Rihanna has focused on the brand’s inclusive appeal since launch by Jacqui Palumbo | Oct…read more
Oct 2, 2020
Vogue UK: The Savage X Fenty Show Was The Antidote to Toxic Masculinity I Always Dreamt Of
Dan Hastings describes the emotional experience of watching Rihanna’s binary-breaking Savage X Fenty show
by Dan Hastings | Oct 2nd, 2020
There is nowhere to hide in a middle school changing room. After all these years, I can still hear my bullies’ laughter. “Ti tétés,” one guy would say, mocking me while I was trying to get changed out of my sports kit as fast as possible, aiming to get back outside and join my girlfriends.
Back home on Réunion Island, his joke meant “small boobs” in creole, the local patois in this French overseas department in the middle of the Indian Ocean. His reference to my chest would make everyone laugh out loud. I was the only fat guy in our class – the others were all jocks. In my predominantly Black and mixed school, guys had to fit in by playing all kinds of sports and keeping as fit as possible in service of a fight or a lady. I was the anomaly.
I wish that my 14-year-old self could have watched the dancer and model Dexter Mayfield perform in Volume Two of the Savage X Fenty show, which debuted on Amazon Prime on 2 October. Watching him on stage when the programme aired, performing half-naked, with only silk pants and an open matching vest on, I started crying. And I shed more than a few tears for the kid I used to be, who hated everything about his body and wished every day to wake up and look as white and athletic as Zac Efron.
With his curly hair, belly, moobs (man boobs) and brown skin, Mayfield may look like me, but I have none of the charisma, moves, sassiness or charm he transmits on screen. When he joined singer Rosalía with three other dancers, wearing heels, masks and durags, I was reminded of the same bullies laughing at something in the science labs during a lesson. I was mortified back then, realising that someone had taken the time to scribble my name and “PD” (“faggot” in French) on the wall.
Back in 2008, me not fitting in within the gender binary automatically meant I was gay to my classmates. In addition, I was othered because I liked reading and collecting pictures of Emma Watson from the Harry Potter movies in a notebook. I was sheltered, too: The idea of a man of colour not wearing men’s shoes, for instance, could not even exist in my mind. Not only was it not a possibility, but I knew it was also intrinsically wrong. In a Hindu household like mine, my dad wore dhotis and veshtis (a traditional fabric wrapped up around a man’s waist resembling a long skirt) when going to the temple. But he was always disappointed to see me watching Hannah Montana and That’s So Raven. “Stuff for girls again?” he would say, with a note of disappointment in his voice.
It took me years to find my place on this large spectrum of masculinity, being too Black, fat and feminine to all my communities – including the LGBTQIA+ one. But it seemed to only take Rihanna a matter of minutes: in the simple act of putting rappers wearing pearls; drag queens; ephebes with six-packs showing off their biceps; and the contemporary dancer Jaxon Willard embodying power and grace yet caressing another man’s face in her show; she crushed the binary that my teen self was supposed to conform to. I was so overwhelmed by the show when it debuted that I watched it twice, back to back.
Men were featured in the show to promote a gender-neutral capsule collection designed in collaboration with P Diddy’s son Christian Combs. Going from a size S up to XXXL, the line is as inclusive as it always is when Rihanna is involved. “Inclusivity is second nature, it has never been a thought,” she says. Hence the presence of men like Mayfield, Willard but also the Asos Plus male model Soouizz and the biracial singer Miguel who is 5ft6ins. The diverse cast embodies a variety of men who can all sell sex appeal while wearing Savage X Fenty.
Indeed, Rihanna’s mantra – “be savage, not sorry” – conveys far more than just marketing spin. To me, a person who doesn’t fit within a mainstream tribe, it is uniquely compelling. Is Dexter Mayfield thinking about his body image or “manliness” when he is voguing, half-naked, at the end of the show? No. He is too busy embodying desire, sexuality, joy and self-love, his torso glistening with sweat. Would my bullies mock him for having the same boobies as mines? Who cares? Willard is too busy being an athlete on stage.
Is that enough to exterminate toxic masculinity forever? No. The Rihanna effect in the beauty industry has been powerful, but she is facing a fight against patriarchy itself here, which makes this fashion show all the more political. Putting the spotlight on a fat Black man with heels on opens up a discussion. “The people who change what people think are artists and drag queens. It starts with you,” said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Ru Paul’s Drag Race contestants earlier in 2020. Watching Jaida Essence Hall, Shea Couleé and Gigi Goode strutting the catwalk was a way to show all the existing nuances of masculinity and femininity through the art of drag. Premiering on mainstream television and reaching the farthest corners of the internet, this has far-reaching consequences.
I feel hopeful for the future – at least, for the future in which the Bajan-born businesswoman continues to dominate discussion. In less than an hour, Rihanna and her team made me feel like we, as men of colour, can co-exist in a world where we respect how each of us chooses to express our gender. In that galaxy run by a woman like Robyn Fenty, changing rooms aren’t traumatic spaces anymore for kids who look like me. “Ti tétés?” You bet.