America Has a Macho Problem


Andrew Cotto wonders why we are so enthralled by the “tough is good” male stereotype.

America has a macho problem. Too much of our culture is informed by the idea of manhood being defined by toughness. We love the idea of the bad ass as the good guy, doling out physical justice to those who have it coming. The archetypal American “hero” is often promoted through our narratives, particularly our film heroes. Just look at the trailer for the new Tom Cruise film, where the eponymous character of Jack Reacher, from the Lee Child novels, is brought to life. The trailer features a scene where Cruise as Trapper is in the middle of the street surrounded by a posse of apparent bad guys with bad intentions. Cool and collected, Trapper mocks and dismantles his foes with devastating force and ease. Talk about fiction. I imagine this scene is in the very beginning of the film, not part of the primary plot but merely a vehicle for characterization, though it dominates the trailer for a reason: Many men eat this shit up. Too many of them think Clint Eastwood is actually Dirty Harry (based on his attempt to bully a chair that supposedly symbolized our sitting president, Eastwood might actually think he’s Dirty Harry, too).

This conflation of tough reality versus tough fantasy is dangerous. Wayne LaPierre, Executive Vice President and CEO of the National Rifle Association, openly advocates a solution to our fire arms problem with “good guys with guns” shooting the “bad guys with guns.” Such a reductive and ignorant purview should be the domain of children in the “Bang! Bang! You’re dead” world of youthful imagination. It should not be part of the rhetoric from the nation’s most powerful lobby. LaPierre is not alone. Too many of our public figures – those who seriously influence our culture, conversations, and laws – have a relationship with violence that is rooted in reductive fantasy. They are novelists, filmmakers, game developers and musicians. They are also radio personalities, politicians, activists and lobbyists. This is one of the rare moments where the traditionally liberal world of entertainment conspires (unwittingly, I’m certain) with factions of the super conservative camps.

It’s easy to sell this macho schlock to men because most of us are susceptible when it comes to the idea of toughness. Most of us are taught from an early age that tough is good. Tough is character. Tough is necessary. Being tough makes you a man. But the truth is that most of us in America never get within an arm’s length of real tough. Most of us are just too privileged to be exposed to the conditions which require mettle to survive. Good for us. And some of us appreciate this, but for many young men indoctrinated in the gospel of tough, not being tough leaves them feeling insecure as grown men. This insecurity often manifests in big talk from men with little guts. And many of these men covet power. These are the ones who publically grandstand but privately cower. Their inner impotence turns into outward anger. So some scared men howl belligerence into microphones; and some seek office; and some create fantasy narratives that glamorize violence; and some are lobbyists for gun makers who refuse to budge from their obstinacy even when the “Bang! Bang! You’re dead” world of our children is no longer imaginary.

This macho problem is really about bullying. America is being bullied by a loud minority of cowardly men (and some women who share their faux-tough stances). Look how those who lack courage dominate (or attempt to dominate) the conversation on guns, the environment, taxes, health care, censorship, immigration, entitlements, military spending, gay rights, abortion, terrorism, and religion. Look how they poison our progress with absurd stances and a refusal to consider compromise. The rest of us need to stand up for the greater good. We all have it in us, men and women. With our voices and our votes and our power as consumers, we can steer this country towards a more perfect/less preposterous union where toughness stands down to logic.

photo: Muscle Dominator / Flickr 

About Andrew Cotto

Andrew Cotto is the author of THE DOMINO EFFECT and OUTERBOROUGH BLUES: A BROOKLYN MYSTERY. His novels can be found at Amazon and Barnes&Noble.  Learn more about Andrew at his website.


  1. This is a decisive view that ignores the real issues of our lack of virulent state nationalism, need for super idealistic federal government, technologically inept government bodies, shitty foreign-domestic policies and a welfare system that generally leaves all boys as latch-key kids.

    Blaming a country’s issues on an individual or individuals is cowardly scapegoatism.
    Masculinity and feminity are gendered and aesthetic. You may as well be reading someone’s future from the stars if you’re looking for any relevance in them.


  2. bob johnson says:

    “…The rest of us need to stand up for the greater good…we can steer this country towards a more perfect/less preposterous union where toughness stands down to logic [with all of us more feminine and passive…why can’t a man be more like a woman] – says the gay guy.”


  3. The war against men is a basic tactic; make men look evil and women look victims of those evils.
    Then get government money to protect those women from the evil men; part of that money goes into advertising the same to get more money to denigrated more men; this is the experience ecpressed by Erin Pizzey

  4. Yup. The Woody Alan dream is over. No more pink shirts, cut away sweatshirts, short shorts, make up, and long coiffed hair. Sensitive men don’t get the chicks- that would have been too easy anyways. These are core values at hand. Men still value physical beauty more than anything and women still value security the most (to live their fairy tale mall shopping lives).

    But we can change – men especially! If we men really saw that we could get the girls by driving priuses, (being more environmentally sensitive) we would. We live to impress the ladies. The ironic question is “do the women have their values in order?”

  5. When did diss-empowerment become good for men? I’m a hands on father of girls so don’t get me wrong. Having worked in a feminist dominated environment I’ve seen women put down macho men (a la this article) yet these same people abused power left and right, just not physically. Macho men are good men too. I get the sense from this article and this website that men should be wimpy in order to be good. which is just plain wrong.

  6. Thanks Richard. Unfortunately though, I must take on these psuedo liberals day after day as I fight for my children in custody courts infested by liberals that do not understand liberalism. These are absolutely people like John that can not understand the very simple analogy of the brat child that rebels against her father. The father is likely to have understood and conquered the big bad world and only lovingly strives to keep his daughter safe while she wants to dream that things are ok. Who is correct is irrelevant. What’s important is that the two respect the other’s position.

    Liberalism is a luxury. We feel good giving to women and children of other countries that are of a culture that likely would never do the same for us. But we only do this because we have extra to give. We have extra to give because we have the best guns. It’s pretty much that simple.

    I see this perversion of liberalism everywhere now. Schools that only want more money and have no solutions for the boy crisis and want to drug the boys to act like girls. Tag is not allowed. Dodge ball is forbidden… Then the women wonder where all the real men went? It’s lunacy. A real liberal respects our foundation. Men are different from women. Neither is better or superior. A father might want his child to swing higher on the swing to push himself while the mother would want him to keep it safe. Who is correct? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle and that just isn’t sexy enough for today’s “intellectuals.” A child can grow up never taking risks and then becomes a couch potato who dies of obesity at 30 years old or he can be one of the very few rare ‘make the news’ type of horrific accidents. So should you live in fear or push it? These fools on both sides can’t be open minded.

    I also see the psuedo liberals in the media. CNN absolutely spoon feeds their women – target audience. It’s so obvious. It is terrible journalism totally based on a “liberal” false pride. Commercials constantly portray the man as a bumbling idiot while the woman is all knowing.

    But it’s a blessing I suppose. I can spot a psuedo liberal rather quickly. All I have to do is ask one’s feelings about fathers’ rights in custody courts. If they don’t believe in 50-50 custody (real equality) with no money paid to anyone, then they aren’t real liberals. Real liberals believe in real equality. In fact, if they truly cared about “what’s best for the kids” they would learn that kids are actually safer with a fit father having majority custody (with a mother making child support payments to the father), than the the other way around because a mother’s new boyfriend is much more dangerous to the children than a father’s new girlfriend. Only a REAL liberal would concede this. And there are few to no real liberals. Just a bunch of spoiled brats with an ax to grind and a finger they love to point.

    I have a small page on facebook called fathersfightback! My sons have run away from my x 4 times with the police involved 3 times. All the courts see is that I’m upset and they want to teach me some garbage lesson not to criticize them so I lost all custody just for arguing in court. I’m already remarried with a child. My oldest son is now 13 and at 14 he can testify so they suddenly gave me 21% custody because a criminal would have gotten more rights to see and speak to his children. These are dirty corrupt girls that are simply the new bigots and no one dares to stand up to their new sexism. Any man that stands up to them is labeled obsessed, manic, you name it. I was ordered to get a psychiatric evaluation and when I passed the judged just said it was just that much more disturbing because I’m “choosing” to act this way. I’m a big believer that a man should stay stoic but this isn’t a piece of property I’m fighting for, it’s my children and they’ve been ignored from day one. All my chinese x wife needs to do is act like a helpless victim white girl and they eat it up. Now 4 years later with the best in the system on the case – come to find out, it’s her that won’t let go of me and is obsessed! It’s comedy how careful, respectful, and slow they are to turn things around while they’ll gladly slam a father and his new family with some perverted, feminist, antiquated, fear-based, and negative motivation. This is absolutely what’s wrong with America – no respect. The world is a big bad place. We are animals – look at the animal kingdom. It’s ruthless mite makes right – intellectuals needn’t demonize this, but they do. They have been disrespected by the very ones they live to grandstand and they take their frustrations out on the core of our culture instead of looking within.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    When I worked with exchange students (AFS), I happened to be talking to a kid from Norway. Somebody asked him about the draft–it was while the USSR was still a threat–and he said they had one but nobody thought much of it. Their army wasn’t a big deal. If anything happens, he said smugly, we know who’ll come and take care of it. There was an entire Marine division prepared and trained for arctic warfare because their primary role if the balloon had gone up was…Norway.
    There’s a road in Carentan, France, named after the 101st Airborne. Two in Holland named after my father’s division–Timberwolfstraat–and one after his division commander, Generaal Allen weg.
    Jeremy. The sheepdogs usually don’t pay this much attention to the opinions of the sheep. Forget it.

  8. Ok Norway’s too abstract- ok say France if that helps your rude self.

    Omg- are u telling me out military had problems? Wow how enlightening! I had no idea. Thank you!

    Yeah if you’re gathering mushrooms in the wilderness, you better watch out for the forces that be. Weather, cougars, humans with guns. Call it whatever u fancy to convince yourself that you’re smart. Most of us call it life.

  9. This article is really a jaded jab at those that will be tough if ever it’s called upon. It’s like the brat child that “hates” her father for refusing that she go out in a miniskirt at the bad side of town. Grow up. We opinionated tough guys are truly only trying to protect our people. That may sound condescending but we’re past the point if ‘niceties’ in politics today. If Norway’s government goes bad, etc. we’ll come save their asses but who will save us if our government, the most powerful in the world, goes bad? No one, children-that’s who. We are a gun and rights based people and god bless us for it.

    • Honestly I am typically disinclined to argue with such festering idiots as yourself “Jeremy” but your jeremiad on guns and niceties belies an ignorance which should, at the very least, be stood up to. This country tolerates such foolishness in a way intelligent people struggle to comprehend. It may only be because you probably haven’t read a book since you dropped out of high school, and a repetitive lunatic is impossible to rationalize with. A few points:

      1) Your metaphor about a daughter with a miniskirt makes absolutely no sense in the context of this article, but it does give us a good idea of your own authoritarian understanding of the world.
      2) The United States has never “saved the asses” of the Norwegian government. The closest analogy might be the British evacuation/invasion of Norway during WWII, or the German capitulation. Further, it is very likely that the United States would never intervene in the internal affairs of a Scandinavian country.
      3) You have conflated the “politics” of this argument about social constructs and male gender with some weird paternalistic view you have of American foreign policy. Get it right, please. And tell your friends.
      4) To the larger point, I’m sorry, this country is not based on guns. This country is based on laws and a social contract. You “opinionated tough guys” are not protecting anything but themselves. I work in the military and know more than a few Marines, burly men with guns, who would admit to the cowardice of our foreign policy and the cowardice of a citizen/civilian carrying a weapon at all. Let me give you a hypothetical. Two men are out in the wilderness, enjoying nature, because that’s what people do. One has a rifle and is hunting. The other is carrying a backpack and collecting mushrooms. The mushroom collector hears the others’ gunfire in the distance, and must choose to continue his journey or not. There is very legitimate chance of injury or death in this situation, by no fault of either party, essentially, due to the hunter’s ignorance of the others’ whereabouts. This is what conservatives vis-a-vis Burke might call the imposition of force. The crucial actor here is the weapon, and the role it plays in the “social safety” of the two woodsmen. One is carrying a gun and is seemingly fearless. The other is faced with perceived violence and must choose. This is not a “whining brat”, this is someone with a legitimate concern, and someone who MUST be tough to continue on his journey. Toughness has no quarry for the hunter, but the man collecting mushrooms is forced into a violent situation by an outsider. You may never have been in this situation, but that is legitimate fear, and it takes serious toughness to confront that situation. Now replace that situation with two teenagers on a city street or two kids in a school or a group of people anywhere. A social contract typically determines the validity of that violent force and where it lies. I’m not against guns, but get real. Toughness has nothing to do with guns. Tough people are the ones without guns.
      4) Go ahead, carve our your authoritarian feifdom with your machine guns, but don’t come complaining to the rest of society when someone wrongs you in the public realm. You are not the arbiter of the law, and god bless this society for that.

  10. Why are men tough; that is a relative statement. Tough relative to what?
    Are men tough because women chose to be considered weaker than men?
    Are women weak because they chose not to chose life threatening jobs that have to be done, weak because they chose not to work in sewers, or do not have the strength to pick up the diner bill or do not have the strength to open the door for others???
    Humans are animals; just like lions, giraffes, elephants and other animals; the male is the aggressor for the protection of the species but the female rules over the tough male at home….typical of what I see in humans. The male CEO is an aggressive son of a gun but his wife tells him what to thing and what to do to satisfy her needs.

  11. I’d encourage people to read … …. I think it sums it up in my book. It has nothing to do with “image” but who different people are. What they’re made of.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Sheep have a pretty good sense of smell. If the scent of danger overcomes their denial, they will cluster around the sheepdog.
      Afterwards, however it turns out, the sheepdog may find an extra Gainesburger tossed his way.
      But there’s always a spot at bar in the sheepdogs’ club.

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    Peggy Noonan had something to say on the subject:
    She wasn’t concerned.

    • Andrew Cotto says:

      My article is about differentiating between truly-tough men and faux-tough men, with an emphasis on the latter since they aren’t the ones who run into burning buildings but often those who caused the fire.

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        I missed that in your article. I got carried away with the list ot things faux-tough guys disagree with you on, like defense spending and global warming and whatnot. I guess there’s no reason other than being faux-tough to recall the CRU’s faux data,
        As has been noted, when bad guys with guns show up, most people call for good guys with guns. I guess it’s only a bad idea when LaPierre suggests it. Cops in school was good idea with the Right Sort of People when Clinton suggested it. It all depends. As always.

  13. Great article Andrew; tackling a tough topic as well. Guns are a problem in America.No solution for that, the horse is already out of the barn. The bigger problem is the massive amount of unstable people living in this country who have easy access to firearms….

  14. What seems to be missing from this discussion is the realization that there are different forms of toughness and different kinds of courage. I’ve noticed for many years that machismo (properly defined) has never appreciated moral courage. How often have you ever seen articles featured in Esquire about such men as Martin Luther King Jr., Andrei Sakharov, or Raoul Wallenberg? They’re more likely to extol some self-centered celebrity who has (supposedly) bedded an inordinate number of young women over the years. That’s supposedly what being a “real man” is all about.

    The father of a childhood friend of mine was an attorney who began to publicly oppose racial discrimination against black Americans in the middle of the 1950s. He and members of his family received death threats, yet it didn’t deter him one bit. Ironically enough, even Army Intelligence spied on him, despite the fact that he was a World War II veteran and was actually quite patriotic. His slogan (which did not originate with him, of course) was “My country: When right, to be kept right. When wrong, to be put right.” How many of us (myself included) would have had that sort of courage? There were also the Freedom Riders and those who participated in civil rights marches in the deep South during the 1960s. Those Americans, white and black, who spoke out against Jim Crow before the passage of the civil rights legislation showed great courage. Some of them lost their lives, but you won’t ever hear any of those who subscribe to the mindset of machismo ever express any appreciation for them. They’re just not sexy enough, I suppose.

    The word “wimp” is so often employed against guys who don’t like sports or aren’t very strong physically, yet I’ve noticed that cowards come in all sizes and shapes. I think we saw that at Penn State last year. Even though he wasn’t even a soldier, Wallenberg was one of the greatest heroes of World War II. He put his life on the line many times to save Hungarian Jews from the Nazi SS and Arrow Cross thugs. Wallenberg survived several assassination attempts. He was a man of great courage who had a slight build and did not like competitive team sports. So, I guess for that reason he really was a wimp, eh?

    The macho types have frequently seemed to me to be self-cerntered. Whenever I hear people speaking of “macho” or “alpha males” as being the ideal for which all guys should strive, a red warning flag always goes up in the back of my mind. I’ve heard it all before for many years.

    • Sir, you very eloquently put down what I was thinking after reading this article and comments. There are many different types of toughness and in my opinion machismo is not one of them. I see more fear in gun brandishers and roided meatheads than in anyone else. Toughness is a mental and spiritual quality that has given us much of what we cherish today. We need to cultivate that toughness, and not the fake machismo of violence.

  15. “Starting with the NRA and moving down the ladder to people incensed that it was reported that
    Adam Lanza may have been autistic.”

    Speaking as an autistic individual whom has kept up to speed with this current issue, we were not incensed that it was reported Adam Lanza may have been autistic.

    What started the protest was two TV networks, ABC and Fox, discovering this and then running with it. They pretty much blamed autism for Adam acting out and shooting.

    That’s what we were upset about: The association of being autistic to shooting up a school full of elementary kids.

    That was irresponsible reporting mainly because we have enough ignorance out there about autism as it is (it’s a disease, mental disability, they lack empathy, won’t amount to anything,etc). What those news networks did was add “prone to killing people with no remorese” to the list.

    It wasn’t just autistic adults who were upset. There were parents of autistic children as well. Imagine your autistic child being assumed to be a killer in the making.

    You saying that we’re a damned minority whining about our priveleges is offensive to all the hard work and advocacy that we are doing, and still doing. If you had an autistic child yourself, or were autistic yourself, maybe you’d understand better. We don’t have an priveleges and we are not asking for priveledges. We’re asking for understanding and support. That’s all.

  16. Yes we do have a Macho Problem- we’ve become a nation of wimps unwilling an unable to stand up to the whinging privilege of any damned minority…
    Starting with the NRA and moving down the ladder to people incensed that it was reported that
    Adam Lanza may have been autistic.
    We have a macha problem as well.
    Look at the stand on two legs activism did to Westboro at Texas A&M- that is macho.
    You want change- grow a set, man up, be a good man.

  17. Quadruple A says:

    I’m glad the good men project is dealing with this issue. There is a lot of stuff here that takes for granted the toughness equals male idea. I have never agreed with that idea of masculinity should be equated with toughness and its always seemed to me to be a way of making bullying seem like something virtuous. Why are men expected to be “tough” while women are not? We don’t assume that a woman who isn’t “tough” is a pushover and I think it is high time we applied that same standard to men.

  18. And your counter-proposal is…what? A nation of cowards and victims, buffeted helplessly by the winds of fate, ever feeling that no one has the right to demand any standard of behavior out of them? Because that’s what toughness is: doing the right thing even when it’s terrifyingly difficult.

    I’d also add that it is liberal fantasy that LaPierre’s point is wrong: if you didn’t believe his point was valid, you would be crusading to disarm the police as well. Forgive me, but I’m pretty tired of the same people who want the police to save them from the armed bad guys scoffing at the idea that armed good guys serve a purpose. It’s staggering cognitive dissonance.

    • Sadly the police shoot alot of innocent people so in a more ideal world it would be nice if they were disarmed or at least less trigger happy.

  19. I think we generally agree here, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Men (and women) glorify toughness because it is the most material display of “agency” available to us and has been effective in getting things done for millennia. (agency being defined as the capacity of an individual to act in the world. Held in dualistic polarity with “communion” where the being needs and interests of the many over the one are paramount.)

    “Toughness” did, in fact, carve out civilization from the state of nature, organize from tribal lord to nation state, explore and inhabit the far reaches of the planet, etc, etc. I suppose you could argue these were not necessarily good things, but we would likely not be having this conversation without them.

    To me, the symptoms you point to describe unhealthy or unintegrated masculine/agency/toughness. Those that glorify violence or are drawn to instruments and displays thereof, are working out their own journey home to a part of human essence that is valuable.

    Jumping to the other end of this agency/communion duality won’t get us anywhere really(again, my opinion.)

    What would it look like to embrace the dark and light, healthy and unhealthy, integrated and disintegrated in men? Could we then begin to work towards greater wholeness?

    • John Anderson says:

      I almost agreed with you, but was confused on one thing. Are you saying that agency is the same thing as power? If it is then I agree. I always envisioned agency as the ability to make decisions for or influence things that affect you. Power on the other hand is something you exert on someone else.

      I grew up in a working class neighborhood. There were a bunch of small gangs by today’s standards. Now there are basically two very large gangs. When boys joined the gangs and this is true even for my ex-gang banger friend, they joined for protection against other gangs or so the could exert power over other individuals.

      I was one of a few Asians in a white neighborhood. Because we had to deal with a lot of crap when we were young, almost all the guys on my age group weight lifted and / or took up martial arts. One local gang decided that we’d be a good fit so decided they’d recruit me. They were at least smart enough to send women to do it, but when it became obvious I wasn’t going to join, they told me that one particular gang member could always come back with a pistol. I knew my friends had my back. It was just another group of guys telling us what to do. The gang members were surprised to find out that they weren’t the only ones with guns.

      That’s the big problem I’ve found with all the anti-violence programs. It’s great to tell kids not to join gangs, but how do you protect them when they choose not to? I remember one funny incident from my youth. I can’t even remember how it started, but a few of us decided to go out. A couple guys decided to bring their brothers, but their brothers decided that they’d rather hang out with friends so brought their buddies. I have friends from different ethnic backgrounds and communities so invited one and he decided to bring friends, etc. Next thing we know there’s like 30 or 40 guys.

      We go into this cafeteria / diner place. Since everybody had there own group of friends, we were scattered around. I was at a table with two other guys. In comes about 6 or 7 guys and they head right for our table. They wanted our table. We got up, then the guys at the table next ti us got up, then the guys behind them got up, etc. I remember them looking around and someone said, “Ah, that’s OK we’ll wait.” I guess if everyone stands up for everyone else, it might work, but I don’t see that happening very often.

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