Men; toxic masculinity; maid costume, (Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash)

The Maid Costume TikTok Trend Makes Room To Discuss Toxic Masculinity

Is the newest social media fad a role-defying gender transgression or just another reinforcement of machismo?
December 4, 2020
7 mins read

In the newest noteworthy TikTok trend, men are putting on maid dress costumes, much to commenters’ enjoyment. And what makes it so special is how the fad has permeated beyond boundaries; it’s not just Anime TikTok or Alt TikTok. Even Straight TikTok has hopped on the bandwagon. Users have taken to the comments of many straight, cisgender male stars’ to ask their stance on the maid costume phenomenon, and a number responded with maid videos of their own, giving the people what they want.

The maid costume trend isn’t exactly unforeseen. We’re witnessing a shift as more traditionally “feminine” styles find their way into mainstream men’s fashion. From painted nails, necklaces and earrings to more tailored clothing to just a general interest in appearance among men, we’re seeing an awesome blend of androgyny in the fashion world.

Look at some of the biggest celebrity heartthrobs: 5 Seconds of Summer’s Luke Hemmings isn’t afraid to experiment with a full-face of makeup, and the same goes for YouTuber Kurtis Conner, who tried out the makeup look on Instagram. Singer-songwriter Yungblud loves his plaid skirts, and actor Timothée Chalamet is known for his gender-bending looks. Most recently, Harry Styles broke the internet when he appeared on the cover of Vogue in a dress, which was met with both adoration and criticism.

Of course, we can’t forget the legends of gender-defying fashion like David Bowie, Elton John, Kurt Cobain and other more androgynous trailblazers. Such “feminine” men are beloved; people on the internet, myself included, eat them up. We love to see men in nail polish and makeup and jewelry and whatever they want to wear. “Feminine” men are attractive largely because they prove that they don’t see femininity as a negative thing, which seems minimal, but it’s significant in a culture where femininity is so frequently devalued.

By blurring the socially constructed line between “feminine” and “masculine” clothing, these men break the confines of toxic masculinity.

Toxic masculinity is defined by The Good Men Project as “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly ‘feminine’ traits — which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual — are the means by which your status as ‘man’ can be taken away.”

The problem lies not with the gender or identity themselves, but within the attributes that define, and subsequently limit and harm, that identity. We decide what is “masculinity” and what is “femininity” and what styles are “masculine” and “feminine.” And because these ideas are socioculturally imposed, random and supportive of a binary world that is unreflective of the diversity of the spectrum of gender identity, they are always in quotations.

Gendering colors or pants or dresses or jewelry is just as completely arbitrary; there is no logical argument as to why one look would be more fitting to a particular gender. Categorization is merely human tendency. Cognitive psychology tells us that grouping, and thus stereotyping, satisfies the need to understand the social world, and it’s efficient to apply information to all members of a group rather than to each individual.

When we use unscientific means to make distinctions about people, and when that distinction relies on a stratified binary of two opposites where one is ranked above another — as in toxic masculinity — people get hurt. Anyone in the unfavorable category is seen as lesser or outcast, and the status of those in the ideal group relies on the rejection of the other.

It may seem simple, but defying the confines via gender expression is a bold move. Sure, maybe Styles is just wearing some clothes, but by choosing a dress instead of a suit, he’s pushing the boundaries of what is expected and acceptable for men and — most importantly — he’s wearing what he wants. That’s powerful.

So is the maid costume trend following Styles’ and his predecessors’ lead by acting as a role-defying gender transgression? I think the fad is certainly influenced by the larger shift in men’s fashion and the icons who propel it. However, as for the motives behind the maid dresses, TikTok maids and Styles may not be as similar as we think.

At first, when I saw the maid costumes pop up on my For You page, I thought they were a proponent against toxic masculinity. Here are men choosing to look “feminine” and expressing themselves as they wish. Surely, that is a positive thing. Then, I heard another perspective — when the costume became a trend, it actually became yet another reinforcement of toxic masculinity.

That seemed counterintuitive to me at first, so allow me to break it down. When the maid costumes hit the mainstream and some men saw how much positive attention and affection others were getting, particularly from women, they saw it as a means to boost their status. To some, the costumes are another avenue of hypersexualization to “get girls,” rather than actual gender expression. And female attention is another critical aspect of toxic masculinity; having a girlfriend or many sexual partners contributes to “manliness” and thus, status.

Therefore, to many straight men, dressing up in the maid costume isn’t actually defying toxic masculinity, although it may look like it. Toxic masculinity can push a man to do whatever it takes to stay on top of the hierarchy. If popular opinion changes from attraction to “masculine” males to attraction to “feminine” males, it’s not too challenging for a man to put on a dress, even if it doesn’t seem natural to him.

And this is not to discredit those participants who actually enjoy maid costumes or any sort of “feminine” fashions who use their clothes for their gender expression or want to push the boundaries. Simply, it’s important to consider intention before we praise the entirety of a trend and inadvertently reinforce a system that we seek to destroy.

Sarah Gudenau, Oakland University

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Sarah Gudenau

Oakland University

I am a second-year student with a junior class standing pursuing a B.A. in journalism with minors in Spanish language and digital media production at Oakland University.

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