By Anna Holshouser-Belden
Singer, songwriter, actor, fashionista, One Direction member, contestant on the X factor, “king of pop,” movie star, makeup-line creator, center of controversy, alleged queerbaiter, tweenage wet-dream, guy my mom calls “Henry Whatshisface;” Harry Styles is a household name whether we like it or not. He’s graced coffee tables, dentists’ offices, and CVS aisles across the world on the covers of many a Vogue or People magazine, packed Madison Square Garden three nights in a row, and worn so many scarves we’ve lost count. In recent months, the beloved pop star has come under siege for his role in the movie that practically broke twitter—Don’t Worry Darling–directed by his latest flame, Olivia Wilde. I’m sure I don’t have to go into depth here, anyone with access to Google can at this point recount the entire story off the top of their heads. Maybe it seems obvious to me that a teenage pop star wouldn’t translate well into a serious movie set on track for the Oscars, maybe that’s just one person’s opinion. I digress, however, the Don’t Worry Darling drama is not what I want to talk about when it comes to Mister Styles—if you’re so inclined, it’s playing at just about every theater in the United States. What I’ve picked up my metaphorical pen to discuss today is Harry Styles’ role in setting the male beauty standard.
Western society has, for many centuries now, valued the strong, the stoic, and the unemotional in masculine public figures. The Oxford English Dictionary defines masculinity as “qualities or attributes regarded as characteristics of men” and provides the example sentence: “handsome, muscled and driven, he’s a prime example of masculinity.” The first synonym to come up for masculinity if you Google the term is virility, defined as “the quality of having strength, energy, and a strong sex drive; manliness.” There are a set of bodily and emotional rules that cisgender men are expected to follow in order to live up to this harsh masculine standard, differing of course across cultures and generations. We unfortunately are still ruled, in many aspects of our lives, by a strict gender binary, with masculine and feminine as two opposing poles and anyone in the middle of this vast spectrum seen as lesser than by those closer to the outside. Men who are seen as more “feminine” are often publicly criticized, and Harry Styles has become a figure of much debate surrounding gender identity. My question is whether or not all this attention is deserved.
In December 2019, Styles broke tradition and the internet by being the first man to appear on the cover of Vogue magazine. It wasn’t the mere appearance of a man on the cover of Vogue that took the world by storm, it was the fact that under his suit jacket he wore an extravagant lacy blue-and-black Victorian number; a Gucci dress complete with bustle and train. Styles’ fashion choice was met by positive and negative remarks and everyone’s twitter feed turned into a lengthy criticism piece as soon as the magazine was released. His fan base, which can only be described as rabid, echoed their deafening praises which ranged from sweet comments to borderline erotica. Negative comments came from many sides, with some scoffing at a cisgender man choosing to wear a dress and others scoffing at this particular cisgender man’s choice to make a statement about gender on the cover of Vogue, or Vogue’s choice to let him.
Billy Porter, well-renowned queer icon, activist, and star of the TV show Pose detailing the ballroom scene in 1980s New York, spoke out against the Vogue cover. According to a 2020 CNN Style piece by journalist Leah Dolan, Porter criticized the ease with which the fashion industry accepted Styles’ stint into femininity, and the choice to employ a white, cis, straight man to make a statement on gender. Porter lamented on his difficulties building a successful acting career as a black openly-gay man and the hoops he had to jump through in order to dress how he wanted–decked to the nines in jewels, skirts, makeup, and the occasional tassled hat–on the red carpet without being pushed to the sidelines. “All he has to do is be straight and white,” Porter claimed, explaining that for him feminine dress isn’t a trend but politics, an identity he can’t toss to the side when it goes out of style. He says that Styles is only partaking because it's “the thing to do.” Porter has a point–Harry Styles is a conventionally attractive straight, cis, white man–why would he be setting the standards for anyone but others of the same categories? As someone who embodies male beauty standards perfectly in all areas but clothing choices, Styles certainly isn’t speaking for the underdogs.
The point that Styles isn’t doing anything remotely new or groundbreaking with his fashion choices hasn’t just been made by Billy Porter, many argued that the praise he gained for being the “first” man to publicly wear a dress is undeserved. Countless celebrities (Prince, Elvis, Freddie Mercury, Bowie, Boy George, Jaden Smith, even Vin Diesel and Kanye) have worn skirts and dresses in public, some of which did so before Styles was even born. The argument that he could be the first man in a dress is a bit laughable to anyone who knows their pop culture. However, the Vogue cover was so widely celebrated that an array of public appearances in feminine clothing followed in quick succession, including but not limited to: a spread in Dazed magazine, a “Harryween” Halloween show where he dressed as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, a night on SNL dressed as a ballerina, the infamous Grammy’s lime-green blazer and purple boa, Coachella, the Met Gala(s), and countless tour performances. An abrupt shift from his boho-beanie boyband One Direction-era looks and even the beginning of his solo career, which was marked by crisp suits and slicked back hair, it’s hard to tell whether Styles’ shift into the more feminine is a genuine realization of a more fluid identity or an expensive publicity stunt.
Either way, Styles has had quite the impact on young men. In the last few years, a trend has arisen, mainly on Tik Tok (yeah, I’m talking #femmeboyfriday), in the wake of Styles’ multiplying appearances in feminine clothing, of straight, relatively masculine boys sporting skirts, makeup, jewelry, and copious amounts of rings. Pearl necklaces and schoolgirl plaids were a favorite of the for you page, with teen girls absolutely losing their shit over straight white boys with the same haircut. Youtube compilations of boys going from ultra-masculine to miniskirts have millions of views, and headlines like “#Femmeboyfriday is Changing the Men’s Fashion Game” or “Are Male Skirts About to be the Next Fashion Essential?” or “Men are Shopping for Skirts. Is the World Ready?” The thing about this trend that I can’t quite wrap my brain around is the fact that the “femmeboys” and the “men” referred to here are straight, cis, and usually white. Queer and gender non-conforming men don’t have to get hip to wearing feminine clothes, they’ve been doing it for years. The idea of gender fluidity as a trend that will inevitably be commercialized and monetized for big brands also generally gives me a gross feeling in the pit of my stomach.
It’s interesting to consider Styles’ fashion choices in light of some of his more recent commentary. Styles has been quite the movie star recently, not only did he star in Don’t Worry Darling but also in My Policeman, the story of a British cop who cheats on his wife with a (male) museum curator in 1950s Britain. Set to come out on the 21st, I’ve heard this movie described–quite aptly if you ask me–as a British Brokeback Mountain. The choice of Styles as the lead is an interesting one, especially coming from a movie with a gay director, gay screenwriter, and two gay co-stars (maybe they knows something we don’t); you’d think that in 2022 white gays with floppy brown hair would be a dime a dozen. An article in The Guardian by Guy Lodge outlines an unfortunate interview with Styles about the film in which he is questioned explicitly about his sexuality, and responds with: “Sometimes people say, ‘You’ve only publicly been with women,’ and I don’t think I’ve publicly been with anyone,” a statement both cryptic and contradictory, considering he is in a very public relationship with Olivia Wilde at the moment. While I give him the benefit of the doubt for that one–I don’t think anyone should have to be confronted with a straightforward question about their sexual orientation so publicly–his next comment I can’t exactly get behind. When explaining the film’s objective, Styles comments “It’s not like ‘This is a gay story about these guys being gay,’ [it’s a] very human story,” as if gayness and humanity are not at all mutually exclusive. Styles fumbles further with the statement, “So much of gay sex in film is two guys going at it, and it kind of removes the tenderness from it,” another confusing point as gay sex is barely ever depicted in mainstream film, and when it is, the most graphic it gets is the closing of the tent flaps as an allusion that the two cowboys inside are doing more than baking beans. The second comment in particular blew up on Twitter, where people once again found themselves questioning why a presumably straight, cis public figure was being looked at as a spokesperson for the queer community.
My Policeman discourse and all, do we have the right to make so many assumptions about Harry Styles? His biggest critics (myself included) have been so up in arms about why he’s getting so much coverage, whether he’s dressing to get attention, whether he’s queerbaiting or not, isn’t there someone more qualified to be put in the spotlight. There’s a lot of discussion that as a straight man, Styles shouldn’t be wearing a dress on or off the cover of Vogue for the sake of not appropriating queer culture. Him and his legions of Tik Tok boys should change back into slacks and button-downs and ditch the pearl necklaces and dangly earrings. I’ve personally come to the point where, recently, as much of a staunch Harry-Styles-hater I am, I think the guy should be able to wear clothing without the entire world discussing it. Who are we to say that he’s not queer enough, its not impossible that he could be. What I take issue with is that we always have to be talking about it, how whenever Styles drops a new photoshoot or magazine spread it's impossible to escape without flushing all technology down the toilet. In my opinion, we should stop talking about Harry Styles entirely, and let him go back to doing whatever he was doing before he put on that Gucci dress, making music, being a heartthrob for an entire generation, etc. The irony is not lost on me that I am not heeding my own advice–writing an article about a man I think we should stop discussing, but I wanted to get my thoughts down because this conversation is going to keep cycling around and around through public consciousness, like a merry-go-round no one can get off of no matter how hard they try. One day, hopefully, we can stop using the same poor man for our gender in pop culture discourse and move on to the next victim.