Don’t mock Josh Hawley’s masculinity — even if you really, really want to

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El senador John Hawley es el único senador que votó en contra del proyecto de ley contra los delitos de odio el jueves. (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
El senador John Hawley es el único senador que votó en contra del proyecto de ley contra los delitos de odio el jueves. (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“More and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness, and pornography, and video games,” Missouri Senator Josh Hawley lamented in his keynote address at the National Conservatism Conference in Orlando earlier today. He blamed this male withdrawal on leftists, who he says, “want to define traditional masculinity as toxic.”

On social media, the response to Hawley’s silly fear of video games and porn was swift and biting. One tweeter suggested Hawley himself has a large collection of porn and video games. Another sneered at the idea that Hawley was any kind of expert on masculinity. A tweet mocking Hawley’s chest size was shared numerous times. People suggested Hawley was still living in his parent’s basement. Some attacked him using misogynist slurs.

Social media is a race to the basement and below, so it’s not a surprise that people responded to Hawley’s nonsensical provocations with vitriol. But the form that vitriol took is telling. Progressives rightly mock Hawley for his narrow, hidebound embrace of toxic masculinity. But mocking him in this way just shows that hidebound masculinity still has a broad appeal — even, unfortunately, to progressives.

Hawley’s vision of masculinity is familiar, not just from Republican’s overheated rhetoric, but from Superman, James Bond, and many a Hollywood screen. He defines the “traditional masculine virtues” as “courage, and independence, and assertiveness.” He trumpets male “responsibility,” and encourages men to “discipline your passions and sacrifice in the service of others.” Men are strong; men don’t complain; men are powerful. All of which sounds good! Who wouldn’t want to be that man, righting wrongs and making America great?

The problem is that no man is Superman or James Bond, and not just because most guys aren’t built like Henry Cavill or Daniel Craig. Hawley claims he’s helping men by defending traditional masculinity. But does it really help men to be told that they have failed to achieve masculinity if they watch porn, or play video games, or can’t find a job?

Hawley spends a lot of time praising marriage and fatherhood. He says that we need men to enter into “the covenant of marriage” and father children in order to contribute to “strong and healthy manhood.” That doesn’t leave much space for men who don’t want to get married, or don’t want children, or who are gay or trans. (Hawley is no friend of marriage equality.)

Hawley also says he is concerned about male depression. But many medical professionals believe that men are unwilling to tell doctors they are depressed because of the very patriarchal ideals of strength and stoicism that Hawley is promoting.

And it’s not just men who are harmed by narrow masculine ideals. In his speech, Hawley trumpets strong masculinity in order to kick trans people, who he fumes are “trying to destroy women’s sports.” He also blames immigrants for the destruction of working-class male pride. And his natalist paranoia about declining birth rates has obvious links to the right’s ongoing attack on reproductive healthcare. Traditional masculinity is a stick with which to belabor not just video game-playing men, but women, LGBT people, immigrants, disabled people, and anyone who isn’t Hawley’s ideal strong, self-sufficient white guy.

Masculinity is so useful as a weapon that it’s tempting to seize it for oneself. When someone like Hawley claims to stand for true, traditional, vigorous, forceful masculine virtue, everyone wants to blow a raspberry and shout, “You’re no brawny stevedore Superman yourself, you Ivy League-educated poseur!” We all want to share pictures of Hawley and make disparaging remarks about how his physique is not that of Daniel Craig or Henry Cavill. We want to point out that paranoid whining about the left is not exactly in line with the stoic ideals of virtue he claims to be touting.

But you don’t rob patriarchy of its power by mocking people for failing to be ideal patriarchs. When you police Hawley’s masculinity and find it wanting, you just buttress a culture in which policing people’s gender is acceptable, cool, funny, and virtuous. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” Audre Lorde said. You can’t oppose a reactionary masculinity by mocking people for failing to live up to a reactionary masculinity.

Josh Hawley doesn’t fulfill his own ideals of virtuous, untrammeled masculinity. That’s because no one fulfills those ideals. They aren’t meant to be fulfilled. They’re meant to be used as a lever to shame and cajole people into obedience, fear, and hate. Whether Hawley is a bad masculine manly man by his own standards is irrelevant. What is relevant is that those standards themselves are malignant and dangerous. Don’t let Hawley trick you into using them.

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