By now, you’ve seen the clips. The ones from Tucker Carlson’s forthcoming show, “The End of Men,” where shirtless men grill, chop wood, and fire guns — and stand in front of some sort of testicle-tanning device with his arms outstretched. A separate clip features Carlson referring to “the total collapse of testosterone levels in American men” as “one of the biggest stories of our lifetimes.”
As ridiculous and easily mocked as these videos are, they represent an ascendent ideology on the right and an extension of Carlson’s long-standing belief that there is a war on masculinity that threatens to destroy society itself. This theme of social collapse is a mainstay of Carlson’s Fox News show, with immigration, LGBTQ rights, and the battles against racism and sexism are all framed as threats that must be beaten back to maintain Carlson’s preferred patriarchal social order. In short, the video’s not actually about the benefits of sunshine on one’s scrotum at all.
“His hawking of testicle tanning is a veil for a culture war narrative, not as a feasible solution to a medical problem,” says Nikki McCann Ramírez, an associate research director at the progressive media watchdog organization Media Matters for America (full disclosure: I worked at Media Matters between 2018 and 2021). “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,” she adds.
As for Carlson’s viewers who aren’t brimming with confidence about their place as enforcers of the social order, the clip targets their personal insecurities. This, again, is by design. Dr. Eric Knowles, an associate professor of psychology at New York University and a researcher of social identity and political behavior, points to the video’s theme of hegemonic masculinity – the idea that men’s physical strength justifies their place atop the social hierarchy – as both aspirational and a tool to be used to make Carlson’s audience feel more insecure about their status as men.
“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,” Knowles tells Rolling Stone.
It’s the tenuity of manhood that drives men to seek ways to prove their masculine bona fides. Knowles’ past work with researcher Sarah DiMuccio has explored how that is often done through politics.
“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,” says Knowles. “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.’”
Former President Donald Trump uses this to his advantage, both in how he and his supporters promote him and how he denigrates his opponents. It’s a 1-2 punch entirely about asserting his manhood and attacking theirs. For instance, during Trump’s 2016 run for president, his running mate Mike Pence made repeated references to Trump’s “broad shoulders,” while Trump himself took aim at Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s supposed lack of “stamina.” Similarly, many of the nicknames Trump deployed – such as “Sleepy Joe [Biden],” “Cryin’ Adam Kinzinger,” “Little Michael [Bloomberg],” “Little Marco [Rubio],” “Little Ben Sasse,” “Cryin’ Chuck [Schumer],” and “Low-energy Jeb [Bush],” among others – targeted his opponents for not being masculine enough. Often, Trump’s attacks would provoke his opponents into trying to both defend their own manhood and attack his,” like when Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) responded that Trump had the hands “of someone who is 5’2”.”
Beyond just cultivating a masculine image, these men tend to support policies that Knowles describes as “always aggressive, always unforgiving, always disparaging of the weak.” This is the not-so-subtle undertone of Carlson’s clip and helps explain why the Fox host has made attacks on LGBTQ people, women, and people of color such a regular occurrence.
Victories for these groups are presented as threats to the social order, making them easy targets for Carlson and his audience. For example, he referred to the 2017 “A Day Without A Woman” protests as “an attack on white men,” and devoted March 2018 (Women’s History Month) to “Men in America” segments, complete with anxiety-inducing on-screen graphics about testosterone levels in decline and falling sperm counts. Ramírez refers to those episodes of Carlson’s show as some of “the first notable instances of Carlson sending an explicit message of ‘male empowerment’ to his viewers.” Out was aimless misogyny; in its place was a call to fight back against the growing tide of LGBTQ acceptance, women’s equality, and racial justice.
“Increasing acceptance of the LGBTQ [community] is seen as a salvo against hegemonic masculinity,” Knowles says. “The LGBTQ movement, as I perceive it, says there are lots of ways to be men, lots of ways to be women, and these ways aren’t even fixed at birth or inherently tied to human anatomy. What could be more threatening to the hegemonic masculine ideal – and therefore to right-wing political prospects – than this?”
All of this is in line with Carlson’s coziness with the more fascist elements of the right. Enemies are fought with rhetoric that presents perceived ideological foes as physical and existential threats. In his book, How Fascism Works, Yale University professor of philosophy Jason Stanley explains how attempts to halt progress for certain groups – be it the LGBTQ community, the cause of Black liberation, or the rights of Muslims – often take the form of sexual anxiety:
“Highlighting supposed threats to the ability of men to protect their women and children solves a difficult political problem for fascist politicians. In liberal democracy, a politician who explicitly attacks freedom and equality will not garner much support. The politics of sexual anxiety is a way to get around this issue, in the name of safety; it is a way to attack and undermine the ideals of liberal democracy without being seen as explicitly so doing.
“By employing the politics of sexual anxiety, a political leader represents, albeit indirectly, freedom and equality as threats. The expression of gender identity or sexual preference is an exercise of freedom. By presenting homosexuals or transgender women as a threat to women and children—and, by extension, to men’s ability to protect them—fascist politics impugns the liberal ideal of freedom. A woman’s right to have an abortion is also an exercise of freedom. By representing abortion as a threat to children—and to men’s control over them—fascist politics impugns the liberal ideal of freedom. A person’s right to marry whom they wish is an exercise of freedom; by representing members of one religion, or one race, as a threat because of the possibility of intermarriage is to impugn the liberal ideal of freedom.”
By presenting men insecure about their masculinity with an enemy in need of domination, fascist-friendly media personalities can pull their audience to the right. This is what’s currently happening with the moral panic about “grooming” playing out across right-wing media and being implemented as policy by right-wing politicians. A recent video of the crowd at a Trump rally chanting “Save our kids“ shows just how successful this type of messaging continues to be, consequences be damned. The goal is to not only halt social progress, but to reverse it by painting pro-equality messages as part of nefarious schemes to undermine Western civilization. Out of this, you get “critical race theory” bans in elementary schools, “Don’t Say Gay” laws, restrictions on rights and access to health care for transgender individuals, and the establishment of socially-regressive policies designed to assert the right’s social hierarchy of choice and leave its targets afraid to step out of line lest they be targeted even harder.
This all ends badly, especially for the groups being targeted with this playbook.
Of course, none of this is to say that masculinity is inherently bad. It’s not. It’s the weaponization of masculinity, which is exactly what Carlson is doing, that presents a problem. With that in mind, people may be having a few laughs at Carlson’s expense now, but it remains to be seen who will be laughing later.
Parker Molloy is a Chicago-based media critic and author of The Present Age newsletter. From 2018 to 2021, she was an editor-at-large at Media Matters for America. She can be found on Twitter @ParkerMolloy.