How did Harry Styles become the target of right-wing pundits like Candace Owens?

How did Harry Styles become the target of right-wing pundits like Candace Owens?
Source: Brendan McDermid, Reuters
Both Shapiro and Owens have been held up as intellectual faces of young conservatism, but their “regressive” attitude toward both gender roles and fashion became fodder for mockery online, especially by fans of Styles.

Male rock stars have been donning dresses and androgynous styles for decades, going back, at least, to David Bowie on the British album cover of “The Man Who Sold the World” in 1971. So, when right-wing provocateur Candace Owens accused British pop star Harry Styles of attacking Western society for wearing a dress in the latest issue of Vogue, it struck many as out of touch.

Fellow conservative pundit Ben Shapiro took up Owens’ cause, tweeting, “The POINT of Styles doing this photo shoot is to feminize masculinity.” Both Shapiro and Owens have been held up as intellectual faces of young conservatism (Shapiro is 36, Owens 31), but their “regressive” attitude toward both gender roles and fashion became fodder for mockery online, especially by fans of Styles.

Yet, as Shapiro made explicit in a thread about the Vogue images, modern conservatism sees the fight for strict gender definitions as a vital battle for the future of Western civilization.

What angered Candace Owens?

The cover story for Vogue’s December issue features Harry Styles, a former member of the British boy band One Direction and one of the world’s most popular solo pop stars. In multiple images throughout the story, Styles is shown wearing dresses, as well as kilts, pants and long coats.

A November 13 tweet from the prominent fashion magazine included a quote from Styles: “There’s so much joy to be had in playing with clothes. I’ve never thought too much about what it means—it just becomes this extended part of creating something.” Included in the tweet were two images of Styles from the article, one showing him wearing a jacket over a lace dress.

Owens, a Black conservative and avid supporter of President Donald Trump, has advocated for a “Blexit” of Black voters from the Democratic Party and has built her career on expressing provocative, even contrarian views. She became a trending topic on Twitter after she responded to the Vogue tweet with consternation:

“There is no society that can survive without strong men. The East knows this. In the west, the steady feminization of our men at the same time that Marxism is being taught to our children is not a coincidence. It is an outright attack. Bring back manly men.”

Harry Styles’s fans strike back

As Trump’s campaign learned earlier this year when K-pop fans pranked his rally, the internet can be a risky place when a fan base is riled up. In the wake of Owens’s critical tweet, fans of Styles unleashed a torrent of mockery and anger at her.

One Styles fan account tweeted a photo of Styles next to a photo of Owens’s husband, George Farmer, taunting, “Your husband VS Harry styles…now Mrs. Owens plz educate me on who’s more of a ‘manly-man’.” Numerous other tweets aimed vitriol directly at the conservative pundit.

Other Twitter users noted that feminine or androgynous fashion was hardly anything new among male musical artists. Davie Bowie and Freddie Mercury, two of the most successful and popular artists of the 20th century, wore dresses at times. Gender-bending fashion isn’t limited to rock acts, either. Andre 3000, one half of the multiplatinum hip-hop act Outkast, has also regularly embraced feminized fashion.

To many, Styles wearing a dress in the pages of Vogue would hardly seem worthy of cultural critique in 2020. Author Jennifer Wright called it “frankly embarrassing” that anyone would be upset by Styles in a dress 50 years after Bowie did the same thing.

Despite backlash to her comment, Owens doubled down two days later, tweeting that she stood by her call for “manly men.” She also claimed the concept of “toxic masculinity” was created by “toxic females,” adding, “Real women don’t do fake feminism. Sorry I’m not sorry.”

Who is Ben Shapiro?

Like Owens, Shapiro has built his career as a right-wing pundit through various media endeavors, including serving as the chief editor for the far-right news site The Daily Wire and the host of his own political podcast, The Ben Shapiro Show. He has also authored two books that criticize liberal and leftist views.

In 2018, The New York Times included him in a profile piece entitled, “Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web.” The article labeled Shapiro “an anti-Trump conservative” and reported he left the far-right Breitbart News over his belief that the Steve Bannon-led publication had become “Trump’s personal Pravda.”

Despite the Times’ characterization of Shapiro being “anti-Trump,” he has at times defended Trump against “the vile media” for whom he frequently expresses contempt.

Shapiro defends Owens

In 2018, the rapper Kanye West, who has openly supported Trump, tweeted that he loved “the way Candace Owens thinks.” A month later, when West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, met with Trump to discuss prison reform, Shapiro and Owens had a brief Twitter tussle over the use of celebrity to push a political agenda. Shapiro insisted that Kim’s status as a celebrity did not make her an “expert.”

This interaction was heralded in The New York Times piece as a moment of Shapiro laughing off the antics of an unserious conservative pundit. Yet, just this November, Shapiro announced that Owens was joining The Daily Wire as a regular contributor. Perhaps that explains why Shapiro came to Owens’s defense following her widely mocked Harry Styles tweet.

In a Twitter thread two days after Owens’s initial tweet, Shapiro stated of the Styles photo shoot, “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.” The thread goes on to discuss the distinctions between “the role of men” versus “the role of women.”

Shapiro concludes, “The Left knows this; they openly say that gender is both important and socially constructed (which is why they tell you that a man can be a woman, e.g., despite no biological underpinning).”

Shapiro has frequently expressed criticism of transgender acceptance and has suggested it is a mental disorder. The view that transgender people are suffering from a mental illness known as gender dysphoria is shared by Owens and some conservative politicians.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) and World Health Organization (WHO) have both stated that a transgender identity is not an indication of mental illness. The APA distinguishes between identifying as transgender and the condition of gender dysphoria, which is defined as “psychological distress that results from an incongruence between one’s sex assigned at birth and one’s gender identity.”

Nonetheless, Shapiro often mocks the concept of gender nonconformity on his Twitter account, including his nearly annual joke on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day: “Happy Legal Guardian of Unspecified Gender Day!”

Like Owens, though, Shapiro was not spared his own share of mockery for criticizing Harry Styles.

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