shawn mendes has a point – we need to stop policing male femininity
Our knowledge of gender and sexuality is expanding at breakneck speed, but the Mendes memes prove we still have rigid ideas of what it means to be masculine or to act gay.
Earlier this year The New York Times published an article titled ‘Welcome To The Age Of The Twink’. Unsurprisingly the essay, which argued that male beauty standards had shifted in favour of “young, attractive, hairless, slim men”, spread like wildfire across Gay Twitter™, with several users pointing out the obvious: twinks have always been hot property in the LGBTQ community. One star that knows this well is singer-songwriter Shawn Mendes whose sexuality has been the subject of speculation for years; he’s been fantasised about in gay fanfiction, scrutinised on Reddit for his ‘gay face’ and lusted over by fans that think he ‘eye fucked’ an interviewer one time.
He’s joined a cohort of twinky sex symbols including Harry Styles and Timothée Chalamet, both of whom attract similar hysteria, but the difference is that one of these men openly refuses to define his sexuality, and the other starred in a gay blockbuster and sent queer pulses racing when he literally fucked a peach.
"Feminine expression is basically a red rag to street harassment, so plenty of gay men in particular ‘act straight’ for their own safety, particularly in countries which still persecute homosexuality by law."
Mendes denied gay rumours, but they kept coming. Now he’s discussed the impact they had on him; in a Rolling Stone profile he said speculation made him obsessively police his own behaviour (“maybe I am a little more feminine – but that’s the way it is”), and it exacerbated his own internalised homophobia. “In my heart I know that [being gay is] not a bad thing,” he says. “There’s still a piece of me that thinks that. And I hate that side of me.” He rounds off his musings with a cutting comment: “You fucking guys are so lucky I’m not actually gay and terrified of coming out. That’s something that kills people.”
He’s not wrong. Studies often show that queer people are more likely to struggle with mental health problems due to homophobia, abandonment and internalised self-hatred, and it’s a problem exacerbated by the femme-shaming, racism and transphobia which is notoriously prevalent on hook-up apps. While it’s important not to paint Mendes as too much of a victim –– by his own admission he’s a straight cis guy who’s lucky not to struggle with his sexuality –– it is important to abolish the idea that men who exhibit ‘feminine’ behaviour are gay by default.
This idea does nobody any favours. First of all, it tells men that they have to adhere to standards of masculinity both in terms of their appearance and their behaviour. We’re told that men should be strong, stoic and silent, and that they should bottle up their feelings. Statistics show that these expectations are reeking havoc on their mental health, but plenty of men aren’t seeking help for fear of being labelled ‘weak’ or ‘gay’, which in the eyes of bigots is just as bad. Charities like MIND and platforms like VENT are trying to tackle the problem, but suicide remains the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.
LGBTQ communities across the world have internalised these ideas too, and who can blame them? Speaking from experience, all it takes is a slick of foundation and a particularly fabulous outfit to make passers-by spit ‘faggot’ as you walk past. Feminine expression is a red rag to street harassment so plenty of gay men in particular ‘act straight’ for their own safety, particularly in countries that still persecute homosexuality by law. Then there are those who internalise the idea that femme gay men are undesirable, or that they reflect badly on the community at large. The infamous ‘no fats, no femmes’ Grindr tagline exemplifies this ethos, which only creates division among an already marginalised community.
Our knowledge of gender and sexuality is expanding at breakneck speed, but the Mendes memes prove we still have rigid ideas of what it means to be masculine or to act gay. Obviously the Twitter jokes tend to be light-hearted and are driven more by thirst than malice, but they reinforce the idea that men can give off 'a gay vibe' and subtly coerce men into policing their own gender expression. This is counterproductive not only because it makes men like Mendes scared of rocking a glittery lid, but because it achieves the exact opposite of what we should be doing: normalising feminine behaviour in straight men.
Discrimination is inextricably tied to stereotypes, and the more we dissolve our ideas of what a person should act or look like, the less judgmental the world will become. The narrative around trans acceptance is a case in point; earlier this week Munroe Bergdorf eloquently and passionately defended the rights of trans children, only to be told by an anti-trans campaigner that trans people reinforce the gender binary.
This isn’t true. People who identify as both trans and non-binary are rendered invisible in mainstream media, and those trans men and women who do gain visibility are held to punishing beauty standards and pressured to conform. Hari Nef spoke about femme presentation as an “aesthetic of survival”; Janet Mock wrote about “pretty privilege”; Laverne Cox has talked at length about the expectation that trans women in particular conform to beauty standards, and about the class divide that this creates. The fact isn’t that trans people reinforce the gender binary. The fact is that we relentlessly pressure them to conform and then harass and vilify those who don’t.
This isn’t to say that feminine straight men can end transphobia and gendered discrimination, which would be ridiculous, but it is to say that society could shift gradually and meaningfully over time if weren't so preoccupied with stereotypes. If we can look at a feminine man without labelling him gay we can make life easier for queer people who face street harassment based on their presentation. If we can look at a woman without policing her femininity we can loosen the restraints of misogyny that harm both ‘feminine’ women (catcalling, sexual harassment) and ‘butch’ women (who also face discrimination tied to homophobia in the same way femme men are presumed to be gay.)
The only way to achieve this is to stop overanalysing men like Mendes, or willing them to be gay just because they fit gay beauty standards. Not only does it detract from actual queer stars (try finding a gay lead of an LGBTQ film and you’ll see how depressingly scarce representation is), it reinforces the gendered stereotypes that disproportionately punish queer people. We need a world where people are free to express themselves without being scrutinised, because being held under a microscope makes us all judge others more harshly. In a cultural climate already fraught with division, that’s the last thing we need.