The social science explaining why Fox News wants you to believe masculinity is under threat

The social science explaining why Fox News wants you to believe masculinity is under threat

It’s not just good TV -- it’s also good politics.

Blog ››› ››› PARKER MOLLOY


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Gillette was probably hoping for a little bit of buzz when it released its Super Bowl ad a few weeks early. What it got was wall-to-wall coverage -- at least on Fox News.

Titled “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be,” Gillette’s video begins with a play on its long-time slogan, asking, “Is this the best a man can get? Is it?” The video then cuts to scenes touching on bullying, the #MeToo movement, and behavior that people often justify by saying “Boys will be boys.” It’s provocative, and deliberately so. The core message is that men should be their best selves and set a good example for future generations because, as the ad concludes, “the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”

Fox News, as expected, didn’t take kindly to it, and the network put its outrage machine to work in response.

During the January 15 edition of The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld said the ad “bashed men, men who fought wars, who built bridges -- they just bashed them.” Fox host Brian Kilmeade appeared on Fox Business’ Varney & Co. to say that, sure, there may be times boys will “show an aggression,” but “that’s just the way men are made up to be.” Even so, he continued, he doesn’t need a razor company telling him how to live his life.

On that morning’s episode of Fox & Friends, guest Darrin Porcher said the ad represented “an atrocity,” adding, “We should be seen as equal to women, not as beneath.” Overall, the show devoted 12 minutes of discussion time to the Gillette ad while providing just 30 seconds for the House of Representatives’ decision the night before to strip Rep. Steve King (R-IA) of his committee assignments after he made comments in support of white supremacy. That’s 24 times more coverage for the razor ad than for an objectively huge story within the world of politics.

The next day, The Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh appeared on Fox & Friends to denounce the ad as “clearly insulting,” saying, “I didn't learn anything from the #MeToo movement.” The last bit is not so surprising, as he’s already written articles and published videos on why the movement has “overstayed its welcome.”

But the furor over facial hair is just a small part of it. Fox News frequently puts an odd focus on supposed threats to masculinity.

While segments about a war on masculinity do appear to have increased in frequency in recent years, at least at first glance, the theme is not exactly new. It’s a catch-all designed to give a sense of urgency and create a personal investment between viewers and issues they otherwise might not feel motivated to act on. And there’s actually a fair amount of social science explaining why this sort of laser-focus on masculinity is a politically savvy move for a politically motivated media outlet.

“Men have been emasculated, they have been feminized by the left that has pushed us on a culture, and they do see Donald Trump as someone who speaks for them,” said then-Fox host Andrea Tantaros during the December 22, 2015, edition of Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor. A year earlier on the same program, she claimed that “young men … have been completely feminized,” leading to educated women “having the government subsidize their sex lives.” Months before that, she warned that the left “would love to feminize” the NFL, adding, “The White House has been weighing in on the NFL on concussions and other issues.”

In October 2015, when Playboy made the decision to no longer publish nude photos, T.J. McCormack penned for FoxNews.com something of a requiem for the magazine and America’s collective masculinity:

A Playboy magazine was a last refuge where a man could be a man, read some great political pieces, get some good fitness advice, hear the straight scoop in incisive interviews, and yes, indulge and behold the overwhelming perfection that is woman. Men were certainly men well before Playboy. Hugh Hefner only ushered in an era of enhanced masculinity. Now, as that masculinity is under attack, we’re doomed to become a watered-down gender. A bunch of boobs.

In response to a May 2017 article in Vox about the U.S. Marine Corps’ inaction over a revenge porn scandal among its ranks, Fox host Todd Starnes took a jab at “the emasculated pajama boys” who “seem to want our Marines to prance into battle wearing high heels and camouflage rompers.”

More recently, just days before the outrage over the Gillette ad, Fox took aim at a new report from the American Psychological Association (APA) about the destructive potential of “traditional masculinity.”

The report came as a set of guidelines designed to help psychologists work more effectively with men and boys. Fox News contributor Tammy Bruce appeared on the January 10 edition of Fox & Friends to decry the APA’s findings and recommendations, mounting a defense of masculinity as a force for good:

If we didn't have men's courage, and aggressiveness, and focus, and determination, we'd still be living -- we would be living in caves right now. So, you have -- the modern world is the result of the male framework of wanting to move forward and create things, and it is, I think, obscene, and everyone should complain that those attributes of men are being determined to be negative and something that is either a sickness, or a mental illness, or wrong, or even artificial. This is the liberal political ideology of arguing about gender fluidity, and we can have that argument, but it's not a zero-sum game. You don't -- in order to liberate men who don't fit within, let's say, a cultural norm, you don't need to obliterate every other man in that process.

The way Bruce and others on Fox described the guidelines, you’d think the APA had republished Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto and was calling for elimination of the male sex. The guidelines weren’t created to blame men or masculinity, but to help men and boys by giving psychologists the same kind of specialized tools for working with them that APA provided for working with women and girls in 2007. The guidelines aren’t anti-masculinity, either. In fact, just a quick look shows that their aim is to help men embrace their masculine traits in healthy and appropriate ways and develop a deeper understanding of themselves.

In fact, during the January 3 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, host Tucker Carlson pointed to the male suicide rate in America as a problem that must be specifically addressed. Carlson suggested that the one solution is to promote marriage, while his guest, the Manhattan Institute’s Heather MacDonald, stressed the “need to valorize males,” citing the “uniquely male” characteristics of “valor, courage, chivalry, heroism in war.”

Male suicide is one of the primary issues the APA’s guidelines aims to address (emphasis added):

Men commit 90 percent of homicides in the United States and represent 77 percent of homicide victims. They’re the demographic group most at risk of being victimized by violent crime. They are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide, and their life expectancy is 4.9 years shorter than women’s. Boys are far more likely to be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder than girls, and they face harsher punishments in school—especially boys of color.

On the January 8 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson and guest Christina Hoff Sommers discussed the APA guidelines, with Carlson lamenting that the report concluded that “the problem with men is their maleness,” adding, “Newly issued guidelines argue that ‘traditional masculinity’ is harmful and that psychologists should somehow undermine it.” It should be noted that this isn’t what the guidelines actually suggest.

So Fox News is upset that nobody wants to address challenges that disproportionately affect men, but when a professional organization invests 13 years in developing guidelines designed to address those issues, that is also … bad. It’s almost as though commentators like Carlson and Bruce are more interested in using these problems as talking points than in actually finding solutions.

It’s important to the Fox News narrative that men are regularly reminded that their masculinity is under attack -- and Tucker Carlson is the man to deliver that message.

Throughout March 2018 -- Women’s History Month -- Carlson used his massive platform at Fox to shine a light on the supposed plight of American men. In many of these shows, he could be found parroting the talking points of YouTube misogynists such as Gavin McInnes, Paul Joseph Watson, and Stefan Molyneux, and playing host to the likes of Jordan Peterson.

“The patriarchy is gone: Women are winning; men are failing,” he said during a March 28 episode. Two weeks earlier, he had argued that undocumented immigrants cause lower wages, which in turn reduce “the attractiveness of men as potential spouses, thus reducing fertility and especially marriage rates.” A week before that, he delivered a monologue about how “something ominous is happening to men in America. Everyone who pays attention knows that.”

The theme has carried on to more recent months, as well. During the October 11 edition of Tucker Carlson Tonight, Carlson warned that Democrats were waging war on the very concept of fatherhood:

To [Democratic] party leaders, fathers in the home are at best irrelevant. At worst, they're an impediment to political power. Married women tend to vote Republican and they know that. When prominent Democrats attack the patriarchy, what they're attacking is fathers. When they wage war on toxic masculinity, what they're trying to suppress is masculinity itself. Everybody knows this. Few are brave enough to say it out loud.

During the show’s August 23 episode, Carlson defended a video from conservative commentator Allie Stuckey that Facebook had temporarily removed and which stoked fears that “the current trend is to feminize young men in the hopes of achieving some Utopia notion of equality and peace. It's not masculinity that is toxic. It is the lack of it.”

Whether or not these perceived attacks on masculinity have any basis in reality, these stories make sense from a political and psychological stance.

Why is Fox News so obsessed with the idea that masculinity is under attack? The concept may have its roots in beliefs about what it means to be a man. There’s a theory in psychology -- the precarious manhood theory -- that our society views men’s status as something to be earned -- and something that can be easily lost. To oversimplify it a bit, it’s the theory that men view their maleness as though a “man card” were a real thing that could be revoked for not meeting social expectations of masculinity. In turn, the fear of losing status prompts men to make public displays of masculinity and rejection of what they perceive as feminine.

A 2015 study published in the journal Social Psychology explored what happens when men feel their masculinity is under threat.  The article looked at threats to masculinity as political motivators, theorizing that perceived threats would inspire “men's efforts to reestablish their power over women via the promotion of ideologies that implicitly subordinate women.”

The authors found that “men’s power over women is a key aspect of men’s masculinity” and that threats to masculinity “led to greater public discomfort, anger, and ideological dominance” among those studied. That anger “predicted greater endorsement of ideologies that implicitly promote men’s power over women.”

Something called social dominance theory offers an explanation for how people justify hierarchies and inequality within a society. For much of history, men held virtually all power in government and business -- a patriarchy. In just the past hundred years or so, women emerged from their position as second-class citizens and demanded equal rights and treatment. While most men likely understand that there’s no good excuse to oppose equality between men and women, social dominance theory gets at how those with the most to lose -- men, in this instance -- might subconsciously try to preserve the status quo while convincing themselves that they treat all people equally.

Through what are called “legitimizing myths,” people in positions of power can convince themselves that there aren’t any structural barriers to success, that the playing field is already level. For instance, some could justify the dearth of women in positions of power in government and business by saying that maybe women are simply too emotional to lead, that perhaps men just happen to be the ones best suited for a specific position.

To point out that a playing field isn’t already level or promote institutional change is to threaten the existing hierarchies of society. Some people respond to these threats by gravitating to political ideologies associated with the preservation of existing social norms. In other words: conservatism. Fear and anger are a powerful political motivators, and Fox News knows how to bring those emotions out: by creating the appearance of a threat.

It’s not a huge stretch to see how the success of women in comparison to men can function as a threat to masculinity in itself. If, for instance, a media outlet wanted to sway voters toward candidates who embody certain identities -- white, male, and Christian, for example -- one of the most obvious things it could do is bombard the public with the idea that those very identities are under attack. If an outlet wanted to sway people from voting for a woman, or for a candidate running on pledges to upend the current system of male social dominance, it would regularly promote stories that evoke a type of existential threat to manhood. This is what Fox News does.

Candidates themselves might try to adopt a more masculine public image -- Donald Trump did this often, once donning a hard hat to promote his support for coal miners, bragging about the size of his hands (and, indirectly, his penis) during a debate, and making frequent claims that his female opponent simply didn’t have the “stamina” to be president. But it is the news media that shapes the underlying narrative. It’s for exactly this reason that things aimed at helping men and promoting healthy masculinity -- such as the APA guidelines or the Gillette ad -- are twisted into attacks on male identity.

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