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28 June 2023

Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and our new age of hyper-masculinity

The embarrassing rise of the “anti-woke” alpha male shows how a crisis of masculinity makes one seek to aggressively perform it.

By Sarah Manavis

Most people know better than to get into petty arguments online. We have become more self-aware and self-conscious about social media over the last decade, and are more cautious about embarrassing ourselves in Twitter spats as a result.

Two obvious exceptions, though, are Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg. Last week the Tesla and SpaceX CEO sent a series of mortifying tweets challenging the Meta CEO to a cage fight, an offer which was swiftly accepted (Zuckerberg practises mixed martial arts). It had been reported that Meta was developing its own text-based alternative to Twitter, to which Musk responded with his trademark teenage boy sense of humour, posting a series of try-hard taunts culminating in this obvious gimmick – which he is now trying to pass off as a self-aware, self-deprecating joke.

This embarrassing performance of masculinity may simply be an attempt by Musk to get back in the headlines after a few quiet weeks (the first since he launched his bid to buy Twitter in April 2022). But it reflects a shifting, increasingly macho culture. Everywhere, famous male internet personalities are trying to use physicality to best their rivals. It started in 2018 with a slew of vlogger boxing matches, the most notable between the YouTube superstars KSI and Logan Paul. That has become influencer boxing. (Love Island’s Tommy Fury and the Disney-star-turned-YouTuber Jake Paul’s rivalry is the tip of the iceberg – other reality stars such as the Love Island winner Jack Fincham and DJ Tom Zanetti are also fighting professionally.) Meanwhile, the climate conspiracy theorist and US presidential candidate Robert F Kennedy Jr – who has built a major following online – has posted videos of himself topless, lifting weights and working out. In one post from Sunday, Kennedy, who is 69, tweeted: “Getting in shape for my debates with President Biden!” accompanied by a video of him at an outdoor gym, groaning, practising push-ups.

We are witnessing the return of the “alpha male”: “alpha influencers”, the most notorious being Andrew Tate, have become extremely popular in the past year (a Piper Sandler survey of 14,500 American teens in October found Tate to be their favourite influencer). Men like Tate promote an obsession with physical prowess, male domination – particularly over women, but also each other – and they glorify pain and struggle as the defining experiences of manhood. While by many measures the alpha male was never truly “out” – its popularity merely masked by the rise of other masculine ideals – we are seeing a cultural regression, or an “anti-woke” backlash, that glorifies these base, primal male stereotypes.

This is mostly happening among men who predominantly exist online, whose work is largely accessed through a screen, and for whom fame is more intangible. In what appears to be a bid for dominance, these men are seeking to find real-world ways to prove they have power beyond their follower counts. Similarly, Musk’s desperate attempts to win popularity on the internet have left him a risible figure: punching Facebook’s CEO in the head might make him feel like he’s winning, where he fails online.

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Be they alpha influencers such as Tate, YouTube boxers, or even Musk and Zuckerberg, most of us see these men not as archetypes of masculine power and strength, but as transparently feeble figures trying far too hard to prove themselves. Watching the Paul vs Fury match was to see two amateurs flailing; videos of Kennedy struggling through five push-ups won’t win him votes. Who wins in the Musk vs Zuckerberg fight – if it ever happens – will have little bearing on their companies’ success. Even as they shrug the whole thing off as a joke, we are keenly aware of the insecurity behind it.

Through this stunt Musk and Zuckerberg show us how numb they are to their own power. Musk spent the year destroying a popular platform; Zuckerberg laid off more than 10 per cent of his workforce while pursuing a pet project he’s already effectively abandoned. In the tone-deaf silliness they have adopted as their empires crack, each is showing us how little their multi-billion pound, highly influential platforms mean to them, and how unfulfilled they must be that they feel the need to physically dominate the other.

This is a crisis of masculinity that makes one feel the need to aggressively perform it – a phenomenon that is closing in on us from all corners. In desperately trying to prove their worth through physicality, these men don’t exude masculine confidence. Instead, they act out the emotional equivalent of walking around with a superhero muscle suit under your clothes. It’s hard to see how anyone – even those who subscribe to these tired ideals – could be convinced by them.

[See also: Adventures in the manosphere]

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