5 Ways America's 'Masculinity Industry' Eats Men's Brains
It feels like journalists and YouTubers are legally obligated to talk about how masculinity is in crisis. Traditional manhood is supposedly going the way of the dodo, and yet at the same time there’s a huge industry offering me everything from jewelry to body washes that will keep my manliness intact amid my gender’s death throes. So what the hell is going on? Well…
The Manliness Industry Has Become Stupidly Huge
Fellas, if you’re like me, you start your day with a cup of Black Rifle’s Freedom Fuel, one of many coffee blends with a gun on the bag so everyone knows you’re not an effete roommate from a ‘90s sitcom just because you care about how your joe is made. Then you hop online to shop for tactical wallets, watches, and baby gear, because dropping 170 bucks on a camouflage diaper bag with a “God, Guns & Diapers” patch is worth it to let other dads know you’re the dominant alpha male at the teddy bears’ picnic.
Next, of course, you’ll grab some Powerful Oatmeal because it has a bull on the package, then settle down to watch an informational YouTube video like "America Needs More Manliness" and "Why are So Many Men Psychologically Infantile?" Finally, you can end your penis-oriented day with a nice cup of herbal tea (but the kind made for men) and a book like Becoming a King: The Path to Restoring the Heart of a Man or The Five Marks of a Man: Finding Your Path to Courageous Manhood.
Products have targeted men for as long as advertising’s existed. In the '20s, deodorant ads told women it was a necessity but only informed men it was an option, because not smelling like a flop house could be seen as “feminine” and “sissified.” Making yogurt and grooming products look manly was important in getting men to buy them at all. Somewhere in ancient Ur, a market stall owner probably told some gangly dork that he’d look tougher with a leather bracelet.
Changing a diaper isn’t any fun unless you have a very specific fetish, so if pretending you’re a SEAL helps then go for it. I own far too many sports jerseys to judge how men spend their money. But not only are we in a manliness boom, the products are telling you how to look at the world in a way that trucks and blue jeans never quite did.
That Industry Promotes A Very Specific Worldview
The good people at Active Doodie say you need one of their diaper bags because holding a normal one will be even more humiliating than holding your wife’s purse. Shit! You can also grab their “DeSantis 2024: For Freedom” shirt, because it’s never too early to campaign for a governor who encouraged states won by Biden to dispute the election, and who responded to a COVID spike by withholding funding from schools that implemented mask mandates.
The models at Tactical Baby Gear are sporting molon labe (“come and take them”) patches on their diaper bags, because why even have children if you can’t tell the changing room your stance on the Second Amendment? They’re also wearing patriotic apparel, which is another huge business; wander around a red state and you’ll see “I Stand for the National Anthem” and “America: Love it or Get the Hell Out” shirts. The latter’s product description says “we believe in the voice of the people and the freedom to speak out against what we disagree with,” because patriotism and irony aren’t on speaking terms. Multiple reviews brag they “piss snowflakes off.”
Black Rifle Coffee pitched themselves as the antidote to “anti-American Starbucks,” the coffee of the “ millennial generation,” and made several blunt statements supporting the Trump administration. Once they walked back their chumminess with far-right figures, alternatives like Brushtail Coffee went out of their way to defend Kyle Rittenhouse. Finally, a coffee for people who like seeing protestors shot dead in the streets.
America has a proud tradition of reducing politics to asinine vagaries crammed onto t-shirts, but these companies are all pitching a very specific and isolating vision of masculinity. Nine Line decries that “patriotism and national pride is disappearing daily” and say they want to reverse that trend, but half their product descriptions are about how the “woke” are turning America into an irredeemable hellhole. They love America, but they also seem convinced that the experiment is running on fumes.
Grunt Style has a “F**K YOUR FEELINGS” shirt, Combat Iron offers “FAUCI LIED,” “F**K WHAT THEY THINK,” and “CHOOSE VIOLENCE,” shirts, 1776 United sells a “FACTS DON’T CARE ABOUT YOUR FEELINGS” shirt with a product description that complains today’s youth “scream, pout, and protest their way into the news” and “riot, march, and whine if they're offended.” I thought we’re supposed to choose violence and f**k what other people feel about us, but you get the vibe. Being a man means drinking American whiskey, buying American guns, and not giving a shit about other Americans.
Not coincidentally, there’s a whole media ecosystem warning that modern manhood is vanishing. PragerU warns that men aren’t allowed to be masculine anymore, and thus no longer “defend, protect, or provide.” Conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson warned there’s a war on men, racking up 1.9 million views with hard-hitting arguments like “men dress stupid now.” “The Insidious War on Men,” “The Rise of Weak Men”… put enough keywords in your rant and you can score an easy viral video.
All these sources lament that men aren’t what they used to be, and they blame modern society for somehow killing masculinity. Wearing a shirt that brags about what a man you are is therefore a statement that you’re still here, fighting back against the supposed war on you. But so many of these products go beyond unapologetic and into disdainful, like only an unmanly fool would disagree with their sentiment.
But just what makes a man a man? Because…
The Modern View Of Masculinity Is An Aberration
Hey, maybe all those videos have a point. Look how this typical soy boy talks to his “male” friend, writing girly crap like “You know my desire to befriend you is everlasting” and “I do not feel my own sorrows much more keenly than I do yours” before signing off “Yours forever.” Why not just have a couple of appletinis and cry about your menstrual cycles?
Those are excerpts from letters by noted wimp Abraham Lincoln to his good friend Joshua Speed. And I mean good friend; they shared their deepest anxieties with each other, while also sharing a bed for four years.
The consensus historical view is that Lincoln and Speed never felt any physical attraction. Male friendships in their time were just much more intimate than today, both verbally and physically. The bed sharing was a frontier necessity, but guy pals would often commemorate their friendship with portraits where they’d sit on each other’s laps or hold hands.
Flowery language, inspired by the heroic bromances of classical literature, was common. Another of Lincoln’s friends and bedmates commented that the future president’s thighs “were as perfect as a human being could be” like he was talking about the weather.
Now, if you go up to a dude in a “F**k your feelings” shirt and declare your everlasting desire to befriend him because of his perfect thighs, he’s going to try and use those thighs to kick your ass. But you probably couldn’t convince him that Lincoln was a woke snowflake either. So what lost elements of masculinity are we trying to reclaim?
There’s a pick-and-choose component to modern masculinity—the ripped models shown drinking coffee and wiping baby butts with military precision tend to sport manly beards and tattoos, but go back a couple of centuries and tattoos were associated with degenerates and freaks. Bearded Americans were dismissed as “maniacs” and “dissimulators” until a beard revival, which saw newspaper columns arguing that bearded men were reclaiming their proud Anglo-Saxon heritage while men who shaved were effeminate or slaves. The media has argued over whether traditional masculinity is dying since before the Civil War.
What about more recent male history? Anyone with a grumpy male relative has seen a meme comparing the men who stormed the beaches of Normandy with the men who storm overpriced vegan brunch specials. But the men who fought World War II also cranked out poetry about what a miserable time they were having, which doesn’t really fit on a t-shirt.
Even Sparta, who gave us molon labe and the namesake of endless companies selling everything from body armor to workout programs, gets invoked whenever a man needs to feel so badass that his penis starts playing the national anthem.
But dudes who invoke Sparta’s cool quotes about not having their weapons taken away probably aren’t planning to reclaim their habitual pederasty, lengthy stretches of communal living, total subservience to the state, long braided hair, progressive (for the time) attitude towards women, or the time they surrendered and whined about the enemy’s use of arrows. Sparta’s overemphasis on military might also led to fundamental instability and an eventual asskicking by outnumbered Thebans, but hey, cool shirt.
Masculinity isn’t a series of boxes to check that were handed down by nature. It’s always varied by time and place, and you can only “reclaim” it in the same sense that you can reclaim bell bottoms. Go ahead and try, but don’t be surprised if other people give you weird looks.
Our Narrow, Modern View Of Manliness Is Taking Us To Strange Places
As the pro-gun diaper bags implied, Americans are increasingly told that being a good man means believing that a significant number of other men are waiting for their chance to murder you. Gun sales have been trending up since Sandy Hook, and the pandemic caused a spike. Of the roughly 17 million Americans who bought a gun in 2020, 20% were first-time owners.
The election also gave us a boom in sales of “tactical apparel,” like body armor and gas masks. This is also an aberration—Humphrey v. Nixon amid the height of divisive anti-war protests didn’t prompt a run on military gear. Buying it made you look like a weirdo, because that shit was for the military. But while cosplaying soldier today can make you feel prepared, it also gives you an identity. You’re someone who’s always ready, someone who has the ordnance to kill the guy across the street when he starts hanging up all those scary witches and gourds in October. (They're probably for some sinister pagan vegan Antifa festival.)
Yeah, these have also been bull years for the tactical training industry, where dentists and mechanics drop a couple thousand bucks to learn how to burst into houses and mercilessly put rounds in the heads of hostage takers. Many courses are run by Afghanistan and Iraq veterans looking to apply their skillsets by teaching Americans what to do if Kansas City becomes Fallujah.
Young men are a major market for these courses, and while most present firearms as a peaceful, responsible deterrent, the message is still “As a man, you always need to be ready to use this.” Shit could go down in the Target parking lot at any moment, because there is always an enemy out there and no one is coming to help you. One course has you shoot a target depicting an armed pregnant woman so you can get a sense of what you’d feel.
If you browse, say, Reddit’s concealed carry group, the average gun owner sounds responsible and happy to chastise dinguses with Rambo fantasies. But concealed carry, despite sounding so American that George Washington probably walked around with a little flintlock shoved under his wig, is yet another aberration. 2.7 million Americans had concealed carry permits in 1999 but, after intense lobbying by the NRA and other advocates to loosen laws, that number’s now almost 20 million.
But … why? A majority of Americans have, for decades, believed that crime rates are rising. And, for decades, they’ve been wrong. Media and politicians mislead us about how dangerous America is, petty crimes like vandalism lead to the mistaken assumption that serious crimes are also rampant, a high-profile crime across the country can convince us that we’re next, and all while the actual statistics keep improving. America’s no paradise, but it’s safer than it’s ever been and we act like we’re about to erupt into Civil War 2: This Time We’re Angry About Pronouns.
Americans, for example, think their odds of being robbed are about 15%, even though it’s really 1.2% (which is larger than the miniscule percentage of crimes that are actually fought off with guns). The manly response is to say that even that isn’t worth the risk but, ironically, one of the few notable increases in crime is in states with permissive concealed carry laws, which saw a 13%-15% increase in violent crime in the decade after those laws came into effect.
People lose their temper, misunderstandings become ugly. It’s like the nastiness that men are supposed to protect against has been willed into existence by the fear of it. Because when you’re saturated with media that says the world is out to get men, some men are going to hit the world first.
And So Men Are Now Lonely, Isolated, And Scared
Between 2019 and 2021 the U.S. Concealed Carry Association, which teaches self-defense and trauma care, saw its membership jump from 300,000 to 600,000. Their success came from their focus on family protection. The USCCA is far less combative than the NRA, and they emphasize that part of being safe is avoiding fighting. But they still talk about America as a place where you’re perpetually on the verge of fending for yourself a gunfight.
The USCAA says 40% of their members are Democrats. If that’s not conservative enough, you can join one of America’s growing militias, but if that’s still too conservative then you can check out the John Brown Gun Club, the Socialist Rifle Association, or another rapidly growing leftie gun group. The language they use is different, but it’s still the same message: learn to protect yourself before things go to hell. Did I mention the study that suggests gun ownership for personal defense is driven by fear?
So America is more armed than ever, yet it’s supposedly suffering a manliness nadir. Ironically, the 1950s that are idealized as a peak in American manhood thought they were suffering from a testosterone crisis, because soldiers came home and had to learn how to move on and become family men. Now family men supposedly need to become lone warriors in case radicals seize the local Steak 'n Shake. Again, we’ve been reframing and arguing about manhood forever.
If we insist on idealizing the '50s, maybe we should focus on the part where masculinity meant contributing to your community. That’s the real difference between men today and back then. Being a man used to mean participating in a church, community group, or union, and now it means wearing a shirt that tells society to suck it. If that’s your attitude, then you don’t see America as being made of anything. It’s just a collection of people who either agree with you or could turn on you at any moment.
I’m not saying that this is all as simple as getting dudes to join the local Elks Lodge. But men are lonelier than ever, more isolated from their communities than ever, more armed than ever, and more likely to kill themselves than ever. And the solution isn’t to continue the endless churn of videos that tell guys to bury all emotion, barricade themselves against the imaginary wolves at the door, and become the kind of man that never really existed.
All those manly coffee and shirt companies promote, essentially, a world that keeps shrinking. They’ve decided that everything from Starbucks to professional sports, once the ultimate manly pastime, are too “woke.” They’ve decided that we’re all in this alone, and that men owe no one outside their homes anything.
So if we’re going to cherry pick from yesteryear’s men, hell, let’s pick the part where men went out and tried to make the world a better place. All the molon labe bravado in the world isn’t going to help men if we make a world so isolated that their guns are most likely to get turned on themselves.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.