Not long ago, I was chatting with a friend at a party, eagerly explaining to him how much he reminded me of someone else I adore. “You’re both slightly effeminate, nerdy, Jewish boys!” I exclaimed to him. My friend paused for a moment. “You know,” he said, “you’re one of the few people who doesn’t mean ‘slightly effeminate’ as an insult.”
In many ways, there’s never been a better time to break, or bend, the gender binary. Trans people have become a fixture in the entertainment landscape, getting nominated for Emmys and even appearing on mainstream shows like Modern Family. Celebrities like Ruby Rose and Miley Cyrus have come out as genderqueer, and New York City officially recognizes 31 different gender identities. Yet even in this landscape, feminine men of all sexual orientations, but especially heterosexual men, are still largely derided. While butch women like Rachel Maddow are seen as serious and professional, men who publicly explore their feminine side—whether through fashion, like Young Thug or Jaden Smith, or through nurturing behavior, like stay-at-home dads—are still viewed as oddities or even freakish provocateurs. Why do we still hew to this double standard?
As with all things related to gender expression, defining male femininity can be a bit complex. There’s no one thing that flags a cisgender man as effeminate; male femmes can best be thought of as a loose collection of men who display traits historically associated with women. Sometimes those traits are external, like caring about one’s appearance or demonstrating a love of fashion, makeup, and traditionally feminine styles like long hair, skirts, frills, and high heels. Other times they’re internal. Men who are sexually submissive, emotionally attuned to themselves and others, domestic, or more interested in arts and literature than sports and outdoor recreation can all be considered on the femme spectrum.
One thing that’s not complex, however, is our society’s distaste for men who embrace these feminine qualities. The cultural bias against male expressions of femininity is so strong that it’s difficult to think of celebrated male femmes. Sure, there’s David Bowie and Prince (both of whom, it should be noted, balanced their feminine fashion with aggressive, hypermasculine sexuality, and were subject to a great deal of public inquiry about their sexual orientation), but beyond that, there’s not much. The vast majority of popular culture’s male femmes are presented as jokes or villains, with an entire catalogue of Disney villains reinforcing the message that male femininity is inextricable from depravity—a tradition upheld with Harry Potter’s Lucius Malfoy and The Hunger Games’ President Snow. When the characters are more aspirational, they either overcompensate for their femininity with a dash of aggressive masculinity, like the flamboyant Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean series, or their effeteness itself is played for humor, as with the Crane brothers on the long running series Frasier.
And for effeminate men, the effect goes beyond a mere lack of positive role models. Men whom I spoke with for this story told me of being ostracized or excluded from male events or spaces, or routinely mocked or criticized for their appearances and mannerisms. Max, a 31-year-old programmer from New York, told me of the aggressive ribbing he received growing up on Long Island for what he considered his effeminate characteristics. “I started growing my hair long in freshman year of high school. The longer it got, the more it agitated people. By sophomore year everyone was asking when I was going to get a haircut.” By junior year, he said, the comments had escalated into mockery, with friends joking about sneaking up on him and shaving his head.
For feminine men coming of age today, things are slightly better, but not by much. “I don't get rocks thrown at me or anything, but I definitely get some strange looks around campus,” says Sam, a 20-year-old college sophomore from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “I think most particularly when I decided to shave my legs, I got a lot of flak for making a decision about my own body hair that didn't conform to the idea of what a manly man does.”
Feminine men also find that their gender expression is often viewed as a problem to be “fixed” with the help of their more masculine peers: “I can't tell you how often I get advice about working out, completely unsolicited,” says Cameron, a 28-year-old programmer from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who notes unsolicited fitness recommendations were most frequent when he was a slim 140 pounds. “I think there's something to be said about physical fitness and all that, but they treated me like I was some sort of failed timber-hauler or something.”
And while some found there were perks to dating as a femme man—one man told me, “I know what a woman likes because I actually listen to her and take in what she says"—others found themselves getting rejected for more masculine men or being pressured to butch it up. And, of course, there’s always the assumption that gender presentation is somehow correlated with sexual orientation, with most feminine men being presumed gay at some point, regardless of whether they’re actually interested in men. (It’s also worth noting that, in spite of a historic appreciation for gender fluidity, even the queer community has “masc privilege,” as the ubiquity of Grindr ads requesting “no fems” makes clear.)
Why are we still so hostile to effeminate men? It’s likely that the roots lie in our culture’s deep-seated misogyny. A woman who tries to be more like a man is moving up in the world, while a man who’s not afraid to be womanly is taking a step down—there’s a reason, after all, why “sissy” is an insult while “tomboy” was, at least until recently, a neutral, and occasionally positive, term. Traditionally feminine traits such as emotional openness and awareness, caring about aesthetics and the arts, and domesticity are still culturally coded as frivolous, weak, and worthy of contempt. And while they may be tolerable in women—who are just naturally that way, presumably—in men they’re treated as shameful, embarrassing, even downright disgusting.
Yet there’s something truly tragic about our disregard for feminine men. It’s not merely the way our disdain for male femmes highlights our culture’s pervasive sexism, or that we’re squashing personal freedom and preventing men from living their personal truths (although these are certainly problems). It’s also that many of the qualities associated with women, and discouraged in men, are positive traits everyone should be encouraged to develop. Empathy, caregiving, being emotionally attuned to one’s self and others—these “feminine” qualities help make the world a better place, and as we discourage men from embracing them, we encourage them to be cut off from rewarding emotional connections. Donald Trump may see bragging about never changing a diaper as an assertion of his impressive masculinity, but do we really want to encourage fathers to be that distanced from their children’s upbringing?
(Also on the Donald Trump tip: Though the Republican nominee presumably sees his aggressive masculinity as a part and parcel of his businessman persona, studies have shown that women often make better leaders and increase corporate profits—perhaps in part because feminine qualities are as productive in the corporate arena as they are in the domestic one.)
Our messaging that masculinity is inherently superior to femininity begins early. Young women are lauded for pursuing STEM-related interests, or wanting to be more than “just” a princess. Young men, on the other hand, are rarely encouraged to engage in caregiving or domestic play: It’s been decades since William wanted a doll, and sharp gender divisions in the toy aisle reinforce the message that that sort of desire isn’t appropriate for boys. Retailers like Target have taken a step in the right direction by removing gendered labeling from their toy aisles; hopefully more stores will follow suit and allow children to decide for themselves what sort of toys and games align with their gender.
Because just as cordoning off girls and women in a prison of princesses and pink is damaging and unhealthy, relegating boys and men to masculine interests and pursuits can be similarly harmful. Teaching young boys that feminine interests are shameful or should be kept secret—or conflating loving pink and dresses and domesticity with being queer or trans, rather than interests anyone of any identity can enjoy—can force them to suppress a wonderful, and often essential, part of themselves, denying them access to the full spectrum of human experience. There are as many ways to be a man as there are to be a woman, and our world would be a richer, more beautiful place if we more readily embraced a wider variety of male gender expression.
Both masculinity and femininity have positive aspects that we should all be encouraged to explore—whether we’re butch, femme, androgynous, cis, trans, non-binary, or somewhere else on the gender spectrum entirely. We’ve come a long way in widening our views of healthy and normal gender expression. It’s time to take things one step further with a full throated celebration of feminine men.
Lux Alptraum is a writer, comedian, and consultant with one thing on her mind. Follow her on Twitter at @luxalptraum.