A man in a dress is a lot of things. But is he manly? “Ew: no,” society says with an eye roll.
The idea of a man in a dress evokes two things: gay men who can’t possibly truly be male, a la drag queens, and confused straight freaks, a la Dennis Rodman. Both are bad. Like persons who are transgender, crossing gender lines in any capacity is looked upon as strange (“strange”) because of the social pressures placed on us to stay within gender bounds. Any man wearing a dress questions manliness, risking the shatter of fragile masculinity.
Obviously this is all bonk and this discussion, although never “gone,” is back thanks to Young Thug and the Alessandro Trincone dress he wore on the cover of his new mixtape. There has been quite a stir about Thug’s style as it questions what a black man can be, particularly in the rap industry. It’s liberating and powerful. “You could be a gangster with a dress, you could be a gangster with baggy pants,” Thug told Calvin Klein earlier this year. “I feel like there’s no such thing as gender.”
To heighten confusion around Thug’s image, he has inserted himself into the hullaballoo of fashion week by literally stopping runway shows and making bold declarations about his wedding. “There will be two brides,” he told Billboard. “When it comes to swag, there’s no gender involved.” Yes. Absolutely. Yes. While I am slightly concerned this could be trendy appropriation, I side with Thug because he is inspiring lots and lots of conversation about sexuality and gender. That’s always a good thing. Yet, the biggest hangup here is that a person can be heterosexual and “gender queer,” that Thug can marry a woman while enthusiastically wearing a dress. People just can’t wrap their brains around that.
“Why do people think men who wear women’s clothing are gay?” a Vice story asks this morning, attempting to unpack and understand the claim that a straight man cannot dress in dresses. The article points out that several other rappers have worn dresses in the past, not to mention superstars like Bowie and Prince.
The assessment prattles around the obvious but lands on something brilliant thanks to heterosexual drag performer Vera Wylde and fashion historian Jo Paoletti: the anger caused by men wearing dresses is based in sexist fears—not homophobia.
“I think this comes from the still deeply set belief that men are somehow superior to women,” added Wylde. “If a woman wants to look more like a man, that might be odd, but it’s almost aspirational. A man wishing to appear and behave more like a woman is seen as a downgrade, as the man choosing to be less than he is.”
Some may think this issue is insignificant, but these power dynamics don’t seem trivial when examined among children.
“This is why a girl dressing up as a pirate or a cowboy is just adorable, and a little boy wanting to dress up as a princess is shocking, scary, and grounds for beating the little kid — which happens,” said Paoletti. “Maybe if people stop thinking the way they’re thinking there will be fewer two-year-old boys who get beat up—by their parents, in many cases.”
That shock of men crossing gender lines, “degrading” themselves, is exactly why this discussion recurs: it’s not about fear of gayness. It’s fear of gender. The logic is, “Men shouldn’t wear dresses because they are above women.” Straight or gay, that is the horrifying notion suggested.
Unfortunately, this sexism doesn’t even need a man in a dress to be pronounced: take the very recent example of a sexy male teacher and a sexy female teacher. What was the cultural reaction? The male teacher was fit and cool while the female teacher was distracting and inappropriate. This is a parallel shaming when the female teacher is clearly better dressed than the mostly jean-and-t-shirt wearing counterpart. The shame is that she has a female body.
When Young Thug wears a dress, more is happening in the minds of his haters. It’s not about his being gay or straight although, if he were gay, it might be more understandable given their relationship to masculinity skewering and trans culture. The hating on Thug is about the willing self-demotion of masculinity, giving away your manhood to be more female. People don’t see him as a man in a dress but as a man taking his penis off and giving it away. The reactions are based in sexism, reaching backwards for a transphobic double whammy at the same time.