The Sexist Stigma Around “Girly” Boys

It’s 2021 and in the face of modern feminist movements, people are still shaming men for possessing “feminine” qualities and preferring “girly” clothes. Of course, men aren’t the focus of feminist issues, but sexism can leak over and hurt men in the process of suppressing women. It begs the questions: why is being feminine a bad thing? Why is masculinity seen as the strong thing? At the end of the day, who cares?

Most people are familiar with the dilemma about whether young boys should play with dolls. Some parents fear that this may “make” their child gay, which also contributes to a homophobic stereotype, or that their peers may tease them. Professor Judith Myers-Walls of Purdue University told ABC that despite these fears, “There is no support for the idea that any behavior will ’cause’ sexual preference to move one direction or another. Sexual preference seems to be determined independently of actions or experiences.” Far fewer concerns pop up when girls want to play with cars or action figures, since masculinity isn’t frowned upon nearly as often as femininity. 

The Irish Times points out that discouraging boys from exploring softer, more emotive forms of play could be detrimental to their mental health and development – they wrote, “We are denying boys the opportunity to explore the skills that female-oriented play promotes. Girls’ toys and games tend to be nurturing, communicative, and empathic. […] Boys need to develop skills of communication and empathy. Without these they are emotionally restrained in adolescence, with all the pain and tragedy that can bring. A boy who has been free to explore nurturing and empathic impulses as a child will take those lessons into adulthood.”

A 2016 study published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology further supports these ideas – lead author Y. Joel Wong, Ph.D., explained, “Individuals who conformed strongly to masculine norms tended to have poorer mental health and less favorable attitudes toward seeking psychological help, although the results differed depending on specific types of masculine norms.” So what happens to men who don’t conform to these norms? 

In November 2020, Harry Styles graced the cover of Vogue in a Gucci gown and opened up to the magazine about his personal style, sharing, “When you take away ‘There’s clothes for men and there’s clothes for women,’ once you remove any barriers, obviously you open up the arena in which you can play. […] 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.” Conservative author Candace Owens was quick to attack Styles’ dress on Twitter, claiming that men wearing feminine clothes is a threat to society:

Styles poked fun at the criticism by posting a photo from the shoot to Instagram with the caption “Bring back manly men,” while his fans and colleagues clapped back on their own accord. 

Of course, Styles isn’t the first (or last) man to prompt hateful commentary with “girly” fashion. Actor and singer Billy Porter, an openly gay black man, famously wore a Christian Siriano gown to the February 2019 Oscars as a statement on stereotypical gender expression. After social media skeptics criticized the look, Porter told the Associated Press, “I’m inside of my authenticity and the whole point is that you have to respect me as much as I respect you. If you don’t like it, go somewhere else.” 

Fans applaud alt-rock singer YUNGBLUD for wearing dresses and skirts on stage, but he got death threats for doing so while touring Russia in 2019. He shrugged the hate aside and continues to wear what he likes, including a white tennis skirt in promotional photos for his single “cotton candy.” Rapper and rocker Machine Gun Kelly wore a hot pink suit to the August 2020 Video Music Awards and skeptics called him “Machine Gun Karen” while claiming his feud with Eminem “took away” his masculinity. He struck back on social media with a message to haters: “you’re still scared of pink in 2020? Are you fucking kidding me? You mad? Just say it, you’re mad!” MGK still wears pink to events like Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

R&B musician Frank Ocean wears makeup on occasion, and while many fans are supportive, some spread hateful comments and threatening ideas – one media outlet claimed he may “go trans,” which is both transphobic, suggesting that just enjoying makeup is a “hint” that someone may be transgender, and adds a stigma to a simple eyeshadow. Meanwhile, men have worn makeup since the days of Ancient Egypt. Music legends like Prince, David Bowie, and Little Richard are heralded for their experimentation with cosmetics. The likes of Gerard Way, Pete Wentz, and Billie Joe Armstrong popularized “guyliner” in the 2000s, an age of hypermasculinity in magazines and girls being labeled “tomboys” for not adhering to feminine norms. 

It’s clear that men have experimented with feminine fashion and makeup through time, but one of the key reasons for modern criticism seems to be the internet. We’re living in an era where anyone can share their likes, dislikes, interests, fashion, and art with the world in just a few clicks. It has allowed Carl Cunard to become a male makeup guru and makeup artist James Charles to become the first male Covergirl ambassador. It has helped Christian Siriano to promote his beautiful gowns and messages of equality, and Gunnar Deatherage to reach the TikTok generation with his designs. We’ve opened up the doors for creativity and self-expression, but also for hatred and negativity.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being feminine. By telling men to “man up,” people are inadvertently telling women that they are “less than,” and that’s the last thing we need while we’re fighting for gender equality every day.

TREMG news

Madison Murray View All →

Hi! I’m Madison Murray, a pop culture and music writer who also loves writing about lifestyle and fashion. I’m currently a freelance writer for TREMG, editorial intern for Young Hollywood, and music blogger for Audible Addixion – I write 1-2 posts a week on each platform. I’m also a playlist curator intern for VOLUP2 magazine. My favorite artists include Taylor Swift, Machine Gun Kelly, BLACKPINK, Elko, phem, and YUNGBLUD. She/her.

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