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How Harry Styles Is Defying Toxic Masculinity

Harry Styles in a floral print Gucci suit makes my knees weak. Some people might giggle at the idea, not used to the sweet softness of a boy in pastels. This is what sets Styles apart from his male pop star peers: He’s not afraid to embrace what’s feminine.

While you might have previously caught a glance at Harry Styles in a bloom-covered ensemble or two, a whole new era of style came with his self-titled solo album. Ruffled shirts, bejeweled fingers and so much pink. Styles’s shift in fashion is more than just rebranding, though. It’s part of a larger open defiance of toxic masculinity.

What’s toxic masculinity?

Sexism and the standards of the patriarchy have a firm grip on boys from a young age. While most people are familiar with how gender roles can negatively impact women, not a lot of people are aware of the poisonous culture surrounding what it means to be a man. Boys are taught that it’s not okay to wear pink. They learn that it’s shameful for them to cry. By the time they become teenagers, young men know that for them to do anything a girl would do is a crime.

Men are made to feel guilty for liking things that are feminine. Even expressing emotions can be seen as not manly enough. This causes problems for men because they don’t know how to engage with their feelings in a healthy way and experience embarrassment for enjoying pastimes, TV shows and clothing that aren’t masculine. The frustration this causes can result in irritability in the best cases and violence in the worst.

Although it isn’t easy to escape society’s ideas about what is good and bad, men and boys who are able to embrace their feelings and like what they like without shame experience freedom from the hold of toxic masculinity.

What does that have to do with Harry Styles?

The mainstream music world is riddled with toxic masculinity. Even the sweetest of Ed Sheeran songs is roughened up by his grungy jeans and T-shirts. Watching men on award show red carpets is usually a cycle of the same black tux over and over again. Harry Styles is breaking the mold.

The flower-filled imagery of his album alone could be enough of a statement, but Styles didn’t stop there. The music video for his song Kiwi portrays an epic battle consisting of kids throwing fistfuls of cake at each other and playing with adorable puppies. The video’s apparent protagonist is a long-haired child in a turquoise floral suit. All of the kids are laughing and having a good time. The boys freely wear their androgynous clothing without showing any sign of shame. They’re in a fight, true, but it’s one where the weapons and prizes are sweet and adorable.

The statement is this: Boys can enjoy what is soft and feminine and be joyful about it.

Styles doesn’t apologize for who he is. He doesn’t mumble excuses about his painted nails or attempt to justify the promotional photos of him in a sea of pink and petal-laden water. He certainly doesn’t feel bad about his glittery new style, seeing as he’s the face of a new Gucci campaign. Whereas other male entertainers and men in general often feel the need to distance themselves from feminine aesthetics — “This shirt isn’t pink. It’s salmon.” “I only went to that rom-com because my girlfriend wanted to go; I thought it was stupid.” — Styles doesn’t. He’s just himself.

Why does any of this matter?

It’s no secret that what happens in the entertainment world has an influence on people who are less than famous. (The Rachel, anyone?) For guys who have been bearing the weight of toxic masculinity, Styles is someone who can be a source of inspiration. Seeing him wear what he wants and express himself how he chooses without embarrassment or a compulsion to be masculine can make them see that the same is okay for them.

Male fans of Harry Styles who haven’t yet been pushed to examine how toxic masculinity impacts them can be pushed to do so as well, too. They may first think “Harry Styles has his nails painted in this picture. That’s weird.” Then, they might ask themselves, “Why is that weird?” The process of self-reflection caused by Styles’s more feminine presentation can be a healthy, explorative time for boys and men to decide if there are things they’ve been missing out on because they were afraid of being too “girly.”

It has a positive effect on girls who are Harry Styles fans, too, particularly those that are more feminine. Seeing a man embrace things that are commonly associated with women says to them as well that the things they like aren’t bad or embarrassing.

Of course, there’s still a lot to be done. Harry Styles wearing a ruffled shirt doesn’t end a toxic thought tradition. Femininity and being vulnerable with feelings is accepted more readily in white men than in men of color, too. Still, he’s one case that shows the good that can come when men are unafraid to be feminine.

Brianna is a sophomore journalism major at the University of Florida. She loves both writing and reading, and she plans to become a librarian. When she's not in the library, Brianna can be found dancing to Fleetwood Mac, putting together a Pinterest moodboard or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find her on Instagram @brianna.moye and Twitter @brianna__moye
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