Glam Rock: Challenging Hegemonic Masculinity and the Gender Binary.

For centuries, men and women have been compared, contrasted, and separated based on their differences. Such habits allowed for stereotypical ideas of how a man and woman should act to arise which further ultimately leads to the idea of the gender binary. The gender binary, as discussed in class, explains the belief that there are women and men and no genders existing in-between. Within this binary, women are often subjected to the ideas of emphasized femininity, and men are subjected to the ideas of hegemonic masculinity. Such distinctions have the ability to have a deep-rooted effect on how one lives their life. As Eastman points out in his piece, Rebel Manhood: The Hegemonic Masculinity of the Southern Rock Music Revival, “all men of all classes are under immense social pressure to conform to this ideal type of manhood, which prescribes strength, dominance, aggression, independence, rationality, physical vigor, competition, and emotional detachment” (Eastman, 191). Under this pressure, men look to the “material and symbolic resources they have at their disposal” to conform to these standards and perpetuate the norm (Eastman, 191). When considering this cycle of influence, we should take into consideration how norms for men would change if these “material and symbolic resources” exemplified something other than hegemonic masculinity (Eastman, 191). When considering this change, we can look at how the stars and performances that arose out of the Glam Rock movement in the 1970s began to challenge these gender norms. As stated by Georgina Gregory in her work Masculinity, Sexuality and the Visual Culture of Glam Rock,  “the main characteristics of the visual style, worn almost exclusively by male performers were: transvestism/ the use of glittery, shiny and soft fabrics such as velvet, satin and lurex; leather clothing; spangled, shiny or brightly colored platform soled shoes and soft flat slippers (Gregory, 39-40). Based on these qualities, Glam rock opened the door to new ways for men to express themselves. Phillip Auslander includes an excerpt from Todd Haynes novel in his work, Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music, when noting that “glam rock departed from both the normative masculinity and countercultural gender identities in favor of “a new and radically fluid model for sexual identity: no longer defined by its performance, but by the multi-colored result of constant change and reinvention” (Auslander, 61). In our photo essay, we will be looking at famous glam rock artists in order to see how this genre and its features deviate from the typical hegemonic masculine features that men often find themselves confined to. 

Protests for Gay Rights 1970’s. Image: OttawaMatters Website 

In the 1970s, when glam rock was first rising, the world was going through major social changes. According to Georgina Gregory, in her piece mentioned above, opinions and approaches to homosexuality started to change, teenagers got more spending power, and men being interested in fashion started to become the norm. All of which are reasons that glam rock came about and was accepted by society. Gregory specifically highlights three key changes that led to the growth of the Glam Rock genre. Firstly, Gregory notes, “The roots of the social changes which led to the evolution of Glam Rock can be traced back to the social climate of the post-war period and the legal changes which took place during the1960s” (Gregory, 41). The world had begun to undergo large changes after the world war, specific ones that Gregory mentioned “included the abolition of capital punishment, divorce law reform and, of major importance to the Glam Rock style, the partial decriminalization of homosexuality between consenting adults” (Gregory, 41). Secondly, Gregory mentions how the change in attitudes around men and fashion assisted the overall creation and acceptance of the Glam Rock genre and style. Gregory includes a quote from Breward (1955) in her reading that states “the rhetoric of masculinity was dependent on the denial of men’s fashion and the attribution of fashion to the feminine sphere” (Gregory, 42) which shows the previous societal limitations placed on men’s fashion. This started to change in the 1960s however, as Gregory states, which became a huge contributing factor to the style of Glam Rock (Gregory, 42). Lastly, Gregory notes how important the youths at the time were to the glam rock movement as they found these changes of style and expression to be a part of their generation and culture, therefore leading them to embrace and support the movement (Gregory, 43). All in all, the world went through some major changes in the second half of the 20th century, and by combining many of these reforms and changes “Glam Rock seems to have emerged out of this climate of social and cultural conflict and tension regarding the dominance of both heterosexuality and masculinity” (Gregory, 50). 

KISS and Glam Rock Make-up. Image: Ultimate Classic Rock Website

While at first glance KISS seems to embody rather typical masculine rock qualities, with their all-black leather outfits, they exemplify one of the key features of glam rock culture; makeup. Becoming a huge part of their reputation and brand, KISS’s makeup is a key example of glam rock makeup which typically meant male stars with makeup on. While there are many artists who took this on, KISS is a great example of how glam rock managed to take quite a masculine-looking band and blur the lines between masculinity and femininity and refute gender stereotypes. When looking at glam rock’s use of makeup, it is important to note that it is very different from the typical idea of makeup. Glam rock makeup was “heavily applied” (Gregory, 40) and often very drastic compared to the everyday makeup that people typically associate with females wearing. As Phillip Auslander points out, “most glam rockers used cosmetics to create neither the illusion of female identity nor that of a seamless androgynous blending of masculine and feminine”, “glam rockers were clearly men who had adopted feminine decoration” (Auslander, 62). Such a statement indicates that, while there may not have been a complete change in the gender binary and gender norms yet, male appearances at the time were still evolving away from the stereotypical masculine features people usually associate with the gender. 

The Glam Rock Star David Bowie. Image: Rolling Stones Website

When thinking of Glam Rock, one of the most famous and influential stars of the movement that comes to mind is David Bowie. Fully transforming from typical rock, Bowie combined makeup, color, and extravagance to really embody the look of a glam rocker. In his article “Children Of The Revolution: How Glam Rock Changed The World”, Mark Elliott notes that Bowie’s look “was androgynous, but the riff-heavy pop-rock blend appealed to teenagers and the more conformist, mature music fan” (Elliott, 2019). When talking about Bowie and his career, Shelton Waldrep, in his chapter “David Bowie and the Art of Performance” in Global Glam and Popular Music, comments about how important Bowie found art to be and how he believed that there was a strong connection between art, performance and the business world which really influenced his career (Waldrep, 2016). Bowie really embraced his ability as a star, to express himself and perform in many different ways and through many different identities, like that of Ziggy Stardust (Waldrep, 2016). Furthermore, this chapter points out that through these artistic and successful performances, “Bowie was exploring, in his own way, the limits of the gendered body” and that “Bowie called into question the limits of our definitions of gender and sexuality…. Bowie made the male body new again, removing centuries of encrusted meaning to suggest the possibility of new interpretations of it” (Waldrop, 45). Through the glam rock movement, Bowie was given the platform to perform however he wanted to. Bowie was able to break gender norm barriers and deviate from the hegemonic masculinity norms of society that typically limited men from taking part in such artistic and extravagant performances. 

Freddie Mercury’s Fashion Influence. Image: Tumblr

Freddie Mercury, from the beginning of the band’s exposure to the limelight, received horrific backlash from the general public – largely in regards to his Pakistani heritage and his appearance. Throughout their time as a band, Mercury never defined his sexuality to the press or his fans as homosexuality was still incredibly taboo and frowned upon in society. Instead, Mercury turned to his performance garbs to express himself. Some of his more extravagant costumes were skin-tight leotards, tight shorts, and even biker outfits inspired by the trend in gay night clubs at the time. Even the name of the band, “Queen,” was a wink at society – Mercury’s chance to reclaim a derogatory term for a gay man and turn it instead into a legacy. Mercury’s struggles with media perception because of his ethnicity, his sexuality, and his gender performance, showcase the issue of intersectionality that we’ve talked about in class. Most other glam rock artists that we are looking at, and that were successful in the creation of the genre, were white, straight males. While the genre and its core values were progressive for its time, there was still a double-standard being upheld by the fans that consumed it. For most glam rock stars, when the makeup and extravagant costumes came off, they were still widely accepted by society. Mercury’s intersectionality – the idea that we are not defined by one facet of our identity, but by the combination of all facets – showcases how glam rock, though progressive at its core, was truly only a safe space for straight white men, not gay, Pakistani glam rockers. 

Elton John, the Glam and the Backlash. Image: Vintage Everyday

During his childhood, the Lavender Scare was at its height and homosexuality was a far cry from being accepted however, despite the violence and shame that surrounded the identity of a gay man at that time, Elton John didn’t shy away from expressing himself fearlessly. The infamously extravagant costumes he wore both onstage and off shattered the societal expectations for men’s fashion at the time and blended seamlessly with the aesthetics of glam rock. John openly embraced his sexuality in his 1976 Rolling Stone article with Cliff Jahr but immediately received backlash from the masses and his songs were temporarily banned from radio stations (Jahr, 2019). Though glam rock was a genre that was making waves in men’s progressive fashion, homosexuality was still largely unacceptable in the eyes of society, and when an artist was ambiguous in their sexual orientation, the backlash was all too readily dealt by the public. Elton’s flamboyant costumes served as an outward expression of himself, and instead of shying away from the negative consequences of being an openly gay man, John just continued to go bigger and bolder.

The homophobia that was rampant during the height of Mercury and John’s career sheds some light on the double standards of the glam rock scene. As stated by Alessa Dominguez in her article “Elton John’s Real Life Is Still More Interesting Than “Rocketman, “There is now a sense that rock was somehow gay-friendly because it was full of straight men in makeup and androgynous outfits,” however, the reality was that unless you were a straight man rocking the glam-inspired outfits, you were still not accepted (Dominguez, 2019). Brian May, Queen’s lead guitarist, best explains what it was like to experience these double standards at the time. Though Freddy Mercury was adored when on stage wearing extravagant outfits, when the band produced a music video where the members were dressed in drag, there was intense retaliation by the press and fans. May recalls, “So we’re dressing up as girls – as women and we had a fantastic laugh doing it. It was hilarious to do it. And all around the world people laughed and they got the joke and they sort of understood it. I remember being on the promo tour in the Midwest of America and people’s faces turning ashen and they would say, no, we can’t play this. We can’t possibly play this. You know, it looks homosexual. And I went, so?” (Gross, 2010). The heteronormative expectations of society still placed limitations on the strides made by glam rock, which is still experienced by today’s artists. There is still a hyper-focus in the media on the sexuality of male artists who have deviated from hegemonic expectations, best seen in the case of modern artists Adam Lambert, Harry Styles, and Sam Smith.

Glam Rock, and its Pushback, Continues Today Through Adam Lambert. Image: MJSBigBlog

Adam Lambert continued the trend of glam rock into the 21st century as he embodied the look of stars like KISS during his fantastic debut on American Idol. Similar to the experiences of Freddie Mercury and Elton John, two past glam rock stars that identify as homosexual, Lambert’s experience with expression through this glam culture wasn’t always positive. One prominent feature of the success of glam rock is that the flamboyant features were perceived as only a part of the performance and “whilst it became socially acceptable for men to wear lace and frills, this could only be sanctioned if they were perceived to be heterosexual” (Gregory, 52). This excerpt introduces the idea that while there was the progress of denying hegemonic masculinity and the gender binary in the music industry, this change doesn’t always relay to real life. In his Guardian article, “Adam Lambert: ‘Now there’s an audience for me being exactly who I am, Micheal Cragg points out how Adam Lambert’s career may have been tainted by this discrimination from the very beginning of his musical career – namely, in the event of his loss on American Idol. Many suspect his loss was due to an article written prior to the final round that speculated that Lambert was gay (Cragg, 2018).  Throughout the show, Lambert won over the crowd with his extravagant fashion and performances, yet when the same features started to find a home in his personal life and feed into stereotypes about gay men, people weren’t as supportive of his career. Despite this backlash, Lambert persisted with his career and style and is a prime example of how glam rock has continued into the 21st century, continuing to resist hegemonic masculinity and allowing men to defy gender binary norms. 

Glam Rock and its Influence on Harry Styles. Image: Vogue

Harry Styles has been making headlines and breaking boundaries since his departure from the boyband One Direction. Whether it be his critically acclaimed lyrics, the mystery surrounding his love life, or his gender-defying flair for fashion, Styles knows how to garner media attention. Since the beginning of his solo career, Styles has broken free from the heteronormative, hegemonic masculine chains of boyband-om and has instead made a name for himself in the world of high fashion. Some of his most iconic outfits are reminiscent of the glam rock scene, as he prances around the stage in heeled boots, lace blouses, and croons his sexually ambiguous lyrics to a crowd of adoring fans. While it began with a more gradual step away from his classic skinny jeans, Chelsea boot, and t-shirt look, Styles began to show his interest in deviating from the norm with more bold patterns and feminine styled cuts. Now, Styles can be seen in various shoots donning bold nail polish, dresses, and more feminine accessories. As Tom Lamont explains in his article, “Harry Styles: ‘I’m not just sprinkling in sexual ambiguity to be interesting”,’ “The interest in his music has always run at a ratio of about 50/50 with the interest in who he is dating,” highlighting the media’s incessant pattern of tying gender performance to sexuality (Lamont, 2019). His gender-ambiguous fashion choices would have blended seamlessly with the glam rock movement as Styles continues to challenge hegemonic masculinity and blur gender boundaries. Styles’ approach to fashion is best explained in his quote from Lamont’s article, where he states, “I think it’s a very free, and freeing, time. I think people are asking, ‘Why not?’ a lot more. Which excites me. It’s not just clothes where lines have been blurred, it’s going across so many things. I think you can relate it to music, and how genres are blurring…” (Lamont, 2019). For him, his fashion choices don’t correlate with his gender performance, nor his sexuality, but instead function as a cathartic outlet for him to express himself while blurring the lines of masculine and feminine. 

Extending Glam Past Rock. Image: Zimbio

The progress made by glam rock has opened the door for artists like Sam Smith, who don’t adhere to hegemonic masculinity, not just in their performances, but instead in their everyday lives. As these fearless stars paraded around in their androgynous clothing and makeup styles, the idea of the gender binary was challenged. Glam rock provided a safe space where artists didn’t have to explicitly adhere to masculine or feminine gender performance and could instead flirt with what it meant to blur those lines. With recent discussions about what it means to identify as non-binary, the ideals behind glam rock seem to be a safe haven for those who don’t identify as a male or a female but instead craft their own identity. Singer and songwriter Sam Smith came out as non-binary in September of 2019 and since then has described the euphoria of being able to fully embrace their identity in the public eye. “I just feel like I can show all of myself now and put all of myself into my music, whereas before I definitely felt scared to show my femininity. Now, she’s out,” Smith said to Joanna Whitehead in her article “Sam Smith admits backlash to coming out as non-binary has been ‘a struggle” (Whitehead, 2020). Smith had never bent gender roles as flamboyantly as artists like Elton John and David Bowie, but instead now feels the freedom to express themselves as openly as they are comfortable with. Music has been and continues to be, an outlet for male artists to defy societal expectations of gender performance and explore their more feminine sides openly.

The genre of glam rock made monumental strides in progressing the blurring of boundaries in men’s fashion and gender expression. The artists we’ve explored have all been prime examples of how male artists used their platforms as a form of expression through their use of makeup, costumes, and theatrical performances. Whether knowingly or not, artists like KISS and Elton John began the conversation about hegemonic masculinity and the gender binary. Through their careers, these glam rockers challenged society’s concept of masculinity, questioned the grey area between male and female, and paved the way for future male artists to express themselves freely. Though there was still widespread controversy over the acceptance of the LGBTQ community in society, glam rock still broke barriers for men worldwide. 

Works Cited

Auslander, P. (2006). Performing glam rock : gender and theatricality in popular music / Philip

Auslander. University of Michigan Press.

Chapman, I. (Ed.), Johnson, H. (Ed.). (2016). Global Glam and Popular Music. New York:


Cragg, M. (2018, June 29). Adam Lambert: ‘Now there’s an audience for me being exactly

who I am’. Retrieved from 

Dominguez, A. (2019, June 01). “Rocketman” Is Better Than “Bohemian Rhapsody” – But That’s A Low Bar. Retrieved from 

Eastman, J. T. (2012). Rebel Manhood: The Hegemonic Masculinity of the Southern Rock 

Music Revival. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 41(2), 189–219. 

Elliott, M. (2019, October 17). Children Of The Revolution: How Glam Rock Changed The 

World. Retrieved from 

Gregory, G. (2002). Masculinity, Sexuality and the Visual Culture of Glam Rock. Retrieved


Gross, T. (2010, August 03). Queen’s Brian May Rocks Out To Physics, Photography. Retrieved from 

Jahr, C. (2019, May 29). Elton John Comes Out as Bisexual in Rolling Stone’s 1976 Cover Story. Retrieved from 

Lamont, T. (2019, December 14). Harry Styles: ‘I’m not just sprinkling in sexual ambiguity to be interesting’. Retrieved from 

Waldrep, S. (2016). David Bowie and the Art of Performance (1052898646 803836246 H. 

Johnson, Ed.). In 1052898645 803836246 I. Chapman (Ed.), Global Glam and Popular Music Style and Spectacle from the 1970s to the 2000s(pp. 42-54). Routledge. doi: 

Whitehead, J. (2020, November 12). Sam Smith admits backlash to coming out as non-binary has been ‘a struggle’. Retrieved from 

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