In Defense of Harry Styles and a Better Future for Masculinity

Inside the December 2020 issue of Vogue is something unremarkable and remarkable at the same time. Unremarkably, a cover star speaks candidly about life and self-expression to the magazine’s European editor-at-large, interspersed with gorgeous photography of beautiful clothing against the backdrop of the English countryside. Remarkably, this month’s cover star is the first man to grace the cover solo in the magazine’s 127-year history, a huge honor for a generation-defining fashion icon. The clothing — high-shouldered blazers, kilts, playfully oversized coats and belts, a Gucci dress, and Victoriana crinoline over an exaggerated suit silhouette — is playfully subversive, but neither exceptionally scandalous nor dramatically transgressive.

The interview and profile of Harry Styles, former boy band member now independent and acclaimed solo act and all-around good guy, is well-written and beautifully shot. The clothing itself is faithful to the recent sartorial direction Styles and members of his team have taken. By bucking expectations, swapping out the more boring bread-and-butter-male styling of suits and jeans for the androgynous and the feminine, the shoot showcases its star while staying faithful to the tradition of rich photography and elegant fashion readers have come to expect.

All this makes sense for Styles, who has always been interested in dressing up. He’s a charming, leading-man pop star who has become successful enough to inhabit a public playfulness he may have once been afraid would jeopardize his career. Styles hits fashion notes often similar and sometimes identical to those of his predecessors, the new torchbearer along a trail once blazed by David Bowie and Elton John before him (and generations of gender-bending, extravagance, and pomp before them).

If my descriptions make the story sound banal, it’s not for lack of enthusiasm; I love it, I read it as soon as it was available, and I happily bought a physical copy of the magazine. Rather, the banality makes it all the more disappointing and confusing that the story turned into a series of bad takes over the state and ideals of Western masculinity, fomented by conservative political commentary in a classic case of not liking something and refusing to mind your own business about it.

Leading the charge was Candace Owens, tweeting “There is no society that can survive without strong men,” waxing on the steady feminization of men and the rise of Marxism in education as the front of “an outright attack.” It’s a staggering leap to view the whole of masculinity (or even the masculinity of Harry Styles specifically) through the lens of a celebrity profile and photoshoot in a women’s fashion magazine, but armchair commentary is nothing if not dramatically implied and theatrically alarmist. In this telling, masculinity is both essential to Western power and incredibly fragile, easily undermined by editorials and entertainment run afoul of binary gender division. Joining her in doubling down was Ben “precisely no one’s definition of idealized masculinity” Shapiro, who asserts the benefits of masculinity in men to defend and provide for their family. He goes on to insist the left understands the spectrum of masculinity and femininity as they attempt to subvert it, misrepresenting the gender spectrum in a clumsy sleight of hand and crying foul at the idea that telling men to act like women is progressive, but the inverse is sexist.

The power dynamic between gender identities colors their interactions; that they are often treated differently as broad categories is insisted in Shapiro’s arguments. When it comes to personal agency and rights, the legacy of gender inequality persists in interactions modern women face every day. Roughly speaking, it’s beneficial for those with power to understand and connect with the experiences of those without; in this case, men connecting with women. Conversely, asking those with less power to act more like their aggressors is, often, more exercising of that power. When a woman is asked to “think like a man” or given coded language about her appearance or mannerisms instead of her raw ability, the message is that those superficial factors are the problem. Pencil skirts, dresses, and upspeak are proxies for meaningful criticism that institutionalize sexism.

Owens and Shapiro both suffer from the idea that masculinity is both a natural manifestation of male aggression and so wholly impotent that the actions of others can undermine it and thereby weaken whole societies. Is masculinity is so easily embattled? Are men so easily influenced? You may love or hate men in dresses, but why get so pressed over singular moments of nontraditional expression?

A man acting feminine once, twice, or always requires no other man to do the same; the power is with the recipient. You could grant great power to such a thing if you felt trapped by masculinity or gender norms, or you could simply decide to not like it and go about your day in the same way as before. It remains unremarkable and remarkable at once, which is more telling of the conservative idea of masculinity than it is of Styles or Vogue. The benefits of masculinity may have helped us as hunters, leaders, and defenders, but what of the modern male? There is no “hunt” in the utilitarian sense of the word, replaced by staged, elaborate games and artificial conquest. There is no “defending” of the home in suburbia, statistically speaking. There is little to “conquer” when the spoils are castrated middle management palace intrigue spun up as alpha bravado.

Without our ancestors’ measures of masculine strength, what’s left but to approximate the masculine ideal in a desperate grasping of what defines gender? With no enemy at the gates or meat to gather, the search for an enemy, in this case, puts fabric in the crosshairs. An English twenty-something who preaches kindness and consent is the vanguard of the enemy; Gucci is emasculating you for an eventual takeover. The conservative commentators will have you believe the enemy is around every corner because, in reality, there is no enemy. Your life is safer, more prosperous, and more cerebral than ever, so why is it so easy to convince ourselves otherwise and make the most innocuous of concepts into our foes?

We are long overdue for redefined masculinity. Strength comes in many forms; power can be empathetic and tolerant. Divorce masculinity from the idea that it depends inextricably on clothing at all — Shapiro himself points out togas were different for men and women, leaning on the specifics of a single piece of draped cloth. Painting dresses as feminine against the history of men’s heels, and dresses, and makeup is more than enough evidence that the window of discourse has shifted; the range of what is an is not anti-masculine dress is absurdly vast. While we’re at it, why is the scope of power between an elegant dress and fine suit so immense compared to some of the dumpy, ill-fitting clothing Shapiro wears?

It’s heartening to see someone so comfortable in their self-expression. I’m much more interested in the idea of a man’s passions, and inspirations, and favorite philosopher
than I am in foes conquered or power exerted over others because those are laughably impotent concepts. Masculinity should root in the self instead of desperate, foaming-at-the-mouth raging in insecurity. If that means we see more men wearing the clothing they want and uplifting others, grounded in their worth and the positive impact they have, it sounds like a sure signal of strength to me.

The dress in question, for what it’s worth, is also beautiful. Well done, Harry.

Arts fundraiser, illustrator, and freelance writer. Featured on Esquire.com, Fatherly, and others. Three-time @quora Top Writer. http://www.mattbecher.com

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