It’s happening again. It seems to happen like clockwork: every time a white celebrity goes viral, they’re heralded as a pioneer for whatever realm they’ve stepped into, at the expense of a Black or Brown legacy.
What happened this time?
Harry Styles did a spread for Vogue Magazine, and challenged ideas of gender norms, wearing dresses and things typically labeled as “feminine” for his photoshoot. He received backlash from people like Candace Owens, but also outpourings of support all across social media platforms.
I am a huge fan of Styles’ spread and thoroughly enjoyed reading the supportive messages he received following the negative comments he received from people.
So what’s the problem?
All over social media, and even in some news outlets, Styles is being regarded as a pioneer for gender expression in the modern age for his androgynous and gender bending fashion choices for the Vogue spread.
The problem is, Harry Styles didn’t do it first, and hasn’t pioneered anything. This isn’t meant to take away from what his spread represents and the conversations it has prompted, but we have to be careful when we make statements like this.
Reason being? Artists like Prince and Grace Jones helped pave the way for androgynous fashion, and when we give titles like pioneer to Harry Styles, we are erasing their legacies and awarding it to someone who has followed in their footsteps, not started them.
Prince’s fashion choices garnered him waves and waves of criticism from his peers as well as his fans. He was called every slur imaginable and often ridiculed for his fashion choices and his feminine attributes, but those comments never caused him to change.
In fact, the negative comments that Prince received on a regular basis caused him to play into them in songs like “Controversy”, where he directly addressed several of the questions often asked regarding his image and persona.
Prince is now regarded as a fashion icon, his most famous outfits inspiring the likes of celebrities like Janelle Monae (another widely regarded driver of androgynous fashion) and Naomi Campbell. Prince’s legacy is one that has allowed for many artists to express themselves free of the confines of gender. Harry Styles would be one of those artists.
While Styles’ spread is certainly one for conversation, make no mistake, he hasn’t done anything groundbreaking that has not already been done by someone before him, and when we award him titles like pioneer, we are doing so at the expense of those who actually paved the way for things like his spread to happen.
This does not mean that Styles can’t start a conversation about our understandings of gender in society, however, we must understand that while the controversy surrounding his spread is a breeding ground for meaningful conversations to occur, we can’t award him a title that does not belong to him. We must take better care of how we choose to approach these kinds of conversations because the erasure of Black and Brown artists and pioneers will allow room for Black and Brown people to be left out of the conversation.