Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) now says that he wants to make “masculinity” his signature political issue, saying that “social messages that we teach our kids in school,” as well as unemployment, are making men watch too much porn.
“As conservatives, we’ve got to call men back to responsibility,” he told Axios.
Hawley is a rising star in the GOP since he won a seat in the Senate in 2016, and his name frequently comes up as a possible 2024 Republican presidential or vice presidential candidate.
Right now he’s refining his message to voters, and he has decided to focus on gender, a staple issue for the right over the last several decades.
“The liberal attack- the leftist attack on manhood says to men: ‘You’re part of the problem,’ it says ‘Your masculinity is inherently problematic, it’s inherently oppressive,'” he said.
At first glance, the argument may appear odd. The leader of the Democratic Party is a man, and all previous Democratic presidents have been men. A majority of Congressional Democrats are men. Men still hold much of the power in liberal and leftwing movements, and men have an even stronger hold on the Republican Party as well.
While he could probably point to social media comments that make fun of men and masculinity, almost no liberal in a position of actual power says that masculinity is “inherently problematic.” In fact, that’s probably a reason why “toxic masculinity” has become a popular expression recently: it separates toxic from non-toxic masculinity.
Mainstream discussions of gender over the past couple of years have focused on sexual violence and harassment, mostly against women, as well as freedom for LGBTQ people.
While denouncing sexual abuse isn’t an attack on masculinity, many men take it as such and make the discussion about them. LGBTQ identities don’t take anything away from any straight man’s masculinity, but many people very vocally feel like gender non-conformity is an attack on masculinity itself.
If anything, it’s liberals who don’t believe that gendered oppression is an “inherent” part of masculinity since they’re the ones asking for that to change.
But Hawley’s argument has less to do with describing a real problem and more to do with his political ambitions. A majority of men (52% to 41%) voted for Donald Trump in 2016, but Trump lost ground among men in 2020.
So Hawley was speaking to a certain kind of straight man when he said at the National Conservatism Conference last month: “After years of being told… that their manhood is the problem, more and more men are withdrawing into the enclave of idleness and pornography and video games.”
“We need the kind of men who make republics possible,” he said.
In the Axios interview, he said that the crisis of masculinity is the fault of joblessness and “social messages,” taking the blame off of potential Republican voters, i.e. straight conservative men.
At the same time, he painted a picture of aspirational masculinity: “A man is a father. A man is a husband. A man is somebody who takes responsibility.”
“I think you put together lack of jobs, you put together fatherlessness, you put together the social messages that we teach our kids in school, I think we’ve got to confront that and its effects,” Hawley said.
Hawley’s vision of masculinity, though, doesn’t sound like it includes gay, bi, and trans men. He has a score of “0” on HRC’s Congressional Scorecard, showing his solid opposition to LGBTQ rights.
Last year, he reacted so badly to the Supreme Court ruling in favor of job protections for LGBTQ people in its historic Bostock v. Clayton Co. decision that he said it “represents the end of the conservative legal movement.”
“The bargain that has been offered to religious conservatives for years now is a bad one,” he said at the time, blaming Republicans since two Republican-appointed justices were in the majority in Bostock. “It’s time to reject it.”
The GOP has long tried to portray itself as the defender of masculinity to exploit the discomfort many people feel when the gendered social order changes.
Most people – women and men, cis and trans, straight and queer – like to feel that their gender identity is affirmed by others. And unemployment and a lack of self-control when it comes to entertainment could make some straight men feel less masculine.
What Hawley is offering is a scapegoat and aspiration. But that’s not the same as a job.