Opinion: Seinfeld isn’t alone in pining for ‘dominant masculinity’

Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate professor of history and director of the Carolyn T. and Robert M. Rogers Center for the American Presidency at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s” and co-hosts the podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.

When comedian Jerry Seinfeld is in a nostalgic mood, he apparently laments the loss of two things that once reigned in the United States: “an agreed-upon hierarchy” and “dominant masculinity.”

Nicole Hemmer - Courtesy Nicole Hemmer
Nicole Hemmer - Courtesy Nicole Hemmer

He revealed those longings in a recent interview with Bari Weiss, editor of The Free Press, as they talked about the early 1960s. The two yada-yada’d past the issues of Black civil rights and toxic masculinity as Seinfeld zeroed in on dominant men and hierarchy as “part of what makes that moment attractive.”

Such an obsolete vision of the past may not intentionally be expressive of the revanchist politics of the current moment, when women are denied medical care, professors are fired for teaching Black history and Supreme Court justices are openly questioning the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. In fact, for him at least, one is not about the other; Seinfeld openly disdains politics.

But whether he likes it or not, his vision of gender and masculinity — shared by many male comedians (and not for nothing, conservative politicians) — is deeply political, and its prominence in the comedy world bolsters the retrograde politics now flourishing in many parts of the US.

Schticks about women have long been a prominent feature of stand-up comedy. But the “take-my-wife-please” comedy of the mid-20th century has gradually morphed into to something with more bite: a cultural commentary that frets over the emasculation of men and lays the blame at the feet of women.

Seinfeld hints at this, coupling the collapse of hierarchy with the demise of dominant masculinity. Other comedians have been more explicit. Adam Carolla put it bluntly in his 2010 manosphere cri de coeur, “In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks.” “Masculinity by any definition is disappearing,” he writes on the opening page. By masculinity, he means both toughness and male supremacy. He complains that he often gets called a misogynist, even though he is “simply pointing out that men and women are different.” But this is not true. He bluntly tells his readers that women are dumber, softer and less funny than men.

Like Seinfeld, Carolla imagines parts of the 20th century as a better time. For Carolla, the 1950s were an era, he explains, when “women cooked, cleaned, took care of the kids, and mended torn dungarees. Men provided, fixed the car, patched the roof, and warded off intruders with a baseball bat.” But thanks to developments like the feminist movement, those distinctive gender roles started to change. Women got more jobs and power (despite, Carolla writes, being “better at home with the kids than in the workplace”) and men became metrosexuals.

Even some comedians who, unlike Carolla, actually praise the advances women have made in recent decades, still blame feminism for the loss of a days-gone-by-visual of what “real men” can be, do or want. In his most recent book, “What This Comedian Said Will Shock You,” Bill Maher offers a similar assessment, shot through with similar amounts of nostalgia. Noting a decline in the amount of sex Americans are having, he blames feminism for destroying men and ruining sex: “It’s the result of having it drilled into us in recent years that masculinity is itself toxic and scary and unevolved, and women don’t like it … Women aren’t attracted to these girly-men they’ve created,” he writes. “Maybe what we need these days is more sex and less gender.”

While women take the brunt of the blame from these comedians, their critiques are also linked to anti-gay and anti-trans panic proliferating and being visibly weaponized in the political arena. The masculinity they defend is adamantly heterosexual, threatened not just by women but also by gay men and gender non-confirming people. Carolla’s panic is bare-faced: “No dad wants his son to go gay,” he writes in an early chapter. Though he insists he supports gay rights, he does so fretfully: “I’m open-minded but closed-behinded.” His hand-wringing over metrosexuals — a now-dated term for heterosexual men with good grooming habits picked up from gay men — is a reminder that the call for a return to 1950s-style masculinity is built on anti-feminist and anti-gay politics.

In fact, the call for a return to 1950s-style masculinity has found a number of high-profile political supporters in recent years. Most notable among them: US Sen. Josh Hawley. In 2023, the Missouri Republican released the book “Manhood: The Masculine Virtue America Needs,” which argues “no menace to this nation is greater than the collapse of American manhood, the collapse of masculine strength.” He blames modern liberalism for this collapse, and he adopts the same truth-telling framework used by comedians. “Masculinity is a taboo subject,” he writes, positioning his defense of traditional gender hierarchies as a transgressive act.

In his interview with Weiss, Seinfeld explains the power of comedy is to puncture the veneer of society and get to the truth. Like Maher and Carolla, he styles himself as one of society’s truth-tellers, “allergic” to the need for “agreement and consensus and mob rule” that governs other humans. No need for fact-checkers or analytical essays; the comedian’s accuracy can be measured in audience laughs — a sign of recognition that the comedian has hit upon something we all know deep down but that no one else is wiling to say.

But sometimes “what we all know deep down” is simply “what we all have learned,” and that can be, and often is, wrong-headed, cruel and in service of the powerful over the powerless. Comedy can be transgressive and liberating, but it can also be regressive and blinkered, and many comedians — even household names such as Seinfeld — can’t always tell the difference.

Nor are they always aware of the political stakes of their statements. Seinfeld became a star for his observational comedy about the mundane parts of everyday life. His self-titled sitcom was famous for being about nothing: no politics, no stakes, no message. But his nostalgia, though not as obvious as a trad-wife Instagram account or a Make America Great Again hat, runs along the same currents, and carries with it the same toxic politics.

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