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Madison Cawthorn's goodbye speech felt like a GOP parody. The truth is less funny.

The congressman seemingly ended his unorthodox congressional tenure by going after what he says is the real threat facing America.
Image: Rep. Madison Cawthorn
Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., arrives for House GOP leadership elections in the Capitol Visitor Center on Nov. 15. Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

Outgoing Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., hasn’t been showing up to work lately, but he still managed to end his short-lived term with as much controversy as he started it with. 

Cawthorn, who lost his re-election primary bid back in May, began his term in 2020 by lying about verifiable facts like owning a business and training for the paralympics. He got married, divorced and was caught trying to get on an airplane with a gun on two separate occasions, at two different airports. A few months before the election, he turned quite a few heads with allegations of coke-filled orgies involving his Senate colleagues.

As a woman, I’m not sure the disgraced congressman cares very much what I think about his various burning questions.

But the congressman, who once claimed he was “raised on proverbs and pushups,” has seemingly ended his unorthodox congressional tenure by going after what he says is the real threat facing America: “metrosexuals.” In a short speech from the House floor on Nov. 30, the former GOP wunderkind bid his co-workers goodbye with more cliches about manhood than a Miller Lite commercial in the 1990s. 

“It used to be a rite of passage in this country for young men to be punched in the face when they did something stupid,” Cawthorn subtly began, seeming to wholly ignore any female colleagues in the room. He said he had to “ask the young men of this nation a question” but went on to ask seven questions instead — seven questions too many, if we’re being honest. “Will you sit behind a screen while the storied tales of your forefathers become myth?” he asked. “Or will you stand resolute against the dying light of America’s golden age? Will you reclaim your masculinity? Will you become a man to be feared? To be respected? To be looked up to? Or will you let this nation’s next generation be its final generation?”

As a woman, I’m not sure the disgraced congressman cares very much what I think about his various burning questions. But as the author of a book about masculinity, I’m going to take a rhetorical stab at them anyway. Because if we actually want our boys to grow up to become good men, a guy who has been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, and who was sent a letter signed by 150 of his former college peers corroborating his predatory behavior, shouldn’t the one setting the new rules of modern masculinity. 

Cawthorn claims America is on the “precipice of disaster” because “our young men are taught that weakness is strength, that delicacy is desirable, and that being a soft metrosexual is more valuable than training the mind body and soul,” but his vision of manhood is what should really scare us. A man who lies, carries weapons into airports, allegedly mistreats women and believes that other men should be “punched in the face” when they make mistakes does not embody values like liberty and justice for all. Neither women nor men can thrive in an environment that punishes them into submission and forces them to abide by outdated gender norms. Cawthorn’s speech felt like an extreme parody of his own party, filled as it was with extremely dramatic warnings about “sickly” sons controlled by a “nanny state.” But sadly it wasn’t that far removed from some of his conservative colleagues’ sensationalized views about the plight of men. 

This masculinity moral panic feels widespread among GOP operatives and dates back to at least President Richard Nixon.

His platitudes about manhood weren’t that dissimilar, for example, from Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley’s somber political declarations about young men “withdrawing into the enclave of idleness and pornography and video games” last year. This masculinity moral panic feels widespread among GOP operatives and dates back to at least President Richard Nixon, as Jackson Katz has pointed out and outlines in his documentary “Man Card.” Indeed, the Republican Party relies on scary stories about boys and men losing their masculinity in order to gin up support for policies that ultimately hurt the working-class men they are targeting with these not-so-subliminal messages about manhood. 

Instead of fighting a fake war against more imaginative and progressive forms of masculinity, perhaps conservative male politicians would be better served trying to create a world that makes space for the increasingly diverse ways that men and boys are choosing to express their manhood. Rather than forcing men into a box, they may want to ask why so many of them are choosing to live outside of it.