On the 13th of November, storied fashion publication US Vogue made history by featuring British pop singer (and former One Direction member) Harry Styles as its first-ever male cover star for the December issue. It’s the first time in 127!! years that there is a man on the cover of the famous magazine. And that’s why Styles chose to pose in a dress during this iconic photo shoot.
The cover immediately sparked passionate conversations around masculinity and gendered dressing. Harry defended the queer aesthetics of his visual work. “I want things to look a certain way. Not because it makes me look gay, straight or bisexual, but because I think it looks cool.”
In this blog post, I want to explain more about this trending topic and the conversation that’s been going on about toxic masculinity on social media, and in our daily lives. Enjoy reading!
1) Toxic masculinity
The concept has been around forever. But suddenly, the term seems to be everywhere.
So let’s start with the definition:
“A cultural concept of manliness that glorifies stoicism, strength, virility, and dominance, and that is socially maladaptive or harmful to mental health: Men and women both suffer when toxic masculinity perpetuates expectations that are restrictive and traumatizing.” – dictionary.com
“Be a man. Only girls cry.” “Be a man. Only girls wear dresses.” These sayings are an example of toxic masculinity, cultural expectations and standards of male behavior that are harmful not only to women and society, but also to men themselves.
The term toxic masculinity originated during the late 1980s as part of something called the Mythopoetic Men’s Movement. As a response to feminism, this movement sought to contrast ideals of masculinity seen as toxic with deep masculinity (a more natural, in-touch-with-oneself maleness and more fully developed male-male relationships). The term also appeared in psychological circles in the late 1980s investigating feminism and masculinity through Freudian and Jungian perspectives.
Toxic masculinity is loosely defined as masculine traits and ways of thinking or behaving that negatively impact both men and society as a whole. Interest in this topic spiked in 2016 during the presidential election of Donald Trump, who was widely criticized for promoting aspects of toxic masculinity in his language and behavior. Following Trump’s election, it became the focus of much public discussion as a result of the #MeToo movement in late 2017.
Toxic masculinity is considered a major factor of rape culture, promoting the sexual and professional abuse of women by men. It’s also commonly discussed in debates about racial prejudice, as differences in social privilege and cultural background can create variations of toxic masculinity. One effort to combat toxic masculinity involves teaching men and boys that emotionally vulnerable behavior (crying, asking for help, admitting defeat) is healthier than toxic masculine behavior. And that’s exactly what Harry Styles is fighting for.
Back in February, Styles teamed up with SiriusXM and Pandora for an invite-only set for some of his biggest fans. He admitted during the show that there’s a power that comes with vulnerability. “Crying is very manly, being vulnerable is manly.” Last year, he told Rolling Stone: “I’m discovering how much better it makes me feel to be open with friends, feeling that vulnerability, rather than holding everything in.”
This vulnerability has changed how he approached his songwriting process for his album Fine Line and how he dresses nowadays. “As a kid I definitely liked fancy dress,” Styles says. “I was really young, and I wore tights for that,” he recalls. “I remember it was crazy to me that I was wearing a pair of tights. And that was maybe where it all kicked off!”
2) Harry’s inspired by many other icons
George Michael, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie and Prince, all embodied a masculinity with no boundaries. Bowie’s “not sure if you’re a boy or a girl” cool helped rewrite fashion and masculinity codes.
Bowie was one of a kind, a legend of music, art and style. He will be remembered for so many things, that the impact of his loss is still not even yet quantifiable. Among his achievements has got to be the space he made in the world for the piece of non-conformity that rests inside all of us. And of all the many things to thank him for, surely is his part in that liberating feeling, the first time you realize that the right response to “Not sure if you’re a boy or a girl” should be, “Who cares?”
While 97% of people said expectations for male behavior have changed within the past decade, 48% of men are comfortable with these changes and 27% are not. Interestingly, 42% of men and women said they have not talked about masculinity, but it seems to be a conversation worth having if expectations are shifting. The uproar over Harry Styles wearing a dress in Vogue shows how little progress has been made in decades to give men more freedom of expression.
The legendary Freddie Mercury marked an era, not only with his music but also with his flamboyant style in the ‘70s and ‘80s, sometimes questionable, but unforgettable and pure glam rock’n’roll. Constantly reinventing himself through fashion, Mercury was one of the greatest showmen ever.
The cross-sexual look was still evolving in the artsy circles back then, Freddie Mercury wore with the same ease and self-confidence women’s clothes and makeup as well as men’s attire, revolutionising the way men dressed.
We all sing along to the hit song “I Want to Break Free” by Queen but back in the time it was released, the song was a controversial firestarter due to it’s video… The band members dressed in drag as a parody of British soap opera Coronation Street. British fans got the joke, but fans in America viewed the cross-dressing as a coming-out for Mercury, who wore a wig and fake breasts in the video and onstage (the video even got banned by MTV). Conversely, in most of Europe, the song was viewed as an anthem of resistance against political oppression.
3) Global response & support
Even though two of the internet’s worst citizens, Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens, have some (incredibly wrong) thoughts on how men should dress. Harry Styles in a dress isn’t an attack on masculinity. Many men have already proved otherwise in the past, and this time, too, it is no different.
Shapiro claims the whole point of the photoshoot is to “feminize masculinity.” He pretends this is a new and urgent thing, and not just that, but a threat. Which is pure bullshit. Pop musicians have long played around with gender norms, especially when it comes to how they dress (what I already explained above). In that way, this is nothing new.
What is new is the fact that men—famous men, especially—are less concerned than ever with how they’re supposed to dress and more concerned with dressing however the hell they like. Every once in a while, that means wearing an actual dress. More often, it means taking the most stereotypically masculine of outfits—the suit—and turning it on its head, playing with the pieces or the proportions or the print or some combination of the three. It’s masculinity, reworked and reinvented, but by no means destroyed.
Right-wing activist Candace Owens also took time to criticise Harry’s Vogue photo shoot last Saturday, writing: ‘There is no society that can survive without strong men … bring back manly men.’ When her tweets went viral she wrote the following in response: ‘Terms like “toxic masculinity”, were created by toxic females. Real women don’t do fake feminism,’ she continued. ‘Sorry I’m not sorry.’
Styles’ fans (me included 😉 ) were quick to jump to the star’s defense, including actress and director Olivia Wilde. “You’re pathetic,” she wrote in response to Owens’ criticism. “Idk about you but I think that there is nothing more manly then a man being so secure with his masculinity that he can wear a dress.”
Many also took the opportunity to school Owens on a brief history of fashion, pointing out that clothing worn by men throughout both the East and West contradict her argument — from Scottish kilts and rococo fashions of France to the traditional dress-like garments of China and the Middle East. All this time she was completely wrong, whether she wanted to admit it or not.
Luckily, fellow celebrities stand up for Harry. Lord Of The Rings’ actor Elijah Wood also did his bit: “I think you don’t understand the definition of what a man is, Owens. Masculinity alone does not make a man. In fact it’s got nothing to do with it;”
Singer Nick Tangorra tweeted: “No one is upset that Harry Styles wore a dress, they’re just upset they’ll never look as good in one.” Actor and musician Michael Malarkey added: “The only thing that makes a man a ‘real man’ is being true to himself and letting others do the same.”
This tweet actually summarizes it perfectly:
4) Harry’s opinion
Harry himself has not yet responded to the controversy, but he talked openly about the topic and his clothing in general, in the Vogue interview. He even gave Bowie, Elvis, Prince and Freddie Mercury as examples of people he looked up to in music – because they were “showmen”. “There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes,” he added. “I’ve never really thought too much about what it means – it just becomes this extended part of creating something.”
“Clothes are there to have fun with and experiment with and play with. What’s really exciting is that all of these lines are just kind of crumbling away. When you take away ‘There’s clothes for men and there’s clothes for women,’ obviously you open up the arena in which you can play. I’ll go in shops sometimes, and I just find myself looking at the women’s clothes thinking ‘they’re amazing’.” Styles adds.
Meanwhile, others have argued Styles’ cover may not be enough for increasing acceptance towards non-binary expression and identities. It may be historic, but it isn’t radical. This is not the first time Styles has played around with fashion in bold ways and it’s definitely not the last. He still has to teach us a lot and I hope he can serve as an example and icon to many for a long time to come.
What he does, he does incredibly well. Harry can be so proud of himself and what he has achieved so far. I also can’t believe Harry appeared on a Vogue cover with a dress and the world hasn’t shut up ever since, his impact is abnormal. I’m looking forward to what’s to come. But, whatever he may wear, I will always support him. I will always be in the front row and applaud him for everything he achieves. He is my idol and hopefully he can be one for many.
“It’s like anything — anytime you’re putting barriers up in your own life, you’re just limiting yourself.” – Harry Styles
Lots of love,