Carlson’s central premise is that modern society has devitalized American men. Strength, dynamism and aggression are out of fashion and Americans, therefore, have become weaker. This, the film implies, has ramifications for the country itself.
The purported remedies – which include tanning the testicles – have been easy fodder for reviews. But as historian of physical cultureI see Carlson’s claims as part of a rich legacy of skeptics shouting from the rooftops that American men are becoming devitalized, lazy and effeminate.
Over the past century, these hustlers and politicians have claimed that society weakens men. They explained that physical weakness is indicative of moral decay and weakness of character. They cited recent social issues as evidence. And their rallying cries have often stoked concerns about a stronger foreign enemy.
Building “he-men” after the Great Depression
In the 1930s, fitness guru Charles Atlas – whose real name was Angelo Siciliano – embarked on one of the most successful fitness campaigns of all time.
He released a cartoon advertisement titled “The insult that made Mac a manwhich told the story of a “weak 97-pounder” who is embarrassed at the beach by muscular bullies. Ashamed, the boy returns home, builds muscle using Atlas’ workout class, and returns to defeat the bully.
The text accompanying these advertisements was equally inspiring. Atlas promised to build “men”, turn “weak into men”, and turn Americans from “Chump to Champ”. Ads have appeared in comic books, pop culture magazines, and fitness journals. For millions of young Americans, “Mac” was part of their comic book reading experience.
Older Americans were also sensitive to this message.
When interviewed by the New York Post in 1942Atlas business partner Charles Roman noted that the Great Depression had been a boon for business, since working-age men tended to link unemployment to a lack of physical prowess.
In this regard, Atlas and Roman were not alone.
One of Atlas’s many fitness rivals at this time, a weightlifting trainer and fitness writer named Marc Berryprofessed that the Great Depression was spurred, in part, by the weakness of American men.
His solution? A diet and exercise program centered on drinking at least a gallon of milk a day and squatting with a heavy draped weight in the back at least 20 times. Physical mass and strength were, in Berry’s writings, among the primary means by which men could protect their livelihoods and their country.
The rhetoric of Atlas, Roman and Berry, it should be noted, has been relatively lenient for this line of promotion.
During this same period, fitness writer Bernarr Macfadden had naval cadets trained in the Italy of the fascist leader Benito Mussolini and the orphans in Portugal, which was then ruled by a dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar. Upon his return to the United States, Macfadden contrasted the strength he claimed to see in fascist countries against what he saw as an atrophic American society.
The unhealthy diets and sedentary behaviors of Americans in the 1930s had, according to Macfadden, produced a pathetically small male population. The solution was strong government intervention in fitness, vegetarian diets and a strict fitness regime in schools.
Much like one of Carlson’s interview subjects who promotes testicular tanning, Macfadden, in his widely read physical culture reviewalso featured a host of alternative approaches to revitalizing American men, ranging from fasting to all-dairy diets.
Fears of a stronger enemy
The idea that American men were weak would eventually migrate into American politics.
During the 1930s, the German Nazi Party began to invest massively in gymnastics and sports. Soon, images and videos of tanned athletic German citizens were being broadcast throughout Europe and the United States.
Thus begins a period of introspection in democratic countries. Did fascism produce physically stronger men and women? What would happen in the event of war?
In the UK, politicians have created state-run programs that emulated the fascist zeal for fitness.
As he calls on America to emulate the fitness regimen of the Nazis – and, to a lesser extent, the Italian Fascists – existedit was not until the Cold War that politicians began to seriously implement policies aimed at truly improving the physical condition of the nation.
In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower created the Presidential Council on Youth Fitness. His reasons for doing so stemmed from medical reports that American children were physically weaker than their European counterparts and fears the Soviet Union is physically fitter than America.
Eisenhower’s successor, President John F. Kennedy, heightened fears about the nation’s waning vigor. Writing for Sports Illustrated in December 1960, then-President-elect Kennedy published an article titled “The Sweet Americanto encourage American citizens — especially men — to take their fitness seriously.
Sociologist Jeffrey Montez De Oca coined the term “muscle gapto describe this anguish. Deriving its name from “missile hole– the perceived superiority of the quantity and quality of the missiles of the USSR over those of America – it refers to the perceived weakness and softness of the body of American men compared to those of their communist counterparts. A flabby body was indicative of a flabby mind – and worse, could even make someone vulnerable to communist ideology.
A different flavor of the same
The Cold War may be over, but fears that the weaknesses of American men pose a threat to the country have never dissipated.
In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an advisory stating that obesity threatened national security. In November 2021, Republican Senator Josh Hawley gave a speech in which he argued that changing gender norms were destabilize men’s sense of purpose – and were part of a broader project of “the left” to “deconstruct” men.
The social reasons cited in Carlson’s documentary for the decline of men – poor food choices, overweight bodies, disconnection from nature – forms the latest evolution of crises of masculinity. Rather, the new version simply added a dash of vaccine skepticism, fears of declining birth rates, and anti-intellectualism.
The fact that the documentary includes footage of JFK expressing his concerns about American children in the 1960s is evidence of a much longer line. I wonder: why does this story remain so powerful in the American psyche? Why is a subset of Americans so eager to believe that they or their counterparts are weak?
Given what we know of this history, perhaps the most pertinent question to ask is what gold standard do men today stand against.