By Jang Kapgen | April 8, 2021
Cover Illustration: Harry Styles wears a Gucci jacket and dress for cover of Vogue, December 2020 edition. Tyler Mitchell / Vogue
Harry Styles is one of the most recognizable names in the pop industry today. However, he has been turning heads recently for reasons other than his music. Columnist Jang Kapgen unpacks the situation.
Pop Icons. Netflix’ Euphoria. TikTok E-boys. The image of what a man looks like has been redefined in recent times. While discussing this shift in masculinity, a friend told me about Harry Styles’ Vogue cover and his “revolutionary” self-expression. Knowing little about Styles, I was curious to learn more. My friend quickly googled “Harry Styles hot pics” and a second later, we were both staring at him, donning a dress on the December 2020 cover of Vogue US.
The cover picture fully embodies this spirit of redefined manhood. Harry Styles boldly stands in a dress in front of Vogue’s lens for millions to admire. Gender expectations audibly screeching to a halt. I became curious about what this cover picture, within such an influential magazine, really meant. Is this an actual sign of change or only a fata morgana tricking those who are thirsty for change? Was Harry Styles actually breaking down gender binary beliefs?
The gender binary refers to Western societies’ understanding of gender and boils down to femininity and masculinity as opposites with clear contrasting behaviors, appearances, and so forth. Keep in mind that in many other societies, the gender binary did not exist until colonialism forced it onto their cultures. With Vogue’s December issue, Harry Styles thus seemed to challenge this Western understanding of gender. A man in a dress.
To further understand the depth of Styles’ statement cover, I wanted to hear what the genderqueer community, a community rejecting Western gender expectations, thinks of the cover. To do so, I interviewed Amsterdam-based Design student and artist Michal. He identifies as gender fluid while using He/Him pronouns. He uses this term to “liberate himself from expectations [and] to break out of this system.” Gender isn’t black and white but is rather “a very personal performance” to him, Michal explains.
“I don’t think it is revolutionary,” Michal says confidently, emphasizing that this cover photo should not be confused with an act of activism. Michal expresses that “he is not representing a queer community; he represents a closed community of rich famous pop singers,” and there is nothing revolutionary about that. Activism and revolution have other faces. “I don’t know Harry, I only know his stage image” and behind that image, there is a whole crew of experts operating, as the Amsterdam-based artist stresses. Michal wondered about who actually benefits from this cover – a genderqueer community or the apparatus behind Styles? “The cover is celebrated, but it is not change that is being celebrated.”
All in all, this is no criticism directed towards Harry Styles. Michal is also very aware that “this is part of his job”. The former One-Direction singer is certainly part of a movement shaping a new understanding of gender, but Styles’ cover isn’t revolutionary. “It is good to have the cover, but I don’t see activism in that”, as Michal puts it.
Genderqueer activists risk their lives on a daily basis and the black queer community has fought for recognition for decades, but apparently, only Styles is worthy of praise. This is the real issue: When is gender-bending acceptable and who is allowed to express themselves freely? So, the question about what Vogue’s December cover means reveals itself to be ambiguous. While Harry may not bring the revolution we need, he is televising change.
Jang Kapgen is a student at the University of Amsterdam.
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