While the cage fight between Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Tesla CEO Elon Musk appears to be on hold, if the men do end up sparring, it could be a big deal for the “tech bros” The word takes on a whole new meaning. The two billionaires’ business interests have collided in the past: Musk’s SpaceX rocket test launch in 2016 destroyed Zuckerberg’s $200 million satellite. In 2022, Musk said Zuckerberg should not dominate social media and encouraged people to ditch Meta’s Facebook. Meta also recently launched Threads, which competes directly with Musk’s X (formerly known as Twitter).

But for these two men, threatening to beat each other up represents a new—if not strange—formal advantage. At one point it was rumored that the live match would take place in the Colosseum, where gladiators fought brutally to the death.

What happened in the name of Maximus? Although Musk and Zuckerberg have tried to portray their boxing pursuits as a once-in-a-generation event, they are not alone. They joined other prominent figures who held public and political office to boost their status by showing off their physical prowess.

As a gender scholar, I’ve seen that these struggles—let’s call them “manifestations of masculinity”—often dovetail with the belief that masculinity is either in crisis or under attack.

Money Can’t Buy Manliness You don’t usually see two rich white billionaires taking on each other. So what do Musk and Zuckerberg have to gain by fighting each other? As sociologist Scott Melzer writes in his study of fight club, Manhood Impossible, fighting is culturally associated with masculinity, while American culture celebrates male violence in its proper context.

For white-collar workers, fighting can help them feel like they’ve passed the test of manhood and fulfilled their culture’s need for strength, Meltzer explained. Fighting helps them prove to themselves that they are “real men,” despite their limp — possibly manicured — hands.

To me, the chest out between Musk and Zuckerberg is a desperate display of manliness by two deep-pocketed tech nerds. They say money can’t buy happiness. Maybe money can’t buy manliness either.

Kris Paap, author of Working Construction, explains that men who don’t take risks are often seen as weak and effeminate by their colleagues. Men who risk their health and well-being, on the other hand, bluff to gain the respect of their peers.

This is especially true for working-class men. But politicians also don the gauntlet, competing for admiration and political influence through displays of physical prowess.

Justin Trudeau takes on Senator Patrick Brazzo in a boxing match in 2012. Trudeau, a Canadian MP born into a family of money and political royalty, declared before the match that he “came on this planet to do this… I fought – and I won.” After the match was won , Trudeau’s scrawny baby Nebo image has all but disappeared. Three years later, he became prime minister like his father.

There are countless other examples of powerful men looking to project their manhood. Russian President Vladimir Putin is notorious for riding shirtless, while US President Joe Biden has said that when he was in high school he would take Donald Trump “in the back of the gym, hard beat him”.

For nearly two centuries, displays of masculinity have been part of the success of American presidential campaigns, from William Henry Harrison to Donald Trump.

The end of men… It’s no coincidence that Musk’s bout with Zuckerberg’s time and time again takes place at a time when masculinity is widely believed to be in crisis. Women are earning college degrees faster than men, and the income gap is narrowing. Male suicides and drug overdoses (often referred to as “deaths of despair”) are on the rise.

During times of change in social progress, belief in a “crisis of masculinity” proliferates. Proponents of this view tend to accuse feminists and other social progressives of criticizing traditional masculine morals and values, which they claim are causing a male spiral.

Gender scholars point to the turn of the 20th century and the 1990s as other moments of social change that generated similar anxieties.

In 1890, the trend toward coeducation sparked debate about girls and boys studying the same subjects. Advocates suggest that gender doesn’t matter in the classroom and that girls’ education should prepare them for work outside the home.

For men who benefit from gender segregation, it’s not too popular. The Boy Scouts of America were actually formed in 1910 to give boys access to a space where girls and women were not allowed, and to familiarize boys “fully” with masculinity.

Likewise, the emergence of identity politics in the 1990s emphasized rights-based ideologies, examining white male privilege in particular.

Today, social progress—whether it’s more women entering the workforce, more women in political office, or girls being allowed to join what are now called “boy scouts”—seems to exacerbate men’s insecurities.

You can see this in the popularity of men’s rights advocates like Jordan Peterson, who claims that men are being asked to emasculate themselves in the name of equality. You can see it in conservative commentator Ben Shapiro’s disdain for the “Barbie” movie, which has been praised for promoting patriarchal values.

In these moments, men have historically acted predictably to reaffirm the notion that they are inherently different from women — and thus belong to a different space.

Sociologist Martha McCaughey notes how evolutionary biology became a popular idea that men have no control over their “innate tendencies.” This includes the urge to dominate others, whether in business, in bed — or in the ring.

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