Categories: News

Mascuzynity: How a nicotine pouch explains the new ethos of young conservative men

Carlo Giambarresi for Vox

Stimulants, hustle culture, and bodybuilding are shaping young men’s drift to the right.

Users of Zyn, a brand of nicotine pouch that’s become a touchstone among right-wing commentators, extol its ability to free the mind, increase productivity, and even enhance sexual performance.

“I use it every second I’m awake,” said Tucker Carlson on an episode of the Full Send comedy podcast in 2023. “Seconds before I fall asleep, I take it out.”

There’s no evidence to promote Zyn as a sexual aid; nicotine actually constricts blood vessels, which can increase the risk of erectile dysfunction. The addictive substance can also raise blood sugar and blood pressure and may harden the walls of arteries, raising the chance of a heart attack.

Nonetheless, Zyn has become part of a particularly politicized 2024 vision of masculinity: It’s about efficiency, rising and grinding, “taking on the world.”

That hyped-up ethos of Zyn — call it mascuzynity, in honor of Zyn aficionados’ affection for adding “Zyn” to other words — is part of a larger narrative that’s being sold to young American men by tech entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, misogynist influencers like Andrew Tate, hustle gurus on TikTok, and, to some degree, Donald Trump and his loyalists within the Republican Party. While not all of these figures are hyping nicotine pouches, they are pushing some variant of the idea that men can reclaim a lost dominance through a hypercapitalistic (even fascistic) focus on achievement and the perfection of the body.

“A man with nicotine, protein, caffeine, and creatine coursing through his veins is an unstoppable force,” Greg Price, the communications director at the State Freedom Caucus Network, a group that works to get conservatives elected to state legislatures, recently told Semafor.

Some of the Zyn boosting by right-wing pundits is probably tongue (or Zyn) in cheek, or an effort to troll liberals. Obviously, most guys aren’t expecting to take over the world when they pop a Zyn. They’re just looking for a hit of nicotine, like millions of smokers all over the world.

But the larger promise of male self-improvement through stimulants, supplements, organ meats, and the advice of supposedly successful internet entrepreneurs is a powerful one — powerful enough to have emerged as conservatives’ appeal to men in an election year. White men are losing ground to women and people of color in America, a host of right-wing influencers claim — but they can gain it back with exercising, eating, buying, working, and voting the right way.

Obsessing over Zyn is “good right-wing politics,” said Eric Knowles, a social psychologist at New York University who studies political behavior. “I don’t know that Tucker’s truly passionate about nicotine pouches, but I do know that he knows that these pressure points exist in the male population.”

Zyn is part of a new model of masculinity for Gen Z

Zyn is not tobacco — it’s a small pouch full of nicotine salt, meant to be inserted between the lip and the gum for about an hour at a time. The product, which became widely available in the US in 2019, has skyrocketed in popularity thanks to some combination of convenience (no spitting, no smoking), a “fun” image (you can earn reward codes and trade them in for merch, as GQ notes), and the endorsements of celebrities and influencers, most of them conservative or conservative-adjacent.

It’s not clear how the right got Zyn-pilled, and Philip Morris International, which bought Zyn manufacturer Swedish Match in 2022, says it does not pay Carlson or any influencers. But the pouches have shown up throughout the larger ecosystem of bro-y podcasters and comedians like “anti-woke” juggernaut Joe Rogan and Shane Gillis, who was fired from Saturday Night Live in 2019 for a history of racist and homophobic jokes. Perhaps the most visible boosters of the brand, next to Carlson, are the Nelk Boys, the Full Send hosts and YouTube pranksters who have hosted both Trump and Donald Trump Jr.

When Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called for a Food and Drug Administration investigation into the product, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) declared a “Zynsurrection” and Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC) posed with a Zyn can, writing, “Come and take it!” Fans like to ask conservative politicians to sign their Zyn cans. (As Vox’s Whizy Kim and Keren Landman have noted, there don’t appear to be any videos of people asking Bernie Sanders to sign their Zyn.)

Philip Morris insists that the pouches are just an alternative to smoking, nothing more. “Providing adult smokers with better alternatives to cigarettes should not be political,” Samuel Dashiell, senior communications specialist for Philip Morris, told Vox in an email. “America’s approximately 28 million smokers come from all walks of life, and all of them should have accurate information and choices available to move them away from cigarettes.” The company has also said its product is not meant to treat erectile dysfunction.

Nonetheless, the pouches have tapped into a precarious moment in American masculinity. Young men today are growing up in a time of enormous economic uncertainty, when many blue-collar, male-coded jobs have disappeared. If they’re unemployed, or have to take so-called pink-collar jobs in industries once associated with women, their sense of their own manliness can be threatened, Knowles said. Many experts also believe that social advances by women and people of color (as vulnerable as many of those advances may be) have made a swath of white men anxious that they are somehow falling behind.

Tapping into ambient male insecurity are legions of influencers and content creators eager to teach young men how to be more successful, confident, muscular, and attractive, said Robert Lawson, a professor of sociolinguistics at Birmingham City University in the UK and author of the book Language and Mediated Masculinities. Their content may start out benign — workout tips and the like. But on TikTok especially, it’s “a gradual process of exposure to potentially more extreme content,” including the dehumanization of women and people of color and the message that “these people are the reason why your life is rubbish,” Lawson says.

The message, as advanced in media like Carlson’s 2022 special The End of Men, is often that men and masculinity are under threat, and only a return to “traditional” values will save them. These values often include recommendations like eating steak and lifting weights, but also — implicitly or explicitly — keeping women in domestic roles and cracking down on immigration.

At the same time, what today’s masculinity influencers are selling is different from the macho archetype of generations past. Young men today are subject to two sets of masculine norms, said Adam Stanaland, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University who studies how adolescents and young adults think about gender and other identity markers. There’s old-school machismo — a John Wayne-style emphasis on toughness and emotional repression — and then there’s a newer vision of masculinity that requires men to look attractive, be in shape, and otherwise perform at high levels.

This is mascuzynity: Instead of being stoic and silent, it’s about hustling, working out, and relentless self-improvement. Even the partying is optimized.

The new model of masculinity focuses intently on what men put into their bodies — the “nicotine, protein, caffeine, and creatine” of it all.

TikTok influencer the Liver King, for example, built a following of millions with his large physique and his diet of “beef brains, bull testicles and raw animal livers,” according to the Washington Post, before admitting in 2022 that his muscles were actually the result of steroids.

If beef brains and bull testicles will help men build the perfect masculine physique, the theory goes then Zyn and other stimulants will help them get things done. Carlson has called it “a powerful work enhancer.” Daily Wire podcaster Michael Knowles has opined that Zyn is “actually what Neuralink will feel like,” referencing Elon Musk’s brain-computer interface company. “It feels like you’re just taking an electrical charge and plugging it into your brain stem.”

A gateway to right-wing politics

These messages have easily shaded into more disturbing forms of misogyny and white male supremacy, Lawson said. Tate, for example, ran an online course called Hustler’s University in which he claimed to educate viewers on drop-shipping and cryptocurrency; he also talked continually about assaulting women. He has now been charged with rape and sex trafficking. Other figures meld bodybuilding advice with reactionary politics, like the Golden One, a Swedish fitness influencer who shows off his long blond hair and muscles while railing against “cultural Marxism” and “beta-leftists.” The Golden One “gets held up as an exemplar of ideal white masculinity” — a vision of the white man as defender of his family and country “against multiculturalism, immigration, the degradation of Western culture,” Lawson said.

The pull of mascuzynity also has the potential to influence voting behavior. Trump is perfectly aligned with the new masculinity — despite his checkered business history, he has promoted himself as the ultimate entrepreneur, a strong, successful businessman who breaks the rules and gets things done. The story Trump tells about himself is “a really appealing brand to young men” who don’t want to be part of any corporate entity or political machine and see him as similarly rebellious, Stanaland said.

Trump has also tapped into the widespread insecurity that recessions and unemployment have wrought among men, especially working-class men who are more likely to have lost jobs, NYU’s Eric Knowles said. His research has found that men who felt insecure in their masculinity were more likely to vote for Trump in 2016 and for Republicans in post-2016 House elections. The effect was not seen in elections before 2016, which suggests that it stems from Trump’s particular brand of politics.

“He’s like a caricature of overperformed, stereotypical masculinity,” Knowles said. “A man who’s feeling fragile in his masculinity is going to look at this and say, ‘Well, if I align myself with this paragon of manhood, that will reflect positively on my own manhood.’”

In this context, it makes perfect sense that conservative commentators are pushing Zyn and other products and practices that aim to help men recover a supposedly lost virility.

“Zyn becomes this kind of hallmark of all of these idealistic male attributes,” Lawson said. “You can be master of your own universe. You can set up your own business and you can make loads of money and you can run for president and you can solve all the world’s problems.”

There’s some evidence that young men are growing more conservative around the world. Trump currently has an edge with American men, with 53 percent saying they’d vote for the former president in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, compared with 42 percent who said they’d pick Joe Biden. Philip Morris may assert that Zyn itself is apolitical, but if Trump does retake the White House in November, mascuzynity may have had a hand in getting him there.

What that means for Democrats, and for American men in general, is murkier. When it comes to the impact of male insecurity on elections, it’s unhelpful to blame individual men, Knowles said. “Men are being manipulated politically.”

“Within some pockets of culture in the US, there is a very narrow lane of what it means to be a man,” he said. Changing that is about loosening social strictures and allowing men “to define manhood and masculinity however feels right to them.”

“That’s not a political strategy, though,” Knowles said. “That’s a long-term social project.”

Vox - Huntsville Tribune

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