Art by Helen Cui
On November 14th 2020, conservative author and activist Candace Owens tweeted, “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,” in response to Vogue’s December cover story featuring Harry Styles. In the photos accompanying this article, Styles is wearing a blue dress and other clothes deemed as “feminine.”
What ensued after Owens’s reply was an uproar on social media. People on Owens’s side argued that men should stick to traditional roles, and that wearing dresses makes one less masculine. Those in defense of Styles debated clothes have no gender and people should wear whatever they want. Reading the discourse online made me wonder what determines masculinity versus femininity – where did the idea that clothes belong to a gender come from? What makes a man “manly”?
There is no doubt that gender roles exist in today’s society. Gender roles stem from the idea that men and women are biologically, mentally and psychologically different and therefore serve different purposes in society. As a result, women and men are expected to act and dress a certain way in order to cater to these roles. The reason so many people are upset with Styles’s outfits is because he does not conform to the concept that feminine clothing is solely meant for women. As I read through comments and replies on social media, I noticed mostly conservative thinkers disapprove of his feminine fashion which they claim challenges traditional American values and beliefs. I had a hard time trying to interpret these comments. How did a 26 year old man wearing a frilly dress on a magazine cover completely dismantle the idea of masculinity? I believe it’s time to leave these outdated ideas behind and allow people to express themselves as they please.
Gender is a social construct. There is no biological rule or written law that prohibits men from wearing feminine clothes—it is solely a social boundary. Such an absence of reason is why the hate comments do not make sense. Not only is the “feminization of our men” that Owens speaks of hypothetical, but what people wear should not affect or concern others.
The idea of conforming to masculinity reinforces sexism in our society. According to traditional masculine stereotypes, men ought to be strong, courageous, assertive and protective. Meanwhile, feminine stereotypes include expectations for women to remain reserved, reticent, dependent and dainty. Gender stereotypes are then reflected in clothing. Women wear skirts and dresses, and men wear pants and suits. In the past, our society has allowed for very little mobility between these restrictive options.
While praising Harry Styles for challenging gender norms, it is necessary to remember that he is not the first man to do so. It is important to give credit to the famous black men who have also defied stereotypes, but have not received as much recognition. Young Thug, Jaden Smith, Lil Uzi Vert, and ASAP Rocky all wear “feminine” clothing. It is also necessary to recognize the women that have worn typically “masculine” clothing including Blake Lively, Janelle Monae, Zendaya, and Awkwafina. These examples of men and women that have resisted norms shows that this defiance has been occurring for a long time, though has not necessarily been recognized as widely as it is now.
Masculinity can not be defined by just one characteristic or attribute. When I hear “manly man,” I do not think of a typical stereotype of what people think strong men should be. I think of these men that unapologetically express themselves how they please and are willing to disregard the norms our society has long forced upon us. It is honestly ridiculous to condemn and criticize someone for wearing a garment of clothing that brings them comfort. In the future, I hope the boundaries and norms that prevent people from expressing themselves fall, and that a greater acceptance is born.