Harry Styles, charming as ever, is using his fame to make a point about sex and gender, incorporating commentaries on the matter into much of his public-facing life. This is hardly new for male pop stars, and hardly new for Styles himself, but there’s something different about what he’s up to now.
Staff Editor Madeline Osburn and Culture Editor Emily Jashinsky discuss the situation below.
Emily Jashinsky: Gender bending isn’t exactly without precedent for male pop stars, but Harry Styles is up to something very different and very reflective of the New Left’s defining characteristic. Unlike the drag queens of yore, Styles isn’t reveling in being transgressive. On the contrary, he supports the normalization of the transgressive, instead of enjoying the freedom and benefits of making truly subversive art. (This article has a lot of examples.) Don’t you think?
Madeline Osburn: When I think of transgressive pop artists, I think of David Bowie and Prince—two men I would never lump together with Harry Styles. Bowie and Prince wielded their gender-bending fashion in a way that was still somehow intoxicating and masculine. Unlike Styles, they were never trying to normalize anything. They wanted to be weird. Whereas Style’s commentary on sex and gender is, as you say, more about normalizing his opinions rather than being subversive.
If Styles really wanted to be counter-cultural, at this point wouldn’t it be more shocking to his Gen Z fans to lean into an extremely masculine or “heteronormative” image, for lack of a better term?
EJ: That’s probably true given how stigmatized masculinity has become. It’s an interesting question because Chris Pratt, for instance, is like a cockroach surviving the woke nuclear holocaust—he’s kind of uncancellable because his more masculine style naturally resonates and remains uncontroversial for the vast majority of people. Until they’re pressed on it, famous guys are pretty much still able to be dudes—it just seems to be harder to avoid getting pressed on it. (Is anyone even coming after The Rock?)
But that leaves us in this weird place, where it’s still kind of normal to be masculine since the majority of the country is naturally and intuitively cool with it, but it’s also kind of normal to be a totally straight guy who wears dresses—although probably still mostly if you travel in elite circles and benefit from elite media interest.
So is the best way to understand this as the middle stages of a normalization process? Harry Styles and his fellow travelers in media and academia are setting the norms, and the public is hashing out whether to adapt and how?
MO: Exactly, but I think it goes beyond just normalizing men in dresses, and is actually just one example of where we are with several new “norms” media and academia are shoving down Americans’ throats. It’s similar to Lizzo and the body positivity movement or the transgender movement insisting that men can have periods and get pregnant.
A majority of the country is really not mad about seeing crossing-dressing, obese, or transgender celebrities on the cover of magazines, but the media and the ruling class want to take it further than that. They punish and censor Americans who don’t accept their premise that biological facts are suddenly not facts. So the public is left hashing out whether being obese is really healthy and whether we really need tampons marketed toward men.
Celebrities like Styles and their fawning media may think they are on the right side of history by setting these new norms, but I don’t know if they really see (or care about) the damage that is left in their wake.
EJ: I think you raised a key point. It’s not merely that Styles and his allies want to normalize the transgressive. It’s also that their normalization process relies on normalizing definitions of bigotry and hatred that categorize decent people as bigots. That’s much worse in that it’s incredibly divisive and demands incredibly rapid change.
So if you disagree with Harry Styles’s suggestion that dresses are manly, you’re not just a silly rube, you’re dangerous. Again, as you said, it isn’t just the effort to break down boundaries previous artists needed to make transgressive art. It’s about breaking down those boundaries for all of society.
It’s equally important to understand how celebrities along with their corporate peers and fawning entertainment media subscribe to the progressive-or-bigot binary, which implicates a majority of the country—decent people on both sides of the aisle—in bigotry or hatred or violence if they question the new boundaries at all.
The biggest consequence of this is our chilled climate of free expression, which is actually stifling artists, along with the public at large. It’s so incredibly counterproductive.