As we say goodbye to Prince only a few months after the passing of David Bowie, we're reflecting on what the two legends can teach us about masculinity and gender.



How Prince and David Bowie Redefined What It Means To Be Masculine

I never discovered role models in my adolescence who taught me to circumvent masculinity, to queer myself into the person I wanted to be. So when I poured through firsthand accounts of people who had been changed forever by the music of David Bowie in the wake of his death this past January, the only feeling I could muster was admiration and longing. That same feeling crept in yesterday as I processed the loss of Prince, another groundbreaking musician who became a queer icon for generations of kids, and who learned early on how malleable masculinity was in the hands of these legendary rock stars.

Although my childhood never intersected with the groundbreaking music and style of Prince and Bowie, millions of other queer kids did grow up loving these magic men. As musician Frank Ocean wrote yesterday, “[Prince] made me feel more comfortable with how I identify sexually simply by his display of freedom from and irreverence for obviously archaic ideas like gender conformity.” Prince and Bowie may have died this year, but their impact on the constructs of gender and masculinity is as immortal as their music.

Long before words like “androgynous” and “genderqueer” became part of our regular lexicon, Bowie and Prince shed the restrictive rules that govern traditional masculinity like one of their silky blouses. With a collection of makeup, dresses, and more heels than a Real Housewife, these two cisgender men paved the way for an embrace of genderfluidity that, even now, society struggles to keep up with. Despite being at the peak of my homosexual potential in New York, the restrictive ideals of masculinity and gender that I’ve struggled to comprehend and overcome are the same ones that Bowie and Prince prodded, bent, and broke down over forty years ago.

Bowie rocking a dress in 1971 and showing that everything is a social construct ready to be broken down.
Bowie rocking a dress in 1971 and showing that everything is a social construct ready to be broken down.

For Bowie, the moment came when he went full Ziggy Stardust on the BBC’s Top of the Pops in 1972, clad in a clinging bodysuit, full makeup, and bright red mullet. As he slid his arm seductively over guitarist Mick Ronson, he solidified his status as one of music’s riskiest personas. Perhaps one of Prince’s most telling moment of gender fluidity came a decade later, with his 1988 cover of Lovesexy, which was heavy on the Birth of Venus imagery and light on social constructions of what a man should be.

Prince’s iconic ‘Lovesexy’ cover, which shows a confident embrace of the feminine.

No matter how many or how few articles of clothing they slid around in, both musicians were defined by being undefinable. In a world that has tightly constricted what it means to be a man into an emotionless show of constant strength and testosterone, their identities fell far outside of our own comprehension, yet it was rarely questioned. Bowie and Prince simply existed outside of the shackles of gender and masculinity. They showed their fans how to unlock the chains and be who they wanted to be.

Prince performing in heels at Wembley Stadium in London, 1986.

There has been a flood of statuses on Facebook and Instagram sharing personal stories of how Prince (and, before him, Bowie), touched people’s lives, giving queer youth hope in decades where there was so little of that to go around. I wish I’d discovered these two legends growing up and had them teach me it was okay to break from the normative modes of masculinity, but there’s still time. Just because these two remarkably unique men have passed away doesn’t mean the lessons we can learn will die with them. As the world mourns their deaths, it gives everyone, old and new fans alike, a reason to reevaluate society’s expectations for what it means to be a man. You can be remarkable and life changing without living by the rules.

Images via Daily Mirror, Prince, Mashable, and The Daily Beast.

Stay tuned to Milk for more Prince.

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