The Threat of Masculinity
On skinny white boys in skirts.
By Leah Overstreet
There is a specific kind of shame associated with doing something “like a girl.” To run “like a girl,” to fight “like a girl,” to dress “like a girl” is to be inferior. It is a signifier that you have failed to fulfill the blue-faced demands of the heteropatriarchy. But things are changing. Now, there are fluffy-haired white boys dancing in schoolgirl skirts and maid outfits on TikTok. Your local indie soft boy has traded in his boner for Tarantino in favor of a new favorite pearl necklace, chipped nail polish, and “Intersectional Feminist” tote bag. Men are evolving! Gender norms have been transgressed and obliterated; we are now living in Liberal Heaven where Harry Styles rules with a well-manicured fist. We did it!
Except that’s sort of simplifying the issue, isn’t it? While straight dudes teasing a lil enby vibe our way is fun and even maybe a step forward, visible queerness from actual queer people is still not getting the Harry Styles treatment. It is historically dangerous to be assigned male at birth and present in any feminine way. Yet in 2022, fashion that steps outside of the binary seems to be everyone’s marketing strategy of choice.
For the TikTok generation, proximity to queerness has become a form of social capital. This supposed flouting of gender roles may not be an innocuously good omen of Gen Z’s rocket launch into progressivism, but rather another runny-nosed symptom of capitalism. Macy’s doesn’t deck itself out in pride merch out of the goodness of their little black heart; they do it becasue gay people have money. Similarly, those TikTok thirst traps may be inspired by likes rather than a self discovery out of toxic masculinity.
“I would love if more cis-het men would wear skirts just in the context of daily life and for their own personal enjoyment rather than TikTok and magazines where the gender non-conformity of it all suddenly becomes a performance and commodity, thereby reinforcing the status quo,” expressed Hayden, a sophomore at New York’s School of Visual Arts who identifies as a trans girl and uses she/they pronouns.
Most women and queer people have come to an anti-men consensus. They rally under queerness, and specifically the reverence of queerness. Straight boys are icky, toxic masculinity is cringe, and if you don’t introduce yourself with your pronouns you’re a loser. Proximity to queerness is the way Gen Z communicates that they are hip and totes with the times. Masculinity has been dubbed by the girls, gays, and theys as enemy number one. It’s the culprit behind all of our trauma (including that of masc-presenting people). Therefore, it’s not hot. Or as Hari Nef once tweeted: “Gender isn’t over, masculinity is merely unfashionable.”
It makes sense that this would scare the shit out of the cis-het he/hims. They are not like those other boys. They are pro-choice and have Black friends and have “Consent is Sexy” stickered onto their MacBooks. So they put on their “Look I’m Not A Creep” Doc Martens and pair their leather blazers with eyeliner in an attempt to yassify themselves away from the threat that is masculinity.
Those trying to market to Gen Z also recognize that queerness sells. So magazines throw skirts on their male models in the hopes that they have “yass-queened” hard enough to earn the approval of the blue-haired liberal masses. In 2022, sexuality sells.
The problem with coopting queer signifiers is that once the photoshoot is over, after the TikTok goes viral, and once the queerbaiting has served its purpose, these creators can often retreat into cisgendered, heterosexual bliss. Profit proliferates from the aestheticization of the queer experience without acknowledging the dangerous reality of moving through the world as visibly queer, trans, or gender nonconforming.
Avory Cambell, a sophomore in GS who uses shey/they/he pronouns, compares the praise that white, straight-passing celebrities like Harry Styles receive for “subverting gender in fashion” to her own experience as a Black trans-femme who has experienced harrassment both online and on the street for the way that she presents. They explained: “I have to be real. I have to look like a woman for you to appreciate that.”
As defined by drag performer Dorian Corey in the documentary Paris Is Burning, “Realness” is “to be able to blend … if you can pass the untrained or even the trained eye and not give away the fact that you’re gay.” Realness—“passing” as it is often referred to in the trans community—is dependent on the fickle, scrutinizing heteropatriarchal gaze. For many queer and trans people, passing is a practice grounded in survival, a method of threat minimization in a society where visible queerness continues to be life-threatening.
“The Black trans-femme is threatened,” said Cambell. “The circle of life for the Black trans femme is the constant state of violence … I expect violence in the future. I experience violence in the present. And I have to acknowledge it from the past.”
The Black queer/trans femme is the most vulnerable member of the queer community and it is to them that the LGBTQIA+ community owes so much. Before Harry Styles could accrue the social and financial capital allowing him to experiment with his masculinity, there was Prince and Little Richard. Before them came the Black femme queens in Harlem who literally threw the first bricks at Stonewall.
In Bell Magazine, Julie Ableson writes of the Harry Styles of it all: “Do trans femmes of color receive praise for doing the same thing every day? No. Do I think this is a sign of progress of society’s evolution away from binary gender? Yes. Do I think that white men should be upheld as the face of gender neutral fashion? No.”
The current face of gender fluidity in fashion is largely white, skinny, cisgendered, and heterosexual. In reality, fat, femme, queer people of color are those actually eating, living, and breathing this life. “While they are trying to make femininity powerful, at the same time they’re doing it through the guise of masculine privilege and white privilege,” said Cambell.
The commodification of queerness by an overeager and largely white audience distracts from the original and true purpose of queer expression: liberation. Ungendered and “deviant” fashion was meant to exist in a collectively imagined realm wholly removed from the expectations of the masses. As elements of queer culture migrate into the mainstream, it is being shrunken to be more digestible for a new audience who reduce these strategies of survival to mere entertainment.
“The Black queer femme grows up not themselves. They grow up and they fabricate parts of themselves only for the sake of their survival to lower the threshold of humiliation and prejudice. Because of that, the task of my adult life—of any black trans adult life—is to pick apart all those things you did fabricate and … establish the honing of an identity … but the only thing that interrupts that beautiful process is the white gaze,” said Cambell.
This gaze is heavy and demanding. It offers sanctuary and acceptance, but only if we don’t dare step out of line. As long as we keep our pretty mouths shut and wear our government-issued Pride Collection Target suits, we will be allowed to breathe their heterosexual air. As long as we smile and pretend that Harry Styles invented serving cunt, we will maintain the right to vote. Perhaps it is time we consider the consequences of assimilation and whether or not the mainstream recognition is worth the watering down of the queer experience.