Arts·Queeries

Harry Styles's comfortable sexual ambiguity is a quiet revolution — and he's not alone

2019 has been quite the year for pop culture's embrace of sexual fluidity.

2019 has been quite the year for pop culture's embrace of sexual fluidity

Harry Styles in the music video for Lights Up. (Columbia Records/Vevo)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens. It won the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada.

Something very queer is happening in the mainest of streams this weekend, and the fact that it's such a non-issue is indicative of what a wonderfully progressive era we've found ourselves in when it comes to out-in-the-open sexual fluidity.

On Saturday night, Harry Styles will both host and be the musical guest on SNL, all but certainly performing his single "Lights Up" (which was instantly dubbed a "bisexual bop" when it was released on National Coming Out Day). And all weekend, over 3,400 movie theatres across North America will be screening Charlie's Angels, a big-budget action film top-billed by an unapologetically bisexual movie star, Kristen Stewart (who herself hosted SNL two weeks ago). Nobody seems to be flinching because it seems that maybe the fact that sexuality is a spectrum — for all genders — has quietly and finally found acceptance within popular culture.

Kristen Stewart as Sabina Wilson in Charlie's Angels. (Columbia Pictures)

Over the past year, there's certainly been no shortage of examples suggesting this is the case — particularly within depictions of youth culture on television. Multiple primary characters on HBO's Euphoria, Starz's Now Apocalypse, Netflix's The Politician and Sex Education and basically every series on The CW identify as bisexual or pansexual...or refuse to identify their sexuality at all. And then, of course, there's everyone's favourite small town pansexual: Canada's very own David Rose on Schitt's Creek. The fact that many of these shows reached phenomenon status is a big deal in a world that has long felt a little too inclined to believe that when it comes to sexuality, there are only two options.

While it didn't quite reach the same level of mainstream popularity (at least outside queer circles, as far as I could tell), one of 2019's most revolutionary depictions of sexual fluidity was found in the unlikeliest of waters: the eighth season of MTV reality dating show Are You The One?. For its first seven seasons, the series was a basic twist on its genre: 10 straight men and 10 straight women are brought together in a secluded tropical location after having been matched by the show's producers via a matchmaking algorithm — except the contestants (and the audience) don't know the pairings. If everyone can figure out who their "perfect match" is by season's end, then the contestants share $1 million. 

But for its latest season — subtitled "Come One, Come All" — all of the show's contestants are sexually fluid, with no gender limitations on their potential "perfect matches." And while this somewhat expectedly made for wildly entertaining television (I admittedly watched the entire 10-episode season in one weekend), Are You The One? was also surprisingly fascinating and authentic in its exploration of what it's like to try and find love when you're queer. In a genre of reality television that has been vastly problematic in its ignoring of the LGBTQ experience (and glorifying of heteronormative fantasies), we saw discussions of transphobia, femmephobia, toxic hyper-masculinity and sexualized racism within a context that refused to remotely cater to its straight audience members (were there ever some sexy times had). If you have not watched it, give your winter hibernation some heat one of these weekends.

Equally capable of heating your winter is the aforementioned music video for Harry Styles's latest single "Lights Up." Featuring a half-naked Styles dancing with — and being caressed by — an assembly of similarly clad and brutally attractive men and women as he sings lyrics like "Lights up and they know who you are" and "Shine, I'm not ever going back / Shine, step into the light," there's essentially no doubt of the message the former One Direction star is trying to send: he ain't straight. And while he's yet to publicly make a definitive declaration of his sexuality, maybe we've actually reached a point where he shouldn't have to.

There's already something radical about having one of the biggest male pop stars in the world (and it does matter that he's male-identified, as pop culture has definitely been quicker to embrace sexually fluid women) consistently draping himself in the rainbow and transgender flags at concerts, releasing the "Lights Up" video on National Coming Out Day and performing the unreleased track "Medicine" live (whose lyrics could not be more explicit: "The boys and the girls are here / I mess around with them, and I'm OK with it"). He even told The Sun in 2017 when asked if he has ever personally labelled his sexuality, "No, I've never felt the need to." Perhaps this weekend he'll follow in the footsteps of Kristen Stewart on SNL (who infamously said in a monologue addressed to Donald Trump that she's "so gay, dude" when she hosted in 2017). But it doesn't really feel necessary, as Styles has already in many ways showed his comfort with his own sexuality ambiguity.

There was a time when it would have felt more appropriate for him to be louder about it, but by quietly making it clear his sexuality is not necessarily definable, he's potentially empowering the many Kinsey 1-5s among us more than if he screamed "Yep, I'm Unlabelled" on the cover of People. But if there's ever a celebrity edition of Are You The One?, I am definitely not opposed to Styles making it official as he and Kristen Stewart search for their perfect matches.

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag and interactive project Superqueeroes, both of which won him 2020 Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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