Apotheosis podcast episode 30: Manufacturing masculinity. If you want to be a real man, then be a good man. Be a better man than you were yesterday.

Episode 30: Manufacturing masculinity

Ryan D Thompson Growth, Modern, Psychology, Skills

Key ideas

If you want to be a real man, then be a good man. Be a better man than you were yesterday. Contribute to something bigger than yourself. Lift others up and celebrate the achievements of others.

  • American culture bombards men with images of who they’re meant to be. Often these images portray men as tough guys who value winning at all costs, playing by their own set of rules.
  • The problem is that this image of masculinity is a fabrication – a marketing campaign dreamed up in a Madison Avenue conference room to sell more products to men.
  • Being a “real man” doesn’t mean being a relentless winning machine and doesn’t need someone else to be weak. 
  • Secure masculinity means competing with yourself, not others, and striving for constant growth. It means empowering others and celebrating the success of other people, even when they’re different. It means being genuine and living by a set of values. It means contribution and sacrifice.


The Marlboro Man. Dirty Harry. Rambo. Rugged, rebellious men who bow down to no one. Not playing by someone else’s rules, he carves out his own path. It’s “my way or the highway.” And speaking of highways, if he’s on one, look out. He’ll be blazing past in a suped-up car with a V8 engine or a 1200cc chopper.

These are some of the images of manhood from my childhood, as seen from a 30” cable-ready, VCR-equipped, cathode ray tube television.

At some point, these images morphed into more of a Gordon Gecko or Wolf of Wall Street vibe: a smooth-talker in a custom-tailored suit, banking deals, and growing fantastically rich on the greed and gullibility of others. He sees something, he goes after it – and gets it. He wins. It’s all about the win. This vision of a “real man” dresses a lot nicer but ultimately plays by the same rules as the Marlboro Man – my rules

Some might say this image has, in turn, turned into the alpha bro. His secret habits could help you hack your life, 10x your productivity, crush your obstacles, double your profits overnight, and otherwise massively upgrade your life. 

One characteristic these images share is that they are fabricated. They are marketing materials, caricatures of some fantasy vision of manhood, used to sell products to men. Very few men actually aspire to be like these caricatures. And yet, there’s no doubt that this vision of the “tough man who takes no shit and plays to win at all costs” has heartily influenced man culture. These images are everywhere, seeping into the mind stream of the American man.

In case it wasn’t clear already, this episode is about manhood. Masculinity. And in the spirit of a tough guy playing by his own rules, I’m going to question that vision.

But first, some history. 100 years ago, a man named Edward Bernays made a name for himself in New York City. Armed with theories of the subconscious mind advanced by his psychologist uncle, Sigmund Freud, Bernays transformed the advertising industry. He is considered the “father of public relations” – a field originally called propaganda. He realized that understanding people’s hopes, fears, and deep-seated desires allowed companies to sell more products. In other words, mass manipulation for profit. 

One of his first big wins was a publicity stunt that vastly increased revenues for cigarette manufacturers. At the time, American society held a strong taboo on women smokers. But he would change that. After conducting focus group-type sessions with women, he uncovered a deep, unfulfilled desire. Given the subservient role they were expected to uphold in the house and society, women wanted greater freedom. What better way to promote independence than… yep, being a smoker! He hired some socialites to join a major event, in which, when all the cameras were on them, they lit up, saying, “women, light another torch of freedom!” This image equating smoking cigarettes with equality and freedom for women persisted for decades, being used in ads as recently as the 90s.

Later, the propaganda machine worked with car manufacturers to manufacture something else entirely: a new image of manhood. Like the work to convince legions of women to smoke, this effort began with psychoanalysis of the fears and desires of men. From this work arose a new advertising vision: the call of the open road. The power of several hundred horses at your command, launching you out into the open sky beyond. Leveraging the increasing ubiquity of television in people’s homes, commercials could transmit this image of a man behind the wheel of a mighty steel beast roaring down the highway. Naturally, with an attractive woman seated beside him.

Before these ads, the automobile was merely a means to an end. Soon it was woven into the fabric of American society. An integral part of being a man. Owning the fastest, most powerful car became interwoven with being a powerful man.

The funny thing about these kinds of images of toughness and independence is their origin – born in a conference room on Madison Avenue. A group of pasty middle-aged men in suits fabricating images of the “rugged, independent American man.” A meme that was soon planted into the minds of generations of American men.

Now, I’m all for toughness when it’s needed. For independence when it’s appropriate. I believe that many, but not all, of the life hacks and “10x your life” tips can be helpful sometimes. I like many, but not all, of the typical man-things men are supposed to like. 

But in that spirit of rugged independence, I also don’t like being put in a box of someone else’s preconceived notion of who I should be.

I find it very easy to go from a quote “manly” activity like a mixed martial arts sparring session where we’re punching each other in the face to lying on the couch with my kids crying over a Pixar movie I’ve already seen 12 times. (Ok, I’ve said it: Moana gets me every time).

When I hear some of these guys, like certain politicians and their followers, espousing their fabricated visions of masculinity, I’m not hearing toughness and manhood. I’m hearing weakness and conformity. Too often, modern bro manhood derives its strength from pointing out the flaws of others. It’s a form of strength that requires others to be weak — not strength at all. These visions of masculinity also seem to churn out a sea of dudes that sure look and act an awful lot alike. 

So if other people are going to manufacture and sell visions of masculinity, I might as well create my own. 

First, I think a real man gains his strength not from comparison to others, but by comparison to himself, with a relentless dedication to continuous improvement. He is unafraid to face his insecurities or shortcomings or admit when he’s wrong or made a mistake. He owns it when he does. He’s unafraid to receive criticism, taking it as an opportunity to learn and grow. When unfairly criticized or insulted, he shakes it off, much like the Stoic practice of listening like a stone. He sees every experience as an opportunity to tap into the best version of himself – and unflinchingly pursues growth, even when it hurts.

Second, secure in his masculinity and grounded in humanity, he celebrates the achievements of others. He doesn’t feel jealous or resentful of someone else’s success. Even when they’re different from him, they have different skin color, whether they are a man or a woman, have a different gender identity, or even those with different ideologies. He understands that society thrives when it empowers all of its members. Holding back any group of people hinders the success of society at large. In this light, he recognizes that women have been consistently held back. If he’s white, he also acknowledges that people of color frequently experience setbacks or poor treatment that relate to the color of their skin. He doesn’t shy away from looking at these truths. 

Third, he is genuine, guided by values, not image. He establishes his independence not by the products he buys or by adherence to a stereotypical image of manhood fabricated by an ad agency half a century ago. Instead, he designs and forges his own vision. He embodies authenticity; no one could accuse him of being full of shit. He considers which values are most important to him and lives by them. He doesn’t live to portray an image but rather to demonstrate those values, usually in service of something larger than himself. 

This points to the fourth quality: he commits to a life of contribution. He “wins” not by keeping others down but rather by empowering others. He gives back to his family, community, customers or stakeholders, and society more broadly. Recognizing the range of complex issues facing humanity, he seeks to serve in some way. To tackle problems that are hard to solve. To work to alleviate the suffering of others or make life better for someone – or something – else.

This vision probably won’t make for a good car commercial. And no doubt, many out there will have their own idea of what manhood looks like, some of which may parlay more easily into scalable YouTube video series.

But these four qualities – dedication to continuous improvement, celebrating the achievements of others, being genuine, and commitment to contribution – are far more likely to lead to happiness and a fulfilled life. These are qualities that I have seen in many great leaders I admire and that I aspire to embody. I’m frequently unsuccessful in my efforts to live to this standard. But I find greater satisfaction in trying to live these values and falling short than I could ever see in living a self-centered, self-serving life.

If you want to be a real man, then be a good man. Be a better man than you were yesterday. Commit to being the best version of yourself. Compete with yourself first and foremost. Lift others up and celebrate the success of others. Seek opportunities to contribute to something bigger and beyond yourself.

That’s all for now. For all the men in the audience, I hope this episode provides some food for thought. And preferably, for action. Our world is in dire need of men who can live by these and other similar values, who can be good role models, and who can help break down barriers and build bridges, not walls.

Before I go, some quick news: I’ll be offline for a few weeks as my family welcomes a baby into the world, any day now. Once I get back into a manageable routine and shake off the sleep deprivation, I’ll be back with more episodes.

In the meantime, I have a favor to ask. If you can leave a review or a rating for this podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, that would really help me reach more people with these ideas. Connect with me on LinkedIn or check the Project Indra website for more skills for impact leaders. 

Until the next time, be well!

Recommended viewing:

The Century of Self documentary by Adam Curtis 

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License