There are a lot of commercials and celebrities and “celebrities” and books and hashtags and approximately 73 podcasts and at least one Bagel Bites campaign telling us how to be better fathers, husbands, friends, and colleagues. Their business is self-improvement—the individual and collective betterment of the male species—and they’re selling wokeness and intentionality, self-awareness and feminism. And we seem to be buying it. We must be. An entire economy has sprung up to serve and exploit the desire of men to be better people: better dads and brothers and spouses and coworkers.
This is, on some basic level, a welcome thing. This magazine has been in the business of betterment for years. But now we have a lot of company.
The scope of this Manconomy—it’s so important, we had to capitalize it—is staggering, and it’s easy to be cynical about the whole thing when you see, say, Amazon launching an in-house clothing brand called “Good Man” and filming a commercial of Russell Wilson sitting around with a bunch of dudes talking about being…good men. But can an enterprise that preys upon men’s deepest insecurities actually help move the needle toward a more equitable society? Can men simply consume their way to becoming better people? Can the Manconomy actually be a force for good?
For a few months this summer, I explored the brighter lights and darker shadows of the Manconomy, and it turns out these commercials and celebrities and “celebrities” et al. aren’t just helping steer us toward a better version of ourselves in a cash grab. They’re asking the right questions, sparking the right conversations, and starting the right fights, and they might just save us all from ourselves.
It used to be so simple to be a man. Thousands of years of tradition and legacy and entrenched patriarchy had clearly outlined the expected roles and characteristics of true men: rugged, heterosexual, self-reliant providers who put food on the table and never asked for help. Vulnerability was weak and feminine. Men were dominant and women were submissive. Heroes were military generals, cowboys, and secret agents. John Wayne and James Bond made it all look so easy.
Manhood today, both as perception and practice, is decidedly more complex. With the #MeToo movement, women seized upon an unprecedented opportunity to hold male abusers and harassers accountable, which in turn helped to further normalize conversations about consent and assault, aggression and power. At the same time, the blurring of traditional gender norms in concert with hard-won progress for the LGBTQ+ community have radically transformed sexual politics. All of these changes have prompted confusion for many men about their roles at work, at home, and in society at large. The upside of social progress is freedom from the previous constraints of what we thought a man had to be. But with that freedom comes uncertainty: We don’t know what to do now. We don’t know who to be.
Which is where the Manconomy comes in, with podcasts fast becoming the go-to destination for big ideas and (seriously) long discussions about what it means to be a man. There’s Dax Shepard and David Harbour going deep on their respective battles with alcoholism in an episode of Armchair Expert, Mark Pagán bringing his wit to the topic of male financial insecurities on Other Men Need Help, Aymann Ismail revealing the struggles Asian guys face on Tinder on Man Up, and Bill Delvaux pontificating on how to develop “a new masculine identity in Christ” for Heroic: Conversations on Surprising Manhood. Collectively, these podcasts have racked up millions of streams. All of this talk, of course, happens between advertisements for mattresses and web domains and meal plans.
Towering amid all the woke-bro podcasts is Joe Rogan. There have been more than 1,300 episodes of The Joe Rogan Experience since 2009, and in both 2017 and 2018, it was Apple Podcasts’ second-most-downloaded show, all while racking up more than 6 million subscribers to its YouTube channel. The show’s success with its (mostly male) audience is predicated on Rogan’s willingness to engage with (mostly male) guests who span the ideological spectrum from controversy-courting right-wingers like Ben Shapiro, Andy Ngo, and Alex Jones to more progressive types like Charlamagne tha God, Judd Apatow, and Bernie Sanders, plumbing their perspectives for some kind of hodge-podge roadmap navigating masculinity.
Rogan and his podcasting cohort are our most immediate contact with the Manconomy. Beyond the reach of our iPhones, though, there are the real-life experts and “experts” on masculinity and gender who start off by writing some blog posts before filming a TED Talk, landing a book deal, and then charging companies and colleges to hear their spiel. No matter your budget, you can find a man who will deliver a keynote or facilitate breakout sessions or join a panel or read from his book—provided you’ve also got the scratch to cover meals and lodging. Some of these speakers (like Tim Mousseau and Jeff Perera) charge only a few thousand dollars for their services. But bigger names, like Jordan Peterson, have booking agents who reportedly won’t consider an offer that’s under $100,000.
What are some of those events like? They’re probably a lot like Lecture Hall L63 at John Jay College in New York, where I sat in the back-right corner this summer and was beckoned to stand up by a goateed man at the front of the room.
“Repeat after me: We promote healthy manhood!” the man bellowed, a huge grin stretching across his face. I was at “Multicultural Masculinities,” a free workshop co-hosted by A Call to Men, an organization whose mission is to help improve “the next generation of manhood.” Like the ManKind Project and Evryman and Meetup groups, A Call to Men is just one of the many events, men’s groups, and wellness retreats with a similar mission to help us reckon with our masculinity. Often for a registration fee.
The crowd of 200 around me was a mix of older academic types, young professionals, and college students who had all signed up to sit in seminars with names like “Redefining Masculinity: A New Lexicon.” A majority of the attendees were people of color, and although the audience was mostly men, there were plenty of women in the lecture hall. One of those women was Katie, who works for a domestic-violence shelter on Long Island. When I asked Katie what brought her out to this event, she told me, “It’s about finding the right language, because masculinity is such a sensitive subject for so many people.”
We rose out of our seats while a different man got his iPhone ready to capture our collective catchphrase for social media. “We promote healthy manhood!”
The day’s agenda was focused on mitigating the negative consequences that unhealthy practices and perceptions of manhood have wrought upon society. The big topics: sexual violence, homophobia, misogyny—and the people who had signed up for the seminar seemed genuinely eager to have these difficult conversations. It was greatly encouraging to see so many people willing to address toxic masculinity as a public health crisis, ready to cut through the bullshit and get to the very heart of the matter. As Joseph Maldonado, a CUNY professor, told the crowd: “We don’t call men out. We call men in.”
I met the goateed man who had asked us all out of our seats in the hallway after he wrapped up his keynote. His name is Ted Bunch, A Call to Men’s chief development officer and the most public-facing member of the organization aside from CEO Tony Porter, whose TED Talk outlines a more progressive masculinity and has been viewed more than 2.9 million times since it was posted in 2010.
Dressed in a tailored blue suit, crisp white button-down, and old-school blue Vans, Bunch gave me a firm handshake and welcomed me to the event as we walked to a smaller classroom down the hall. In the classroom, he queued up a PowerPoint presentation as I took my seat amid about 25 other men and women. Rather than lecturing the room on the failures of masculinity, Bunch kicked the session off with a casual Q&A, letting the attendees give their unfiltered impressions about manhood.
The dialogue is an entryway to “the Man Box,” A Call to Men’s most popular teaching tool, which breaks down what Bunch refers to as the “collective socialization of men.” Men are taught—often by other men but also by women—to embrace certain behaviors and characteristics (like physical toughness and stoicism) and avoid others (like vulnerability). In the Man Box, women are objects and less valuable than men, and that power dynamic helps to explain why violence against women is so commonplace. Much of the work of A Call to Men is prevention-oriented, but Bunch wants men to feel more responsible for not just checking their own masculinity but for the other men they encounter in their everyday life. It can’t solely be the work of feminists to reform men, according to Bunch. “The bridge of prevention to intervention is men,” Bunch said.
I witnessed what seemed like real breakthroughs during our session. One woman tearfully shared how her late father had trouble expressing his emotions out of a need to maintain a strong exterior as a man. A younger man talked about how the worst insult a bully could hurl at you in his Brooklyn neighborhood was to say that you were gay. When we as a society talk about toxic masculinity, we tend to talk about men in static, broad terms, laying out stakes and consequences better suited for Cancel Culture than genuine growth. What Bunch puts forward is a more hopeful vision: We can begin to dismantle these toxic attitudes not by marching or tweeting or buying products that signal virtue but by opening up and having a conversation with one another.
A Call to Men aims to teach us that men aren’t born imbued with morality or a personality or a destiny. We’re blank canvases engaged in some metaphysical lottery, and the people we become—who we choose to become—are shaped by many more forces than we often imagine. Who your parents are, how much money you have, the country where you live, the neighborhood where you reside, the language that you speak, the color of your skin, the genitalia between your legs: All of these things influence who you will one day grow up to be. And from the time you leave the emotional-regulation stage of infancy behind and start to develop motor skills and a conscience, there will be people competing for your attention, presenting you with examples that help mold you into a person with thoughts and feelings and convictions. An identity. What makes you you.
The advertising industry wants to be a part of that conversation, too. In the pilot episode of Mad Men, the show’s cocksure ad executive Don Draper explains to a female acquaintance his views about romance: “What you call love was invented by guys like me to sell nylons.”
Masculinity may not be selling nylons (yet), but it’s certainly selling a lot of books and deodorant and chunky soups. Earlier this year, Gillette produced a two-minute Super Bowl ad that had almost nothing to do with shaving. Instead, the commercial tackled toxic masculinity writ large: bullying, sexual harassment, and the tired notion that “boys will be boys.”
The commercial was an instant viral phenomenon, receiving praise from celebrities on the left like Chrissy Teigen and Ava Duvernay while being mocked by right-leaning pundits like Piers Morgan, who wrote that the ad pushed men to be “tarred with the same monstrous brush.” “Boycott Gillette” quickly became a trending topic on Twitter, which almost seems like it was part of Gillette’s plan.
“2019 is the 30th year of the iconic line ‘The best a man can get.’ We debuted it at the Super Bowl of 1989,” Pankaj Bhalla, the director of Gillette and Venus, North America, says. “As we looked at the line, we wanted to think of the right way to bring it to life. We were already starting to show men in a more modern, contemporary light. We wanted to redefine what ‘The best a man can get’ meant—not just the best razor; we wanted to focus on what kind of man does Gillette intend to emulate and follow. That translated to ‘The best a man can be,’ not just ‘The best a man can get.’”
What Bhalla is articulating is an inversion of the old nylons model laid out by Draper. Companies used to sell products to indirectly reinforce values; now they’re directly emulating those values in order to sell products.
Axe is another company that’s changed how it depicts masculinity in advertisements. In the mid-2000s, Axe was known for campaigns like “The Axe Effect,” which showed swarms of women charging toward and surrounding men who had just used the body spray. According to Mark Lodwick, Axe’s brand director, starting in 2016, the company’s marketing began to dramatically pivot away from the well-worn trope of “the guy gets the girl.”
“As new teen guys come in, you have the opportunity to reestablish yourself as a brand with them. So 12-year-old guys today, they don’t know these [previous] ads,” Lodwick says. “We used who we are—attraction and confidence. But the expression of that, what it means to be a man, changes with the times.”
In other words, changing definitions of masculinity extend to young men’s personal preferences for how socially conscious their spray-deodorant brand should aspire to be.
“What [advertising agencies] realized is that younger consumers don’t see a reason why they should support a brand if it doesn’t speak to their values,” says Mark Tungate, author of Branded Male: Marketing to Men. As these younger generations—who are more socially and politically active since the election of Donald Trump—begin to wield greater purchasing power, it makes sense that more companies will incorporate explicit social messaging into their brands.
However noble the intentions of companies and Manconomy entrepreneurs who hitch their marketing strategies to social justice issues may be, it’s impossible to separate the supposed altruism from the capitalism. Gillette dove into the toxic-masculinity debate to sell razors. Pampers enlisted John Legend to talk about the need for more changing tables in men’s public bathrooms so it could sell diapers. Even the Curvy Wife Guy, Robbie Tripp, acknowledges that body positivity is a lucrative commodity. Within a month of Tripp’s posting a photo to Instagram praising his wife’s “thick thighs, big booty, and cute little side roll,” the couple had earned $100,000 from brand deals.
A cynic might say that the Manconomy may actually hold men back from seriously addressing the issues it leverages to sell products. After all, it’s much easier to buy the woke shaving-cream brand and believe you’ve done your woke-man deed of the day than it is to actively advocate for closing the gender pay gap or participate in a boycott.
But while man’s path to modern enlightenment can’t end with a shaving-cream advertisement or a particularly engaging podcast, perhaps it can begin with them. Rather than selling the illusion of progress, the Manconomy has the opportunity to offer men a fresh start. Boy, do we need one.