Defying gender: How Harry Styles challenges the norm
by Baylie Clevenger
The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the opinion of Byte or Byte’s editorial board.
A man in a tutu can change the world. Believe me. And if not me, believe Morgan Leckie.
Leckie is a professor of both English and Women’s and Gender Studies here at Ball State University. She is well-versed in all things gender after having studied it for most of her academic career.
Now back to that man in a tutu—that man is Harry Styles.
Styles performed on Saturday Night Live in late 2019, and since then the internet has been buzzing with talk of how he presents his gender. In particular, people seemed to be displeased with his choice to wear an elaborate, pink ballet costume in some of the promotional photos, calling Styles’ performative and claiming he used femininity for popularity and money.
this performative femininity s*** has to stop, and what’s worse is how y’all eat it up. https://t.co/Q2FEoFEz3L
— brad (@posebitch) November 17, 2019
So what does it mean to perform a gender? Leckie said her views of gender fall in line with that of the famous feminist academic, Judith Butler. Butler often wrote that all gender is performed and that people generally choose to perform it based on social expectations.
“Butler posits. And I agree because I think there’s a lot of evidence that not only is gender socially constructed, it is actually something that we participate in by performing it always,” said Leckie. “So… to say that gender is being performed or is performative when a man wears a very elaborate ballet costume, for example, citing Harry Styles’ promotional pic, you can’t say that about that specific kind of gender performance.”
Image from The Guardian
Having said this, Leckie said that she understands where people are coming from when they wonder if Styles is using femininity to his advantage, but she also said she thinks it’s harmless and even helpful.
“There is some kind of power in using your privilege to then uplift or help people feel represented who might not otherwise,” said Leckie.
Leckie was referring to a piece that Rolling Stone published about Styles this fall in which he explained that he is a feminist and does not conform to gender norms. Though this is the case, Styles also noted that he does not want to center himself in these rhetorics because he recognizes that he is privileged.
If you are black, if you are white, if you are gay, if you are straight, if you are transgender — whoever you are, whoever you want to be, I support you. I love every single one of you.” –Rolling Stone
Styles also continued, saying that his concerts were meant to be accepting and safe for everyone.
“It’s a room full of accepting people… If you’re someone who feels like an outsider, you’re not always in a big crowd like that,” he says. “It’s not about, ‘Oh, I get what it’s like,’ because I don’t. For example, I go walking at night before bed most of the time. I was talking about that with a female friend and she said, ‘Do you feel safe doing that?’ And I do. But when I walk, I’m more aware that I feel OK to walk at night, and some of my friends wouldn’t. I’m not saying I know what it feels like to go through that. It’s just being aware.”
In the same Rolling Stone article, Styles said:
“’It’s not about me trying to champion the cause, because I’m not the person to do that,’ he says. ‘It’s just about not ignoring it, I guess. I was a little nervous to do that because the last thing I wanted was for it to feel like I was saying, ‘Look at me! I’m the good guy!’ I didn’t want anyone who was really involved in the movement to think, ‘What the fuck do you know?’ But then when I did it, I realized people got it. Everyone in that room is on the same page and everyone knows what I stand for. I’m not saying I understand how it feels. I’m just trying to say, ‘I see you.’”
Having said that, regardless of what controversy may arise, gender presentation matters. It matters especially in the public eye, and especially from someone who is willing to put their privilege aside to contribute to acceptance across the board. Leckie says that transgression in the spotlight matters because there are people who wish they could do the same.
“I’m just gonna say that we should trouble gender, we should push against it and demonstrate that there are not rules because oftentimes, especially for young boys, it’s the dudes that are like, ‘we need to talk about how oppressive masculinity is,’” said Leckie. “You know how many people are just walking around wishing that they could paint their nails or experiment and think about themselves in different ways that aren’t that same mode of masculinity.”
It seems that gender expression does matter and it does make a difference, especially in the spotlight.
Coming from someone who has seen Styles’ career front-to-back, it’s easy to see that he has never been one to adopt traditional masculinity. When he was in One Direction, he had longer hair and would accessorize, sometimes relatively heavily. After he started his solo career, femininity was no stranger. His first album cover was pink and his style leaned more femme.
easton@prollyeaston1) y’all will complain about anything, even genuinely unproblematic things, if it will get you attention
2) Harry Styles has never shied away from femininity
3) “performative femininity”? you either want to erase gender norms or you don’t. get off the fence coward. https://twitter.com/posebitch/status/1196095464166301696 …
brad@posebitchthis performative femininity shit has to stop, and what’s worse is how y’all eat it up. https://twitter.com/hsdaily/status/1196064918593773570 …159:11 PM - Nov 17, 2019 · Corpus Christi, TXTwitter Ads info and privacy
So who is to say that the way Styles presents himself is not an important part of the evolution of masculinity? As Leckie posited before, there are many people who want to do the same and could see him as an inspiration to do so.
We could all stand to let everyone present their gender in their own way—freely, openly, happily.
Sources: Rolling Stone, Twitter
Images: The Guardian
Featured Image: NBC