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Is Androgyny Still Radical?

Following the backlash surrounding Harry Styles’ Decemember Vogue Cover, we question: is androgyny still radical in 2020?

Fashion male mannequin in dress

Artwork – Sign of the Times, Elish Kathleen, 2020.

The December edition of US Vogue has featured a man on its front cover for the first time: Harry Styles, photographed by Taylor Mitchell, graced the cover wearing a full length Gucci gown. In the issue he discusses relationships, his time in One Direction, his solo career and, of course, his sartorial choices. In his interview with Hamish Bowles, he states:

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,’ once you remove any barriers, 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. It’s like anything—anytime you’re putting barriers up in your own life, you’re just limiting yourself. There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never really thought too much about what it means—it just becomes this extended part of creating something.

This is not the first time that Styles has worn ‘feminine’ attire, nor is it the first time he has discussed it. It is encouraging that, as a mainstream star, Styles is using his privilege as a cis, white, man to engage more people in a dialogue surrounding gender expression. By wearing ‘feminine’ clothes, or earrings, or even make-up, Styles may perhaps encourage other young men to stretch out from underneath the binaries of masculine style and explore their gender expression – be that with cosmetics, jewellery, or clothes. Many say that generation Z is more liberal, more accepting, and freer in their thoughts around constructions of gender, than even millennials and especially, baby boomers. However, the right-wing backlash towards Styles’ shoot in Vogue proves that these stifling ideas of masculinity are still very much held by a certain group of people, despite progression, and that these constraints need to be broken.

It is surprising though, that in 2020, we still find this kind of response to a man in a dress. Fashion has been progressively getting more and more fluid for decades. A man in feminine attire is certainly not a new concept. This is also why the commentary on the opposite end of the spectrum, from One Direction and Harry stans to liberals on twitter, labelling Styles’ ‘brave’ for his actions seems unnecessary too. Some on Twitter have pointed out that gay and bisexual men and non-binary and transgender people have been doing this for quite some time, with no recognition and applause from people – yet, have faced similar backlash from right-wingers. One twitter thread by user Rinyushokuu pointed out that Black artists such as Prince, Jimi Hendrix, Lenny Kravitz, ASAP Rocky, and Lil Nas X have all subverted gender norms through their fashion, too. All of which cements the fact that Harry Styles is not doing anything revolutionary, that he is simply being himself and expressing himself how he wants to. How is this still something to argue over? From David Bowie, Boy George and Prince’s androgyny in the 70s and 80s, to Kurt Cobain wearing dresses to perform in the 90s, to today with celebrities such as the rappers previously mentioned, and the red carpet icon that is Billy Porter, it’s been done, hasn’t it? It’s not a new concept, so why is it that when a white, cis, mainstream, star like Styles does it, it incites the vehement desire to agree or disagree? Is it really that big of a deal? Do we need to give Styles so much credit for something that is far more risky for non-straight men, non-binary and trans people, and ethnic minority men? Can’t we just celebrate it for being nice and that’s enough? Does androgyny have to be revolutionary in 2020?

Unfortunately, it is. Although many women today can wear suits and dress androgynously and be considered fashionable for this, there is still prejudice towards women who do not dress feminine ‘enough’. For example, the singer Billie Eilish often wears extremely baggy clothing. She has made it no secret that this is a direct result of her, a teenager, wanting to avoid being sexualised by the media. Whilst it is wholly upsetting that a teenager should have to feel this way, it is clearly not unwarranted. The media are obsessed with what’s under her clothes, so much so that a paparazzi photo of Billie wearing a tight vest top and shorts went viral. There is an obsession with wanting to see women display their femininity, and men their masculinity,  in an overt way and an understanding that those who do not should stand as figures of transgression and fear. Women who do not fit into the Western standard of beauty also face discrimiation; it is plain to see the racist and misogynistic thinking that informs the press’ consistent comparison of tennis player Serena Williams to a man, for example. While women who look ‘manly’ are mocked regularly still in the media, the rhetoric becomes especially apparent when we reflect on the prejudice lesbian women who dress in a ‘masculine’ way face. By subverting the ‘male gaze’, the ‘Butch’ aesthetic has been regarded as an outlier for the fact that it challenges gender norms. It is an aesthetic that is read as ‘masucline’, whilst having nothing to do with men per se. The term has often been used as an insult for Queer women –  stigmatising those who deviate from typical societal ideas of what femininity should look like, as well as deviate from heternormative relationships. It is almost unimaginable for society to understand how and why a woman would defy both romantic relationships with men and the male gaze. Women who disrupt the feminine ideal – particularly those who do not fit into the heteronormative ideal – are seen as a symbol of defiance against patriarchal constructs and are demeaned for their subversion of gender expectations.

Heteronormative society constructs a version of reality in which there are only two moulds – male/masculine/active and female/feminine/passive. It is telling, in light of this, that after the singer Sam Smith came out as non-binary in March 2019, they were met with an onslaught of abuse from both trolls on twitter and journalists in the tabloids. Smith has since said that they were wholly unprepared for the mass ridicule. For a mainstream figure, perhaps among one of the first mainstream figures to do so, to clearly move away from gender binaries was bold. Gender non-comforming people already lack representation in the media and so Smith was met with both surprise and cruelty. In one photoshoot with Out Magazine in September 2019, Smith was pictured in a dress and makeup. These photos were also, disappointingly, ridiculed. In the eyes of society, Smith was still coded as ‘masculine’ and so to be pictured in feminine attire was viewed as, at best, unusual and, at worst, wrong. Non-binary identity threatens the very structures that uphold patriarchy and heteronormativity and therefore, there is fear and deliberate misunderstanding surrounding it. Many people, and even the Associated Press, continued to misgender Smith. They were criticised for looking too feminine, or not enough, or too masculine, or not enough –  you get the picture. There is no right way to express your gender, simply because gender is a construct and gender expression is spectrum. Being a woman doesn’t make you inherently feminine and being a man doesn’t make you inherently masculine. Not everyone falls on one side or the other. It doesn’t work like that. We are not born with divisive traits that separate us from each other, we inherit them as we grow up.

But again, this is not a new concept. The construction of gendered identity is something that feminists have been discussing for the past century. It is frustrating then, to see the same recycled arguments circulate the internet. “He can’t wear a dress! They’re for women”. These comments feel childish. What exactly makes a manly man when the whole concept is something we’ve made up anyway? Ultimately, these comments stem from fear – the fear that somehow the codes that keep us stifled and obedient could change. They come from people who believe that the world is solid, unshakable, rigid, not understanding that the boundaries that contain us are liminal; shifting; precarious; arbitrary. 

So while I won’t be calling Styles brave, nor hailing him radical, I do appreciate that it may take men in the mainstream wearing more ‘feminine’ clothes to challenge the mainstream to think differently about gender, rather than thinking that gender fluidity only happens on the fringes of society. It is also important to appreciate the people – especially those in the LGBTQIA+ community, ethnic minorities and working class communities – who have been doing this for a long time before Styles and who have faced abuse for it and, unlike Styles, no praise from wider society. Perhaps this is a step in the right direction for wider and more diverse representation of gender fluidity in big publications like Vogue, but it will only be a true celebration when there is acceptance for all – not just cis, white men.

Written By

Rochelle is the co-founder of The Culture Sift.

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