The Hazards of Manhood

Am I man enough? Am I powerful enough? Men put their bodies at risk to cover up pain, fear, and vulnerability.

John Henry of American folk song legend refused to bow to the superiority of a machine. He raced the steam-driven drill and won, though the effort killed him. Because of his strength and pride, John Henry is usually celebrated as a working-class hero. But he is really a capitalist’s dream: a worker who devotes his last ounce of energy to generating profit and then conveniently dies just when a cheaper technology becomes available to replace him.

Every year, thousands of men in the United States die like John Henry, albeit with less drama. They quietly work themselves to exhaustion, bad health, and premature death. Or they take risks and suffer fatal workplace injuries. Women workers die, too, of course, sometimes in exactly the same ways. The difference is that men die trying to prove to themselves and others that they are men.

Conventional wisdom has it that what capitalists exploit is the labor power of workers—the capacity to do work­—paying less for it than the value it creates. But it could also be said that what capitalism exploits, what it uses up, in the quest for profit is human bodies. This occurs in both the workplace and the marketplace. One way to enhance the exploitability of male bodies is to instill in them the desire to be men. The trick is to make feelings of self-worth contingent on the ability to display the qualities culturally defined as signs of being a real man.

Ideas about what these qualities are, and about how to display them, change over time and vary from group to group. They can even vary from one situation to the next. And of course humans, full of impulses that do not accord with dominant cultural prescriptions, can resist. On the other hand, the costs of nonconformity—social disapproval, exclusion, shame—lead most people, when it comes to gender display, to stick closely to the script.

Most American men know perfectly well the qualities they must display to be considered fully creditable as men: power, competitiveness, and toughness. This turns out to be enormously useful for generating profit. Just give men opportunities to display manhood in these ways and they’ll do things that add to the bottom line, even if it’s to their own detriment.

Like John Henry, a working-class man’s desire to appear strong and tough will often lead him to lift more weight, keep working despite pain, and forgo safety measures that slow him down and suggest fear or vulnerability. To appear competitive, he may strive to outdo his fellow workers, bringing a smile to the boss’s face.

Middle-class and upper-middle-class men do the equivalent. To display toughness, they work long hours and exalt efficiency over conscience and compassion. They compete for promotions, putting work first in their lives, lest they be seen as wimpy or wussy—sexist code words for “feminine” or “womanly.”

This kind of manhood striving is driven by a contradiction: To be a real man in U.S. society, one must have or display power—the capacity to exert control over one’s self and the surrounding world—but the fact is that most men in a capitalist society have little or no power. For most men, striving for manhood status is an attempt to evade this contradiction, to escape the psychic pain it causes.

The Politics of Toughness

Politicians who serve the richest 1 percent exploit this pain to gain the support of men in the 99 percent. Men who are otherwise powerless are offered the chance to identify with power and toughness by supporting politicians who pose as warriors against crime, terrorism, and welfare abuse. While rich men get tax breaks, working-class men get concealed-carry laws.

Attempts to mitigate the pain of powerlessness can take other forms: excessive risk-taking, suicide, bursts of violence. We thus periodically and predictably witness events such as the mass shooting in Aurora, Colo. Easy access to guns is only part of the problem. The other part is an unrealistic and destructive cultural prescription for manhood.

Most boys first learn the lessons of manhood through participation in sports. It is here that boys discover that power, competitiveness, and toughness are the qualities that establish male hierarchies. It is in sports that boys learn to hone their bodies into weapons, to endure physical and emotional pain for the sake of achieving status, and to enjoy the rewards that can come from dominating others.

Some men of exceptional dedication and ability can earn great honors and material rewards as professional athletes. But even these men often sacrifice their bodies for the greater profits of team owners, equipment makers, and advertisers. An NFL contract can be a ticket to stardom. It can also be a ticket to brain damage and a lifetime of pain.

The contradiction between the expectation of power and the reality of powerlessness is part of what makes ordinary men avid fans of violent sports such as boxing, martial arts, and football. Merely to watch is to show a kind of toughness: the ability to face things that make weaker souls turn away. To cheer is to show enthusiasm for the qualities that are imagined to make a man a man.

Powerlessness in the Military

The lessons of sports combine with the desire for manhood to lure some young men, especially those from the working class, into the military. At the outset, the promise is of manly honor through patriotic service to the country and pursuit of noble ideals. There is also the promise that feelings of powerlessness can be assuaged by mastering the means of violence and by playing on a winning team.

But many young men who choose the military path later discover they have been betrayed by more powerful men who need violence to gain access to the labor, markets, and raw materials of other people around the planet.

The irony is that to be reduced to an instrument, to be lied to and taken advantage of because of one’s lack of knowledge, is to be profoundly dishonored as a human being. Celebrating all military service as “heroism” is perhaps supposed to ease the pain of those who join the military and return disillusioned and broken.

For Sale: Symbols of Manhood

As in the workplace and war, men’s bodies are also exploited in the marketplace. It is here that powerlessness in the sphere of production is compensated for symbolically. Any consumer product sold as a symbol of manhood can function in this way. Many such products are innocuous; some are not. Millions of men have died in the last 50 years, yielding many millions of dollars of profit, by seeking manhood in a pack of Marlboros.

Teaching males to seek feelings of worth through displays of power, toughness, and competitiveness turns male bodies into readily exploitable generators of profit. The costs to all but the tiny few who appropriate these profits are enormous: ruined bodies and minds, premature death, perpetual war, depression and drug use, interpersonal violence, and the abuse of women and others who are not men in good standing.

If we want to stop paying these costs, we will need to take at least two kinds of action. First, we will need to nurture new minds in our children, minds not oriented to seeking satisfaction in status, power, and the domination of others. Nor in submission or blind obedience. We can begin to do this now; there’s no need to wait for a revolution.

Second, we need to work to end the exploitative economic and political arrangements that are sustained by a continuing supply of expendable men. This means creating cooperative enterprises in which people exercise democratic control over their labor and its results. Absent the need to dominate and control others, we may discover little need for the kind of manhood that has evolved under capitalism.

In addition to cooperative enterprises, we must also work to create a truly democratic government that limits the power of wealth instead of being its servant. In view of the plutocracy our society has become, it’s fair to say that achieving this kind of democracy will indeed constitute a revolution. Our goal should be to create a world that requires neither John Henrys nor G.I. Joes.


This article originally appeared in Yes! magazine.

Photo—Detail, John Henry. Public domain.

About Michael Schwalbe

Michael is a professor of sociology at North Carolina State University. He is the author of The Sociologically Examined Life and Rigging the Game: How Inequality is Reproduced in Everyday Life. His most recent book is Smoke Damage: Voices From the Front Lines of America’s Tobacco Wars. He is currently working on a book of essays about gender and domination. He can be reached at MLSchwalbe[at]


  1. I agree with the sentiment of this article, although I think it was very stretching to paint as abusive of men the GOP (at least as a deliberate ploy upon party pundits) and other stretches about concealed and carry.

    This article tried to inject it’s anti-middle class, anti GOP sentiment where none really has a direct or indirect connection to the nature of those in power to use up men (or men to fall in line w/this to look masculine).

    It’s too bad the article tries to inject so much of this. Of course, maybe it was a necessary evil as male victimhood is a very hard sell unless it’s packaged with other concepts.

  2. Wicked says:
    Well, this article was certainly disappointing.

    “You had some bright moments until you started bashing on capitalism as if it’s the root of all evil.”

    This reminds me of a quote from Winston Churchill. “Democracy is a horrible form of government, excepting all the other forms of course.”

    Capitalism has it’s positives and negatives. It’s simultaneously brings a very large disparity between the tops and bottoms of the poverty chain while also bringing more wealth to even the lower levels than will happen in most communist systems. So, there is both positive and negatives within the system. We also had the financial collapse and most of the culprits paid no price for causing it–they’re still sitting behind mahogany desks with $500 paintings on the wall, and a company car and 6 digit incomes.

    The closer we get to laize-faire capitalism, the worse it gets for the majority. Remember that the industrial revolution was a time in which mostly men (and even women and children) were horribly exploited. It was capitalism without any kind of brakes or safeguards for those at the bottom.

    Yes, other areas without capitalism are doing worse, but that is no excuse to not have valid criticisms of the system, and to try and improve it.

  3. Wicked Dick says:

    Well, this article was certainly disappointing.

    You had some bright moments until you started bashing on capitalism as if it’s the root of all evil. If you want more say in your labor than start your own company.

    Everything pales in comparison to the exploitative capacity of the state whether it’s a democratic republic or a dictatorship.

  4. Did the author REALLY miss the irony in this part:

    “[W]e need to work to end the exploitative economic and political arrangements that are sustained by a continuing supply of expendable men. This means creating cooperative enterprises in which people exercise democratic control over their labor and its results.”

    Under the current system I have complete control over my own labor; I am free to quit a job I don’t like; I am free to go into business for myself if I’m so inclined; absent existing taxes the money my labor has earned cannot be taken from me.

    The only way to make this system more “democratic” would be to eliminate the income taxes that currently exist.

    What I suspect the author is actually talking about is making a system that is LESS democratic, where a great mass of people with “votes” can rob me of the money that I have earned simply because they are acting in concert.

    I believe that the only person who should be able to control my labor is me, introducing “democratic control” implies that others are going to gain access to my labor. This is unhelpful and borders on the immoral.

    • Hank Vandenburgh says:

      Yes, there is a danger in “democratic” control, one that Madison recognized in The Federalist Papers. The majority, led by “charismatic” leaders, perhaps, would start pushing everyone else around. I’d like to see a basically free enterprise system minus all the rents and subsidies imposed by the business classes, especially through government. At the same time, I’d like to see us return to 14% tariffs, helping to reindustrialize the US. They’ve been at 3%, allowing owners to outrun labor and environmental legislation here, in favor of lawlessness overseas.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    Some stuff just needs to be done. I suppose we could make falling off the loading dock illegal, or at least a Bad Thing taught as such in school. But then, something has to get from the dock to the truck or vice versa or the rest of us, in our padded cocoons, wouldn’t have stuff. Like, say, food and toilet paper.
    What we need are lots and lots of robots. Problem is, when a robot is “employed”, a man isn’t. If you can’t produce something, you aren’t going to get paid unless you figure out how to take it from somebody else who produces.
    Eventually, as Margaret Thatcher said, you run out of other people’s money.

  6. “But many young men who choose the military path later discover they have been betrayed by more powerful men who need violence to gain access to the labor, markets, and raw materials of other people around the planet.

    The irony is that to be reduced to an instrument, to be lied to and taken advantage of because of one’s lack of knowledge, is to be profoundly dishonored as a human being. Celebrating all military service as “heroism” is perhaps supposed to ease the pain of those who join the military and return disillusioned and broken.”

    That is perhaps the most perceptive thing I have seen written here yet. Well done.

    • Hank Vandenburgh says:

      Military service shows an inclination to support the collective, even when that service is misused. I’m pretty left of center on many issues (not all,) and I can’t tell you the anount of contempt I often have for people on the supposed left who down military service. Usually they fall into the rich liberal group who want to lecture poor and working people about those people’s “racism” or “sexism.” These liberals are the ones who beneift from not giving up some college-age years, having higher-paid knowledge-based jobs, etc.

      • Not sure what you’re trying to say here Hank, or whether you’re trying to lump me in with the “people on the supposed left who down military service”. All the people that down military service, they aren’t from the left, they are my mates that are in the military right now, recently discharged or about to discharge. Whatever the author’s politics, what I quoted above IS perceptive because it captures perfectly the feelings of a lot of people in the service. While I never ventured to the sandpit during my time, I have mates that came back from deployment that now speak with a bitterness that is mind blowing.

        And let me tell you from what I have seen year in, year out during my time. In the majority of cases it is not the celebration of military service that eases the pain of servicemen/women, it’s the copious amount of alcohol that they drink. We all know, however, that dealing with pain in such a manner is short sighted and destructive.

        • Sorry, that’s meant to read “all the people I know that down military service”

          • Hank Vandenburgh says:

            Hi Pete. That wasn’t personal. Your use of “mates” may mean that you’re not from the US. I enlisted in the Army here in 1962 and was discharged in 1968. I had misgivings when the draft was done away with in the early 1970s because I felt that it meant that the average person wouldn’t have “skin in the game” as he (or even she – because of the number of family members who were drafted) was no longer at direct personal risk. It also meant that kids from Southern small towns would predominate in the military. I didn’t particularly agree with our being in Vietnam, but I would have gone if sent. I did do tours in Germany and Korea (which was semi-active along the DMZ, where I was.) Like many, I emerged from the Army as an active alcoholic, probably more due to my genes than to any PTSD. I did have a couple of bipolar manic episodes in the service, where were not recognized by anyone, even me.

            I guess I’m a labor leftist who, at the same time, is a personal libertarian. If Schwalbe is basing his arguments on Marx’s theory of alienation, great. (I don’t think Marx was a good predictor of the future, but I do think he understood the essentials of capitalism.) But I just retired from a job teaching sociology, and I can tell you that many sociologists get on my last nerve. All too often from elite backgrounds, they wouldn’t dream of any sort of national service. But thay are great at talking about racism and sexism. They, for some reason, usually don’t like to talk about class. So, sorry if I seemed reactive.

  7. Kacerdias says:

    You lost me as a captivated reader the moment you claimed concealed carry laws are some sort of appeasement given to the middle class. It has nothing to do with male bravado and everything to do with defending yourself and your loved ones should the need arise. The fastest growing segment of gun purchases is women.

    • Kacerdias:
      Thank you!
      I live in a household with children and the elderly. How would I defend them and myself against some 6’5 300 lbs guy? Its just a fact that there are more single women and single mothers who need to protect themselves and their little ones.

      I’ve thought about getting one. i was thinking glock or smith and wesson .44 if I can shoot it accurately.

  8. FlyingKal says:

    Part of the problem is also that people are different.

  9. Hank Vandeburgh says:

    The problem with this is that many women are attracted to just such “physicalist” men, so it’s not going away anyitme soon. It’s hardwired. Agree with Schwalbe on the ways in which labor is alienated.

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