I loved Harry Styles, you know that? Before the devastation of December, I loved him. But, simply put, the gender bending wardrobe is not edgy or artistic. He looks ridiculous. And he’s not breaking any new ground––David Bowie did this decades before he was even conceived.
And I’ll accept my Oscar now. Those biting remarks are actually the New Year’s Eve musings of Raymond Arroyo, a Fox News anchor, on What to Avoid in 2021. As he chastises the imaginary Harry Styles before him, a square next to his head pans over the infamous magazine cover that incited a cultural battle across the world: the December 2020 issue of Vogue, starring Harry in a dress.
On one account, Arroyo is right––Harry’s choice to wear a dress is not a new statement at all. Pioneers like David Bowie, Prince, and Freddie Mercury had already ushered gender non-conformity into the public consciousness decades ago. Furthermore, the music scene has been engulfed in an unprecedented wave of gender non-conformist fashion. Most notable is the growing ubiquity of feminine clothing among hip-hop artists, who occupy a genre traditionally dominated by hypermasculinity. Kanye West, for example, wore a leather skirt while performing at Madison Square Garden for his 2011 concert tour. Lil Uzi Vert frequently carries a purse. Young Thug donned a powder-blue gown for the album cover of his 2016 mixtape, “JEFFERY.” To be sure, each of them faced sharp criticism from the internet for doing so; but none raised much more attention beyond that of a few minor tabloids. They certainly did not endure the kind of public backlash as severe as Harry Styles has.
A question is born: what about Harry Styles’ photoshoot was so different from all the other instances of men wearing feminine clothes that this time, Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens felt compelled to speak on it? That Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez––an actual politician––responded to it? That every major news outlet––CNN, Fox News, NBC, ABC, and more––has reported on it?
To answer this question, we first need to understand the current narrative about gender that this controversy identifies. Consider what happens when a woman wears pants. Chances are, nothing comes to mind––it’s the 21st century, for crying out loud! We can all agree that it’s normal for women to wear pants. If she were to cut her hair short––or even shave it bald––no one would be disturbed. Sure, she might receive some unflattering comments, but then again, we all have haters.
Now look at the response to Harry:
There is no society that can survive without strong men. The East knows this. 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.— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) November 14, 2020
It is an outright attack.
Bring back manly men. https://t.co/sY4IJF7VkK
This is perfectly obvious. Anyone who pretends that it is not a referendum on masculinity for men to don floofy dresses is treating you as a full-on idiot. https://t.co/cioUNBh4bi— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) November 16, 2020
Notice the language they use: “the steady feminization of our men,” “bring back manly men,” “referendum on masculinity for men,” “feminize masculinity,” and––most telling of all––“it is an outright attack.” Femininity is entirely undesirable in men, while in the same breath, society unanimously agrees that traditionally masculine behavior in women is normal, occasionally desirable (think: the Strong, Independent Woman™ as the modern ideal). This contradiction implies that femininity is generally less desirable than masculinity––in other words, femininity is still held as inferior to masculinity.
I’m sure my assertion raises a few eyebrows, particularly from the male, centrist, middle-class type. To an extent, I get where the huffs and the eyerolls are coming from. It’s a loaded statement, suggesting that gender equality is a revolution barely begun. Yet how can that be, when Title IX made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sex, and women consistently earn more degrees than men, and women are so empowered that #KillAllMen began trending in 2013? These advancements seem to humiliate the claim that society values femininity less than masculinity.
Nonetheless, the perceived inferiority of femininity pervades multiple sectors of society. Just look at our children. In one study, researchers showed participants aged 6-8 and 11-12 pictures of people performing various occupations. Some jobs were impossibly obscure (like “higgler”); several were altogether made-up. Importantly, the older children judged the jobs portrayed by men to be higher in status than the same exact jobs portrayed by women.
Similar trends exist in children’s conceptions of power. When shown two grey blobs, French children assigned dominance to males and subordination to females. This kind of male-power association emerged among both Norweigian and Lebanese children as well, despite the cultural differences between the two groups. Interestingly, girls draw these male-power associations even though they believe themselves to be dominant in their personal daily life. The contradiction between girls’ perception of their gender category and their appraisal of the self suggests that their view of male dominance stems from an imposed cultural norm. If a country as gender egalitarian in their politics as Norway still remains in a lived reality where males unequivocally dominate over females, then it’s not a stretch to posit that the same reality applies to the United States.
Most relevant to the Harry Styles debate, a third study demonstrated that children judged boys with feminine hairstyles or clothing the most harshly out of all gender norm violations, including girls with masculine hairstyles or clothing. Indeed, children evaluated appearance-related gender violations of boys to be as contemptible as stealing. These findings strongly suggest that children, at the very least, assign more desirable traits to masculinity than they do to femininity. I see two possibilities: either these children have been conditioned by a deeply misogynistic society; or these children will mature into adults who then form a deeply misogynistic society. Both are likely to be true.
Yet this narrative alone merely describes the status quo; it does not generate any cultural tension. Instead, the ferocious controversy arises from a clash between the status quo and an opposing narrative suggested by Vogue’s feature of Harry in a dress. Paula England, a sociologist professor at Stanford, characterizes American society as the product of two forces: individualism, which emphasizes values like the right to self-determination, and gender essentialism, the belief that men and women are diametrically opposite and inherently different. Consequently, the kind of gender egalitarianism that has gained traction is one where women break gender barriers only if it leads to upward mobility. Women (and men) remain otherwise loyal to their prescribed gender norms. Though gender essentialism may not inevitably lead to misogyny, gender essentialism in its current form rests on a patriarchal bedrock; irrespective of all the ways gender essentialism could have played out, gender essentialism has played out in such a way where it is inextricably married to pervading misogyny.
Misogyny doesn’t remain in the abstract either; it manifests in areas as tangible as economics. According to the Comparable Worth Doctrine, the sex composition of a particular occupation results in a lower median wage for that occupation––or, put simply, MWLM: More Women Less Money. The framework posits that employers, due to beliefs about female incompetence (subconscious or otherwise), appraise work done by women as less valuable than the same type of work done by men, and therefore set lower wage levels for female-dominated occupations.
Researchers from Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania used census data from 1950 to 2000 to investigate the Comparable Worth Doctrine. During this time period, the percent composition of females grew dramatically across most occupations [x], a trend that the researchers termed “occupational feminization.” The researchers reasoned that if occupational feminization preceded changes in median wage, then the data reveals a causal relationship between sex composition and valuation of the work performed.
That is exactly what they found. Even after controlling for experience and educational requirements, the data continued to show that the proportion of females working in an occupation negatively affected its future median wage. The researchers found no evidence of this devaluation effect waning over time; if anything, it increased during the 80s. Moreover, researchers found almost no evidence for the reverse––that is, a change in wage did not lead to occupational feminization.
Over the last several months, COVID has pushed so many women out of the workforce that analysts say this exodus will set women back by years. Mothers are now three times more likely than fathers to be responsible for housework and caregiving, and 1.5 times more likely to spend an additional three or more hours per day on it. I’m sure that if you ask, many women will tell you that they “chose” to quit their job. Often, we leave the line of inquiry there––as long as it’s their free-will, then it can’t be problematic, right? What we tend to overlook are the contextual forces shaping these “choices.” By cancelling in-person school, COVID has demanded that at least one parent stay home to supervise and educate the children. For heterosexual couples, it simply makes more financial sense for the man to keep his job because the woman, as outlined by the Comparable Worth Doctrine, tends to work in jobs that pay less. Add in the existing gender norm designating caretaking to women, and it’s no wonder so many women “choose” to step back from their careers. They were never in a fair position to start; they were inclined to choose family over career, even if their career brings them more meaning.
Gender essentialism hurts men, too. Those who find more meaning in domestic life, for example, are obliged to choose their career over their family by the same forces that restrain women. Gender essentialism leads to circumstantial pressures that create unequal opportunity to pursue certain paths––for everyone. Now, whether or not self-actualization should be the ultimate good is another discussion altogether; but insofar as self-actualization does operate as such, as is the case in our individualistic American society, then gender essentialism can no longer be accepted as an ideology compatible with justice.
So what is the opposing narrative suggested by Vogue? That the sun has set on gender essentialism. Vogue’s feature of Harry in a dress marks the beginning of a new society, one where gender is no longer defined by the binary of masculine and feminine. Although they both achieve the same outcome, the two possible key actors pushing forth this new narrative––Harry Styles and Vogue magazine––operate along different mechanisms.
On the one hand, Harry Styles is your everyday boy-next-door. He has no strange story, unusual background, or unique personality. He rose to fame in a way that anyone could––anyone brave enough to face the searing scrutiny of Simon Cowell, at least. Even the niche that he inhabited for most of his career as the singer of a heartthrob teenage boy band epitomizes the mainstream.
This was not the case with pop culture icons like David Bowie or Prince or Freddie Mercury: they were larger-than-life. Much of their fame stems from the fact that there will never be another like them. They were performers; their clothes were merely a costume. People had the reassurance that these figures were bright and loud and ground-breaking precisely because they were “abnormal.”
Rappers also adapt a persona to channel their creativity and define their brand, creating the same performative aura that makes their feminine fashion choices more palatable to the general public. Moreover, hip-hop appeals to a more specific audience than pop music does. The sheer difference in number between Harry Styles’ monthly listeners (39,576,480 as of January 2021) versus Kanye West (32,678,039), Lil Uzi Vert (19,733,338), and Young Thug (27,488,970) suggests that there are simply more people who pay attention to Harry.
Critics find this the most jarring: a man as typical yet famous as Harry Styles has embraced outward displays of femininity. The spotlight broadcasts his lifestyle choices while his relatability invites the general public to imitate, or at least consider, those choices. Harry is normalizing the violation of traditional gender practices.
On the other hand, the censure received by Harry may have less to do with Harry himself and more to do with Vogue. Vogue, after all, is the Monarch of the Fashion World; like any other monarch, the sentiments it expresses will echo throughout all sectors of society. With its December 2020 issue, Vogue has decreed it acceptable––or, like Harry, perhaps even normal––for men to wear dresses. In a cultural landscape where femininity is inferior to masculinity, men who adapt femininity into their everyday identity are radicals. To see an authoritative body become revolutionary is terrifying to the reactionary public, the majority of whom still hold a worldview scaffolded by gender essentialism, because it indicates that the “revolutionary” thought is no longer revolutionary at all.
Some, like dear Candace and Ben, declare these changes to be an attack on masculinity. For their narrative to hold, the underlying assumption is that masculinity and femininity operate on a zero-sum basis––in other words, that any movement towards one gender essence must come at the cost of the other. This is a critical fallacy, one that any model based on gender essentialism contains, including the current Western liberal understanding of gender as a linear spectrum. However, non-Western constructs of gender circumvent this dilemma. Many Indigenous cultures, for example, speak of gender in terms of a masculine and feminine spirit. The term “two-spirit” refers to individuals who consider themselves to be blessed with both; accordingly, it can encompass sexual, gender, and spiritual identities. Such individuals are frequently considered a third gender, separate from men and women alike. Under this model, where one’s degree of masculinity is unaffected by one’s degree of femininity, men who embrace femininity can do so without giving up any of their masculinity. Harry’s choice to wear a dress need not be considered an “attack” anymore.
People balk at the thought of occupying a generation where gender might undergo fundamental conceptual changes, as it upends their self-understanding and forces them to re-calibrate their place in the world. Their individuality, so much of which hinges on gender, feels jeopardized. What they don’t realize is that their individuality is already jeopardized––chronically so, in fact––by gender essentialism. Far from being a threat, liberation from the view that masculinity and femininity are diametrically opposed finally allows everyone to be whoever they want to be. It finally achieves the individuality we only assume we have today.
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