Bonus content from my new piece for Rolling Stone about Tucker Carlson and precarious manhood
Interviews from the cutting-room floor.
Hello and happy Monday to everyone.
This morning, I’ve got a new essay out at Rolling Stone about last week’s much-mocked video previewing an episode of Tucker Carlson’s Fox Nation streaming show. You can check that out here:
Let’s chat about it a bit.
The general idea behind the piece is that the hypermasculine, homoerotic clip full of half-naked muscle-bound dudes doing dude things has nothing to do with Carlson being “secretly gay” (as I’ve seen some people argue, baselessly), and is more than just a “rah-rah dudes rock!” type of video. The clip itself is part of Carlson’s years-long attempt to frame advances in LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, and racial equality as a threat to civilization.
Bonus content: Dr. Eric Knowles
In the piece, I quote Dr. Eric Knowles, an associate professor of psychology at New York University and a researcher of social identity and political behavior. There was so much great, important, insightful stuff that I wanted to share some of what didn’t make the cut in the story.
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On the video and the messaging behind it:
The video evokes many tropes of what has been called hegemonic masculinity—the cultural ideal of men as physically strong (those shirtless male bodies), competitive (all that wrestling), and aggressive (the guns and sports). As American men move through society, this is by and large what informs their understanding of what a “real man” is. When we combine the cultural backdrop of hegemonic masculinity with what we know about precarious masculinity—the tendency of men in almost every culture to feel that they must constantly prove their masculine bona fides, whatever that happens to mean in their particular culture—we can understand the effects of rhetoric like this. My research with Sarah DiMuccio provides insight into how men are going to go about proving their masculinity through politics.
First, the video broadcasts and reinforces in grandiose terms ("Thus Spake Zarathustra") that strong and aggressive men are the real men in American society; anyone else is one of Hopf’s “weak men.” In case they’d forgotten, men exposed to this rhetoric say to themselves, “Oh yeah, this should be my goal; this is what I must be.” Second, the inherent precarity of masculinity—that sense that “real man” status is tenuous and always in need of evidence—leads men to say, “I can’t take this for granted; I’ve got to prove to myself and others that this is the kind of man I am.” This precarity, this need to prove masculinity, is amplified by the video’s suggestion that men are at risk of emasculation by unstated cultural forces (pronouns?). Finally, our work suggests that politics is a major avenue through which (precarious) men prove their adherence to (hegemonic) masculine norms of strength, competitiveness, and aggression. This is where the research connects with Carlson’s love affair with fascists: Trump, Orbán, Putin, Bolsonaro, and their ilk comport themselves as hegemonic masculine ideals. Supporting them proves men’s manhood; opposing them calls their manhood into question. These leaders know it, too—Putin shirtless on the horse, Bolsonaro’s story of getting stabbed and surviving, Trump and his supposedly high testosterone levels and big “hands.” But it’s not only in their personae. It’s in the policies they advocate: always aggressive, always unforgiving, always disparaging of the weak. As Jason Stanley explains in How Fascism Works, sexual insecurity and avoidance of the feminine is and has always been a critical component of fascist movements.
You’ll notice that I’m casting the video not so much as evidence of its creators’ precarious masculinity (although that may play a part)—but rather as an act of political communication explicitly intended to leverage hegemonic and precarious masculinity so as to drive voters into the arms of the neo-fascist right in the United States.
On the link between testosterone levels/the concern about testosterone levels and precarious masculinity:
My work doesn’t say anything about how any men actually are; I’m happy to assume that there are no mean physical differences between liberal, conservative, and fascist men. It’s all about the gap between what men think they are and where they feel they need to be. According to hegemonic masculinity, testosterone levels help make the man; according to precarious masculinity, men are going to worry about knowing, increasing, and communicating high testosterone levels. (Hegemonic masculinity provides the ideal, and precarious masculinity provides the insecurity.) Some men live in local cultures (socially conservative ones) that are particularly high in hegemonic masculinity, and it’s these men who will be most drawn to public figures like Carlson and politicians like Trump. I get accused of arguing that Republican men have smaller penises than Democratic men and things like that, and that is just not true. My work suggests that men made to worry (by hegemonic and precarious masculinity) about their physical characteristics are at risk of being drawn to people like this. And that’s what this video is trying to do.
On how to address this issue. Knowles’ past work has pointed to women’s progress in traditionally male-dominated professions, the focus on “toxic masculinity,” and Trump as contributing factors behind the defensive right-wing hypermasculinity movement. I asked him how, if the Gillette “The Best a Man Can Be” video makes things worse, how we can cultivate the type of setting that makes it better without sending out the message that bullying is good or that women should stay out of male-dominated fields:
This is the big puzzle. The Gillette campaign caused a lot of backlash because it was seen as an attack on hegemonic masculinity—merely by urging men not be bullies! It may nonetheless be that the campaign and others like it—despite backlash—reached a lot of people they needed to, who just aren’t as loud as the people objecting. A huge avenue for future research is to systematically test messages aimed at informing men that they don’t have to abide by the notions of masculinity they’ve been taught (or any masculinity at all) while minimizing backlash and maximizing effectiveness.
Bonus content: Nikki McCann Ramírez
On Tucker Carlson’s history of obsessing over masculinity:
Carlson’s view of masculinity has become more explicit in recent years, but it has informed commentary for the majority of his career – long before he became the face of Fox. The series of misogynistic and perverse comments he made about women on shock jock radio program Bubba The Love Sponge in the early 2000’s are a good marker of how Carlson was approaching conversations about gender before his move to Fox. The rise of the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter movement, and other progressive causes once again brought to the forefront issues of gender equity and social roles, and were viewed by much of the right as a direct challenge to what masculinity was, and what images, tropes and behaviors were acceptable and celebrated. The network was a central nexus of the public reckoning against the pervasive culture of sexual harassment in media. Carlson portrays movements like MeToo as seeking to advance women at the expense of men, yet the most powerful gig of his career only came about with the ousting of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly following a slew of allegations of sexual harassment, and the departure of Fox prime-time star Megyn Kelly, who alleged she’d been harassed by Ailes.
The rise of Carlson at Fox took place alongside the rise of Trump and the early years of his presidency. Trump was embroiled in a series of sexual abuse and harassment scandals that conservative media tried to downplay. Carlson was one of the first Fox hosts to publicly defend Trump from the backlash to the Access Hollywood tape, and it follows a long pattern of his minimizing or dismissing allegations of sexual misconduct.
Carlson’s coverage of masculinity and men has developed alongside the advent of the “culture wars.” In 2017 he called the “Day Without Women” protest “an attack on white men.” In 2018 he had a month-long series of segments on his primetime show called “Men in America” that was one of the first notable instances of Carlson sending an explicit message of “male empowerment” to his viewers. Carlson claimed that men in America were experiencing a crisis, and that it was likely linked to a generational decline in testosterone levels. Carlson has often linked this so-called “crisis” to the idea that men and traditional American masculinity are being cast as villains in a changing culture. When former CNN President Jeff Zucker resigned following a failure to disclose his relationship with a coworker, Carlson lamented that boisterous masculinity" was being systematically suppressed.
Importantly, the idea that there’s a “war on men” or “war on masculinity” in America isn’t new to the right-wing media or to Carlson. The 2019 Gilllete “toxic masculinity” ad, the backlash to #MeToo that included accusations of overreach by women, and the conflation of changing expectations around what is acceptable treatment of women by men with “cancel culture” are all notable examples of the perceived “war on masculinity.”
On the deeper meaning of Carlson’s video:
The trailer absolutely defied parody, but I think there was a much more concerning message in it that was overshadowed by the sheer visual circus. Tucker is focusing on this because for a long time he and others in the right-wing media have been priming the men of their audience to view themselves as the enforcers of the conservative worldview, as soldiers in the culture war battles they’re hearing about every night.
The trailer explicitly referred to a “collapse” of society, and the need to restore order. That begs the questions of 1) what is causing the collapse? And 2) what does restoring order actually look like?
If you’ve watched Carlson’s shows on Fox it’s clear that the social collapse he sells viewers is framed around the advancement of the left and progressive causes. Important topics like immigration, the advancement of civil rights, and LGBTQ (particularly Trans) advocacy, are all presented as things that threaten to destabilize a theory of stability couched in the maintenance of a very specific social order. One where men, presumably white and conservative, are the dominant forces in culture and society.
The call Carlson is putting out via this trailer for his viewers to be those who “restore order” is a call to put those marginalized groups that Carlson villanizes on Fox News on a nightly basis “back in their place.” His hawking to testicle tanning is a veil for a culture war narrative, not as a feasible solution to a medical problem. The majority of his viewers aren't going to walk away with the impression that they need to get red light therapy or visit their doctor to have their T levels checked, they’re going to end the episode with an impression that they are the people that need to go out into their community and stand up to the oppressors, to those who are eroding their “rightful” place in society.
The imagery of the trailer is aspirational, it’s a message to viewers that men who are able to perform physical strength are capable of cultural strength, of internal dominance. It’s a trope often found in the health and wellness industry: that the achievement of idealized physical standards reflects an internal capacity for self-control and self-dominance, and that those who do not or cannot achieve that image simply lack the fortitude.
On what this tells us about Tucker Carlson:
I think this entire “End of Men” special is a perfect example of the way Carlson misdirects his viewers. If his concern were truly about his viewers' testosterone production he would direct them to get a blood panel and consult with their doctor. Instead, Carlson will use the testosterone theory and the decline of traditional masculinity as another cudgel with which to browbeat the groups he scapegoats on a regular basis and keep his viewers tuned into his nightly cycle of rage bait.
As usual, artifacts like the trailer merit a quick laugh at their abject absurdity before a more serious consideration of their regrettable effectiveness. What prompts a guffaw on our part is less funny when contemplating the real-world violence it promotes.
"politics is a major avenue through which (precarious) men prove their adherence to (hegemonic) masculine norms of strength, competitiveness, and aggression"
Notice how with these folks politics is never about the actual management of the government? Start with the idea that government is a swamp, and must never, ever be called on to solve any real problems, but you must nevertheless get your people intensely interested in politics (which is, after all, about choosing who runs the government) and this is what you get.
Politics can be about store clerks saying "Happy Holidays", something the United States government has absolutely no influence over, but is can never be about providing people with health care, something the government could actually do something about.