When Donald Trump was elected President of the United States in 2016, to many he represented everything that was wrong with male culture; a painfully dated, misogynistic way of looking at the world and, in particular, women. There was an almost immediate push-back against this form of toxic masculinity and then, in time, a reckoning of sorts when the MeToo hashtag - sparked by the equally toxic Harvey Weinstein - turned into a movement.
"Since 2016 the world was overshadowed with a depiction of hyper-masculinity due to the leader of the free world who was almost a caricature definition of all that was wrong with patriarchy and white male privilege," says chartered psychologist Louize Carroll. "On the other hand, we have seen significant progress in our thinking in terms of the dismantling of gender-based roles and identities in direct opposition to such old-school patriarchy. Such a societal shift has the capacity to both free and frighten."
Having previously spent years leaning into the most primal nature of their readers for clicks and covers, websites and magazines aimed largely at men gradually went 'woke'.
While those publications attempted to broaden their readership with a more overtly progressive, inclusive stance, something else happened - their readers began gravitating to the likes of Joe Rogan. The elk-hunting, UFC-commentating stand-up comedian features broad, wide-ranging conversations on his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, which enjoys an estimated 190 million downloads a month. One of the biggest podcasts in the world, it has, since the beginning of this year, been exclusive to Spotify - a deal worth a reported $100m.
Rogan has a dedicated male audience who hang on his every word; he's invested in a company called Onnit, ostensibly a supplement and apparel company, but actually more of a lifestyle guide.
Onnit was one of the first companies to sell a nootropic (a drug or supplement that claims to improve cognitive function), called Alpha Brain, to the same consumers that may have previously downed a protein shake, or some creatine after a hard session at the gym.
Alpha Brain, which was eagerly, but honestly endorsed on Rogan's podcast ("I find it helpful, you might not"), became a huge success, and soon Onnit had expanded to selling kettlebells, yoga mats, workout gear, and a larger range of supplements to help you, well, be the best you.
In a way, Rogan and the Onnit team were tapping into a 'primal' theme similar to that of men's health and lifestyle magazines a decade or so earlier - lift heavy things, eat meat if you hunt it yourself and 'optimise' all of the above by supplementing your lifestyle and workouts with vitamins.
Rogan has also given a platform to others of a similar mindset, such as Navy Seal, ultra-runner, and one-time record holder for the most pull-ups in 24 hours (4,030 in case you were wondering) David Goggins. The 46-year-old calls being interviewed on The Joe Rogan Experience his "Oprah moment" and, at least on the surface, seems just like the perception most have of the standard, US military alpha type. However, he also has a story, told on Rogan's podcast and then in his bestselling book Can't Hurt Me, about how he survived an extremely difficult childhood, with an abusive father and often rampant racism, but refused to be a victim.
Goggins's book chronicles not just his childhood, but his weight problems as an adult and multiple attempts at conquering 'Hell Week', the daunting mental and physical endurance test that those brave enough to attempt must pass before becoming a Navy Seal. He succeeded on his third try.
Can't Hurt Me is a mainstay of the audiobook charts and has become a bible of sorts for men looking to improve their lives and their mindsets. The combat veteran now gives motivational speeches to sports teams and appears regularly on American television screens.
His mantra, 'stay hard' became a rallying call to his millions of followers on Instagram, where he regularly posts motivational videos - generally in the middle of an absurdly long run - encouraging his fans to push themselves past their perceived limits. He abides by the 40pc rule and preaches it to fans: the notion that no matter how little you think you have left in the tank during a gruelling workout, you have only given 40pc. "When your mind says you're done, you're really only 40pc done."
Does Goggins have any idea why he's resonated with so many people? "I think it is because I have made myself vulnerable and shared so much of my life - the good, the bad, and the ugly," he says. "We all have a story, but so many are hesitant to share the whole, sometimes ugly, truth. When they see a guy they consider to be tough, sharing his insecurities and secrets, in some sense, it gives them permission to do the same."
That sense of vulnerability and not being afraid to show it has clearly resonated with men all over the world. Or perhaps the nuance of Goggins's story is lost on those who just see him as a former Navy Seal badass. Either » » way, he speaks to men in a way few can. But even now, what's on the surface doesn't always match what's going on inside for Goggins.
"People are shocked that I know how to engage as a normal human being," he says. "People have this perception that I'm a robot and someone who does not have a personality, sense of humour and never smiles. The reason they don't see that side of me a lot is because I'm not here to make them laugh or smile. I am here to help people dig deeper than they have ever dug before in their life. Most times, that doesn't involve a lot of laughing and smiling, rather more introspective thoughts and soul-searching."
The notion of being 'macho' feels painfully dated now. In the 1980s and 1990s, it seemed as though every second film released by a studio had a muscular lead actor walking away from explosions without batting an eyelid. It's clear that that type of hero doesn't cut it for most men any more.
However, having one of the most physically impressive humans on the planet such as Goggins open up in an emotional way is still hugely influential. Looking to role models is not something we leave behind with childhood.
"We, as humans, seek belonging," says Carroll. "As babies, it is literally a survival need to be loved, to be accepted. As we get older, we seek approval and acceptance of who we are becoming. If we don't get that in sufficient quantities, we can often grow into adults who seek out dominant characters to offer us approval, to give us reassurance to help us to feel that we are 'OK', and that we are acceptable and capable of great things. To feel in alignment with such characters can help us to feel secure in how we see ourselves."
Another such alpha influencer is Chris Voss, a former chief international hostage negotiator with the FBI. Voss started out as a beat cop who learned how to read people while walking the streets before joining the FBI as a Swat team member. Keen to get into the Bureau's prestigious hostage negotiation team in Pittsburgh, he spent five months working as a volunteer on a suicide-prevention hotline, impressing his bosses with his ability to adapt to harrowing situations and, ultimately, bagging him the job.
In 24 years with the agency, Voss was involved in multiple life-or-death situations around the world, often being the only thing standing between a dangerous kidnapper and the life of a hostage.
Having retired from the FBI in 2008, he is now the CEO of corporate negotiation specialists The Black Swan Group. Voss specialises in training people in the art of negotiation for business. He also co-wrote the bestselling book Never Split The Difference, in which he breaks down and applies some of the tools he acquired during his years as an FBI agent for use in everyday life.
Voss says that his popularity with the male audience has more to do with job status than gender. "The issue really isn't if they are men or women, the issue is whether or not they are a top performer and they want to get better," he says.
"Some professions skew a little more heavily towards men - principally sales, procurement, and contract negotiators. There is a large response from those professions and there tends to be more men in those positions. But the people that approach me from those professions, whether they be men or women, are principally being driven by their desire to either be more competitive negotiators or to just deliver better service."
Harvard-educated and a former professor of business negotiation at Georgetown University, Voss is also a teacher on the popular MasterClass series of online tutorials.
One of the chapters he teaches, on 'tactical empathy', is one of the most popular in the entire MasterClass catalogue. The Black Swan method leans more on emotional intelligence and, in his experience at least, "women lean this way more, either naturally or how they have been conditioned by society to be, and are relieved that it's actually a path to success." He adds, "Men tend to be excited at the discovery because they have been taught principally to be combative since they were little."
As masculinity continues to evolve in 2021, are the Joe Rogans, David Gogginses, and Chris Vosses of the world something for us to aspire to? People who have achieved a startling level of success that we can all possibly grasp with a mere change in mindset?
"Rather than aspirational, I think these men offer answers and therefore a sense of security," says psychologist Louize Carroll. "Public figures like these guys who express themselves in confident, assertive, and binary ways can be alluring to those who feel discomfort in the changing landscape." l