Harry Styles’ Watermelon Sugar: Affirming or Resisting Heteronormative Genders and Sexualities?

by Hannah Weise
2754 words



Intertextuality’s Role in Forming Subject Positions

Doing Gender

           The Protagonists’ Image
           Mulvey’s Gaze Theory

From the Ritualization of Subordination to the Hot Lesbian: Gender Advertising Codes

Doing Sexuality

           The Women
           Harry Styles

Watermelon Sugar: Reifying and Resisting Heteronormativity


Harry Styles’ Watermelon Sugar: Affirming or Resisting Heteronormative Genders and Sexualities?

Hannah Weise

CM2076: Diversity in Popular Culture and Advertising

Word Count: 2754


Harry Styles’ music video to his song Watermelon Sugar elicited reactions ranging from accusations of being overly sexual and objectifying women, to praise for representing female sexuality without judgment. By adopting a queer reading and considering the video’s intertextual context of the video, this analysis seeks to understand how the video elicited such contradictory reactions, and how it draws on and contributes to discourse. The multiple ways in which the video embodies the doing of gender and sexuality are unravelled, to understand how it references hegemonic and counter-hegemonic diversity discourses of diversity. The analysis demonstrates how the music video both reifies and resists a heteronormative framework, allowing viewers to adopt different subject positions – depending on a viewer’s gender, sexuality, and knowledge of other media texts surrounding Styles and the video.
            Long before the music video to Harry Styles’ song Watermelon Sugar was released, fans speculated about the song’s meaning. Upon the video’s release of the video, most comments pointed out its sexual intent. Indeed, the video primarily features Styles on a beach amidst scantily clad women, eating watermelons and sensually touching each other (Styles, 2020). Online comments and reactions ranged from criticism of the video for being overly sexual and objectifying women, to praise for representing female sexuality without judgment. In view of the considerable reach Styles has, it is of interest to understand how his music video elicited such contradictory reactions, and how it may draw on and contribute to discourse.

            Discourse has been described as the “circulating of meanings in society” (Krijnen & Van Bauwel, 2015, p. 41). It is a framework used to make sense of the world, is shared by individuals within a society, and is thus socio-historically specific. Through a dialogic mechanism, every event is interpreted by drawing on discourse, before influencing discourse itself. Thus, discourse simultaneously is and produces knowledge, or "a cultural agreement of what is true" (Riley & Evans, 2017). However, some individuals and events have more influence than others in the process of defining knowledge – an imbalance related to power according to Foucault (Krijnen & Van Bauwel, 2015). Media texts especially hold a lot of power in this process, thus making it important to deconstruct and understand them.

            To do so, a main analytical concept that which the following analysis relies on is the “doing” of gender or sexuality. Whereas essentialism assumes a clear link between sex and gender, doing diversity refers to the notion that such a sex/gender binary is less fixed by nature, and more influenced by individuals themselves and the discourses they circulate. By doing gender, individuals create the socially constructed differences between genders and sexualities (West & Zimmerman, 1987).

            Throughout this paper, a queer reading of the video is intended by breaking away from a traditional binary and studying how the message might be read as counter-hegemonic. Whether or not the media text was intended as queer1 does not matter – so long as it can be read that way, it will impact gender politics (Krijnen & Van Bauwel, 2015). This begs the question: How does Harry Styles’ music video Watermelon Sugar play with intertextuality in referencing hegemonic and counter-hegemonic diversity discourses of diversity in terms of gender and sexuality?

Throughout this paper, the term queer is used broadly to refer to LGBT+ sexualities and identities. Using terms such as “gay” as opposed to “straight” would once again introduce a binary, which is precisely what this analysis aims to distance itself from. Instead, it refers to Wander’s (2018) conception of queer, defined as follows: “In place of falsely stable and often exclusionary unities such as gay and straight people or gay and straight culture, ‘queer’ names those bodies and practices that stand askew of what ‘normal’ folks look like and do” (p. 63)

Intertextuality’s Role in Forming Subject Positions

            Intertextuality refers to the notion that a text is never decoded on its own – instead, its meaning is influenced and co-constructed by other texts. Thus, it is critical to acknowledge other relevant texts when analysing a particular text’s meaning. Intertextuality can be intended or inescapable. The latter refers to the lack of control a producer has over the other texts that an audience has consumed which will inevitably influence their understanding (Krijnen & Van Bauwel, 2015). 

            Such is the case with Harry Styles’ reputation and media coverage. During his time as a boyband member and still to this day, the media has frequently referred to Styles as a “womanizer” (Twersky, 2019). At the same time however, many fans have slash shipped Styles with fellow band member Louis Tomlinson. The dispute around his sexuality remains a topic of actuality, although Styles himself remains ambiguous about his identity, repeatedly choosing not to label his sexuality in interviews (Roach, 2018).

            Rather, during his more recent career as solo artist, Styles has “embraced a more flamboyant, glam-rock aesthetic with wildly patterned, glittery suits and jumpsuits” (Roach, 2018, p. 180). During his concerts, he takes pride flags from the audience, waves them around and fixes them to his microphone, prompting fans to be themselves and “treat people with kindness”, a phrase used as his tour tagline (Roach, 2018). 

            Intended intertextuality is equally of equal relevance to understand the music video. While Watermelon Sugar’s lyrics appear at first to reminisce about a past love and summer evenings, interpretations have quickly turned towards less innocent themes.16 Furthermore, the music video can be seen as connected to the previous video for the song Lights Up, also representing Styles surrounded by women and men (Styles, 2019a). Lights Up was released on National Coming Out Day, with a media campaign surrounding the lyric “Do you know who you are?” (Styles, 2019a), prompting many fans to interpret the lyrics as Styles addressing his sexuality.

2 In fact, Zane Lowe voiced a common interpretation of the lyrics, arguing that “everyone’s kind of figured out what it is about, the joys of mutually appreciated oral pleasure”, to which Styles simply answered “Is that what it’s about? I don’t know” (Styles, 2019b, 25:03), leaving the song open to interpretation.

            These examples of intertextuality examples, and all other texts that an individual may have consumed, allow for a plethora of subject positions, or all the possible ways an individual may understand a text (Krijnen & Van Bauwel, 2015) – to illustrate, some may read Styles as a womanizer, others as an icon of the queer community.

Doing Gender

The Protagonists’ Image: Hegemonic Gender Conceptions of Gender?
Harry Styles’s Image

            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).

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).

From the Ritualization of Subordination to the Hot Lesbian: Gender Advertising Codes

            The actions of the protagonists and their relations to heteronormative discourses of gender roles can further be unravelled by considering the codes Goffman described to analyse gender in advertising. Each of Goffman's codes – ranging from the protagonists' relative size to the portrayal of the family – was frequently found in advertising and contributed to the depiction of hegemonic gender roles. Interestingly, almost none of these codes can be recognized in the present music video – except for the feminine touch, which describes women's light, caressing touch (Belknap & Leonard, 1991). The lack of Goffman's gender codes may point towards a less hegemonic conception of gender roles in the video. It could also be the result of the shift in the women’s representation of women  in advertising described by Gill (2008).

            Gill argues that there has been a move towards a more autonomous and sexually empowered woman, and describes three figures which can be recognized in contemporary advertising. The shift illustrated by Gill can be observed in Styles’ video, as two of the figures she describes can be recognized. Firstly, Gill outlines the “young, heterosexually desiring midriff”, which is fitting to the women of the video with the exception ofexcept for the emphasis on heterosexuality. Indeed, the women’s bodies are emphasised, as well as the notion of choice and autonomy, seeing that the women also please themselves without the help of the male figure’s help (Styles, 2020).     
Secondly, the figure of the “hot lesbian” can be recognized as in that the women are touching each other in sexually evocative ways, while at the same time portraying beauty in a very heteronormative way (Gill, 2008). Thus, while the figures in the video may, on the surface, seem to counter a hegemonic discourse by depicting autonomous and empowered women, these figures still operate within a heteronormative framework. The midriff must be heterosexual5, and though the hot lesbian may be queer, she plays into heteronormative beauty ideals as much as the midriff does.

5 Gill (2008) further describes other inherent contradictions of the midriff figure, including the fact that while the emphasis is on autonomy and independent choice, the woman remains as objectified as before – only now, she is choosing to submit herself to others' gaze.