Voices: Why all the fuss over this ‘shocking’ Moana bikini ad?

‘In the ongoing battle for equality, acts like this may seem small, but they matter’  (Moana Bikini)
‘In the ongoing battle for equality, acts like this may seem small, but they matter’ (Moana Bikini)

When Australian swimwear brand Moana posted an image of male model Jake Young in one of its swimsuits, they were hit with an irritatingly unsurprising backlash.

Commenters criticised the brand for what they saw as “unconventional” (read: queer) and “woke” (read: progressive) marketing.

The sort of pile-on that followed is – unfortunately – to be expected, these days. However, Moana and Jake have stood strong in the face of insults and anti-trans dog-whistles, with the brand doubling down with the comment: “If Jake in our bikini upsets you that much we feel as though this may be a you problem.”

I, for one, love the ad. And I’m proud of Moana for unapologetically stating that they will continue to empower the minority that feels seen and represented by the supposedly “shocking” image.

As a nonbinary person, I salute them – not only for showing they value their gender-diverse community and customers, but for refusing to cater to arguments that this display of inclusivity is in some way “damaging” to cis women.

And a reminder to the loud-mouthed critics: equality is not like pie. More for some does not mean less for you.

In the ongoing battle for equality, acts like this may seem small, but they matter. A lot. Visibility is a tool that we all have at our disposal, and is one that those with certain social privilege should use at every opportunity.

But with great privilege comes great responsibility, and for every Moana who stands unapologetically by their campaign, there is unfortunately always a Bud Light (the beer brand dropped trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney as their ambassador) or a Target (which backtracked on their Pride campaign after receiving violent threats).

TV shows such as Queer Eye and You Are What You Wear remind us what we already know – what we wear and how we present to the world is an extension of who we are, and therefore determines the opinion that is made of us and how the world sees and treats us. Clothing is universal, and whether we like it or not, has power to shape the experiences we encounter (and endure).

My first experience of subverting gender norms through clothing happened when I was far too young to attribute any political, social or environmental reason to it. I was seven years old and being dragged around the shops for my first ever “posh” outfit for a family wedding.

As my sister selected her dress with joy and good nature, I refused, point blank, to wear anything but a suit. Thankfully, my mother, in a move that can only be described as progressive for late 1980s Thatcherite England, agreed – and so we descended on the BHS Boys’ Department.

As it happened, my short hair and penchant for double denim and anything with cars or skateboards on meant that not a single eyebrow was raised as I tried on the suits and selected my favourite, enjoying the compliments from the staff who thought me handsome.

Whether or not anyone was offended by my gender non-conformity at such a young age, I really don’t recall, but I do remember with great fondness how slick and stylish I felt in an outfit that felt like an authentic extension of who I was.

Over recent years, we’ve fallen into a space where a “safe” sort of gender neutral fashion exists, which on deeper inspection is not actually neutral at all. Countless brands and labels have celebrated “diversity” in fashion by introducing “unisex” lines; which end up more often than not equating to men’s clothes seeping into the women’s collection.

This lazy approach is often referred to as “shrink it and pink it”, a statement on how this half-baked attempt at creating gender neutral clothing serves only a portion of the general population.

Today, I shop almost exclusively from Menswear collections. The fit is always more comfortable, and I like to have pockets.

But for many years that was not the case, and like so many others, I struggled with an idea of how I should present myself. When we’re fed images and rhetoric from day one – “pink for girls, blue for boys”, for example – it is hard to imagine ourselves any other way. These social binaries are reinforced by the fashion and beauty industries – and it took me until deep into adulthood to unlearn the rules and bring my own into play.

Until we, as a society, really have broken down the binaries of gender, campaigns like Moana’s will continue to be both divisive and important.

It can also, sadly, be a case of “one rule for them, another for everyone else”: just look at how Zendaya or Janelle Monae are universally praised for strutting down the red carpet in tailored tuxedos. Yet, when Harry Styles wears a dress or Lil Nas X performs in a hot pink skirt, people are outraged. In my opinion, this only serves to highlight the underlying misogyny at the root of the so-called “gender wars”.

That’s why Moana’s campaign is so empowering. With every strike against societal “norms” like this, we move a tiny step closer to degendering fashion as a whole – and making society safer for gender non-conforming people.

Renowned writer, speaker, poet and actor Alok Vaid-Menon created the #DeGenderFashion campaign not simply as an act of expression of freedom, but as an anti-violence imperative to increase the safety of gender non-conforming people in public. Why? Well, because “degendering fashion will proliferate more images of people like me so i won’t have to be the first that people encounter”, Alok said.

No, the Moana bikini-wear campaign won’t singlehandedly revolutionise the way we experience gender binaries, or end the transmisogyny and racism that makes some diversity more “accepted” than others.

But what it will do is empower those who need hope and acceptance – who need a reminder that it’s OK to be exactly who they are. Yes, even in a bikini...