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I guess we have to talk about the ‘masculinity crisis’ in America again

What some conservatives see as an attack on masculinity is just the growing pains of a changing society.

I guess we have to talk about the ‘masculinity crisis’ in America again
[Photo: Bettmann/Contributor/Getty]

A chyron on a recent episode of Tucker Carlson Tonight, just beneath the talking heads of Carlson and Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, reads Why America Should Embrace Masculinity—a clarion call for a divided nation to just give manhood a chance. “The numbers are really clear,” the host says. “It’s men in this country who are in deep trouble by every measure.”

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Although he provides zero numbers or measures to back up this claim, the message is clear. According to two of America’s most prominent right-wing leaders, one of the greatest problems facing society at the moment is that the left just won’t let dudes rock.

They’re not the only ones who think so, either. A massive, manufactured masculinity panic is currently underway—and it’s missing an important point.

America’s eroding manliness has lately been discussed ad nauseam. Fox News host Laura Ingraham wants to know “Where have all the men gone?” According to Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance, a 17-year old boy killing two protesters and wounding a third is just what happens when we “leave our boys without fathers.” And the idea that Pete Buttigieg, a male cabinet member, took three months off for paternity leave has exploded the brains of Joe Rogan, U.S. Representative Lauren Boebert, a cofounder of Palantir, and, of course, Carlson himself. This concern-trolling has gotten so pronounced and predictable in its frequency that The Onion nodded toward it last Thursday.

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This territory is not exactly uncharted. Mega-selling author Jordan Peterson complained in early 2018 that “the masculine spirit is under assault,” perhaps not coincidentally right around the peak of the #MeToo movement.

But the topic of modern men not knowing quite how to Man has been fertile ground for ages, especially in entertainment. Fight Club satirically took on the male identity crisis in the late-1990s, not long after the launch of a Harley-Davidson-themed restaurant led comedian George Carlin to bemoan the “pussification of the American male.” The Sopranos seemed to delight in highlighting questionable ideas about traditional masculinity, like when the greater mafia community belittles Junior Soprano for . . . engaging in cunnilingus. And John Travolta and Tim Allen may not have realized they were skewering the anxiety of fading machismo with their accidental satire Wild Hogs in the mid-aughts. Clearly, we’ve been here before.

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The reason the topic has come roaring back in earnest as of late is that it fits in well alongside a number of recent and ongoing reactionary grievances.

On Halloween, Hawley beta-tested his new focus on how scary the modern world is for good old-fashioned men. Speaking at the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando, Florida, he asked, “Can we be surprised that, after years of being told that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness, pornography, and video games?”

Hawley later confirmed to Axios that he plans on making masculinity his signature political issue moving forward—an odd choice, considering that pornography and video games are two of the only remaining areas where all political ideologies still overlap.

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Elsewhere in the Axios interview, Hawley gives away the game. “I think you put together lack of jobs, you put together fatherlessness, you put together the social messages that we teach our kids in school, I think we’ve got to confront that and its effects,” he says. There you have it: His defense of traditional masculinity is just a Trojan Horse for attacking both the current labor shortage and the rising culture-war fear that Mr. Potato Head becoming more inclusive is tantamount to mass castration. Perhaps he can even squeeze in a few other hot-button GOP issues beneath this umbrella as well. It’s easy, after all, to get people upset about something if you define it broadly enough.

Hawley’s histrionics conflate an attack on masculinity altogether (an assault that does not exist, nor should it) with an attack on toxic masculinity (which does exist, and rightfully so). The senator and his cohort either don’t understand this distinction, or refuse to acknowledge it. They pretend there is a broad, Democratic National Convention-approved effort to make cisgender men feel bad for being born in their skin, when all that’s happening is that people now regularly call out the negative elements seeded into traditional gender norms. Generations of boys grew up constantly receiving the message that women are objects, queerness is a sin, and violence is the solution to everything. Now those boys exist in a world that has begun to reject that toxic doctrine, and the resulting alienation of those who can’t accept it has turned some of them into deadly “incels” like Elliot Rodger.

In that sense, there certainly is a crisis in masculinity, just not the one Hawley and company are talking about. To them, the cure is the disease. Just as with critical race theory, the problem isn’t the way that men have been taught to behave historically; it’s the fact that any kind of realignment whatsoever is currently happening. Conservatives are worried that if the Pandora’s box of possibilities for men opens up—if their sons catch a glimpse of Harry Styles wearing a dress, as Kurt Cobain did 30 years before him—masculinity itself will somehow cease to exist. But manhood isn’t in danger, it’s simply in transition.

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The way we talk about gender has changed so fast that it’s already difficult to imagine a major publication like Vanity Fair running a lengthy think piece called “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” as it did 14 years ago. (And only partly because women are now in charge of all the newsrooms.) Meanwhile, at the same time that Hawley whines about an epidemic of “fatherlessness,” men in record numbers have taken on more parenting responsibilities and consider it extremely important to their identity. Rather than support this trend, the Tucker Carlsons of the world seem to consider it evidence that manhood is under attack.

Why wouldn’t American men who are proud of being fathers want to join the all-but-six countries in the world that have paid leave so they can spend more time bonding with their newborn babies? What exactly is it that makes the men who mock that idea, like Carlson or Joe Rogan, more manly than a dad on paternity leave?

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The moment currently unfolding is full of exciting ways for how men can define themselves going forward. They don’t need to be terrified, like Rogan, that owning a soy candle will make them less of a man—an idea spawned from the same lineage as the early-aughts ad in which a dude feeling self-conscious for buying too much tofu must purchase a Hummer to restore his manhood. Having to worry about this kind of thing all the time sounds like a nightmare!

Hawley and Carlson are still free to shackle themselves to the strictly traditional definition of masculinity. Nobody is trying to take that option away from them. With any hope, though, the next generation of men will feel freed from it.

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