Man-of-Action Heroes: How the American Ideology of Manhood Structures Men's Consumption

68 Pages Posted: 16 Mar 2003

See all articles by Douglas Holt

Douglas Holt

University of Oxford - Said Business School

Craig Thompson

University of Wisconsin - Madison - School of Business

Date Written: November 2002


The compensatory consumption thesis states that men who experience anxieties in living up to American ideals of manhood in their everyday lives as workers and husbands use consumption as a means to escape these pressures. Masculine consumption, in this view, is a form of rebellion against society's expectations. This thesis of compensatory rebellious consumption has become conventional wisdom in the men's studies literature as a well as in popular culture. We question the basic premises of the thesis by asking: What masculine ideals do men strive for? And how do they use consumption to forge identifications with these ideals? First, we use textual analysis and a synthesis of historical studies to develop a discourse model of what we call American Manhood - the ideology of manhood in the United States. We demonstrate that rebellion is not an escape from ideology, but, rather, an essential component. Respectability and rebellion are dialectically entwined cultural models that together form the foundations of manhood in America. The pinnacle of American manhood is the man-of-action hero who deftly combines the strengths of respectability and rebellion. Then, using field interviews, we show that men creatively appropriate all three aspects of this manhood ideology in their consumption. Rather than daily respectability and weekend rebellions, men create themselves as men-of-action characters in ways that pervade their lives as consumers and workers. The contributions of our analysis are three-fold. We develop an alternative framework that directly challenges the compensatory consumption thesis. Second, we advance prior studies addressing consumers' idiographic tailoring of cultural meanings by demonstrating how these personalizing processes are socially structured. Third, we further understanding of the role of drama in consumption by showing how dramatic consumption is organized by ideology and self-orchestrated by consumers.

Keywords: gender, masculinity, culture, discourse

Suggested Citation

Holt, Douglas and Thompson, J. Craig, Man-of-Action Heroes: How the American Ideology of Manhood Structures Men's Consumption (November 2002). HBS Marketing Research Paper No. 03-04. Available at SSRN: or

Douglas Holt (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Said Business School ( email )

Park End Street
Oxford, OX1 1HP
Great Britain

J. Craig Thompson

University of Wisconsin - Madison - School of Business ( email )

Madison, WI 53706
United States

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