“There’s been a 50 percent decline in sperm counts in the last 40 years, along with a precipitous decline in testosterone production,” says Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in a new special from Fox News demagogue Tucker Carlson, The End of Men. On screen is the torso of a man with enlarged breast tissue, a condition known as gynecomastia, which is sometimes caused by hormone changes but has a wide range of possible explanations. “We’re headed for a calamity,” Kennedy continues. “And that’s not hyperbole, it’s not exaggeration, it’s just a mathematical fact.”
Kennedy, despite a long legal career advocating for ecological stewardship and renewable energy, is far better known for his contributions to anti-vaxx propaganda. Since 2005, he has repeated the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism, and last year, both his YouTube and Instagram accounts were suspended for misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines, including some of the more egregious conspiracy theories pertaining to Bill Gates and 5G wireless technology. But for several years, RFK Jr. has also harped on the erosion of masculine potency in the west, to the point where Carlson can treat him like an expert on the trend.
What unifies Kennedy’s worldview is his belief that mainstream medicine places too great a value on genetic research while ignoring chemical, environmental factors in health outcomes. His junk science publication, Children’s Health Defense, blames developmental disabilities on mercury in vaccines and endocrine disruptors such as phthalates, a compound found in soft plastics, for male infertility. While the former notion is patently bogus, there is limited evidence for the latter, meaning that studies have found an association between certain phthalates and decreased sperm count, though nothing to conclude that they pose an existential threat.
Kennedy’s website, predictably, suggests the opposite: that humans could be the next “endangered” species if we fail to address our exposure to hormone-influencing chemicals. He has a favorite source in Dr. Shanna Swann, whose 2021 book Count Down argued that these everyday contaminants might imperil the future of the human race. But while there’s a reasonable debate to be had on this subject, it’s far from where Tucker Carlson’s interests lay. The End of Men is clearly focused on stoking the present right-wing gender panic that has led to a spate of anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion bills in state legislatures. The trailer for the program revels in shots of muscular men wrestling and exercising, paired with the civilizational narrative that prosperity has led to decadence and, as a consequence, men who are weak in both flesh and spirit — with a return to essentialist norms of manhood the only hope for continued survival.
For Carlson, RFK Jr. is a useful stooge on multiple fronts. His name represents nostalgia for tradition, and his testimony follows a clip of his uncle, President John F. Kennedy, extolling the value of physical fitness while lamenting “soft, chubby, fat-looking children.” His paranoid allegations, meanwhile — he’s even against fluoridated water, like the mad General Jack T. Ripper of Dr. Strangelove, who ranted about its supposed ill effects “on our precious bodily fluids” — are an ideal fit for Carlson’s fearmongering style. Finally, his dire warnings on declining testosterone and sperm in men function as semi-coherent evidence of the cultural redefinition of men that Fox News pundits and Republican policymakers use as a wedge for partisan gains.
But the conservative horror of evolving masculinity doesn’t line up with the testosterone drain that concerns Kennedy. For starters, the hormone isn’t the be-all and end-all origin of “male” qualities; everyone has it in their bodies, and it regulates many processes that have nothing to do with reproduction or strength. Moreover, we still don’t know why studies have found lower testosterone levels in successive generations, because the number of potentially contributing factors is immense. What we can say with some confidence is that the clichés of effeminacy you’re likely to hear from Tucker Carlson et al. are not supported by the data. Some would tell you that a red-meat diet is one road back to virility, but it’s vegan diets that may boost your concentration of testosterone and decrease risk of erectile dysfunction. The End of Men glamorizes the kind of macho, extreme workouts that could, somewhat paradoxically, lower a man’s testosterone — overtraining without proper rest having a negative impact on the endocrine system. Not even the sacred themes of procreation and the nuclear family can justify the misapprehension that testosterone equals manliness: when you become a father, it drops, particularly if you spend time with your children. Which appears to be a physiological advantage.
So, while much of the reaction to Carlson’s latest project emphasizes his promotion of “testicle tanning,” don’t overlook how he’s repositioning RFK Jr. as a prophet of gender breakdown. The contrarian of a Democratic dynasty whose war on vaccines made him a valuable crusader for the right during the pandemic, he’s been easily conscripted into this next fight, which has been engineered not to save men but to punish women and LGBTQ people for seeking equal status. Worst of all, it’s his “credibility” as a COVID-19 truther which has put him in a position to argue that the average man is being poisoned by outside forces, alluding to science that is even less understood by the public at large than viruses. While Carlson provides the ideology of contempt and alarm at “what’s happening in this country,” he’ll always need someone like Kennedy to tell him exactly what that is — anything that makes his viewers think their identity is under siege.