Article by Greg Lindsay
Advertising Age  |  June 13, 2005

Man vs. Man

Did marketing kill the Great American Alpha Male? The author sifts through the evidence.

For an upcoming issue of Maxim, the magazine’s editors phoned a who’s who of famed “tough guys” to rate the masculinity of the youngest generation of men. Turns out Merle Haggard, Evel Knievel, G. Gordon Liddy and Jack La Lanne are not impressed. They’re a Greek chorus announcing the end of Man as they’ve known Him: “We’re spoiled, we’re tenderfoots,” spits Haggard. We’re also soft, insecure, lacking drive and a clarity of purpose, and why the hell are we shaving our asses?

And those are their kind words. The rest of the interviews follow a similar and predictable vein: Today’s man is irresponsible; he’s happily let women wear the pants in relationships; courtship is outdated; soldiers aren’t tough enough and Viagra truly is a wonder drug.

Such are the twilight ruminations of the Great American Alpha Male. When Haggard, Knievel & Co. die, they and their generation will take the masculine ideals that forged them in the 1940s and ‘50s—that they must be husband, breadwinner, father and warrior—with them.

But Maxim‘s readers are not their heirs. Despite the playful “retrosexual” tone of the magazine and the ad campaign it concocted with Crispin, Porter & Bogusky last fall (which presented men as an endangered species suffering from a degenerative disease called “Mantropy”) the “lads” Maxim first championed on these shores live their lives with a degree of self-consciousness that G. Gordon Liddy would find unthinkable.

The very existence of Maxim—and of the massive media and marketing machinery that has sprung into existence in the past 25 years in order to instruct men on how to act and what to buy—is convincing evidence that contemporary young men have forgotten how to act “natural.” And that collective memory lapse amounts to an identity crisis for the American man.

It also amounts to a crisis for marketers trying to reach them. They have had to invest thousands of hours and millions of dollars in a massive exercise of psychoanalysis, which so far has produced inconclusive and conflicting results.

Consider the highly image-sensitive categories of men’s fashion and grooming, which posted combined sales of nearly $65 billion last year. While apparel makers keep wondering whether 20-somethings will take to suits they way their fathers did (or whether the blue blazer will go the way of the fedora), the metrosexual’s unquenchable thirst for moisturizer has propelled sales of men’s skin-care products into the stratosphere. No wonder Merle Haggard can’t recognize these guys.

Advertisers are also struggling to master the nuances and tone for speaking to a generation of men who filter masculine icons through a complex process of irony.

In Levi’s new and much-talked about Web commercial, “Uncomplicated,” G.I. Joe is metrosexualized via a thoroughly emasculating makeover involving striped shirts and chest waxings. He eventually strips and flees home to his trusted 501 jeans. Created by a team at McCann Erickson, it’s a funny broadside, but to hear a Levi Strauss spokeswoman tell it, it has nothing to do with manhood at all: “The notion is to pare back to what’s authentic and the most organic things you could possibly need.”

Still, the target audience only recognizes that impulse as nostalgia.

There is a rush by sociologists (followed close behind by trendspotters) to identify and define the next “natural” man. Buzzwords are already flying. Proposed successors to the metrosexual and lad include the “übersexual” and “New Bloke,” while “masculinism” and “M-ness” have been offered as terms for the identity crisis itself. But lost in the rush to solve young men’s identity crisis through consumption is the story of what happened to them and why.


Defining and redefining “masculinity” is a complex enough task to keep gender-studies departments humming night and day. But there is a bit of consensus on how the inner lives of men have evolved in the post-World War II era, when they returned home from saving the world to two-car garages and suburban malaise. The social codes of the Greatest Generation, like those of the generations before them, would ultimately prove too oppressive to women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals. But they offered relief to white heterosexual males, who had a ready-made identity waiting for them at the onset of adulthood.

Upon the completion of his education, he was expected to promptly find work and marry, purchase a home and raise children. (To quote G. Gordon Liddy on the subject: “Men were more responsible. They did what it took to finish high school, go to college, earn a degree, get a job and keep it. They’d marry and stay married, provide for and raise a family, create a legacy and leave an inheritance of some sort to their loved ones.”) Then feminism happened. Women’s demands for choice—to marry when they wished or not at all, to earn an independent living from an equal wage, to have children with or without fathers—meant that men suddenly had to bear the consequences. The masculine archetype, which had carried men along with the momentum and single-minded purpose of a freight train, began to derail when confronted with the paralyzing freedoms of unlimited choice.

The first generation of men born after feminism is graduating from college and returning home in large numbers (40% of men under the age of 26 will move back in with their parents for at least a short period), deferring marriage until their late 20s, divorcing young and remarrying (giving rise to “the starter marriage”) and deferring fatherhood even further, into their 30s. A gap between the end of adolescence and the onset of adulthood has appeared in a man’s early- to mid-20s, a period in which no traditional markers of manhood apply and income is almost entirely disposable.

These men are left to piece together a male identity armed only with their wallets. What happens next is inevitable.

“The metrosexual appears at a certain time in a man’s life, when men in this age group are kind of clueless about what masculinity even means,” said Michael Kimmel, a professor of sociology at State University of New York at Stony Brook and the author of “Manhood in America: A Cultural History.” His next book, titled “Guyland” and due out next year, will explore the inner lives of men from the ages of 18 to 26.

“The traditional agents of socialization—family, school, church and your peers—have receded,” Mr. Kimmel continued. “By the time you graduate college, you’re supposed to be automatically socialized, and you’re supposed to be such a media-savvy consumer that you don’t get sucked in by advertising. But what are the agents of socialization now? There aren’t any! So you go back to peers and to the media again, and now you have metrosexuals and guys living in cities who have done their best to recreate their former frat-house lifestyles.”

Mr. Kimmel’s conclusions uncannily align with recent market research by the likes of Unilever’s Axe Deodorant team. Launched only three years ago in the U.S., Axe has already sprinted past Old Spice and your father’s other brands to the No. 1 position in the marketplace by targeting 18-to-21-year-olds with a cartoonishly virile campaign demonstrating Axe’s ability to drive women wild. “The Axe guy is confident, he’s comfortable, and every now and then, he needs a little boost,” said Kevin George, marketing director for the brand. “At that age, girls hold all the cards. We’re trying to give them an edge.” He added, “Guys in this age group know what they want out of life, but they’re just not ready to do it yet.”

But how could traditional socialization have disappeared so completely in just one or two generations after women’s liberation? Mr. Kimmel and his peers are quick to point out that today’s men are faster to form friendships with women and gay men than any generation before them—they have embraced, rather than resisted what had been the twin threats to their grandfathers’ and even their fathers’ manhood. While those old-timers fight to hold on to their last preserves (the golf course and other disappearing men-only clubs), their sons and grandsons have been raised to happily accept gender equality rather than resent it, even if it has meant groping for a new identity.

One of feminism’s aftershocks was the spike in divorce rates through the 1970s and into the early ‘80s toward 50%, when the men just now turning 30 were being born. A sharp rise in single-mother households (made possible for the first time by the feminist movement) went hand-in-hand with the divorce rate, and even today, in 90% of divorces, the mother retains custody. And five years after the divorce, over one-third of fathers see their children little or not at all.

“Some of these guys have heard from their single mothers that the ideal man is everything their fathers weren’t,” said Mr. Kimmel. “It also means they grew up without an immediate role model. The implicit conceit of dad as role model is no longer assumed.”

And the values dad implicitly passed from his father down to his sons—stoicism, selflessness and the acceptance of adulthood—should no longer be assumed by marketers, either. Lacking wives, children and the need to provide for them, his sons are selfish, not selfless. And they’re well aware of how they fail to measure up, of how the messages that resonated with him feel like lies when aimed at them.

Their brothers are the antiheroes of Chuck Palahniuk’s 1994 novel (and later the 1999 film) “Fight Club.” Jack (played in the movie by Edward Norton) is a proto-metrosexual with a weakness for Ikea furniture; Tyler (played by Brad Pitt) is his preposterously masculine roommate and the Fight Club’s founder. The surprise ending is that Jack is schizophrenic; Tyler is his alter ego, a figment of his imagination. But that doesn’t stop Tyler from recognizing their plight: “We’re a generation of men raised by women. I’m wondering if another woman is what we need.”


The metrosexual was fortunate enough to have two parents. His father was a particularly biting gay British sociologist named Mark Simpson. His mother was Marian Salzman, buzzword-coiner extraordinaire (and now exec VP-director of strategic content for JWT). He isn’t especially loved by either of them.

Mr. Simpson, who coined the word the same year “Fight Club” was published, has always seen his brainchild as a radical, toxic break with prior masculine traditions. “It may seem slightly deranged, or self-aggrandizing, but I’m increasingly of the opinion that metrosexuality is nothing short of an historical epoch,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The ‘New Man,’” the popular name for sensitive ‘80s men in Britain, “was in fact an early manifestation of metrosexuality, as was New Lad, which was supposedly a reaction to New Man but was in fact a continuation of the same process.

“Both were inventions of marketeers and glossy magazines, both were commodified, aestheticized versions of masculinity. However, both were in varying degrees of denial: The New Man pretended to exist entirely for women; the New Lad pretended to be there for his mates (and performed an increasingly hysterical pantomime of heterosexuality—which sometimes seemed to be more about proving they weren’t fags than about being interested in women). Both were in fact manifestations of male narcissism and selfishness and isolation: That is, after all, what consumer culture faithfully delivers to us.

“At the beginning of the 21st century the process had gone so far and so fey there was no longer any need for denial. The metrosexual finally came out of the closet for what he was: a commodity fetishist, a collector of fantasies about the male sold to him by advertising.”

The metrosexual and the Maxim reader are as schizoid in their own way as Jack and Tyler in “Fight Club.” Portrayed in the media (and portrayed in the opening of this story) as the battling claimants to the empty throne of manhood, they’re actually the same man, reassembled in slightly different configurations where one set of brands is swapped out for another.

And both have been raised without fathers. “Males are being raised more and more by single mothers—and corporate capitalism,” Mr. Simpson wrote. “Boys are fathered by Nike, Sony, MTV. Boys are emulating their heroes, but their heroes are delivered to them by Madison Avenue, in a highly incestuous/eroticized package.”

(Firebrand post-feminist Camille Paglia e-mailed her concurrence on the subject: “Over the past century dominated by Hollywood,” she wrote, “it’s advertising and popular culture, not social reality, that have become the primary reservoir for cultural images of masculinity. What this means, of course, is that gender roles, for good or ill, have become creatures of shifting fantasy.”)

Ms. Salzman, who borrowed Mr. Simpson’s word in 2003 and used it to launch a thousand trend stories (including this one), has left the metrosexual behind in favor of intellectual offspring from a different marriage. She’s reunited with her former Euro RSCG colleagues and co-authors of her book “Buzz” to write “The Future of Men,” due out in September.

“The Future of Men” is a pop-sociology catalog of all the ways men have fallen from grace since feminism. Drawing upon everything from fallen sperm counts and the degeneration of the Y chromosome to the gender divide in college enrollment and dropout rates and the fat husbands/hot wives trend in sitcoms, Ms. Salzman & Co. have coined the term “M-ness” to describe the new, self-consciously constructed masculinity just beginning to form in the post-feminist era.

From Ms. Salzman’s perspective, today’s men are not only lost, they are losing a little bit more of themselves every day. “None of what they used to think is theirs is actually theirs anymore,” she said. “They are trying very hard to find something to hold on to. What room in the house do they own? What’s still theirs?” They’re in psychic shock and on the verge of cultural and biological redundancy—once women master the art of cloning, will there be any reason to keep men around?

While that may sound a bit apocalyptic, “The Future of Men” argues somewhat persuasively that men must redefine masculinity to incorporate traditionally feminine traits like nurturing and cooperation, and include a measure of deference for the females of the species.

The metrosexual, who was the first to break free of the masculine straitjacket, was a necessary first step toward Ms. Salzman’s new archetypes: the “New Bloke,” essentially a lad who’s comfortable approaching women openly as an equal; and the “übersexual,” an evolved metrosexual who has chosen from the smorgasbord of lifestyle choices and successfully channeled his narcissistic impulses into a personal style and credo that doesn’t change with the seasons. In the future, we will all be George Clooney for 15 minutes.

While not exactly a marketing handbook, “The Future of Men” does offer a handful of ad campaigns fully in-touch with their M-ness. The reintroduction of the Ford Mustang in a TV spot using a “Field of Dreams” motif starring a resurrected Steve McQueen covers all the bases: “Innocence. Father-son bonding. Mysticism. And pure Alpha male. All in one package. M-ness means men don’t have to settle for less.”

Mr. Kimmel offers a similar prescription. “Men should go home,” he said, to their wives and families and to a redefinition of masculinity around truly equal participation in domestic tasks and child care. Rather than ask their wives to “do it all” while they fade into irrelevance, American men need to engage with their families in a manner similar to their western and northern European counterparts, who already receive generous paternity leaves and other benefits. “Men in their 20s now are actively searching for an identity, and there isn’t going to be anything that actively presents itself. But men in their early teens now will have a history of more involved fathers.”

He assumes—as do Marian Salzman, Camille Paglia, and G. Gordon Liddy—that the youngest generation of men are an immature blip in the history of masculinity, or at least a transition period away from the remnants of Alpha Male-dom and toward an unapologetically softer and softer-skinned future. But what if that transition has already happened? What if the identity crisis itself has become a rite of passage on the way to becoming a man?

Jeffrey Arnett, a professor of human development at the University of Maryland, began investigating what he has since called “emerging adulthood” back in the mid-90s (which now appears to be the formative years for Generation Y). Mr. Arnett, who also edits the Journal of Adolescent Research, spent a decade interviewing college students and 20-somethings and publishing a flurry of papers in academic journals arguing that the malaise of Generation X heralded a new phase in psychological development, at least in developed Western societies.

“Emerging adulthood” recasts the masculine crisis as a subplot in a larger drama of what will become a repeated generational experience—men and women alike will delay the onset of adulthood in order to grapple with the bewildering array of choices about education, work, marriage and children. Thirty is the new 20, and emerging adulthood lies in between. Which means the real problem facing a generation of young men today is that they’re really still a generation of boys.

Endangered Species

When Maxim tapped Crispin Porter last year to rebrand the magazine for a post-lad existence, the agency concocted, with typical flair, a request to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to have men declared an endangered species. The creative team filed the paperwork last fall, and hasn’t heard anything since. But in a perhaps prescient ruling in the ‘80s—after the Wildlife Service had been taken to court to recognize a dwindling tribe of Native Americans as endangered—the judge ruled that Man is a domestic animal, not a wild one, and thus ineligible for federal intervention.

Asked if he personally needed the protection, David Schiff, the creative director who cooked up the scheme, laughed. “I don’t consider myself a man’s man. I consider myself an overgrown boy, which I imagine most men consider themselves to be. If you can take care of your responsibilities, I think you can stop worrying about it.”

About Greg Lindsay

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Greg Lindsay is a generalist, urbanist, futurist, and speaker. He is a 2022-2023 urban tech fellow at Cornell Tech’s Jacobs Institute, where he leads The Metaverse Metropolis — a new initiative exploring the implications of augmented reality at urban scale. He is also a senior fellow of MIT’s Future Urban Collectives Lab, a senior advisor to Climate Alpha, and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Strategy Initiative.

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