Men, beauty & homophobia
There’s a disturbing but unsurprising tendency among men – primarily straight, cisgender men – of extreme reactions to other men’s style choices. This is especially prevalent when men in one way or another use feminine attributes in their self expression. I read an article in a major Swedish newspaper where a man was making a very big deal about men who wear perfume, going so far as to compare their wearing fragrance to assault.
If this was about an allergy I could probably understand not wanting to risk your life by taking the tube among the spray-happy masses – but this was not the issue. No, he was just offended by the fact that the ones wearing perfume were men. In fact, he pointed out that when women wear perfume in public space he finds it sexually titillating, which suggests that his discomfort is of a sexual nature. Perfume can be understood as an erotic pleasure, and men are not supposed to be experienced as pleasurable. They are not supposed to delight the senses as women, by patriarchal logic, are. Similarly, at the dinner table, a male relative went on a tirade against an openly gay Swedish opera singer for his intense black eye makeup. He just couldn’t accept or understand why a man would wear makeup – he was visibly angry about it, bewildered. As if the wearing of some kohl was some sort of personal affront, an unforgivable crime.
At the same time, beauty products are marketed primarily toward women – straight women. It’s more or less assumed that not only is the consumer a heterosexual woman, but said heterosexual woman expects her makeup to draw positive attention from men. Fragrance ads are particularly heinous offenders in this category as they rely heavily on sex appeal and innuendo.
Here, the sticky filling of the patriarchy-heteronormativity sandwich oozes out. Women are defined as women by their attraction to men, and vice versa. Women use makeup to make themselves beautiful for a male onlooker – that’s the assumption. If you’re not a woman, or you’re the wrong kind of woman, you’re not supposed to mess with cosmetics. It’s not for you. It’s wasted on you. It sets my brain on fire to even think about how ridiculous this all is, yet it’s very real.
If I’m a lesbian, and I put on lipstick, I’m immediately assumed to be straight, no matter how much I tell you otherwise. I’ll also be told that it’s a “waste” for me to look a certain way since I’m not sexually accessible to men. It’s false advertising, or cheating, or being a tease.
If a man puts on lipstick there’s a plethora of homophobic slurs to throw at him as punishment. And at this point, you may not even need to use those slurs – you can talk about your personal preference, which is the politically correct way of expressing your homophobia.
In a way, I do think men fear their own beauty. The very rare occasions I’ve had to see men engage with cosmetics, it’s taken as a joke – they’re afraid to even take it seriously or try. Just look at those makeup videos on youtube where boyfriends participate. They’re afraid to make themselves look beautiful, because they’re afraid of their own gaze being turned against them – to be seen as beautiful and to be desired, whether that’s by other men or by women. I think often it’s assumed that men are only afraid of other men’s sexual gaze, but they’re just as afraid of women’s.
To put yourself in the place that has, for the last 200 years or so, been reserved for women feels threatening and disempowering. To see other men place themselves as objects of desire is to see oneself in their place – anxiety-inducing, no doubt. No wonder they get so angry.