Artists Blurring the Lines of Femininity and Masculinity


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Clockwise from top left: Prince via 1999, Harry Styles via Vogue Instagram, David Bowie via iHeartRadio, Janelle Monáe via Wikipedia

The Vogue December 2020 cover story features Harry Styles—the first solo man to be on the magazine’s cover—with a personal interview and photoshoot. The article dives into his time throughout quarantine, music and acting career, fashion inspiration and have a video of the photoshoot with an acoustic cover of his song “Cherry,” all with the aura of a summer haze. Throughout the story, the photos have Styles wearing stunning outfits from Gucci, Marni, Comme des Garçons and more. These outfits include kilted skirts, long coats, a Victorian crinoline and on the cover, a baby blue dress.

These photos alone stirred up all kinds of outrageous backlash and evidence of a patriarchal mindset, including Erik Erickson tweeting, “Biden gets elected by promising a return to normal. Then the left goes all-in on men in dresses” and Candace Owens retweeting the Vogue story with the response, “There is no society that can survive without strong men… Bring back manly men.” 

Many came out to defend and support Styles, including his mom agreeing that people should wear whatever they like and Pete Buttigiege’s husband tweeting, “Honestly, what can you wear these days? Oh yeah. That’s right. Anything you damn well please.” Olivia Wilde stated, “I hope that this brand of confidence as a male that Harry has—truly devoid of any traces of toxic masculinity—is indicative of his generation and therefore the future of the world.”

As a response to the criticism he received for the photoshoot, I wanted to take some time to honor and admire him and other music icons that defied conventional gender roles; laying the groundwork for men being in touch with their feminine side in the modern age, existing outside of labels. 

One of Styles’ creative inspirations is David Bowie, as he notes in the piece, which fits with Bowie’s vast impact on gender presentation. He personified characters in performance and life, such as the androgynous and vibrant Ziggy Stardust. Bowie inspired and continues to inspire generations of young LGBTQ people and beyond. Neo-Soul dance icon Prince has a legacy of rebelling against the rising masculinity of the 80s, embodying non-conforming clothes, eyeliner and the color purple. He eventually transcended all boundaries by replacing his name with the Love Symbol: a combination of the male and female insignias. The stars continue with Kurt Cobain performing in a dress (recreated by Post Malone), Freddie Mercury, Elton John and Jimi Hendrix on stage in vibrant and gender-defying costumes and Marc Bolan challenging norms in high heels and makeup.

The remarkable opposition of gender roles in the music industry is prevalent with women as well. Lady Gaga took on a male alter-ego named Jo Calderone, appearing in Vogue and the 2011 MTV Awards, embodying what it means to go above labels. Janelle Monae has performed and gone to awards in a tuxedo. She stated, “I’m a uniter. I won’t allow myself to be a slave to my own interpretation of myself nor the interpretations that people may have of me.” Two of her heroes are–accordingly–Prince and David Bowie. Grace Jones had a profound influence with her androgynous style. These artists did not let the labels of male or female, straight or gay, define who they were; rather, they exemplified the idea of being yourself, a notion that everyone can learn from.

Whether it be wearing an eloquent gown on the cover of Vogue or simply painting your nails, these gestures are steps toward a more inclusive and kinder world. Empowering both men and women by redefining gender stereotypes, putting an end to toxic masculinity and giving the space to explore and express one’s rich identity. As the quote from Styles on the issue’s cover says, “Anytime you’re putting barriers up in your life, you’re limiting yourself.”