Styles in Skirts, Real Men, and Stoicism
Last month, Harry Styles graced the December cover of Vogue sporting the androgynous style for which he’s been increasingly known for, combining a Gucci tailored tuxedo jacket and full-length gown designed by Alessandro Michele to create a bravely androgynous style.
"As a kid I definitely liked fancy dress," Styles told Vogue. "I was really young, and I wore tights for [a school play]. I remember it was crazy to me that I was wearing a pair of tights. And that was maybe where it all kicked off!"
Styles follows in the footsteps of pop icon contemporaries in Young Thug, Lil Nas and Billy Porter, all of whom have taken steps to broaden the scope of gender codification in the shadow of legends like Prince, David Bowie and Little Richard.
Styles’ cover shoot may’ve been minor news if it weren’t for the reaction he earned from sensationalist conservative commentator Candace Owens, who responded to Styles’ announcement on Twitter. “There is no society that can survive without strong men. The East knows this. In the west, the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack. Bring back manly men.”
Only a very online millennial conservative could suggest a parallel between the increasing fluidity of gender roles and intercontinental tensions.
After her tweets drew widespread criticism and ridicule Owens added; “I’d like to clarify what I meant when I said “bring back manly men” I meant: Bring back manly men. Terms like “toxic masculinity”, were created by toxic females. Real women don’t do fake feminism.” Which did very little to de-mystify her already bizarre take.
Owens’ has also established a firmly transphobic stance favouring LGB and gender-critical feminist movements, which feed into the “gender ideology” moral panic she chose to stress in her remarks.
Ben Shapiro, another conservative with even less credibility, came to her defence to add “Anyone who pretends that it is not a referendum on masculinity for men to don floofy dresses is treating you as a full-on idiot.”
Shapiro was challenged by those reminding him that clothes currently considered feminine have been worn by men for longer in human history than they haven’t, citing the high heel, skin-tight leggings and kilt, all of which were invented for men specifically until culture shifted their cultural coding, which Shapiro was eager to dismiss as beside the point.
Owens and Shapiro were widely mocked for appearing to be upset over something so simple as Styles choice of clothing, called out for hypocrisy given that they both regularly espouse the belief that liberals have become too sensitive, and too often censor and deny free speech to combat what they don’t agree with. Seemingly in response, Owens has since back-pedaled her point to one of casual indifference, as she claimed the furore around her tweets was proof of her global influence.
When asked about the incident, Styles rejected the need for gender binaries in fashion, stating "To not wear [something] because it’s females’ clothing, you shut out a whole world of great clothes." Styles echoes the sentiments of many queer commentators and liberal artists, who increasingly believe that gender roles are merely self-imposed limitations to expression, reinforced by regressive peer-pressure, which achieve nothing but the superficial approval of disaffected traditionalists.
Chris Lee AKA Li Yuchun, Credit: Andrea Raffin / Shutterstock.com
Modern Eastern Masculinity
An especially jarring part of Owens remarks was her dismissal of the remarkable gender conversations actually happening in Eastern Asia. Beyond democracies like Japan, South Korea and Singapore, China itself has embraced many expressions of gender fluidity. Celebrated androgynous stars like singer-songwriter prodigy Leah Dou, male beauty blogger Li Jiaqi, or androgynous pop star Chris Lee reflect the reality for young Chinese people eager to express themselves outside of gender binaries, enough of which have been welcomed and celebrated within Chinese corporate systems to offer them a powerful international platform.
In 2007, a then-closeted trans woman named Liu Ting was hailed as a “national role model of virtue” after carrying her sick mother to and from the local hospital. When she came out as trans in 2015 state media rushed to compliment Ms Ting’s feminine features, celebrating her identity.
Of course, China’s history with gender welfare has been highly fraught, much as it has in the West, and is still fighting many battles for LGBTQ rights, though there’s more than enough bravery and victory happening in queer communities in the global East to illustrate how conjectural Owens’ overgeneralised remarks were, built more upon Trumpian parables of Chinese antagonism than a factual assessment of the highly nuanced cultures.
Li Jiaqi, China's Top Beauty Influencer, Photo: CGTN
What is a 'Real Man' anyway?
The most terrifying disconnect in this conversation is that of interpreting female coding and sensitivity as a de-facto weakness, an unquestionable concept to conservatives, that somehow naturally follows onto a wider conversation about societal stability and military inefficiency. The notion that gender role expansion weakens us, ripening us for the slaughter at the hands of some supposedly impending war would be difficult for even the boldest devil’s advocate to follow in good faith, especially if they haven’t been following the Trump-era diatribes bouncing back and forth amid the abyssal depths of right and far-right echo chambers.
Instead, let’s discuss what being a “real man” traditionally implies above all, strength. The nature of the modern world has produced certain comforts and dignities to life that mankind hasn’t enjoyed previously. Jobs in manufacturing, career housewives and male-dominated corporate structure are all in sharp decline, facets of patriarchy likely never to return, striking a painful chord with western traditionalists. These are facets of a long-gone status quo where topics of mental health or queer identity wouldn’t make it into polite conversation, let alone lead mainstream discourse, and men strived at chauvinism and emotional spotlessness to strive toward fierce independence.
Today’s men aren’t taught how to change a car’s oil or put up a shelf, they’re not encouraged to fight to solve problems or persevere in the face of romantic or sexual rejection, they’re championed for being honest about their feelings and taking paternal leave when they have a baby. Many of these changes are social or even economic by-products of the march of history, but are so upsetting to conservatives that they prefer to believe they’re the product of poisonous liberal ideology, and so fan the flames of a moral panic that presumes the expansion and hybridisation of gender identity will tear down the fabric of society itself.
It is certainly true that the world and our experiences are becoming more sanitised and nuanced, though this is hardly unique to history. Urbanisation was once thought to bring about the downfall of real men, as boys were no longer universally thrust into lives of manual labour, instead employed in offices and service industries. This shift was thought to make men soft and incapable, but it didn’t. There have been dozens of similar social and technological transitions in history used as vehicles for regressionists, just as the philosophies of gender expression are today.
One of the many ironies of this conversation is that it’s often the men deemed too feminine who are required to summon the most personal strength to keep meeting the unkind world they find themselves in and find ways to excel while being their authentic selves. In a way, they embody the dream conservatives mourn, the irrepressible spirit at the heart of a “real man”, just not in the exact way they want.
Rather than grieving for a bygone and useless definition of “real men” as contemporary conservatives choose to define them – and so with it the only supposed foothold of societal strength the western world enjoys – perhaps we ought to instead discuss wellbeing and stoicism. The scientific means of strengthening our mental and emotional health at the root, so that we can bear the burdens of the world with courage and strive towards our goals sustainably.
The emotional denialism embedded in the unspoken definitions of being a “real man”, involves suppressing one’s identity and sensitivity while avoiding honest communication and therapy, a path which can lead men into lives of pain, potentially becoming abusers themselves as they victimise others as their only means of soothing their unspoken pain. Issues which are only now being understood and addressed.
Encouraging someone to hide their struggle until they burst is a strategy that encourages a problem. Much like Ben Shapiro’s stance on climate change, it’s like carefully watching a pot boil over before turning the heat down, because supposedly the problem’s not quite serious enough to realistically address until it’s visible.
There’s a better, healthier, and more rational way to be male, and more importantly to be strong. A way that has nothing to do with being too cowardly to embrace oneself, or feel the need to complain about how modern people choose to dress and express themselves.
This article was written by Laurence. Laurence is a postgraduate of Southampton University working as a technology & culture journalist and queer fantasy author from Sussex, UK. You can learn more of him on Twitter, if you so dare.