Harry Styles and the Masculinity Debate

Candance Owens Tweeted recently about her objections to Harry Styles' Vouge cover shoot.

Candance Owens Tweeted recently about her objections to Harry Styles’ Vouge cover shoot.

Brendan Ulmer, Writer

Recently a debate has emerged over a photoshoot in which pop star Harry Styles donned a light blue dress and enough rings to make Michael Jordan blush. While the feature garnered controversy–because to some people the fashion choices of someone they’ve never met is the single most important threat in their life–it wasn’t anything unusual for Styles. A simple Google search will garner dozens of images with Harry Styles wearing all sorts of blouses, gowns and everything in between. 

So why did this become such a massive ordeal? Well, it finally found its way onto the shelves of the checkout line at big box stores by gracing the cover of Vogue. Maybe if they had just sold them at Whole Foods, no one would have gotten upset, but it quickly became widespread and many of the top conservative voices in our country expressed their opinion on it.

Their premise is that this photo of an influential male figure in a dress signifies how the traditional idea of a masculine man is continuously and deliberately being undermined or–as some with more radical opinions would say–attacked. There are a variety of negative consequences that some think this will bring, ranging from the minute to the apocalyptic.

Now I will agree on this point, the contemporary idea of the traditional masculine man is being torn down, but this is nothing new at all. These constitution thumpers fail to realize that the men who wrote this document did so with a blouse leggings on. It’s not that they were not masculine–I’m positive many of them were–but attire is not a concrete concept, and now that societal trends are streamlined via the Internet, we’re seeing a higher fashion turnover rate than ever before. Have you ever seen how many fedoras were worn just 10 years ago? Now it’s basically a class two misdemeanor: indecent accessorizing.

The stir has caused a bit of a food fight in the halls of online inteligencia, with one one of the biggest tomatoes being thrown by conservative commentator Candace Owens who said, “There is no society that can survive without strong men.” She didn’t bother to explain this massive claim further at all, instead electing to say, “The East knows this,” another unsubstantiated, and incredibly vague claim. Later in the Tweet, she says, “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,” which made me sigh, and not out of relief. My question is, who is feminizing our men and how? Is it more likely there is a plot to turn men into an army of Barbara Streisand’s or that men have merely elected to adopt more traits and behaviors that used to be considered feminine because they found them more convenient or personally enjoyable? I guess you can decide for yourself.

First, let’s explore the idea of society not being able to exist without strong men. First of all, I’m assuming she either means one of a couple things. On one hand, she might be referring to strongman leadership. Judging from what I know about her beliefs in general, it wouldn’t surprise me if she was a believer in the Unitary Executive Theory. The Unitary Executive Theory is an interpretation of Article Two of the Constitution based on the handing of “Executive Power” to the president, certain conservatives, and a few liberals believe that this hands a large, broad amount of power to the President, which shouldn’t be subjected to the checks and balances that exist in our bureaucracy. Basically, the President gets to be a dictator for four years. This is obviously a position more common among “strongmen” leaders who have that thirst for power, and this would also fit under her idea that the “East” values “Strong Men,” as a number of those countries are run by monarchies or dictatorships. 

The other possibility of what she meant when she said we “need strong men,” is that we need strong men to fill labor or skilled service jobs that power our economy from the bottom up. While I agree those jobs are important and often under-considered and under-appreciated, it’s not like they’re all going away, and the ones that are losing their jobs are because they were replaced by robots, not because Nancy Pelosi wants them to become a drag queen named Mandy Appletree.  

The reason that fewer and fewer men are adopting service and labor jobs is because they don’t have to. Men adopting traits and behaviors that used to be assigned to women is not the cause of this change, it’s the result of it. When you look at Harry Styles in a dress, you’re looking at the product of these changes, not the catalyst for them. To me, this is the exact same argument that conservatives often use when criticizing culture. It goes like this, “we can’t let our kids listen to rap music, it’ll make them want to commit crimes,” or “if we banned violent video games, we’d see fewer school shootings.” Both of these arguments fail to realize that culture is a product of society. You’re pointing at the chicken and calling it the egg.

What’s extra special about this case is that there doesn’t really seem to be a problem that this piece of culture is projecting. Say the nightmare scenario for conservatives comes true: boys across the country see Harry Styles on the cover of Vogue wearing a dress, now they want to wear a dress. So what? What will change? Some think this might lead to more gender identity crises, but if anything, this will actually help those with gender identity issues. Whether those on the left want to admit it or not, there are hundreds of people in the trans community in our country who de-transition every year. A good deal of whom claim they were confused because they were a boy or a girl with interests and taste more commonly associated with the opposite sex, later to find out that they preferred being in their prior anatomy, even if they did have untraditional tastes. This is not to say all trans people are merely confused, far from it, but I think it’s incredibly beneficial to have role models for those who feel like they don’t fit into any box at all, because at the end of the day, that’s kind of all of us.

We are all incredibly complicated. Sometimes we have to adjust ourselves to fit where we are needed, but ultimately, who we become is up to ourselves. We live in a constant dance with our society where we have to adjust to it and it has to adjust to us. What Harry Styles in a skirt represents to me merely is that there is a change in culture, and now we are starting to see this on a more public stage.