There’s a TikTok video of a young man with tousled dark hair wearing eyeliner and a sweatshirt, throwing a smoldering gaze to the camera as Ariana Grande’s “Positions” plays; the camera then cuts to the boy in a full-blown French maid costume — white cap, dainty gloves, apron, and all. In another video, a girl with short hair and a nose ring rests between the legs of her boyfriend in a French maid costume, his hairy legs peeking out beneath frilly white lace, which transitions into them switching positions and outfits. Both of these videos have a combined more than 12 million views.
A decade ago, when social media was in its infancy (and when this author was around the age of the kids featured in these homemade videos), the image of a young, masculine-presenting person in a dress would’ve been seen as a punchline in itself, like a gag from a Seann William Scott vehicle. With the French maid trend on TikTok, however, the effect is quite different. The subversion of gender tropes is the point, but it’s not intended to be shocking or even mildly amusing: It’s intended to be sexy.
One wonders what conservatives would make of the TikTok French maid trend in light of the uproar over last month’s Vogue cover shoot featuring Harry Styles, who appeared in a lace-trimmed dress and tuxedo jacket designed by Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele. Almost immediately, professional right-wing trolls started frothing at the mouth. On Twitter, Candace Owens issued a call for society to “bring back manly men” and Ben Shapiro (who previously went viral for expressing his consternation about the female sexual empowerment anthem “WAP”) tweeted, “Anyone who pretends that it is not a referendum on masculinity for men to don floofy dresses is treating you as a full-on idiot.” In response to the furor, on Wednesday Styles reemerged on the cover of Variety in a pleat hem suit eating a banana, posting the photo on Instagram with the caption, “Bring back manly men.” In the story he says: “To not wear [something] because it’s females’ clothing, you shut out a whole world of great clothes. And I think what’s exciting about right now is you can wear what you like. It doesn’t have to be X or Y. Those lines are becoming more and more blurred.”
Given that Styles has long publicly embraced gender fluidity, and that the Vogue cover marked the first time a male celebrity had appeared solo on the cover of that publication, the photo shoot was clearly intended as a nod to that milestone. There’s also a long and storied history of rockers like Kurt Cobain and David Bowie donning dresses, with the latter looking ethereal in paisley on the cover of the single for “The Man Who Sold the World.” The Styles Vogue shoot appears to be an homage to those musicians (indeed, in the accompanying profile, Styles explicitly calls out Bowie and the similarly androgynous Prince as influences), not as a provocation. But right-wing commentators immediately interpreted it as such, precisely because it was framed as such a non-issue. Like the TikTok maid videos, the point of the cover wasn’t to shock or to titillate. The goal of the shoot wasn’t any different than that featuring a female model in a similar garment: to show a gorgeous person in a gorgeous dress, looking gorgeous. What really incensed conservative commenters like Owens and Shapiro was precisely how mundane the image was supposed to be.
The Gen Z-ers who make up Styles’ fan base display demonstrably more progressive attitudes toward gender expression than previous generations: they are more likely to know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns or rejects the binary, or to self-identify as nonbinary themselves. This attitude is reflected in the masculine-presenting men elevated by zoomers: male e-boys on TikTok regularly don nail polish and eyeliner, and Timothée Chalamet, with his razor-sharp cheekbones, porcelain skin, and Victorian ghost child features, is one of the most prominent sex symbols. While none of this is to say that the binary has completely collapsed, and transgender, and gender nonconforming teens still suffer from depression at higher rates than their cisgender counterparts, it is to say that when it comes to gender roles, the ground is rapidly changing beneath our feet. But rather than embracing a more flexible and inclusive approach toward masculinity, conservatives like Shapiro and Owens must perform outrage — if not just to preserve their more traditionalist audiences, but to preserve the patriarchal status quo that ensures they will have such audiences to begin with. Their followers, with their feverish fantasies about drag queen story hours indoctrinating their children and kombucha turning their teens queer, are so terrified of the perceived boundaries that surround gender and sexuality crumbling that they are primed to see boogeymen in every closet and in every corner, and Shapiro and Owens are all-too-happy to capitalize on such fears.
In truth, there is nothing remotely threatening to anyone about Harry Styles in a dress. But in order to maintain their grip on institutional power, Shapiro and Owens must at least feign that there is — even if the truth is that Harry Styles in a dress is more super-duper hot than anything else.