Eyeliner and Nail Polish: Are Straight Men Breaking Gender Norms?

With the rise of apps like TikTok, there has been a sudden shift in consciousness around gender expression. Increasingly, straight cisgender men are breaking away from gender roles, especially amongst those in Gen Z. Straight cisgender men have started to do things that society has traditionally characterized as “feminine.” These include wearing eyeliner, painting their nails, wearing skirts, and wearing pearl necklaces. If you see a guy doing all of these things on TikTok, it’s very possible that the comments on his account look like a mixture of hate from other straight cisgender men and praise from straight cisgender women. 

Artists like Harry Styles, who often wears dresses and other pieces of “feminine” clothing, have gotten a lot of attention for being so “attractive.” Though it first appears that they are perceived as attractive because of their looks, their comfort with femininity is also part of the appeal. Because of this social media phenomenon, I am interested in exploring how femininity in straight cis men has become so desirable. 

Ever since I was young, I was always expected to be “manly.” Things as minimal as the way I moved my hands when I talked or how I walked were analyzed under a microscope by the male figures in my life. However, as hard as I tried, I could never get myself to be as masculine as the men around me. There was always something about my behavior that was left to dissect. Unfortunately, this had a negative impact on my life. Other boys who were obviously able to fit a traditionally masculine mold better than I could poked fun at me and asked invasive questions about my sexuality, something I had not even explored at the time.

I think this is why it is sometimes hard to reconcile how cis straight men embracing their femininity is now more widely accepted and even celebrated. I have never been celebrated for being different. 

Audre Lorde

Sometimes I feel this pressure to be happy that straight cis men are slowly becoming more comfortable with expressing traditional forms of femininity. A part of me is happy that straight men will now “normalize” breaking away from gender roles, allowing the rest of us to be more expressive with gender without repercussion. Straight cisgender men should not be excluded from this type of expression just because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. After all, like Audre Lorde states in her essay “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”: “Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged.” Straight people and straight men need to work with queer and trans people to advocate for queer and trans rights and justice, and a part of that justice is how we get to express ourselves in our lives. 

However, there’s always something making me hesitant about completely supporting straight men for embracing their femininity. I think that it is so unfortunate that we had to wait for straight men to finally start realizing that gender norms are negatively restrictive for femininity in men to be normalized. Queer people have been shattering gender norms through expression and advocacy for generations, but have not received nearly the same amount of support straight men have received for doing the bare minimum. They’re placed in the spotlight—given virality, fame, photoshoots, interviews—while queer people who have been pioneers for decades have been left in the shadows to be forgotten. 

Billy Porter at the Oscars in 2019

I assume that many straight cisgender men who embrace femininity are genuinely exhausted about the gender-strict rules our society has created and just want to express themselves in new ways. However, something I have noticed as a gay Latino teen living in NYC is that a lot of male teenagers have started to let go of some of the strict rules of masculinity. I know of girls in NYC who have given their boyfriends makeovers. These boys then suddenly start painting their nails and wearing clothing created for women.

As a low-income boy of color, it is also evident to me that most of these boys that are starting to embrace femininity are white and wealthy. Being part of the Latinx community, I have noticed that upper-middle-class white people seem to be a lot more open-minded when it comes to breaking away from gender norms and gender roles. I think that as a man of color, there is a stronger expectation to be more masculine than white men. 

However, it seems that men who embrace femininity are attractive to many women. To think about why this is, we have to think about what femininity means. 

Once I played tag with some of my little cousins. One of them, who is a boy, fell on the ground and scraped his elbow. As a natural reaction, he started hysterically crying. My other cousin, who is also a boy, said “stop crying like a girl!” in between giggles. We have been programmed to see weakness and vulnerability as feminine traits, so when men embrace femininity, people probably assume that these men must be more comfortable with being vulnerable and more in tune with their emotions. But why is this attractive? 

Jordan Huxhold, model and Tiktoker

Though I do not have a lot of straight male friends, I have been witness to the ways in which straight men (and all men in general) behave and are victim to the ways boys and men are socialized. A lot of men manifest a lot of the negative effects that come from toxic masculinity. Not only are we taught that we should never ask for help or be vulnerable, but we are also taught that women and girls are objects that we can use whenever and however we want for our own enjoyment. A lot of men have still not unpacked these beliefs, so they show up as harmful behaviors ranging from sexual harassment and locker room talk to rape and sexual assault.

These behaviors are not foreign to women. The personal stories that we heard at the beginning of our high school feminism course taught by Ileana Jiménez are evidence of this; girls and women experience violence from multiple types of men and boys, from strangers to friends that they’ve known for years.

Due to this, I think that straight women have started to make the conscious decision to try to avoid these types of men and boys when it comes to pursuing relationships. Not only are they looking for men that will not be a source of danger, but they are also looking for men who have left old and backward ways of thinking behind, like thinking that women should be responsible for cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children, or being homophobic, or thinking that when a woman is assaulted, “what was she wearing?” becomes a relevant and important question to ask, when it clearly isn’t a relevant or important question to ask.

So how can you differentiate between men who act and think in these ways from men who don’t? Eyeliner, painted nails, and a pearl necklace seem to do the trick. 

When men embrace femininity, it lets women know that they are comfortable in their masculinity. These types of men do not feel the need to go above and beyond to prove that they are men. Therefore, they do not behave in the toxic ways society teaches men how to act for the sake of being “manly.” They tend to treat the women in their lives better. In general, they tend to be better men.

Or so it seems. 

Embracing femininity and letting go of gender roles does not eliminate misogyny, sexism, and homophobia. Your gender expression and the ways you look do not necessarily always align with your behaviors and beliefs. 

Unfortunately, straight men have been taking advantage of the positive connotations there are around breaking gender norms as a straight male. Unlike queer and trans people, who usually break gender norms in order to fight against our very binary society, many straight men start to embrace femininity because they know it is attractive to women. They know that as long as they can put on the facade that they are comfortable with their masculinity through expressing femininity, women will feel safe around them. This diminishes the work queer and trans people have done for decades to try to eliminate strict gender norms. 

Though straight men who embrace femininity seem to get a lot of attention from women, they also receive backlash from queer people. A random day in March of this year, I stumbled across a comical TikTok. Micro-influencer Cooper Neidecker, a cis straight white man who paints his nails and wears pearl necklaces, was receiving negative comments from queer people. The people calling him out claimed that he was marketing himself as someone revolutionary because he was a cis straight man comfortable enough in his sexuality and masculinity to wear feminine items. As a response, he made a tone-deaf TikTok stating that he gets his fashion inspiration from the celebrated Black trans-activist Marsha P. Johnson, which he clearly does not. It is especially discouraging for queer people to see cis straight men claiming that they are some sort of trailblazer for doing things we as a community have been doing longer and better. 

One group that is just directly sending hate to cis straight men who embrace femininity are other cis straight men. Lots of cis straight men who are a bit more hesitant to let go of gender roles have shared their confusion and frustrations on social media. A lot of these men seem to be worried about the fact that even though they go to the gym every day, they attract fewer girls than guys who paint their nails. It is obvious that these men do not realize how unattractive arrogance is, but the bigger issue at hand is that they believe that women are attracted to hyper-masculinity. Though we talk a lot about the negative impact the male gaze has on girls and women, we rarely talk about the ways that men themselves interact with the male gaze. Men think that men who are physically fit and hyper-masculine are attractive to women when in most cases this is just what is attractive to other men. To them, accepting the fact that women might be attracted to femininity in men is difficult.

It is for me too.

Though I have spent this entire time backlashing straight men for wearing things we have socialized to be feminine, I have also made efforts to break away from gender norms. The difference is that it is who I am. I am not a very masculine person. Sometimes my female friends tell me that they forget I am a boy. I have been a roadblock for gender roles since the moment I started to develop my individual and unique personality. For straight men, their femininity is like a costume; they can take it off whenever it benefits them.

My femininity is my skin. I can’t peel it off or cover it.

It is who I am.

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