There has been an unpleasant storm brewing ever since Harry Styles appeared on the cover of Vogue USA’s December edition modelling a Gucci dress. Right wing American activist and Trump advocator Candace Owens had this to say:
“There is no society that can survive without strong men. The East knows this. In the west, the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack. Bring back manly men.’’
While some prominent right-wing figures (Ben Shapiro and Donald Trump Jr to name names) encouraged and expanded on her remarks, Owens’ tweet was mostly met with fiery backlash and outrage. Many men quickly leapt to Styles’ defence. Actor Zac Braff tweeted a photo from the shoot stating ‘our whole lives boys and men are told we need to be manly. Life is short. Be whatever the fuck you want to be.’ Lord of the Rings star Elijah Wood replied to Owens ‘I think you’ve missed the definition of what a man is. Masculinity alone does not make a man.’ Actor Harry Shum Jr also tweeted ‘being comfortable in your own skin as a man is manly. However that is expressed.’
Candace Owens has hit a nerve here and this is not the first time. Indeed, she is no stranger to controversy; a black author and political commentator, she has become increasingly famous in recent months for her pro-Trump activism and persistent slamming of the opposition. Founder of the Blexit movement – urging black Americans to abandon the Democrats – she has just released her new book ‘Blackout: How Black America can make its Second Escape from the Democratic Plantation’, which has topped the New York Times best seller list for 9 weeks running. Her book controversially pledges African Americans to abandon their ties with the Democrats and move over to the right.
Not only is Owens an author, but she has also proved to be a fierce political and social critic. Between 2017-2019 she worked as communications director for the right-wing organisation Turning Point USA which advocates for conservative principles to be implemented in high-school, college and university campuses. When speaking at UCLA in 2018, Owens argued with Black Lives Matter protesters, calling them ‘overprivileged Americans’ who had a ‘victim mentality’ and who were ‘not living through anything right now’. She then later tweeted video footage of the clash, calling the protestors a ‘bunch of whiny toddlers pretending to be oppressed for attention.’ More recently, she has been circulating in the media for her comments on the murder of George Floyd. In a Facebook video Owens shared on the 3rd June, she argued ‘racially motivated police brutality is a myth’ and then refused to uphold George Floyd as a martyr for the black American community.
Owens is a social media giant with a 2.8 million twitter following and, despite her account being suspended earlier this year after she encouraged the residents of Michigan to defy coronavirus stay-at-home rules and go to work, she remains persistent with her opinions. She continues to spread fake news about the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s presidential victory, adamantly claiming the election was rigged and stolen from the Republicans.
Outside of politics, Owens likes to have a good crack at contemporary feminism as well. She tweeted that the premise of the ‘Me Too’ movement (a movement that fights against sexual abuse and assault) is that women are ‘stupid, weak and inconsequential’. On an episode of The Candace Owens Show, she recalled a question from a Washington Post journalist about the existence of white supremacy in America, to which she responded, ‘the closest thing I’ve ever seen to it in my life is the radicalised feminist movement.’ Not only is she relighting the archaic belief that women’s voices are not worthy of being heard (any irony appears drowned out by her own strident tones), but she is also casting doubt on victims of sexual abuse and assault who have been so brave in coming forward. Her choice of the feminist movement as the worst example of white supremacy she has ever seen is almost unfathomable when we consider the following: Breonna Taylor’s family have still not received justice for her death after she was fatally shot in her apartment by Louisville policemen. It took 74 days for the McMichaels to be arrested after they murdered Ahmaud Arbery in broad daylight. George Floyd’s final words, ‘I can’t breathe’, as he was starved of oxygen before dying have become a protest chant uttered by millions. These are sadly just some of the recent tragedies, and they only begin to scratch the surface of the long-embedded issues of racism and brutality against black people in America.
Therefore, where Candace Owens finds brewing leftist anarchy in Harry Styles clad in a Gucci ballgown, many of us instead find liberation and hope for the future. As Styles said in his Vogue cover story,
“clothes are there to have fun and experiment with and play with. What’s really exciting is that all of these lines are just kind of crumbling away. When you take away ‘there’s clothes for men and there’s clothes for women,’ once you remove any barriers, obviously you open up an arena in which you can play […] it’s like anything – anytime you’re putting barriers up in your own life, you’re just limiting yourself. There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never really thought too much about what it means – it just becomes this extended part of creating something.’’
What Styles is doing is ignoring archaic notions of masculinity and femininity and in turn becoming a beacon of hope for many who have long felt restricted by these binaries. By inverting stereotypes through fashion and wearing garments that champion gender fluidity, he is helping to re-conceptualise a more open definition of what it means to be a man today. While Candace Owens’ idea of masculinity works for some, for many it is an entrapment. With International Men’s Day having just passed by, author Matt Haig tweeted:
“Men die by suicide in silence because they feel trapped and locked inside an idea of masculinity that falsely equates strength with silence. It is okay to have a mind that goes wrong. It is okay to feel and cry and be flawed and feel weak from time to time. It is okay to be you.’’
Instead of shutting down men who break away from toxic notions of masculinity, we must instead praise and encourage them. Harry Styles is a figure of male empowerment because he provides an alternative masculinity to the traditional notion which simply no longer fits with many men of today.
 A report released by Pew Research Centre earlier this year showed that 83% of black American voters vote or lean towards the Democrat party, compared with 10% of those who identify or vote Republican.
By Lara Keville
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