Tucker Carlson’s foray into testicle toasting is only the latest (and possibly most amusing) example of the right-wing’s masculinity obsession. The manliness theme keeps reappearing. Trump’s strutting tough talk was imbibed greedily by fans eager for affirmation of the manly virtues. At every rally, followers sported posters superimposing Trump’s face on an Arnold Swarzenneger-type body. “He fights!” they would exult.
Trump and the subordinate members of his pack didn’t invent this—insecure masculinity is an old phenomenon.
In the early years of the 20th century, Europe experienced something of a masculinity crisis. Popular writers, physicians, and journalists began to fret that young Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Germans had become soft after so many uninterrupted years of peace. In her magisterial history of the period, The War That Ended Peace, Margaret MacMillan traced the currents that coursed through European society in the years before the Great War. Francois Coppee, a French nationalist, worried that “Frenchmen are degenerating . . . too absorbed in the race for enjoyment and luxury to retain that grand subordination of self to great causes which has been the historic glory of the French character.” In Great Britain, General Robert Baden-Powell founded the Boy Scouts in part because he feared the emasculation of England’s youth. “One cause which contributed to the downfall of Rome,” he cautioned, “was the fact that soldiers fell away from the standard of their forefathers in bodily strength.” The same might befall the British Empire, he feared, if its boys were not trained in masculine habits. A Hungarian writer popular throughout the continent warned that European society was “marching to its certain ruin because it is too worn out and flaccid to perform great tasks.”
In America too, many feared that urbanization and industrialization had feminized men. Theodore Roosevelt glorified and personified the “strenuous life,” declaring in 1898 that “We the sons of a nation yet in the pride of its lusty youth . . . know its future is ours if we have the manhood to grasp it, and we enter the new century girding our loins for the contest before us.”
It’s a universal worry. Vladimir Putin has portrayed himself shirtless on horseback, defeating opponents in hand-to- hand judo combat, and shooting tigers (staged of course). In 2021, the Chinese government banned “effeminate men” from TV and instructed broadcasters to “resolutely put an end to sissy men and other abnormal aesthetics.” They were to depict only “revolutionary culture.”
It’s tempting to dismiss all of this as the pathetic bleats of hollow men who merit only derision. But as anthropologists, psychologists, and historians alike can testify, the male need for validation is universal, and when societies fail to offer constructive paths for masculine expression, they court backlash. The negative aspects of masculinity are always lurking just beneath the surface. As Hannah Arendt put it, “Every generation, civilization is invaded by barbarians. We call them ‘children.’”
In the past 60 years, America and the rest of the developed world have witnessed dramatic and precedent-shattering changes in women’s status and in relations between men and women, and while most of the changes have benefited both sexes, not all have been positive. Boys and men have felt neglected in the march toward “girl power” and “woman power.” Schools have become less hospitable to boys’ natural energy. Cutting back on recess denies children not just an outlet for restless limbs but crucial social and emotional learning. Making up rules for games and resolving conflicts without adult intervention turns out to be crucial, especially for boys.
Girls are now outperforming boys at nearly every level of education. They earn 60 percent of bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and comprise 70 percent of high school valedictorians. Women are also dominating many workplaces. Women today hold a majority of the nation’s jobs, including 51.4 percent of managerial and professional jobs—up from 26.1 percent in 1980. They make up 54 percent of all accountants and hold about half of all banking and insurance jobs. As for men, they are dropping out at alarming rates. More prime age males are out of the labor force today than during the Great Depression.
The sexual and feminist revolutions of the 1960s delivered mixed signals to men. At first, the message was: “Women were just as randy as men and sex was a romp and a frolic.” Then it was: “No wait, failing to get consent for every caress and kiss was assault.” Masculinity itself was not a constitutive part of humanity, it was “toxic.” When the Nation magazine compiled a list of “Ten Things to End Rape Culture,” readers were encouraged to join organizations that “redefined masculinity.”
The other great upheaval of the past half century is the decline of the two-parent family. The great dividing line in American life is not progressive versus conservative, urban versus rural, or black versus white. It’s married versus not. For example, African-American husbands have higher labor force participation rates than white bachelors. The upper third of the income distribution, who tend to marry and stay together, also tend to raise thriving children. By contrast, the lowest third, who mostly have revolving-door relationships without marriage, tend to have kids who don’t. The middle third is more like the bottom than the top. Children in homes with a non-relative adult are 11 times more likely to be the victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse than those living with their biological or adoptive parents. And children in homes with a non-relative adult male are 50 times more likely to die of inflicted injuries than those who grow up with their biological or adoptive parents.
Boys are more disadvantaged than girls when they are raised by single mothers. Two MIT economists studied pairs of siblings in Florida between 1992 and 2002. They found that “Fatherless boys are less ambitious, less hopeful, and more likely to get into trouble at school than fatherless girls.” Being raised by a single mother significantly decreased the likelihood that a boy would attend college, but had no similar effect on girls.
A significant percentage of American men are growing up without models of manliness in the form of fathers. They don’t see a man shouldering responsibilities for his wife and children, helping with expenses (or covering them), joking with mom, taking out the trash, tossing a ball with his kids, helping with homework, or preparing a meal. Without a balanced picture of masculinity based upon their life experience—a dad who does manly things like earn a living and also nurturing things like tucking a child in at night—they search for masculinity elsewhere and often find a tawdry version offered up by the Carlsons and Putins of this world.
So in a sense we do have a masculinity crisis. We have large numbers of men who never marry, never support their kids, and are loosely attached to the community. They are insecure about their masculinity for good reason—and that presents a problem for us all.