Painting your nails won't smash the patriarchy
And here’s the thing, painting your nails as a man is still a little contrarian. Wearing a dress as a male presenting person still ruffles a few feathers. Worry not, my dear multicolored nailed friend, you are still considered edgy and on the fringes. Sure, you may think all the e-boys on social media are making you a little too mainstream for your taste but out there is a different world. And even in my ever cynical view of the IRL planet, I cannot pretend you won’t get worried stares from strangers in the subway. These fashion choices that may seem innocuous on social media will have an effect on our all too mundane daily lives.
Maybe this is it, we’ve triumphed against the current gender status quo. Feminists stand down, we have reached the end of the patriarchy ride, please find the nearest exit and have a great day. Who knew all it took would be a couple of swipes of your favorite 50 dollar nail polish?
A brief history of Gender Bending fashion and feminism
You’d be forgiven for thinking this is a revolutionary turn, after all, our entire lives are basically made up of “unprecedented events” at this point, so what is one more little revolution. I’m convinced that traditionally feminine clothing or accessories on men are the one thing that has seemed revolutionary to every single generation for about 70 years.
I’m not here to defend the chronically online argument that this new aesthetic is somehow stealing from older generations. Yes, men have been painting their nails for millennia. Yes, marginalized communities made up of LGBTQI+ people and POCs who experimented with gender presentation bore, and arguably still bear, the brunt of the backlash. Yet, the fact that people have worn dresses before does not take away from the impact of having a man in a dress on the cover of Vogue. It does not, however, equate to the triumph of feminism.
What I am interested in is the cyclical aspect of this kind of gender expression. After all, stealing from older generations and especially marginalized communities is what we, as humans, do best. What is interesting is who we decide to steal from at any given time.
When I was a young boy: 2000’s emo kids
I would argue that the gender-bending aesthetic we're experiencing at the moment is, at least in part, a product of the 20-year trend cycle we’ve heard so much about. In the 2000s whether it was Goth, Emo, or Scene kids, although we may not have grasped the subtle differences between the labels, we were sure to find quite a few deconstructions of gender in their midst. The archetypal black nail polish was a must if you were to express all the emotions you felt as a teenager. Makeup, also black, in case the darkness was not abundantly clear, was absolutely necessary. None of these kids, no matter their gender, would have been caught dead without a massive amount of eyeliner. This was also accompanied by some willingness to experiment with clothing.
“Pete Wentz shares clothes with his girlfriend Ashlee Simpson!” read multiple headlines around 2008. The very fit of men's jeans was upended by every teenage heartthrob from Gerard Way to Brendan Urie. That’s right Gen-Z, it turns out skinny jeans were subversive at some point as well, truly proving what we've been saying, assigning gender to clothing is pointless. How lucky was it, then that Pete Wentz proudly claimed that he not only designed women’s clothes but wore them as well?. The hungering masses could finally achieve the cool gender-bending aesthetic of their favorite rock star for the low low price of 68 dollars, only at Nordstrom.
I want people to express themselves how they want. If that means dressing up in women’s clothing, so be it. -Gerard Way
Make no mistake these acts were very subversive and probably expanded the fashion choice of millions in the span of ten years. Each step, no matter how small, is indeed a step, even if it starts with overpriced jeans at Nordstrom. The problem is, changing clothes does not necessarily change your fundamental views of gender. Nor does it change the fundamental dynamics at play within the patriarchy. For every time Gerard way said “I want people to express themselves how they want. If that means dressing up in women’s clothing, so be it. (admittedly a very 2000’s take of binary genders and “you do you but I wouldn’t do that” but still a valiant effort for the time), there are problematic men who would go with the hype, then turn around to uphold the most vicious aspects of the status quo. From transphobic comments to serious sexual assault allegations, the skinny jeans and make-up did not save the rock stars. This is because a trend is not a movement, it is not comparable to the deeply held beliefs of someone fighting for equality. And while they may overlap, they should not be confused.
Glam bam thank you ma'am: the problem with Glam and 70’s rock stars
If you have heard of the nostalgia/trend cycle you know it makes no sense. People have argued for cycles lasting anywhere from 20 to 60 years. That’s because obnoxiously steady and predictable trend cycles are a myth invented by consultants and trend forecasters in an attempt to give our little lizard brains some semblance of predictability.
However, it is undeniable that the ’70s are on the come-back. Every person with an ounce of celebrity to their name has been wearing bell-bottoms and printed patterns that just 10 years ago would’ve gone straight to goodwill. In fact, we might even have to come up with new celebrities in order to have Gucci make them brand ambassadors. From Miley Cyrus to Maneskin, to of course woke king Harry Styles, Alessandro wept for there were no celebrities left to dress. The androgynous style of the moment has been co-opted by this one brand. A brand that, by and large, is inspired by 70’s glam.
Back then, though, it was not all celebrities who dared to embrace the hairspray, the platforms, or the androgyny. Although hippies and counter-cultural movements had been blurring gender barriers with *gasps* long hair on men, there was still some reluctance among male superstars to adopt anything but a slightly overgrown shag cut. But as the decade wore on, it was clear this was no longer subversive. About a billion hippies had been to Woodstock, San Francisco crumbled under people with flowers in their hair, even the most famous serial killer was a hippie. The trend was no longer subversive but mainstream. So, the new counterculture had to go even harder. No longer would hair length differentiate them, instead, all-out, almost over the top, gendered clothing would have to be used in order to astonish.
The world was changing and the rock stars would follow. From the New York Dolls and their granny aesthetic to the iconic space invader David Bowie, it seemed we had vanquished gender. A generation that had essentially seen the rise of a middle class and possessed astonishing purchasing power would no longer be confined to communes fighting consumerism. The fashion industry, which until that time had the stereotype of being reserved for women, began to focus its attention on its male customers, especially on multiple unisex garments. In came the hairspray, the diamond, the velvet, the platform shoes, the lipstick, and the apparently always debated tight pants.
Male artists revealed in adopting a different side of masculinity and destroying outdated gender stereotypes. “You’re just a girl, what do you know about makeup,” says David Bowie to his wife, minutes before going on stage as Ziggy Stardust. And despite all the admiration I have for him, I can’t help but cringe. Because joking aside, the mansplaining is rampant.
While he may have been breaking down gender barriers in 1972, it would take years before a woman would join him on stage as a part of the band. Because while the scene was acting out femininity, women were almost completely absent. Save for outliers like Suzie Quatro who adopted a masculine style or perhaps Joan Jett and the Runaways, it was clear that a glass ceiling was very much present.
In fact, women were far more likely to be “muses”, disparaged in songs as well as in the general attitude, more often relegated to the status of groupies who, whilst being symbols of sexual liberation, often suffered tremendously at the hands of these men. Regardless of their clothes and makeup, the majority of them continued to exhibit extremely macho attitudes, dismissing women’s experiences, ridiculing them, sexualizing them among others. It is incredibly jarring to see this disconnect between the performance and the attitudes at large.
No amount of glitter would smash the patriarchy, and once again people are in the awkward position of having to consume a product, whether it be platforms or lipstick, in order to fight a system that is carefully planned to keep the status quo at any point. And while the use of make-up with male rockstars subsisted for a while, it eventually waned, in order to leave a space for the rugged masculinity of the mid-’80s. Because trends may change but the patriarchy is forever.
Pick me guys and Softboi aesthetics
We could certainly go back through the decades and examine every ebb and flow of feminine fashion in male-dominated spaces. But there is little to learn from examining every single cultural icon and their specific thoughts on long hair or nail polish or dresses. After all, this is less about the icons themselves and more about the systems they find themselves in, systems that have very little to do with ideals or concrete actions.
We have to reckon with the fact that aesthetics are nice and a cool part of being a human, but they’re not really convictions. While I can appreciate the innumerate amount of softbois and alt guys I come across, they are a fashion trend, they are not the saviors. Patriarchal society will not bow down, end all oppression and shift gender dynamics based on aesthetics. So if you (the hypothetical man who made it this far) want to paint your nails, wear a dress, or really express gender in another way, you should go ahead and do it. But remember this does not replace a strong progressive ideology. Make-up on a man will not end discrimination against women anymore than a woman wearing pants will reduce wage inequality. Traditional gender roles are much more than an aesthetic proposition.
Think of Kyle Scheible (as played by Timothee Chalet in the film Lady Bird) might say “What you do is very baller. You’re very anarchist.” and go around preaching Marxist or ideals, or pseudo socialist rants of equal work distribution. But I guarantee he always fails to clear the table at the end of the meal and lets the women do it. Jake Gyllenhaal might have keychains with progressive sayings on them for the world to see but how exactly is gaslighting extremely age-inappropriate women left and right a part of the plan to “F*ck the patriarchy”. Sexism, even covered in pretty colors and glitter is still misogynistic.
That is because statement keychains, 50 dollar nail polish, and platform shoes will not save us. Consumerism and aesthetics will not save us.
No less because cycles force us to switch back and forth. See if your entire aesthetic is based on being subversive you have a vested interest in keeping it niche, in making it your thing as opposed to a mainstream movement. Look I'm the guy who says trivial banal statements like "Smash the patriarchy" and wears nail polish, not like those other guys. And so, what happens when it inevitably becomes adopted by the culture at large? The trends shift. The inevitable cycle picks up and we find another thing to salivate about. If the aesthetic is above everything, then your core beliefs can just come off with acetone.