Billy Porter and Harry Styles: Who’s credited for being revolutionary?
In a recent interview with The Times, queer icon Billy Porter criticized Vogue’s choice to let Harry Styles — a straight-passing, white male muscian — be their first cover of a man in a dress. Porter is most known for his activism and for the portrayal of Pray Tell, the lively ballroom emcee on the hit TV drama “Pose,” a show about the lives of Black and Brown queer and trans people during the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Porter also has a reputation for bringing flair and originality to any red carpet he walks, and has undeniably popularized queer fashion in recent years. Even though he didn’t literally start the movement, he is an active part of the communities that did.
In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, Styles said, “I think it’s a very free and freeing time … Am I sprinkling in nuggets of sexual ambiguity to try and be more interesting? No … I think it looks cool. I just think sexuality’s something that’s fun. I can’t say I’ve given it any more thought than that.” Styles’ refreshing mindset and bold fashion choices are far from a bad thing. The broader, more relevant question is one of who we are willing to listen to. This isn’t a fault of Styles — rather an example of the intersectionality of underrepresentation in general, because we benefit from the contributions of both Styles and Porter. The cisgendered and/or heterosexual boys challenging gender norms are indeed contributing to denormalizing toxic masculinity and ideas of limiting, binary “norms.” The “new normal” then has the chance at becoming the deconstruction of social hierarchies in general, ideally eliminating the need to adhere to pre-set norms altogether.
However, this fails to happen when representation like this outweighs those who have no choice in whether or not they will be seen as “queer,” as it is arguably activists like Porter who have made this time a “freeing one.” It isn’t that Styles is wrong for expressing himself in a non-normative way — in fact it’s good, as it means it’s working — but that the representation is still disproportionate. As Porter said in his interview, “I had to fight my entire life to get to a place where I could wear a dress to the Oscars… All he has to do is be white and straight.” Queer fashion isn’t something especially reserved for gay people, but the issue with Styles being the first person to do a cover like this is that it isn’t an opportunity equally offered to people with identities such as Porter’s.
When you consider how the trendy, aesthetic bits from marginalized American subcultures often make their way into pop culture without allowing the people it stems from the same entrance (nor are they the ones then securing the money, fame, etc.), it isn’t hard to understand why Porter feels the way he does. A similar issue arose recently on TikTok, where Black creators create trend-setting dances to Black music, but white creators who cover the dances are the ones whose names become attached to them. Addison Rae and the D’Amelio sisters aren’t wrong for covering Black content creators, since pretty much everyone who posts videos on TikTok is inspired by or blatantly copying something else they saw, (hence “trend”) but it is wrong that they were then catapulted into fame and fortune instead of the people who started it because of viewer biases. This is also comparable to an episode of “Pose,” in which the inventors of “voguing” — a style of dance inspired by the models’ poses in Vogue magazine — are thrilled when Madonna sheds a light on ball culture with her hit song, “Vogue.” This victory is short lived, however, because the queer POC who performed and invented this style of dance were not elevated to a higher social status or given more opportunities and acceptance. Rather, when the trend’s popularity died down, those whose lives were in it were still in the same place they started. The only credit remaining is to Madonna, and she, to most listeners, is the face of “voguing.”
Styles received some backlash for the Vogue cover, so it would be remiss to suggest this decision was without consequence, but that doesn’t negate his privilege as the person who was allowed to occupy this space for the first time. Space is often made for derivatives of queer and/or nonwhite cultures when they are introduced by people who aren’t a part of them. In the case of Porter or other queer POC who have been overlooked, offering consistent representation and opportunities for people whose lives aren’t dependent on this radical representation and activism fails to address the entire problem. Harry Styles himself is far from “problematic,” but a culture that is more interested in seeing him be the face of these historical firsts rather than a person whose culture is infused with and whose life has been dedicated to this type of activism, is.
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