After the English singer/songwriter Harry Styles broke history as the first man on the cover of Vogue, and did it in a dress, the far right in America regarded it as an attack on traditional masculinity.
Candace Owens, in a now viral Twitter response, said that “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. It is an outright attack.” Owen’s statements sparked a national debate about gender roles, masculinity, and, yes, men in dresses. Most recently, Styles even commented on these remarks – posting to Instagram with the caption “Bring back manly men.”
Critics argue that the left wants to “feminize our men” and there is no society that can survive without them; making the case that it is unnatural for men to wear dresses or even act feminine. But, at the end of the day – they’re all wrong: there is no such thing as “masculinity” or “femininity” in the first place.
When most right-wingers mention masculinity, they usually mean American masculinity: dominance, a lack of emotion, ego oriented, emphasis on religion, and traditional family structures. But, they also seem to conveniently forget the multiple cultures today in which men don’t conform to their idea of “masculinity” and hold men to such constricting ideals of manhood. In many parts of the East, which Owens seemed to point to as a pillar of masculinity, American conceptions of masculinity are not the norm. In India, for example, many men wear Kurtas – long garments – which would be considered dresses in America. It is even common for men in India to show emotion and hold hands with male friends while walking together. In South Korea, it is common, even expected, for men to wear makeup while in different social situations. And, in Japan, men traditionally wore kimonos – a choice of clothing which would also mirror a dress in America. Beyond the East, though, there are still many other cultures which do not treat masculinity the same way as America’s constricted sense of what a man “should be.” Nordic countries, for example, have little separation between male and female gender roles – emphasizing the responsibility of both men and women to be modest, tender, and concerned with quality of life.
Just a few hundred years ago, our understanding of masculinity would be completely different from what was practiced. In both Britain and America, before the nineteenth century, men in high positions of power would wear large wigs, makeup, and heels – adorned by flowing and extravagant clothing choices diametrically opposed to what people like Candace Owens seem to believe is “normal.” Even George Washington, according to the logic of those opposed to the Vogue cover, was somehow wrong to wear what he did. The bigger point is this: the very idea of what it means to be “strong”, in relation to being a man, is one that is fluid and socially constructed – with no universal continuity.
Beyond that, though, the argument that men wearing dresses is somehow unethical or even “perverted” is ignorant at best and harmful at worst. There are many cultures today in which men wearing dresses is more than acceptable, and can even be considered the norm. In addition, throughout history, there have been countless societies that flip our ideas of gender and sexuality out of the window. PBS even has an interactive map showing the hundreds of gender – diverse cultures that have existed in the past and to this day, carrying with them ideas of gender expression and identity that allow for fluidity. To argue that a piece of fabric on someone’s body can be considered wrong is as logical as arguing that a certain favorite color is immoral. More than that, it demonizes entire cultures and furthers the idea that America is somehow superior and more knowledgeable than all other peoples and customs.
All in all, the idea that a man in a dress is somehow “wrong” is completely unfounded in any sense of logic. However, it shows the way American gender roles have come to control all aspects of life. People’s expression, emotion, interests, speech patterns, clothing choices, hair styles – every aspect of existence in America is policed by what we have, in the last two hundred years, constructed as “normal” for a man or woman. But, isn’t America supposed to be the freest nation on Earth? If a man can’t wear a dress, what can he do? America must work towards a reality without strict gender roles – where we allow people to exist as themselves. This includes a man in a dress who wears makeup and works in fashion as much as it includes a man with a business suit who works in finance and enjoys football. So, no, the world doesn’t need more manly men – there is no such thing as “manly.”
Jacob is a student at Viera High School who is an advocate for queer rights in his county. You can keep up with his work on instagram @jacobgelman.