Written by Aurora Muir
Graphic by Paris Robson
Throughout his career, boy band heartthrob-turned pop icon Harry Styles has consistently attracted questions regarding his sexuality, which he has deliberately avoided labelling; brushing off suggestions of bi- or homosexual attraction with the dismissive “who cares?”. But in a pop cultural context where queer* artists — think Halsey, Frank Ocean, and Tyler, the Creator — are seeing enormous success, not in spite of their sexuality, but partially because of it, I think Harry’s queer* fans really do (or at least should) care. If an artist is commercially and socially benefitting from a queer* aesthetic without necessarily identifying as a part of that group, surely we should apply some critical enquiry. For me, this issue comes to a head in the music video for the fourth single from his sophomore album, as ‘Watermelon Sugar’ leaves me with a sour taste.
Styles has been surrounded by this kind of queer* allure since he became famous. During his rise to fame as a boy band heartthrob, One Direction fans concocted the ‘Larry Stylinson’ conspiracy theory — that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson were in a secret relationship kept hush by their management. This ‘ship’ runs deep even in 2020; hundreds of ‘proof’ videos have been published on YouTube this year alone. It even featured in HBO’s 2019 hit show Euphoria. While Tomlinson said he was “pissed off” about the ship being used in the show and has often explicitly denied the rumours; Styles has been much less defensive, though still denies everything.
After leaving his 1D management, Styles has become a style icon: wearing high fashion; non-traditionally masculine clothes; and securing a number of campaigns with Gucci, including the release of a genderless fragrance. Loose-fitting colourful pants, sheer shirts, and earrings make regular appearances on magazine covers and red carpets, leaving fans swooning over his non-conformative aesthetic. Post-1D suggestions of queer* sexuality have not, however, been limited to his fashion choices — and after all, he should be free to dress as he likes, rather than interrogated for veering from the norm. His 2018 unreleased song ‘Medicine’ contains the lyrics “The boys and girls are in/I mess around with him/And I’m okay with it,” causing Twitter to declare the track a bisexual anthem. Asked in 2017 whether he personally labeled his sexuality, Styles said he had never felt the need to.
At the start of his “Fine Line” album circuit, the music video for ‘Lights Up’ was released. The video was met with heavy speculation that this was Styles’ coming out moment. The video pictured sweaty bodies of different genders writhing together in a suggestive dance, mostly women but also men. Released on National Coming Out Day, fans deduced the repeated lyric “step into the light” could be an allusion to coming out and stepping into truth. A final indication of a queer* identity before the album’s release was the album art itself, with many fans suggesting that it resembled the bisexual and transgender flags.
Asked directly about these bisexual allusions in a 2019 interview for The Guardian, Styles denies “sprinkling in nuggets of sexual ambiguity to try and be more interesting”, and avoids identifying with a queer* identity. He says any incidental insinuations are merely at the hands of his collaborators, whom he chooses because he wants things to look “a certain way” — not to appear gay, straight, or bisexual, but because it looks “cool.” At the risk of cynicism, I don’t buy it — his sexual ambiguity buys him more headlines and more fans than if he were to ascribe to any established label. To be straight would confirm queerbaiting; he isn’t gay; and to be bi or pan only attracts discrimination and invalidation from all sides.
I also can’t help but note that Style’s dating history paints a vivid picture of traditional heterosexual male desire, disproportionately featuring not only models, but Victoria’s Secret models at that. The thinnest, whitest, and hottest of the thin, white, and hot. Looking just at his public relationships, Harry Styles is living a traditional straight male dream. But surely we cannot judge a person on their dating history — no one owes “proof” of their sexuality.
Arriving at the ‘Watermelon Sugar’ music video with this context in mind, I feel uneasy. The video, dedicated ‘to touching’ in a socially distanced world, appears to place the pop icon on a fantasy island, surrounded by beautiful women who mime ecstasy as they bite into watermelon slices and caress Styles’ cheek. A running joke among many of his bi female fans is that they are in love with every woman and one man: Harry Styles. The ‘Watermelon Sugar’ video is the climax of this joke on screen: tens of beautiful women servicing predominantly Styles and occasionally each other. It’s confusing to see someone championed not only as a queer* and women’s ally, but who has actually benefitted from the adoption of such an image, to so strongly adopt a male gaze. The women rub fruit on each other and the star, seemingly worshiping him as some kind of sex god. In one scene, Styles lies fully clothed, surrounded by bikini-clad babes; one suggestively bites a watermelon slice while another runs her hand up her thigh. They feed him fruits and kiss his cheeks; their attention is on him as he sings and maintains eye contact with the audience. The women in the video are objectified, performing their sexuality for Styles himself — a male audience.
Arguably, however, through centering women’s pleasure — as expressed by the lounging, laughing babes — ‘Watermelon Sugar’ perhaps sidesteps the male gaze. Styles isn’t subtle as he devours fruit as metaphor for giving oral sex, with the women as its joyous beneficiaries. Rather than the close up shots of ass, tits, and bare skin that we have come to expect from music videos, ‘Watermelon Sugar’ largely features smiling, laughing female faces, enjoying a slow-motion orgy gathered around Styles. This could be interpreted as a celebratory depiction of female sexuality and may very well put Styles down a few pegs on the Male-Gaze-O-Meter. Nevertheless, they ultimately glorify and perform acts for him, upholding the male gaze.
The make-up of the creative team behind the track, too, indicates the predominantly male perspective informing its production. With song-writing and production credits going to Styles and three other white men, who have extensive collaboration credits with each other and other pop giants, I just can’t accept the song and video to be some kind of groundbreaking feminist work. On the other hand, video direction is attributed to Bradley & Pablo, a British music video duo who have worked on vids with a number of other queer* pop stars: Lil Nas X, Troye Sivan, and Frank Ocean. Perhaps they are suited to creating a video to target a queer* audience — and the duo certainly succeed in creating a fun, original look to the video. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that something is off.
Towards the end of the ‘Watermelon Sugar’ music video, we see a potential indication of Styles’ attraction to men. Two androgynous-looking men appear, seated in school photo-style rows, after the song has finished. This almost looks like an afterthought — as if the team realised that an ending pose of Styles surrounded purely by beach babes would be an undesirable final image, like it would undo his sexually ambiguous branding. Styles avoids sexualised interactions with the men; instead, they serve as background props which could easily be missed by the viewer. This casts doubt on Styles’ denial that he is just “sprinkling in nuggets of sexual ambiguity to try and be more interesting”, instead leading me to think that such moves are strategically benefitting his brand. He purports a vague sexuality that does little to demonstrate an attraction to men.
At the end of another re-watch, having by now contributed significantly to the video’s 50 million views, I still feel somewhat blindsided. I argue that Styles’ breadcrumbing of bisexual symbolism has culminated in a brand that serves him well. From what I’ve seen, his fanbase online is largely made up of young women, many of them queer*; and many of whom participated in the 1D fandom from its infancy, well aware of his trail of clues. Harry Styles has thus gained the allegiance of queer* and female fans by positioning himself as “one of them” to some extent. The ‘Watermelon Sugar’ video doesn’t appear to be a well-considered step forward for those groups. Rather, it could be knowingly taking advantage of the loyalty of his predominantly female, largely queer* audience, and enabling him to ‘get away’ with such objectification.
Now, I’m not calling for his cancellation or any vitriol towards the guy; I enjoy his music and lots of his work. But at the same time, I recognise that his branding reflects the typical state of sexuality in pop culture — complex, blurry, and potentially targeted. Maybe all we can do is take him on his word: “I dunno, I just think sexuality’s something that’s fun. Honestly? I can’t say I’ve given it any more thought than that.” Well Harry, I agree, but don’t fully believe you. Maybe it’s time to give it a little more thought.