There is something undeniably charming, charismatic, and inviting about Harry Styles that is outside of his “handsome-prince hair” and good looks. His playfulness with gender norms, sexuality, and masculinity has an air of authenticity that softly and calmly challenges toxic masculinity within and outside of the Western entertainment industry.
Harry Styles spurred conversations with his 2019 Met Gala outfit and his recent 2020 Vogue U.S. December cover. In the former, he wore a sheer black Gucci blouse, heels, and a single pearl earring. In the latter, he wore a frilly gown and a black jacket. While both these outfits should be screaming boldness and rebelliousness, they portray a sense of kindness and comfortability.
Styles isn’t the first celebrity or music star to challenge gender norms. Mick Jagger wore a white cotton dress for the Rolling Stones concert in 1969. The Beatles and Gerry & the Pacemakers were all known to have long hair and wear paisley blouses. The difference, though, was that their masculinity was never questioned, even if their fashion choices were. With Harry Styles, because of the authenticity he exudes, his presence is more ambiguous and innocent, creating a true and honest exhibit of the complexities of gender.
Sociologists have written about how there is almost a coming “apocalypse of old school masculinity” where the “hegemonic masculinity” (i.e., rigid patriarchal and toxic norms for masculinity and gender) no longer make sense in a post-industrial world where women are more involved in social and economic sectors. This has led stubborn upholders of old-school masculinity to believe any display of androgynous behaviour is a threat to Western civilization. One woman tweeted, “the steady feminization of our men at the same time as Marxism is being taught to our children,” while many men have been calling to “bring back manly men!”
Studies have shown that “men’s career trajectories can depend on how well they fit gendered preconceptions” and that “men are disliked, distrusted, and passed over when they exhibit qualities stereotypically assigned to women.” Participants of the study have said that “alpha male types” who “goof off” are selfish and cocky, and those who “use denigrating terms for women and junior staffers” usually advance faster and are trusted more in leadership roles. But, this career advancement is attributed only to the appearance of such masculinity rather than the actuality of the men embodying them.
Janine Bosak, who conducted one such study in Ireland, stated that usually in the Western world, “we ascribe more agentic qualities to men, such as being confident, assertive, and competitive, and more communal qualities to women, such as being sympathetic and caring.” In some studies, men found it “emasculating” to ask for help because they are assumed to be confident. Similarly, they expressed that by changing their opinions after considering different viewpoints, they are seen as “untrustworthy.” Other studies have found that “proving ‘manhood’ is even more exhausting and anxiety-inducing than demonstrating ‘femininity.’”
The distrust of femininity is so ingrained that the forced performance of masculinity is detrimental to the mental health of men and contributes to the perpetuation of toxic masculinity in everyday life. The patriarchy defined what it means to be a man and a woman. A man is someone who must provide, and a woman is someone who cares. Men and women police their own genders by demonstrating appropriate traits and shun those that don’t. And so, a toxic culture of demanding adherence to rigid gendered norms, regardless of social and political shifts, is poisonous to both men and women.
The reason why many people consider this “implosion of masculinity” as a threat to Western civilization is that although patriarchal gender stereotypes are universal, they are displayed and perceived differently in different parts of the world. For example, cooperation, which is typically attributed to women as a communal quality in the West, is masculine in East Asian nations like China and Korea. Moreover, assertiveness, which is attributed to as a male quality in the West, is more common among women in Peru. Harry Styles, and the rise of acceptance and openness of exploring gender, isn’t a move to demolish gender or ruin Western civilization. Rather, it is a progression towards honesty and authenticity of the self, irrespective of gender. In our society, where we see the detrimental effects of toxic masculinity, both on the mental health of men and on the lived experiences of women, the openness to explore genderless qualities is critical to paving the way for a more equal and humane society.