Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I used to read GQ from time to time, because it published good magazine journalism, and because I appreciated learning basic stuff on how to dress like a grown-up. When I was in journalism school in the ’80s, I once read a short GQ feature about penny loafers. I can’t remember who wrote it, but I do recall marveling at it. I didn’t really care about men’s shoes, but this piece, which focused on a particular craftsman, made me care. It made penny loafers interesting to a badly dressed college student who plodded around campus on most days wearing Teva sandals. I loved that piece because it showed me what a talented journalist could do with his subject.
And I appreciated articles in the magazine that taught me things about traditional male culture that I didn’t get from my dad. My father, a country man, taught me how to do all kinds of important masculine things — hunt, fish, how to chop wood. But he didn’t know the basics of what you might call urban masculinity — e.g., how men dressed for the office and more formal occasions, because that wasn’t part of his culture. GQ back then helped rustics like me learn how to buy ties, what to look for in shoes, how to tell the difference between a well-made blazer and a cheap knockoff. Things like that.
We’re not attempting to be comprehensive on the subject of masculinity or offering a strict how-to for being a better man. Instead, this issue is an exploration of the ways that traditional notions of masculinity are being challenged, shifted, and overturned. It’s also intended as an exploration of how we can all become more generous, honest, open, and loving humans—especially if we rebuild masculinity on a foundation of traits and values like generosity, honesty, openness, and love.
Needless to say, one of the voices in the mix is that of our cover subject, Pharrell Williams, who is an icon of progressive thinking, music making, and dressing. Pharrell has a long history of shattering cultural norms—and he has also shown a profound ability to adjust as the world around him has changed. That dynamic combination of leadership and responsiveness is aspirational, and exactly why we wanted him on the cover.
Above, the icon of GQ‘s New Masculinity: an androgynous-looking pop star who wears a sleeping bag, and who looks like the winner of Miss Transgender Cabela’s 2019. The new issue has a piece featuring 18 “Voices of the New Masculinity.” They are, in order of appearance:
A gay male comedian
A female-to-male transgender
A gender nonbinary female who uses the pronoun “they”
A female feminist activist
A female sculptor whose work explores “hypermasculine spaces,” or what she calls “a club I can’t be part of”
A female activist who founded the #MeToo movement
A lesbian photographer “whose work ranges from fine art to editorial to advertising while flipping gendered scripts—of assertive women, queer and transgender models, and androgynous boys.”
A female cultural anthropologist who advocates for intersex athletes
An NBA star
A female “musher” (dogsled racer) who is partnered with a female-to-male transgender
Gay filmmaker John Waters
A male Muslim podcaster
A black married couple — male and female — who hang out at a strip club
A male poet
A lesbian comedian “who’s taking on toxic masculinity”
Magic Johnson’s gay son who promotes men wearing cosmetics and female clothing
So, of the 18 figures that GQ identifies as defining “the new masculinity,” there are perhaps four who are heterosexual men — about 20 percent. Eight are biological females who identify as females, one is a female-to-male transgender, and one is a biological female who identifies as nonbinary. That is to say, ten of the 18 are not heterosexual men — this, in a country in which 97 percent of males identify as heterosexual.
At least seven are gay or genderqueer, so they aren’t traditionally female either.
This is the New Masculinity? Or is this rather what masculinity has come to mean to Manhattan decadents?
Circulation numbers for men’s magazines have been declining for years. You can’t blame GQ for wanting to try something new. But good grief, this is really stupid. Turning to women, lesbians, a transgender, and a gay man who wears make-up and frocks for advice on how to be masculine? What kind of man wants to wear Pharrell’s sleeping bag?
What’s next: the editors of Scientific American citing creationism advocate Ken Ham as one of the prominent voices changing science? Cosmopolitan bringing in Fedor Emelianenko as a guide to the New Femininity? We can laugh at this, but in all seriousness, this kind of thing with GQ shows you both how elite editors and journalists frame the conversation, and how out of touch they are with reality.