the late 1970s, the bad boy in cinema no longer needed to dress like a hoodlum to establish his credentials. Han Solo of Star Wars, for example, shared a backstory of rootlessness, criminality, indifference to community goals, and top-notch mechanical skills. Like Fonzie, he developed into a more socially acceptable male type. Later, the director even changed the timing of some crucial gunplay to further cement the idea that the bad guy was really a good one all along. Merchandising opportunities still abound. No real-time rehabilitation was available for Rambo (1982) and Scarface (1983), two characters who were celebrated for their physical prowess and steely resolve. The images of actors Sylvester Stallone and Al Pacino adorned millions of T-shirts and posters for years afterwards. The Rambo phenomenon had worldwide appeal for young men, and his face was seen on clothing sold across the globe—much of it probably bootlegged. Tony “Scarface” Montana served as a business role model for criminal entrepreneurs and musicians who currently celebrate the gangster lifestyle. His catchphrase, “Say hello to my little friend!” is still popular today. When the Cuban-American main character said, “In this country, you gotta make the money first… You get the power, then you get the women,” he was verbalizing part of the essential appeal of the bad-boy character. In reviewing Twilight, that bad-boy vampire extravaganza of the twenty-first century, movie critic Roger Ebert asked “Why do girls always prefer the distant, aloof, handsome, dangerous dudes instead of cheerful chaps like me?” For better or for worse, entertainment executives and their licensing minions have shown that they prefer the bad boy … because for the past fifty years, he’s been good for the bottom line.

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