Harry Styles on the Cover of Vogue Sparks Discussion About ‘New’ Masculinity

Harry Styles on the Cover of Vogue Sparks Discussion About ‘New’ Masculinity

British musician Harry Styles was on the December cover of fashion magazine Vogue and this was significant for two reasons. First, throughout the long history of the magazine spanning about 127 years, he was the first man to grace the prestigious fashion magazine cover solo. The second reason was that Styles was wearing a dress; and by that I mean an all-out ball gown.

The picture, as most things of a boundary-pushing progressive nature, sparked quite the debate on social media after the release of the Vogue issue. On one side were the people who hailed Harry as a hero, secure in his masculinity and doing great work in smashing stereotypes. On the other side were those who said Vogue and Harry Styles were determined to destroy masculinity and along with it, modern culture and civilization.

Naturally, this had gone beyond just Harry Styles, his picture, or Vogue and their editorial decisions. It has gone to the very issue of what masculinity is supposed to look like. Masculinity is one of those words whose meaning is imbued and decided by time and society, like the word ‘cool’. To backtrack a bit, the term ‘masculinity’ is clearly derived from the word masculine which is defined as; “of, relating to, or suited to men or boys; having qualities appropriate to or usually associated with a man”.

For most of history, masculinity has been associated with strength both emotional and physical, ruggedity and a devil-may-care attitude. While I do not want to step into the social and biological minefield of what is sex and gender, I believe it is safe to say that a lot of these qualities attributed to males and masculinity are influenced and dictated by biology and physiology. Society did the rest.

This has often informed the choice of fashion, play and even profession for men. In recent times though, a faction of society has come to question this idea of masculinity particularly in light of its alleged harmful effects on women and societies. They say this idea is responsible for a lot of the problems humanity has faced; because the world for the most part, we are constantly told, has been driven by men and their egos. This aspect of masculinity has been termed ‘toxic masculinity’ and it was labelled so because, according to the proponents, by dictating that men must be strong, have no feelings, and dominate women, the ideals of traditional masculinity have resulted in men missing out on aspects of life that should be available to all people, regardless of gender; such as emotional connection and nurturing. It is against this background that Harry Styles, the supposed hero of the new masculinity wore his dress.

Now I agree that masculinity is a concept each man will have to define for himself because it won’t mean anything to you if you don’t want it to. Regardless of this though, I also think it’s hypocritical for us to act like this is normal for men to wear ball gown dresses. If it were, Vogue wouldn’t have dressed and photographed Styles this way in the first place. So what was the expectation here really? Was everyone supposed to see it and not bat an eyelid? Were we all supposed to act like it is the most usual of things, a world renowned celebrity in a ballgown on the cover of one of the most well-read fashion magazines in the world? Are we supposed to accept this as the new normal or the new face of masculinity because Vogue claims it so?

The problem here is not necessarily rooted in the concept of masculinity in itself. Rather, it is the portrayal of masculinity; image over substance. I think this is another symptom of how obsessed people are with images over substance on both sides of the ideological divides. No matter how sensitive or “non-toxic” Harry Styles may be, it is not enough until he wears a dress. And on the other side, it does not matter how masculine Harry Styles may be, once he wears a dress, all in the name of masculinity is destroyed. So, while some people may say that this portrayal was about individual freedom and identity, it really is –as with most other things in this day and age– all about politics and statements.

Go a little deeper and you might discover like I did that this debate over the confidence of a man in a ball gown is once again an American issue bothering on the political. As is common practice, Western nations have begun to project their first-world problems which in this case relates to the definition of masculinity and the controversy surrounding it onto the rest of the world. Let me explain. In Asia, people would not doubt the masculinity of South Korean singer and songwriter Choi Min-ho because he does not have a beard. I do not drive a Ford pickup with large rims and I can assure you that I do not doubt my masculinity.

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The Western reality is much different from mine for instance because in the West, much of society has satisfied the more basic needs in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And I am happy for them, really. This seems to be why at every turn, there is a raging ideological battle over things that for many of us, shouldn’t in reality be problems.

I do not think that Harry Styles is any less of a man because he wore a dress for a photoshoot any more than I think that he is more of a man because he has tattoos all over his body. But above all, the honest truth is I really don’t care because without those infernal Tik Tok videos, I probably wouldn’t know any of his music. Let’s be honest, the fate of the world does not depend on what Harry Styles or anyone else decides to wear. The vast majority of the world does not have the time or inclination for this kind of debate.

But as far as this move geared towards the eradication of masculinity goes, here’s the truth that nobody wants to admit: the problem we need to address isn’t masculinity. It is rather, the toxic aspects of these ideals. And I say this because at the moment, this is shaping up to be a wholesale war against masculinity. Now ‘non-toxic’ masculinity for one is a concept most of us (especially women) advocate for even though we aren’t entirely sure what it should look like and are also reluctant to admit our uncertainties out aloud. Women have been on the receiving end of toxic masculinity for very many years and as much as this has been most unfair, redefining non-toxic masculinity as ‘feminized masculinity’ is not the sustainable solution some would have the rest of us believe.


We have the window right now to redefine what ‘non-toxic’ masculinity is and the sooner we realize that putting more men in dresses isn’t this, the better for us all. I mean there is no question that today more parents encourage their sons to be sensitive to the needs of others, emotional, helpful, and non-aggressive. At the same time, they are encouraging their daughters to defend their beliefs, be self-reliant and take pride in femininity.

Men and women are complimentary, the weaknesses of each compensated for by the strengths of the other. Having fewer limitations on what men and women “should” and “shouldn’t” do is a win for everyone. Still, like women all over the world, men deserve the right to decide what masculinity means to them. Masculinity and femininity describe two forces that exist everywhere in mutual polarity, like the positive and negative forces within every atom. If we agree it is heinous to masculinize women, why then does it seem right to consistently feminize men?

I’m not entirely sure what the future holds or where this feminization of masculinity will someday lead. What I do know though is that it is most unwise to feminize young men while we encourage independence, self-confidence and femininity in our women. If evolutionary psychology means anything at all, and there is much evidence that it does, will our independent, powerful and strong women ultimately want men who don’t share these traits? Harry Styles can afford to be ‘confident’ in his masculinity wearing ball gowns in the West but will this still translate as ‘confidence’ in a young man from a country far less developed? How soon before men begin to be culture-shamed for refusing to be feminized?

My guess is, only time will tell what the answers to these will be.

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Cover image by Tyler Mitchell / Vogue.

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