The Protagonists’ Image: Hegemonic Gender Conceptions of Gender?
Styles’ image in the music video can be read in line with hegemonic conceptions of masculinity, as he is surrounded by women17, and is being touched and kissed on the cheek by them. In fact, upon first look, it appears as though he is the only man in the video. Furthermore, although he changes outfits throughout the video, he always remains fully dressed, whereas the women are represented in swimwear (Styles, 2020).
Harry Styles’s Image
3 Throughout this analysis, the protagonists are referred to as “women” and “men”. However, the decision to categorize them as such relies on heteronormative gender conceptions of gender and should therefore be treated critically. The protagonists may identify as non-binary, queer, a different gender than the one referred to, or differently altogether. Although this may at first seem to contradict the intention of a queer reading, these gender binaries are solely relied on to deconstruct how their representations in the video may reify or counter the binary itself – in short, as a tool to ultimately step away from a binary reading.
On the other hand, however, although Styles does not stop the women from touching him, he never attempts to reciprocate; not once does he kiss, touch, or even pointedly look at a woman’s body. Moreover, rather than portraying traditional masculine clothing such as tracksuits or expensive sportswear, he opts for an androgynous aesthetic (Roach, 2018) – including nail polish, pearl necklaces, rings, flower- and heart-shaped sunglasses, crop tops, and scarves featuring flower patterns (Styles, 2020).
The Women’s Image
The women in the video almost all fit the current Western ideal for female beauty: they are slim, toned, have smooth skin without body hair, and are wearing make-up and nail polish (Calogero et al., 2007). However, besides touching Styles, they are also caressing each other and themselves in sensual ways (Styles, 2020). These actions could be interpreted as countering a heteronormative framework – or not, as is discussed in the following sections.
The Two Men’s Image
Next to Styles, the video also features two men. However, they are only visible when the group assembles for a picture, and are barely noticeable among the group of women for the rest of the video. Nevertheless, it is worthof interest to mentioning them, as they may reference a counter-hegemonic discourse, both by their presence around Styles in this sexually evocative video and by their looks. Indeed, one of the men displays a counter-hegemonic, androgynous style with his long hair and very short pink shorts. The other man however, just like Styles and unlike the women in the video, is fully dressed – once more playing into hegemonic gender conceptions of gender. Moreover, the men are never at the centre of the action or close to Styles, thus failing to evoke queer inklings (Styles, 2020).
Objectification, Active Subjects, and Passive Objects: Mulvey’s Gaze Theory
Next to understanding the ways in which the protagonists' image may reference (counter-)hegemonic conceptions of doing gender, it is relevant of interest to study their actions to understand how these may reify or counter the narrative told by their image. To do so, the power relations between protagonists on screen and between audience and protagonists must be broken down.
As previously noted, Styles never pointedly looks at any of the women's bodies, as he rather looks into the camera or enjoys eating fruit (Styles, 2020). This fact counters Mulvey's (1989) gaze theory and description of gender roles in film. Mulvey's theory postulates that within the film genre, males are presented as active – dominant, in control of the action, bearers of the gaze - whereas females are presented as passive, to-be-looked-at sexual objects. Women on screen become sexual objects on two levels: for the other protagonists on screen, and for the audience, which is to identify with the male character and to possess the women through identification with him (Mulvey, 1989). Styles, however, does not exercise the male gaze as described by Mulvey as he does not look at the women's bodies, and appears to show no interest in possessing or objectifying the female protagonists. His actions and position in the video thus counter a traditional heteronormative framework.
However, a thorough understanding of the gender relations on screen must consider the power relations between the protagonists and the audience. Whereas males looking straight into the camera defy objectification by the viewer (Krijnen & Van Bauwel, 2015), frames of women's fragmented bodies, in which body parts such as legs or hips are represented in close-up shots, facilitate their bodies’ objectification of their bodies by the viewer. Such close-up shots of female body parts can be recognised in the present video, whereas Styles' body is never in a shot where the viewer does not also look at his face. In fact, in most of the shots, Styles looks directly at the camera and at the viewer (Styles, 2020), preventing objectification of his body, but not of those of the female protagonists’ bodies –, thus failing at countering a heteronormative framework.
Furthermore, the audience’s gender of the audience is relevantof interest here: although Styles’ audience is often assumed to be composed of heterosexual teen girls and gay men, his fanbase also includes a multitude of other queer identities, particularly many queer women (Roach, 2018). According to Mulvey’s (1989) gaze theory, the audience should identify with Styles, the main male protagonist amongst all the women showing interest in him. In the case of gay men, this would be in line with gender, but not with sexual orientation. In the case of queer and heterosexual women, this would not be in line with gender, and would only be in line with sexual orientation for the former.4
4 These insights may hint towards the video’s resistance of a heteronormative framework. However, the contradiction identified in this analysis may be a direct consequence of the contradictions within Mulvey’s theory itself. Indeed, it has been criticized for its positioning of the female audience, which should not be able to enjoy a film, considering it would imply women objectifying themselves (Krijnen & Van Bauwel, 2015).