Without question, there are plenty o’ reasons to worry about the lens in which Black men are often depicted and subsequently treated. However, there’s a fine line between awareness and hypersensitivity. Similarly, there is something to be said of fully embracing the notion that there’s more than one way to be a Black man. Knowing that not only can lower one’s blood pressure, but can help lead to a more fruitful climate for actual, credible conversations about the ways in which Black manhood is characterized in mass media.
Unfortunately, not enough of us are there yet. Which is why Jaden Smith’s otherwise progressive new campaign for Louis Vuitton has drawn the ire of certain types of Black men and like-minded Black woman fans of the same patriarchy they ardently stump for. The problem for them is that Smith is in an ad that is purposely called a “womenswear” ad. In select circles, this is perceived as the “feminization” or “emasculation” of the Black man.
To people like me, it’s a matter of Smith not allowing a rigid gender binary dictate how he expresses himself as a man. As Vanessa Friedman writes in the New York Times, “He is a man who happens to be wearing obviously female clothes. And while he doesn’t look like a girl in them, he actually looks pretty good. It’s not about the hairy-legs-in-a-skirt bro cliché.”
Nor is it intended to convey the notion that Smith is a man in transition. He’s merely a man—a straight one at that—wearing a skirt, without a care in the world. It is not the end of the world. It is not an affront to the Black man. It is not a ploy to make Black men “weak” (i.e., “feminine”—which never equaled weak, if we’re keeping score.)
And yet, this is the lie that’s constantly repeated.
In 2014, former Brand Nubian rapper Lord Jamar criticized Young Thug—whose gender-bending style has also included wearing dresses—for wearing feminine attire. Around the same period, some publicly groaned in disgust over Kid Cudi daring to don a crop top. The same goes for Kanye West wearing a kilt. The same goes for any Black man in the not too distant future who elects not to dress himself in ways deemed heterosexual and heteronormative.
What grates me most about this limiting perception of manhood is that those who champion it fail to concede how much of a chokehold it places on other Black men. How can some complain about how White people judge other Black men for how they dress and then proceed to be just as big as nincompoop with other Black men? If I dress one way, I am a “thug” or better yet a scary ni**er to some White people. If I dress in some other fashion, some Black men might immediately think of me as a sissy, faggot, or some other like-minded slur.
This is a no-win situation for many.
I may no longer feel personally bound by this thinking, but part of that is spurred by the realization that as a gay man, I will never fit certain people’s archetypes for what a Black man should be. That is why I am thankful for every Black male celebrity—notably the straight ones—who audaciously challenges what’s perceived as “feminine” from their place of heterosexuality. There’s strength in being who you are and owning whatever imagery you choose to present to the world. It is a strength that goes beyond grabbing your dick, wearing certain fits of denim, or shouting your masculinity to the world.
It’s a strength more of us need to access. And if watching a teenager rock a skirt helps others slowly but surely see that, the more the merrier.
Michael Arceneaux hails from Houston, lives in Harlem, and praises Beyoncé’s name wherever he goes. Follow him @youngsinick.