Updated: Sep 5
By Cailin L
Image retrieved from Refinery29
When Harry Styles graced the December 2020 cover of Vogue donning a Gucci jacket and dress, the Internet had two main reactions.
On one hand — which held those of generally more conservative thinking — people were appalled by what they interpreted as a blatant attack on "Western" values of masculinity. Conservative pundit Candace Owens' now oft-cited quote on the matter, "bring back manly men", represented the general sentiment among this camp.
On the other hand — which held Harry stans and those of generally more progressive thinking alike — people were praising Styles for making what they perceived as a bold, groundbreaking stride against toxic masculinity.
Unsurprisingly, with as large of a fanbase as he has, Styles received far more support than he did the opposition.
In fact, it was especially interesting to see just how much the positive reactions to his outfit outweighed the negative — especially in contrast to the harsher backlash that men and non-binary people of color in particular have faced in similar situations.
Most mainstream news outlets, preoccupied with exalting Styles' style as a sign of the times (pun fully intended), failed to acknowledge the deeper implications of its reception. Reactions to the Vogue cover — on both sides of the web — weren't only indicative of the outdated, misogynistic prejudices that uphold toxic masculinity. They also highlighted the way that racist, sexist standards of beauty and White privilege continue to persevere — even among the most liberal of stans.
We need only glance at scenarios in which men of color did not conform to Western standards of masculinity to see this in action.
When Jaden Smith began to wear more female-coded and gender-fluid outfits in 2016, he was forced to endure a ruthless torrent of internet slander, with few people who came to his defense — at least in comparison to the hordes of fans that were praising Harry Styles' recent Vogue outfit as revolutionary. And this isn't simply an issue that can be explained by people "thinking differently back then." To cite more current examples, male KPOP idols are still frequently dismissed and emasculated by Western netizens for their more delicate, "feminine" features, though these casual instances of toxic masculinity tend to go under the radar.
Image retrieved from ABC News
This isn't even to mention the countless other Black, Indigenous, and people of color who've fearlessly pioneered androgynous or binary-breaking styles of dress — even when it wasn't a trend that cis White men could draw upon when convenient. Popular names that come to mind might include Prince, Billy Porter, Lenny Kravitz, Yohji Yamamoto, and Rei Kawakubo. But it's equally — if not more — important to remember those who don't have as broad of a platform: men, women, and non-binary people of color alike, who haven't had their outfits plastered on magazines or photographed on red carpets. It's these folks who must still, even in 2021, bear the brunt of transphobia, sexism, racism, and misogyny in silence. There aren't nearly as many people who come to their defense.
Nowadays, we’re seeing a growing number of conventionally attractive cis White men wielding the appeal of androgyny and femininity to their advantage — whether intentionally or not — while folks who've pioneered previously-taboo fashion continue to go unrecognized and over-criticized.
It seems like popular White cisgender male celebrities like Harry Styles are praised for shattering glass ceilings when they do anything remotely resembling feminine-coded behavior — this could include anything from wearing dresses, applying makeup, wearing nail polish, or even wearing colorful suits. Though there have been countless other people that have actually dressed in the face of toxic masculinity and fought against the societal consequences, of course, it’s cis White men that get all the credit — and for some reason, tend to be praised as all the more attractive — for it.
Instances like Harry Styles’ Vogue cover seem to shed light on an emerging truth — that unconventional forms of gender expression are only deemed valid and praiseworthy if they’re attractive to the general public (especially to stans). Factoring into this attractiveness — though it may seem “groundbreaking” at first glance — are invariably the standards of misogyny and White supremacy.
Image retrieved from ABC
When we fling our “yassss king”s to cis White men supposedly breaking the boundaries that minorities have been fighting against and suffering from the most, it ignores all of the strides that they’ve had to make, all of the trends that they’ve pioneered and advanced in spite of being ridiculed for. Not only that — it’s extremely telling of where we, as a society, choose to place our energy.
Instead of excessively commending the “courage” of popular celebrities who have their fashion statements immortalized in the spotlight, we have to be cognizant of the way we react, and the situations we deem worthy of our attention. Above all, we must be sure to constantly bring the energy that we typically reserve for celebrities to protecting and advocating for the right of everyone — especially our trans and nonbinary siblings of color — to express themselves openly, freely, and fearlessly.
Written by writer Cailin L