CW: This post discusses mental health and sexism. Reader discretion is advised.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock online, you’ll have seen the discussions going on about Harry Styles and his, in my opinion, gorgeous photoshoot and interview with Vogue.
The pictures entail him in various feminine and androgynous clothing, most notably, a photograph wearing a black blazer with a blue ruffled dress. If anyone doesn’t know what Harry Styles is like, he is very much the type of person that is expressive with his style, particularly in quite an androgynous way, reminiscent of David Bowie and the New Romantic subculture of the 1980s.
But, as you can imagine, these photos have caused a bit of a stir, particularly from right-wing conservatives such as Candice Owens. Those who are on social media will have seen her tweet, calling to ‘bring back manly men’ and claiming the West is being subject to the feminization of its men, undermining masculinity in the process.
As you know, I have a very different take on that of Ms. Owens’. Being brought up by 80s Rockers and New Romantics, while I grew up with the generalised notions of masculinity and femininity, being around expressive, artsy types and my feminist parents, the breaking of gender stereotypes isn’t something new to me.
Personally, what I like about people like Harry Styles is that he just doesn’t care what others think of him for what he wears. What we wear is a form of expression, and in the last few years particularly, are more men, especially young men, challenging those notions of ‘Only men can wear this’ and ‘Only women can wear that.’ etc. Like women challenged the notions that only men could and should wear trousers, the same is now happening with men.
As well, this is not just about men and women. As we know, gender is a spectrum through trans and non-binary awareness, as well as countless history on genders outside the binary in Indigenous cultures, such as Two-Spirit people in numerous Native American tribes. Though gender identity, sexual orientation and various expression with one’s clothes aren’t inherently linked, like some would like to believe, everyone’s expression is unique to them.
Harry Styles is a cisgender (someone who’s gender identity matches with their birth sex) man, who is one of many men in the limelight challenging these gender archetypes. While many have been doing this for years, the media hasn’t paid much attention, or subjected them to ridicule, until someone in Styles’ position (particularly if they’re white, because systemic racism) does the same. So, I’m happy that he’s using his platform to do this.
Some have taken to ridicule and anger, because a man has worn a dress. In the midst of a pandemic, political and civil unrest and climate change, this is where the anger is directed: a man wearing a dress. Amongst teasing and holier-than-thou statements, comes the age-old chestnut: ‘He’s not a real man!’
WHAT MAKES A ‘REAL’ MAN?
The last time I checked, all mean are real, lest they be formed in fiction. But it’s the concept of what ‘real’ masculinity is, that is the source of all this discussion.
We have often been taught that to be a man, you have to be tall, big, rough and tough, showing little outward emotion and to like nothing perceived as ‘feminine’. Now while there are men like that (and there’s nothing wrong with that) obviously, not every man is like this. Just as not all women are long haired, blonde, who love pink and go shoe shopping.
We see reactions, particularly online, to men showing their feelings, getting mental health support, or wearing clothes considered feminine, being derided with various insults and slurs.
If you wear pink you must be gay. If they cry, they’re a ‘sissy’. If they show their love for family, openly state they can’t wait to be a Dad, or go to the doctor for a health concern, they’re ‘weak’. If they’re not earning more than a female partner, they’re ‘whipped’.
These are examples of what is known, as toxic masculinity. Preventing men from either expressing themselves, getting the help they need etc. because of a preconceived notion that this doesn’t make him a ‘real’ man.
Not only is this utter garbage, these derisions and pressures contribute to something truly terrible: The biggest killer in men under 50 is suicide. Not heart disease, cancer or road accidents (even though those are terrible as well and definitely shouldn’t be overlooked) but suicide.
Just that fact alone shows we have a massive problem in how we address masculinity. Thankfully, these are now being addressed, but not without its opposition.
Also, toxic femininity exists too. Primarily in the form of, ‘all women belong in the kitchen’, ‘you’re not a real woman if you don’t have children’ and ‘take her swimming on the first date’ just to name a few. And don’t even get me started on toxic behaviour towards trans and non-binary people. Toxic behaviour like this, even if it’s towards just one gender (in this context, men) will sooner or later affect everyone.
MY STUDY ON MASCULINITY
Back in university, I actually did a study on this. When I was 19, I did a research project on masculinity in film, and how it can affect perceptions of masculinity at the time of production and release, and vice versa.
I loved doing that study and researching, having quantitative and qualitative research done. These were in the form of surveying various men who would fill out a questionnaire and submit anonymously, along with interviewing a Professor in this field from a university in America.
This came up with some very interesting results (albeit I didn’t have the biggest group of data to analyse), especially for 2013, and have times changed since then! I can only imagine what my results would be now, especially if I had a larger group for data analysis.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
I tried get to as wide a range of data to analyse as possible. My gentlemen who filled out this questionnaire ranged from 18 – 85 in age, from students to IT consultants, retired, family, to then-active servicemen. They also ranged across various religions, nationality, ethnicity and social background.
Relating to my study, I studied two films with social commentaries on masculinity. One set and surrounding the military, which is known for being a hyper-masculine environment. The other, centring around a male character who was a cross-dresser and drag performer. My questions centred around the themes in the films.
Along with many being raised in traditional backgrounds, majority felt there was support towards the LGBTQ+ community and were happy about it. Most stated they were feminists and were fully on board with equality. As well, 45% of those surveyed felt there was more sexism towards men in recent years. (Don’t shoot the messenger, I’m just citing the results)
This last statement I found particularly interesting, with some citing first hand experiences of being harassed or bullied by the occasional individual claiming also to be feminist, purely on the grounds that they were men. Obviously, this isn’t right and no one should be treated like that. This affected, if not fuelled, their stances and support for equality, to treat everyone equally regardless of gender.
I finished off the questionnaire with this: What does being a man mean to you?
A GOOD PERSON
As well as answers that included protecting and providing for the family, the vast majority (98% approx.) answered the same thing:
Being a good person.
Not only did it surprise me the amount of times receiving the same answer in its short, blunt state, it made me incredibly happy to read it. While I can’t remember word for word, I remember a few of the answers in particular, stating that what are considered masculine traits didn’t matter to them, in fact deconstructing them altogether.
One in particular said (paraphrased): ‘It’s not about gender, it’s about being a good human being.‘
I couldn’t agree more. Regardless of what you wear, or whether you’re a man, a woman, cis, trans, non-binary, etc. that’s what it comes down to: being a good person.
That, to me, is the pinnacle of what being a man is.
*Images – vogue.com