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Harry Styles & The Myth That 'Manly Men' Will Save This Country

Photo: Getty
Harry Styles wears a lacy black top, his tattoos showing through

The world is changing for the better. 

Yes, we have a long way to go and sometimes it feels like we take one step forward while taking two steps back, but as philosopher Theodore Parker said, the arc of the universe seems to curve toward justice. 

For proof, all you have to do is turn your TV to any major network and you'll see a wide variety of races, genders and sexualities represented on television shows and in advertising.

That may be why it was so jarring when Candace Owens attempted to shame Harry Styles for wearing a Gucci ball gown on the cover of Vogue's December issue. It felt like she'd stepped out of a time machine.

She shared his photo with the caption, "Bring back manly men" and Twitter erupted — on both sides. Shockingly, it seemed many people agreed with her.

A few days later, Styles shared another photo of himself, this time dressed in a crepey light blue suit with long, flowing sleeves. In the photo, he suggestively bites a banana.

His caption? "Bring back manly men." 

If you don't know her, Candace Owens is a right-wing pundit best known for pandering to the Fox News crowd.

She clearly tried to embarrass or shame Styles, but all it did was set him up for the perfect response. After all, the best way to handle a bully is to show just how unbothered you are by them.

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Styles has no reason to be bothered by anyone, really.

He's been famous since he was 16 years old, when he appeared on the UK version of X Factor and was placed into the band One Direction in 2010. He's adored by millions of fervent fans and has had two top-selling solo albums that were well-respected by music critics. 

He's also used to people questioning his sexuality, facing rumors that he is bi- or pan-sexual throughout his career. He's leaned into the ambiguity in recent years, at times dressing in feminine clothing and even writing a song, "Medicine", that many fans believe was his way of coming out as bisexual.

But Styles is far from the first pop star to embrace his feminine side and leave people guessing about his sexuality. 

David Bowie wore a dress for a photo shoot with the Daily Mirror in 1971 and often wore feminine clothing after that. Superstar pop and rock icon Prince pushed fashion toward the feminine when he wore frilly collared shirts and lace gloves in the 1980s (as well as lots and lots of purple and crop tops). 

Rapper Young Thug made headlines in 2016 for wearing a ruffled periwinkle dress in the cover art for his mixtape, No, My Name Is Jeffery. A detailed article in Complex Magazine explains the full story behind this dress, sharing that, "Trincone designed the dress with many of the same ideologies Thug believes in in mind [sic], specifically androgyny and identity unrestricted by gender."

Iggy Pop — "the godfather of punk" who is known to wear dresses — famously said, “I’m not ashamed to dress ‘like a woman’ because I don’t think it’s shameful to be a woman.”

And, of course, men from many cultures wear what we consider to be skirts or dresses (and have for centuries), and it's considered perfectly manly.

So what's the big deal with Harry Styles wearing a dress or filly sleeves? 

Is it simple homophobia or is there something deeper to what seems like a right-wing obsession with "manly men"?

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Coming out against the shift in gender norms is nothing new for conservatives.

They were, after all, against women's right to vote, their right to file for divorce, the right to make medical decisions for their own bodies, and the right to equal pay. 

They were even against women and girls wearing pants to school and work, and were angered by Mary Tyler Moore's capri pants on The Dick Van Dyke show. 

It is the nature of conservatives to be afraid of change and to fight against progress — even when progress seems inevitable. That's inherent to conservatism, and part of the draw of the position. 

All of the change surrounding marriage in this country, as well as the acceptance of lifestyles that do not reflect the traditional nuclear family, is scary to people who haven't known or loved someone who doesn't fit into the traditional model.

Candace Owens, as the foundation of her career, taps into that fear and exploits it.

While legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community in the USA are higher than ever, in some demographics, acceptance of queer folks on a personal level is on the decline.

Same-sex marriage is legal across the country, and 23 states have full or partial laws preventing employment discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. And yet one survey found an increasing number of young people who admit to being "uncomfortable" with LGBTQ+ folks in their lives. 

Until 2017, younger Americans had been the group most likely to accept queer folks in their lives, so this was a shocking discovery. 

Perhaps coinciding with the Trump administration and increased exposure to alt-right propagada via ads and auto-play videos on YouTube and social media, young people appear to share conservative and even Nazi-like ideals more than they have in decades. Hate crimes are on the rise, including those against the LGBTQ+ community.

So, while some say we should ignore Owens, there are real world consequences to reinforcing homophobia — even when people like her try to disguise their bigotry as being for "traditional family values". 

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As a progressive raised in a liberal family, attacks like this one by Owens are bizarre and fascinating. No part of me can fathom why anyone would care what someone else wears.

I just want to yell, "Stop being so delicate!" but I know there's something deeper happening here. It's not really about Harry Styles. 

Perhaps, on a deeper level, people like Owens believe that that "manly men" will save America. Owens is far from the first to imply this. She didn't even do it in a particularly unique way.

A month or so earlier, Gina Bontempo, who is Candace Owens's manager, tweeted that she used a Peloton bike in a hotel gym and stumbled upon a class by wildly popular instructor Cody Rigsby, known for his flamboyant personality, silly dances and casual "girl talk" on the bike. 

She shared a video of him dancing along with a caption that included, "What happened to men?"

Yes, it's bigoted. Yes, it's homophobic. And yes, it's outdated. But that's the point, I think. 

The critique of anything that's not considered "manly" seems to simply be what the Right does now, and it's dangerous. Not just to queer folks, gender non-conforming folks, and anyone who wants to do or be something that falls outside of our society's relatively strict gender binary, but to society as a whole. 

The traditional model of masculinity has been deadly for generations.

Despite the Right's nostalgia for the traditional family values, the true "nuclear family" only lasted for one generation. Before that, families looked all sorts of ways and were often multi-generational. Businesses were often family-owned and run by any member of the family who was old enough — including the women.

In families that owned or worked farms, everyone participated in chores, including women and girls. The strict divide of a husband that works and a wife who solely cares for children is a fabricated story. It is an American fable. 

After the heyday of the nuclear family, the kids who were raised in that model exploded it, skyrocketing the divorce rate to around 5 in 1000 in the late 1970s and 1980s (after which it declined, and continues to do so).

The nuclear family was a short-lived phenomenon, but it's a model that Candace Owens and other still long for, despite the fact that it's a lifestyle that would be nearly impossible to sustain in this economy.

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The problem isn't masculinity — it's prescriptive masculinity.

Prescriptive masculinity is a system wherein there is only one way to be the "right" kind of man. In the USA, that means you must be stoic and unemotional, heterosexual and tough. You must never need or ask for help, and you may never linger on the things that hurt you in the past.

This form of masculinity, often called "the man box", keeps men trapped within a rigid set of expectations that simply cannot work for all men and which forces them to shut down and repress their emotions. 

Traditional masculinity also requires that most men (depending upon their class) serve as tools for the economy, cogs in a machine. They are often expected to sacrifice relationships with their families, their health, their safety and even sometimes their lives for their jobs.

For the "manly men" that Candace Owens, Tomi Lahren, Gina Bontempo and others idealize, being a breadwinner is the goal, even if that goal is a set-up for failure.

After all, the so-called traditional family requires that a man must be able to make money to provide for his family without needing any help from his wife (who should be home caring for the children). 

Never mind the fact that this is nearly impossible in today's economy where most families require two incomes in order to survive. 

Society also tells men that they should be good dads, but prescriptive masculinity doesn't allow for them to be the primary caretaker for their children, even if their wife is the one with greater earning potential and even if he is the one who would rather be the primary parent at home.

Performing this type of masculinity is not healthy for most men.

Without the option to ask for help when they need it, men are left to deal with trauma, mental health issues or relationship challenges on their own — often by turning feelings of fear and vulnerability into anger or rage and/or turning to substances to self-medicate. 

In the United States, men are more likely to commit murder while also being more likely to be victims of murder. While substance abuse is also a serious health issue for women, men are more likely to become drug addicts, to be hospitalized due to overdose and to die due to their drug addiction.

On top of all that, men are more likely to end up in prison, more likely to become homeless, and more likely to die by suicide than women in our society.

These statistics are oversimplified (as health and crime stats often are), but the trends reflected here are very real.

There is nothing wrong with being a traditionally masculine, straight, cisgender man.

If a guy prefers jeans to dresses and wants to be traditional breadwinner for his family, that is great for him. For many men, conforming to the traditional expectations of men works well and feels natural — and that's wonderful for them. 

But reinforcing the traditional gender binary for others is ridiculous. It's ridiculous when tweeting about a pop superstar, it's ridiculous when raising children, and it's ridiculous to try to enforce in schools and workplaces. 

There are many different ways to be a good man, and masculinity comes in as many varieties as there are people who identify as masculine.

In truth, being "manly" simply means being "like a man" and once we let go of our need to keep masculinity in such a strict, confined space, manliness can look all sorts of ways. 

You can be a guy who wears dresses and still have millions of women adore you, or you can be a guy who wears dresses and doesn't care if any women adore you at all. You can be Prince or Billy Porter or David Bowie or even Elliot Page and still fit squarely within the definition of "manly man".  

That's because all sorts of men are good. Masculinity itself is good and beautiful, in all its forms — as long as its never used to harm or oppress others.

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Joanna Schroeder is a feminist writer and media critic with a degree in gender studies from UCLA. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Time, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, BuzzFeed, Esquire, Vox, and more. Follow her on Twitter for more.