Is Harry Styles pinkwashing for profit from his gay fan audience?
You don’t have to look too far while scrolling social media or surfing the internet to find a healthy dose of controversy. Politics, social issues, or even disagreements among fandoms dominate social media headlines constantly. Every day brings a new topic for the masses to consider, debate, and ultimately choose a side.
Often, celebrities are at the center of this controversy either by making hot-button statements or by questionable actions & stances on subjects. One of the latest celebrities embroiled in controversy is Harry Styles and his alleged appropriation of positives in the gay community. Is the mega-star pinkwashing to gain publicity & profit for his tour?
Harry Edward Styles is a twenty-seven-year-old English singer, songwriter, and actor. His musical career began in 2010 as a solo contestant on the British music competition series The X Factor. Following his elimination early on, he was brought back to join the boy band One Direction, which became one of the best-selling boy bands of all time.
Styles released his self-titled debut solo album through Columbia Records in 2017. It debuted at number one in the U.K. & the U.S. and became one of the world’s top-ten best-selling albums of the year. Its lead single, “Sign of the Times”, topped the U.K. Singles Chart.
His second album, Fine Line (2019), debuted atop the U.S. Billboard 200 with the biggest first-week sales by an English male artist in history and was listed among Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” in 2020. Its fourth single, “Watermelon Sugar”, topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100.
Styles has earned several accolades throughout his career, including two Brit Awards, a Grammy Award, an Ivor Novello Award, and an American Music Award. Aside from music, he’s also known for his flamboyant fashion and is the first man to appear solo on the cover of Vogue magazine.
Much like J.Lo’s Google Image-birthing Versace dress or one of Lady Di’s countless revenge looks, Styles’ November 2020 Vogue gown was an instant classic. The musician’s appearance ricocheted through his behemoth social media fanbase. It stirred up a similar furor to when he wore a pearl earring and bright nail polish to the 2019 Met Gala.
In the accompanying Vogue piece, written by Hamish Bowles, Styles is described as a “revolutionary” for his gender-defying fashion choices, making him “the image of a new era.” Only, is he? Is a handsome, rich, cis-gendered white man wearing an expensive dress on the front cover of a glossy fashion magazine all that boundary-pushing? Or is it continuing a conversation the gay community started?
“It’s not new or radical,” says Fenella Hitchcock, a London College of Fashion lecturer. “It just reflects the shifts in conversations surrounding masculinity that have been happening for a while.” That’s not to say the cover is not important. If anything, it’s the logical apex of Styles’ feminine frills, TikTok’s femboy culture, and fashion’s heady embrace of non-binary aesthetics.
Billy Porter offered a sharp critique of Harry Styles’ Vogue cover, noting in an interview with The Sunday Times that gay or queer people in fashion have not been given similar opportunities.
Despite the acclaim he’s garnered for his style, Porter said, “I feel like the fashion industry has accepted me because they have to. I’m not necessarily convinced, and here is why. I created the conversation [about non-binary fashion], and yet Vogue still put Harry Styles, a straight white man, in a dress on their cover for the first time.”
“I’m not dragging Harry Styles,” he continued, “but he is the one you’re going to try and use to represent this new conversation? He doesn’t care; he’s just doing it because it’s the thing to do. This isn’t politics for me. This is my life. I had to fight my entire life to get to the place where I could wear a dress to the Oscars and not be gunned down. All he has to do is be white and straight.”
Recently, the Cinderella actor issued an apology to Styles on The Late Show, saying, “Harry Styles, I apologize to you for having your name in my mouth. It’s not about you. The conversation is not about you.” He added, “The conversation is actually deeper than that. It is about the systems of oppression and erasure of people of color who contribute to the culture.”
He then returned to his humor by saying, “I’m sorry, Harry. I didn’t mean no harm. I’m a gay man. We like Harry; he’s cute!”
Sexuality & trailblazing
While we don’t know the specifics of Styles’ sexuality, nor should we feel entitled to it, it’s a topic he’s often pressed on by interviewers, and skilfully skirts answering. Not because “he’s holding it back”, but because “who cares?” Because of the ambiguity, most people accept him as a cis white male. That brings up the question of why has he been getting credit for trailblazing something like this?
Styles is far from being the first to do so. Music & fashion have always been spaces to renegotiate aesthetic approaches to gender. There’s David Bowie, Prince, and Lenny Kravitz. Even Brad Pitt’s 1999 Rolling Stone cover. Is this Harry Styles being genuine? Or is he using this misplaced attention on his sexuality & androgyny as a way to boost his tour?