When I saw Harry Styles wearing a dress on the cover of Vogue, I thought: “Sweet, if a tad Bowie-lite.” I was inclined to leave it at that until rightwing commentators erupted.
In the US, Trump-supporting Candace Owens opined (I’ll edit for length): “There is no society that can survive without strong men. The east knows this. In the west, the steady feminisation of our men [blah, blah, yak, yak] … is an outright attack. Bring back manly men.” Others were outraged about “feminising masculinity”. Why so rattled by a bloke chilling in skirts? And what’s this guff about wanting men to be “manly” again?
First of all, “strong men”/“the east”? Is this a reference to Putin topless and pouting like a little minx? Certainly, if the Vogue cover is seen as a direct riposte to Chechnya (where citizens are told to “deal with” LGBTQ family members), then may Styles twirl in gender-neutral frills for all eternity. Otherwise, anyone hyperventilating with shock over men in gowns needs to educate themselves about popular culture.
Men donning dresses is nothing new. David Bowie, the New Romantics, Jean Paul Gaultier, Kevin Rowland, David Beckham in his sarong… to name just a few. In this way, Styles sashaying in Gucci is revealed for what it is: Generation Z’s timely spin on men rebelling against sartorial gender boundaries, playfully but with intent.
As for pining for “manly men”, this tub has been thumped since the appearance of the New Man, the metrosexual et al, usually culminating in the shriek that masculinity is “under threat”. According to some, men are so cowed by hectoring liberals, they’ve given up and put on skirts. Old-style masculinity may be under threat, but not from a sinister, ultra-woke-consensus, rather from a mixture of natural societal progress, high female demand and young men with a healthy interest in getting laid.
This is what the “bring back manly men” lobby fails to understand. If women wanted “manly men” back wholesale, we’d have them. The sexual marketplace is all-powerful and, heterosexually, it tends to be women who dictate terms. Clearly, modern women have decided they don’t want the tired “manly man” model of entitled, aggressive, chauvinistic boors and, frocks aside, prefer men to be more empathetic and broadminded. The issue is, why is this (derisively) termed “feminised”, when, for both sexes, it’s just about being humanised? Subconsciously or otherwise, straight men want to be what women want. They could also be growing weary of uber-masculinist expectations (success, aggression, repression) that result in so much male suffering.
Of course, panicked rightwing commentators are going to dog-whistle at old, angry men: keeping them terrified of change, flattering them (and the women who choose them), that they’re still the masculine ideal. Meanwhile, the world moves on and the smarter men move with it. “Manly” is still here. It’s just that “manly” is always changing.
Rashford is too fast on his feet to be brought down by haters
Who wants to help me drum up hatred against Marcus Rashford? Rashford is the 23-year-old Manchester United player who campaigned to give disadvantaged children free school meals in the holidays and shamed the government into doing a U-turn. Now Rashford is starting a book club with Macmillan Children’s Books to encourage children to read. Who will join me in the sneering?
A Rashford backlash has been attempted with a media smear campaign (usual suspects) about him owning five properties in Cheshire. Back on planet Earth, who cares if a sportsman invests in property? Rashford and his siblings were raised in poverty by a single mother. That could leave someone with a craving for security. Besides, isn’t he entitled to spend his money as he likes? Likewise, with the book club, why are such ventures framed as celebrity virtue-signalling? Is it impossible to believe that somebody can be well-off, successful and a decent human being?
Similar attitudes were doing the rounds on social media during Rashford’s school meals campaigns. Criticisms were along the lines of: “That Marcus Rashford is richer than I am, so why doesn’t he pay out of his own pocket for all the poor children in the UK to eat?” Erm, because there’s this thing called the government and when children are going hungry during a pandemic, it is this government that should step in, not a twentysomething in shorts.
The only person this Rashford-bashing benefits is a certain Boris Johnson. But it must sting to finally become prime minister and then be repeatedly outmanoeuvred by a young guy who’s probably never won a Latin prize in his life. Well, them’s the breaks. Isn’t it sad when a backlash doesn’t take?
Who could not be gripped by the Wagatha Christie case?
Christ, how did the Wagatha Christie row come to this? In 2019, there was general amusement on hearing that Coleen Rooney, wife of former England football captain Wayne, had gone the full Miss Marple on her Instagram account, limiting who could view posts to discern who might be selling stories to the Sun. When a fake basement flooding duly appeared as a story, Rooney revealed her sleuthing, concluding: “It’s… Rebekah Vardy’s account.”
How we all laughed, but now Vardy (wife of Leicester City’s Jamie), who was pregnant at the time, has won the first stage of her defamation action against Rooney, in which she claims she suffered “extreme distress, hurt, anxiety and embarrassment” and felt suicidal.
So, that got dark quickly. At least judge Mark Warby managed to remain legally proper as he grappled with what must have been the most prestigious Wag-cum-Instagram-based case of his career: “The whole purpose of the post… is to identify publicly the someone, the person whom Ms Rooney has ‘clearly’ identified as being guilty… The ordinary reader would not regard the post as merely telling him or her who it is that Ms Rooney suspects.”
Well, “ordinary reader”, that’s just round one. Let’s hope another Wag-spat doesn’t kick off. When those Shellac-ed nails come out, these ladies are killers.
• Barbara Ellen is an Observer columnist