On a recent episode of Man Up, Aymann Ismail talked to Ørjan Burøe, the Norwegian dad from a viral video in which he and his son, both dressed as Elsa from Frozen, dance to “Let It Go.” Ismail tried to get to the bottom of his own discomfort about the video and what it might say about his masculinity. This transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Aymann Ismail: So does that dress belong to you now, or did your wife take it back?
Ørjan Burøe: No, actually I went to London and did an interview with [Piers Morgan]. I gave him the dress, and I said, “Just use it when you’re at home alone. I know you can do it.”
When I watched the video, my first reaction is That’s different. And I was like, Well, why am I having such a big reaction to this in the first place?
You have to remember that we are the first generation accepting a whole new world. I think for our sons and daughters it will be more normal, and for the next generation after them it will be nothing special.
You said that you found a big reaction to this sad. Why?
For us it’s so normal. And I think it’s quite normal just being a dad dancing with your kid. And it’s sad that we are almost in 2020 and this is like a “Holy crap, look at this.” I actually think that’s a bit sad, that we’re not further.
But you mentioned that you thought that we were the first generation to feel this way. Do you think that maybe a version of yourself, a younger version of yourself, might’ve thought differently about all of this?
Yeah, probably. Maybe even me without kids would have thought different about it. I think your life is just learning to accept more things—especially when you have kids. You learn to accept more things. I come from a little place in Norway, and maybe I would react different. And I don’t think we should just blame the people who react bad. It’s all about knowledge.
I have a weird story that kind of relates to that. When I was making this show, I got invited to do yoga for the first time, and I’d never done yoga before in my life. I always imagined that that was what women did when they wanted to exercise. But men, they should lift weights and pump iron and work on their chests and arms or whatever. And so I had never tried it, but then when I walked into the studio, it was all men. Everybody there was doing yoga just to exercise. I was putting my body in all these positions that I never have in my life. That experience of having my body do something it’s never done before, something that it’s been conditioned to think might put me in a vulnerable position, trying that for the first time actually changed the way that I thought about my body.
Just like the feeling that I’m going to put on the dress. I can say, well, it’s quite good because you get windy underneath. That’s comfortable, but you just have to try to see everything through a kid’s eyes. Elsa in Frozen, for my son, she was a hero. And her dress is like a Spider-Man costume. So he was just proud of Elsa, and I was just trying to salute that with him. I’ve been invited to so many TV shows after, and [they ask,] “Can you please come on with a dress?” And I said, “No, it’s not who I am.”
It’s not about the dress. It’s more about that experience of a father sharing this moment with his son.
Yeah. If my son asked me, “Daddy, can we wear a dress?” I’ll say, “No problem.” Even if he asked me, “Can we go to the shopping mall?” I’ll say, “No problem.” Kids are always pushing the lines, and you have to let them push you, or else you’re going to be an angry old man.
What changes in you when you grow as a man, versus how you see the world as a kid?
Children, they don’t see problems. They see solutions. And they see actually what’s in front of them. They don’t see what we grown-ups see. They just go for it.
All right, so I have these two baby nephews. They’re not old enough to know what Frozen is or anything, but they will be soon. And I’m not sure if I’m the type of person to ever try a Frozen dress on, but if they wanted to, I feel like I might want to, too. Just to make their fantasies come true. Do you have advice for someone like me?
I think you will always have to step the line of what’s your comfort zone. And you have to try to get out of your comfort zone. Like you did yoga. And I actually believe that’s going to make your life brighter.
I guess one of the things that I’m mostly worried about is how other people will see me, or maybe judge me. I have older brothers. I have a very old-school father. I don’t think my wife will treat me differently or think of me differently. But at the same time, I’m still afraid of what people might think.
You don’t have any kids, right?
So when you get kids, and if you get a daughter, and your father or your brother was babysitting her, and you came home and they were dancing in the living room, both in dresses, would you be happy or would you be ashamed?
Oh, I’d be so happy.
Yeah. So you just have to believe that in your head: same way other way. Because you see that they will do it to make the kid happy.
But do you understand why it might make me uncomfortable? Is it more internal, or is there something else going on?
I think you’re talking about the bully problem. You’re talking about people that you don’t actually care about, how are they going to react? Instead of taking care of how the closest ones react, like your daughter or your son or your nephews. I think you have to just focus on what’s closest and not everything around.
Yeah, I guess so. And there’s something manly about wanting to stand up to those bullies.
You’re just showing muscles from another place than your body. You’re showing that your heart has muscles.
It’s like you’re so secure in your masculinity that you know for a fact that you can wear a dress and make it look cool without it implying something else about you.
Actually it’s more manly to show that you’re not afraid of people laughing at you. Do you want to be the guy who is just “No, I’m not dancing. I’m just standing in a bar”? Or do you want to be the guy that “Well, I haven’t tried that. Let’s do that”?
Yeah. I’m stuck on this last generation, first generation thing. If we’re really the first generation to try it, how do we learn to? I feel like we’re stuck between worlds, that there’s a certain amount of men who are comfortable, and there’s a certain amount of men who aren’t comfortable, and we’re in a clash, where we’re all fighting with each other to see what direction masculinity’s headed in.
I think the video I did and stuff like that would actually help the process a bit faster. It’s not a switch—you just can’t go from the typical masculine into now it’s this. It’s over time, like the accepting of everything. But I think we have a lot to learn from our kids.
Yeah. I’m wondering where my fear of wearing a dress came from.
Were you bullied as a kid or something?
Yeah, I think so. My parents, they come from Egypt. But I grew up here in the States.
In Arabic culture, there’s a certain gown that men wear called the jellabiya. And you can imagine, it’s sort of like a dress. It’s like a one-piece thing. It goes down to your ankles, and it’s typically a very thin fabric and very flowy or whatever.
Yeah, I’ve seen it.
I remember wearing one for a cultural day where it’s like show and tell in elementary school or something. And I remember being mocked, I remember kids saying, “Ha-ha, look, Aymann’s wearing a dress.” And I guess at that point I didn’t have the vocabulary or the language to explain to them the cultural significance of this outfit. But I remember being like, “No, it’s not a dress, you’re wrong.” But maybe I should have been like, who cares? Why are you so attached to what you’re wearing?
Well, when you’re a kid, it’s OK. Kids can be mean to each other. When you’re a grown-up now and you know that feeling, then you just have to say to yourself, My nephew is not going to feel what I felt. And I’m going to be the uncle who shows them. So it’s important for you to be proud of who you are.