Harry Styles' persona: How his presentation of self led to queerbaiting accusations

23 minutes to read
Marel van Andel

A photoshoot in a dress, the most colorful outfits on stage, and playing a gay man in a movie: Harry Styles presents himself in a way often seen as related to genderfluidity and queerness. For some people, this is a reason to accuse Styles of queerbaiting. He is using queerness to reach a queer audience, they say, instead of being queer himself.

This paper will not answer the question if Styles is queerbaiting or not, since someone’s sexuality is not something we have to discuss. However, in this paper, I will focus on where the accusations of queerbaiting are coming from. To do so, I will analyze discourse on Styles’ queerbaiting, and then do case studies on the performances the accusations are about. I will look into how Styles presents himself and how this relates to his audience and their expectations of Styles.

I will answer the following research question: How does the difference between how Harry Styles presents himself and how others view him play a role in the accusations of queerbaiting?

To do so, I will use the theoretical concepts of Goffman’s presentation of self (1956) and posture and persona by Meizoz (2010). For my method, I will use analytical concepts from narratology that Smith and Watson have transformed into life narratives (2010). But to first make clear the topic of this paper, I will explain who Harry Styles is, what queerbaiting is, and what the related accusations to Harry Styles are.

Who is Harry Styles?

Harry Styles is a British singer, songwriter, and actor. His career started in 2010 when he became part of the famous boyband One Direction after auditioning for the British talent show The X Factor. After sold-out concerts, several hits, and multiple years of performing, in 2016 the band stopped (Rogers, 2022).

For most of the band members, this was the moment to start a solo career, including Harry Styles. Since then, Styles has presented three albums that contain songs that have been worldwide hits such as Watermelon Sugar, As It Was, and Sign of the Times (Sheffield & Johnston, 2022).

To many people, he is famous for just his music, but also his performance and persona have been getting lots of attention. Where he started as part of a boyband, Styles continues building his persona, from a solo artist to now lately also an actor and fashion icon. He has played a role in the movies Don’t worry darling and My Policeman. And he has a fashion collaboration with the world-known fashion brand Gucci, wherefore he worked on a collection together.

What is queerbaiting?

As mentioned before, with his growing career, lately, Styles has been called out for queerbaiting. For example, because he dresses in a certain way. TikToks about this have been seen by millions of people (harry styles queerbaiting|TikTok Search, n.d.). But what does queerbaiting mean?

Woods and Hardman (2021) did research on the experiences of the LGBT+ community with queerbaiting. According to them, queerbaiting was first used in the context of movies that hinted at a queer romance, which never led to a relationship. This way they would make the queer community more engaged, but the story would not be worth telling. The same definition is given by Fathallah (2014) who describes it as: “a strategy by which writers and networks attempt to gain the attention of queer viewers via hints, jokes, gestures, and symbolism suggesting a queer relationship between two characters, and then emphatically denying and laughing off the possibility” (para 2).

Queerbaiting is seen as something negative and the term is used to make people aware of what is wrong. As Nordin (2015) describes, the problem with queerbaiting is that representation of queer characters is scarce and that queerbaiting is used as an intentional tactic to reach an audience in writing stories such as books and films. By presenting someone as queer, without being (openly) queer, producers are using queer stories to benefit, but will not represent the actual queer community.

Related to celebrities and performers, the term queerbaiting is used to refer to the performers making references to queer identity, without being queer. They would do this to reach a queer audience (Woods & Hardman, 2021). In this case, the problem with queerbaiting is seen that a celebrity who is heterosexual has the privilege to pick to which extent they will present as queer (McDermott, 2020). By that, they will have the, often financial benefits, that come with such presentation, but won’t have to deal with the negative sides like homophobia that come with the identity of being queer.

At the same time, it has to be noted that in these accusations towards celebrities, there is no judgment in dressing up and behaving the way you want. Accusations often originate from the feeling of intentionality (McDermott, 2020). Queerbaiting becomes a problem when a celebrity intentionally chooses to present an identity they are not, with the idea of benefitting from it.

Discourse on Harry Styles’ queerbaiting

This last definition of queerbaiting is also what Styles got accused of. To be able to further research what caused the accusations and what this says about Styles’ persona, it is necessary to dive into what the accusations towards Styles exactly are. To find the arguments that led to the queerbaiting discussion, I analyzed ten articles on Harry Styles’ queerbaiting accusations.

I searched for ‘Harry Styles Queerbaiting’ on Google and selected ten articles from 2022. Most articles are from August 2022, but to get a broader perspective I also selected articles that dated from before that. To guarantee more variety in the articles, I chose ten different media platforms, so the overall results will not be influenced by a position towards Styles from one website. I selected articles from The Week, Medium, GQ Magazine, i-D, EuroNews, Variety, Them, Independent, Page Six, and USA Today. The specific articles are added to the references of this article.

 I then read all the articles, stating the main message of the article, and the given reasons for Harry Styles’ queerbaiting accusations. In eight of the ten articles, the writer describes Styles’ fashion choices as one of the reasons for the accusations. His outfits are more than once described as flamboyant and gender-fluid. GQ magazine for example writes: “Styles, who has never publicly clarified his sexual orientation, leads on the LGBTQ+ contingent of his fanbase by wearing subversive, flamboyant outfits, demonstrating a playful relationship with his self-expression of gender” (para. 2). In four of those eight articles a specific focus is put on a photoshoot Styles did for Vogue, where he wore a dress on the cover. This relates to queerbaiting since genderfluidity is often connected to the LGBTQ+ community.

Six articles mentioned Styles’ acting in the movie My Policeman, in which he played a gay man. The focus here was the choice of him playing a gay man, without being an openly gay man himself. However, most articles are not about the role itself, but about an interview about the role with Rolling Stone (Spanos, 2022) in which he addressed the critique he got. In this interview Styles opened up about the LGBTQ+ community, which then led to questions if he has the authority to do so.

The last reason is not caused by a specific performance, but rather by a part of how Styles decided to present himself, wherein he does not share much of his personal life. Related to the queerbaiting accusations this is mainly about Styles not sharing what his sexuality is. For some of the accusers, this shows that he does not want to admit he is straight, because that would make him look bad. And as is stated in the article on Medium (2022): “Even though he never speaks publicly about his relationships, the fact that he has only been rumored to be dating women has led many to assume he is heterosexual” (para. 7). However, since Styles decided not to be open about his sexuality this accusation can not be checked.

Presentation of self and persona

When analyzing accusations of queerbaiting, it becomes clear that this relates to how Styles presents himself and how his audience views him. His audience thinks he presents himself as queer, without actually being queer. To understand more about where this comes from, it is relevant to use Gofmann’s theory of presentation of self.  

In his theory, Gofmann (1956) describes that when someone is in the presence of others, they will change their behavior to make a certain impression. Gofmann shows that the way someone behaves is influenced by the situation someone is in.  He explains that this occurs in everyday life situations, for example, if you meet someone for the first time, or even when you’re already friends. In the case of Harry Styles, this means it is interesting to analyze what choices he makes in his presentation of self and how this affects the way people respond to this.

Meizoz (2010) researched the presentation of self of authors and he shows that this presentation of self, combined with mediators as journalists, biographers, and critics writing about someone, constructs a posture or persona of an author. As a definition, Meizoz shows there is a correlation between the author’s ethos, his position in the literary field, and the audience he attempts to attract. With this, he means that a persona is not just created by the person being their self, but also by other factors such as audience and position in the working field. He adds to that, that posture is made out of a combination of discourse and non-verbal behavior.

This shows that people will not only change their presentation of self depending on their surroundings, as Gofmann states, but it also shows how the persona of that person is changed by those surroundings themselves. In this case, for example, Styles’ fans and journalists writing about him will have an influence on Harry Styles as a persona.

Where Meizoz focuses on the author only, Philip Auslander (2006) uses Gofmanns theory of the presentation of self, to look at the personae of musicians. He argues that, when you look at music as a performance, it is necessary to look at the relationship between the performer and the audience, rather than at the relationship between the musical work and the performance. He explains that the identity of a musician is not a one-way road, where the musician decides who he is and the audience will consume it. He states that the audience is the co-creator of the persona of the musician. This relates to what Meizoz describes as the persona of an author and the correlation with the audience he attempts to attract. When performing, a musician is not just showing his text, he is showing a persona while using the setting of the stage, his appearance and manner, and his music.

In the case of queerbaiting, it seems that the accusers of queerbaiting think Styles’ presentation of self is purely based on the audience he wants to attract. By choosing a certain performance, or presentation, in music, appearance, and manner they think he tries to reach a queer audience. This does not align with what they think is Styles’, as Meizoz describes, ethos. This shows there is friction in the different factors that, according to Meizoz, combined will lead to a persona.

To dive more into the presentation of the self of Styles and the audience’s view on this, I will focus on the performances earlier described from the discourse and attitudes. To do so, I use Smith and Watson’s strategies for reading life narratives (2010). In their book Reading Biography, Smith and Watson provide a guide for interpreting life narratives, dividing this into twenty strategies.

The presentation of the self of Harry Styles is not a written life narrative, however, by choosing to behave in a certain way, he creates a narrative about who he is. When looking at Styles’ choices from this perspective, Smith and Watson’s strategies have enough overlap to come to an analysis. Since I want to relate the analyzed performances to the accusations of queerbaiting, I focus on Smith and Watson’s strategies to look at “audience and addressee”, “authority and authenticity” and “identity” (2010).

Audience and addressee are in this case relevant because it is about focusing on the question: “Is there a person or persons to whom this text is explicitly addressed, perhaps in the dedication, or at a crucial moment in the narrative?” (Smith & Watson, 2010, p. 171) Whereas Harry Styles is not writing a story, he is still presenting himself in a certain narrative towards a certain audience, which is important in the case of queerbaiting since that is all about trying to reach the queer audience.

Authority and authenticity focus on the question if someone has the right to speak based on their experiences (Smith & Watson, 2010). This is relevant because with the accusations of queerbaiting, the accusation is that Styles presents a queer narrative, whereas he is not queer himself. This raises the question if he has the authority to present himself this way and if this is a presentation of his authentic self.

For identity, especially the question Smith and Watson propose about self-presentation will help to answer where the queerbaiting accusations come from: “What are the features or characteristics of the models of identity included in this self-representation?” (Smith & Watson, 2010, p. 169).

To understand more about Harry Styles’ queerbaiting accusations, it is necessary to look at what the differences are between how Styles presents himself and how the audience views him. To do so, I will focus on the three main reasons that became clear from the discourse analysis on Styles’ queerbaiting.

Fashion and Vogue

When analyzing the articles about Harry Styles’ queerbaiting, what becomes clear is that his sense of fashion is seen as an important reason why he is being accused of queerbaiting. His fashion is described as flamboyant and gender-fluid. One media performance where this becomes clear is Styles’ photoshoot for Vogue Magazine (2020).

On the cover, Styles is wearing Gucci, a black jacket, and a lace white dress with black details. On his hand, he wears multiple rings, of which two show the H and the S, his initials. His hair is loose and curly, and on his jaw and chest, there is some body hair visible. While posing, he is blowing up a blue balloon.

With this photo, he is the first man to appear on the Vogue cover on his own. At the same time, with this picture, he is breaking gender boundaries, by wearing a dress as a man, as online discourse shows (Cijsouw, 2021). On the cover, nothing is stated about gender norms or clothing. However, in the online version of Harry Styles interview and cover, above the cover a quote by Harry Styles is highlighted: “I find myself looking at women’s clothes, thinking they’re amazing” (Bowles, 2020, para. 1).

Fashion choices like these are what the description of gender-fluid fashion sense comes from. Crossdressing and genderfluidity relate directly back to the LGBTQ+ community wherein from the start of the 20th century they found ways of gender and gender expression to challenge the norms (Reddy-Best, 2020). This means genderfluidity has a direct connection with queer history and community. Styles claims that he does not look at gender while picking clothes, he wears what he likes.

However, by choosing to wear a gender-fluid outfit, Styles directly relates himself to this community and the people that are part of it. Wearing a dress as a man does not have to be a statement, or it does not have to mean you are a part of the queer community. However at the same time, by doing so people from that community will feel connected to it since it relates to how they feel and the history of their community. Like this, it is explicable that people will feel especially the queer community is addressed by this photo shoot.

As has become visible in the definition of queerbaiting, intentionality plays an important role in whether something is seen as queerbaiting. The question is, is Harry Styles doing this shoot intentionally to reach an audience, or does he do it to present and express himself? The accusers will say it is not a presentation of self since genderfluidity is a presentation of the queer community, which Styles is according to them not (openly enough) part of. This relates to Smith and Watson’s description of authority and authenticity. Is Styles wearing these clothes to express his true self, in which way he would be fully authentic and have all the authority, or is he using these fashion choices to reach an audience, in which case his authority would be less in place? Harry himself makes clear he likes to dress up and that has never thought too much about what letting gender boundaries go would mean (Bowles, 2020). This would mean he is not wearing his clothes because of the annotations with the queer community it has, but because he likes them himself. In this case, the authority discussion would be different because it would mean he is not intentionally picking outfits to reach an audience.

And not only do his clothes in a special photoshoot for Vogue have the queer community annotations, but also his colorful flamboyant clothes on stage while singing is seen as such. As becomes clear from the analyzed articles, Styles is known for his fashion: the jumpsuits, boas, pearl earrings, and painted nails. That this is a way he uses to present himself, becomes clear in the description of Harry Styles during the Rolling Stone interview:

“In person, Styles looks more like your best friend’s cute, sporty older brother than the gender-bending style icon he’s become. He’s left the boas and sequin jumpsuits in the dressing room, opting instead for a blue Adidas track jacket, gym shorts, and Gucci sneakers. His hair, often described as “tousled,” like he’s a renegade prince in a romance novel, is clipped back with a hair claw, a signature day-off accessory” (2022, para. 7).

This shows how on stage Styles presents himself as colorful, flamboyant, and a gender-bending style icon, but at the same time shows how off-stage, he can present himself as much more average. This shows how Styles has multiple models of identity to present himself. On one hand, there is the on-stage, public figure Harry Styles and on the other hand, there is just an average sporty guy.

This shows he makes choices in the way he presents himself differently depending on the situation. There is a clear distinction between the on-stage and off-stage personas of Harry Styles. This is then again a reason for people to doubt if he is presenting his true self or a more profitable version.

My Policeman

In 2022, the movie My Policeman was released. Harry Styles plays the role of the younger Tom, who falls in love with Patrick, a curator of a museum. The story was set in the 50s when it was not allowed to be in a same-sex relationship (Grandage, 2022).

Playing the role of a gay man is part of the self-presentation of Harry Styles. Like Gofmann (1956) describes, having a certain behavior will influence how others will look at you and react to you. So by choosing to play a gay man, Styles will change how his audience will look at him. In this case Styles of course presents himself as a gay man, but it is clear that he is acting and that this does not have to do anything with his own identity. However, just as with the Vogue shoot, this can attract the queer audience, because of the movie storyline that relates to their life. With Harry Styles playing this role, it is a possibility the audience will expect that Styles will use his experience in his role. By choosing to play a gay role, Harry Styles put his sexuality on the agenda as a topic for critics to write about and for journalists to ask him about.

This is what also happened in the earlier-mentioned interview with Rolling Stone. In this article, the following passage is written down: “I [Harry Styles, red.] think everyone, including myself, has your own journey with figuring out sexuality and getting more comfortable with it.” To him, My Policeman is a very human story. “It’s not like ‘This is a gay story about these guys being gay.’ It’s about love and about wasted time to me” (2022, para. 47).

However, in the next paragraph he adds: “According to Styles, Grandage wanted to highlight what sex is really like between two men in the scenes between Tom and Patrick. “So much of gay sex in film is two guys going at it, and it kind of removes the tenderness from it,” Styles continues. “There will be, I would imagine, some people who watch it who were very much alive during this time when it was illegal to be gay, and [Michael] wanted to show that it’s tender and loving and sensitive” (2022, para. 48)

For critics, this passage is a reason to call out Styles for queerbaiting, as becomes clear in one of the analyzed queerbaiting articles in The Week (Kennedy, 2022). This quote by Harry Styles makes the audience wonder if Styles has the authority to play a gay man in a movie. As Smith and Watson describe: “We expect particular kinds of stories to be told by those who have a direct and personal knowledge of that experience” (2010, p. 173). This is the same argument Martin (2018) makes in his research on casting gay characters on American television. He states that there are cultural advantages to choosing gay actors to play a gay role because they can participate in the authorship by using their own experiences and identities. In a movie, it is the question if you can say that the story of Tom is being told by Harry Styles, or more likely by the director or script writers.

In the article in The Week (2022), there is more focus on Styles’ choice to talk about the gay community and history in an interview rather than playing it in a movie. The passage links directly to authority and is as follows: “But as critics will argue, when it comes to gay love, does Styles know what he's talking about? Should he be able to comment so freely on LGBTQ culture without expressly and proudly identifying as part of the community? And do these comments, which some view as off-base, prove he is in fact simply co-opting the queer experience, and not living it?” (Kennedy, 2022, para. 4). This shows that being open about the queer community, for Styles means he might be talking about something he has no authority on. On the other hand, the ones accusing Styles of not having authority are not sure about this, since it is unclear whether Styles is part of the community.

What also applies to this passage is what Smith and Watson relate to as evidence (2010). In their book, they say when analyzing a text you could answer the question: What kinds of evidence does the narrator incorporate into her text to persuade the reader of the narrative’s claims to truth? This is what looks like is going wrong in this part of the article. In the first paragraph, Styles makes clear this role in the movie is not about gay love, but about love. Nevertheless, he is not giving evidence for actually feeling like that, he even shows the opposite, by talking about how Grandage, the movie’s director, wanted to highlight how gay sex and love can be tender. This shows a gap between what Styles shares about his ideas, versus what he is doing.

When looking at Styles in the movie and the interview he has different identities. In this movie, Styles is not presenting his own identity, but his role, Tom. But by choosing to play a role of a gay man, and talking about it in interviews it does become part of his identity and persona. In an interview like the one in Rolling Stone, he is himself and not Tom. In which case this is more a part of his presentation of self. In this interview, he makes figuring out his sexuality and his opinion on gay movies part of his identity, without making his sexuality public or a part of his identity.

Private life

Styles does not make his sexuality public, which is another reason why people believe he is queerbaiting, as is shown by discourse analysis. A big part of the accusations comes from this presentation of him in a dress or as a gay man, in combination with being unclear about his sexuality. In the articles about Styles’ queerbaiting it becomes clear that being very private about his private life works in hand with the accusations.

Styles himself tells about it in the Rolling Stone article (2022): “I’ve never talked about my life away from work publicly and found that it’s benefited me positively,” he explains, perhaps pre-emptively. “There’s always going to be a version of a narrative, and I think I just decided I wasn’t going to spend the time trying to correct it or redirect it in some way” (para. 25). This quote also relates to his relationship history, about which he tells “Sometimes people say, ‘You’ve only publicly been with women,’ and I don’t think I’ve publicly been with anyone. If someone takes a picture of you with someone, it doesn’t mean you’re choosing to have a public relationship or something” (para 27.)

This shows Styles does not present himself as a heterosexual man. However not showing or telling what his sexuality is, combined with the relationships he seems to have had in the past with only women, is a reason for people to view him as straight. So his non-verbal behaviour in this case influences the way people look at him, as a different version of whom he says he is.

This also becomes visible in an article by Medium (2022) about Styles’ queerbaiting: “Even though he never speaks publicly about his relationships, the fact that he has only been rumored to be dating women has led many to assume he is heterosexual. This has only fueled the queerbaiting accusations and many believe he is using his fashion as a way to attract queer audiences. They believe he is benefitting from appearing/ presenting as queer even though he doesn’t explicitly claim to be part of the community” (para. 7).

For his private life, Harry Styles does not want an audience. However, since he is famous and has millions of followers, there is an audience. And that audience is not just here to listen to his music, they also want to know, and eventually will know things about his private life. When searching for Styles relationships on Google, timelines, lists, and photos are thrown at you showing all Styles’ past and current relationships. The top five articles that pop up on Google, which are probably also the most-read ones all show only women in his dating history.

For example, an article on Seventeen (2021) called ‘Your Complete Guide to All of Harry Styles' Past Relationships’ shows all Styles (rumored) relationships, including Taylor Swift, Kendall Jenner, and most recently Olivia Wilde. Styles says he is not publicly been with anyone because he has not made it public himself. But it is publicly very visible and searchable who he has been with. By that, the audience will know his past relationships and will conclude about Styles’ identity. Especially since he is only known to be with women, this is a reason for his audience to assume he is straight.

In this case, Styles is not the narrator. He has decided not to be public about it and by that not tell what is going on, which allows the audience to create narratives. That way, Styles is presenting himself as a private person. The audience and press are changing this by sharing his private information. However, it is not promised that all the audience and press know and share is true or complete. Since they do not have full authority over the story. They can see him on dates with women, kiss women or speculate about certain interactions, but Styles and his dates are the only ones with full authority on the narrative of their relationships. This means it can not be said that because the audience created a presentation of Styles that includes only dating women and being straight this lines up with who Harry Styles truly is.

This then relates to Smith and Watson’s view on identity (2010). There are different models of identity used around Harry Styles, he presents himself as neutral and private, but he is presented by others as a straight guy dating attractive women. Styles seems to be aware of this when looking back at the earlier-mentioned quote in Rolling Stone: “There’s always going to be a version of a narrative, and I think I just decided I wasn’t going to spend the time trying to correct it or redirect it in some way” (2022, para 25.) He here shows that he is aware of the narratives about him, but that he consciously chose to not do anything about it. Implicitly he also makes clear that these narratives are not always right because he says they could be corrected or redirected. This shows that his identity does not fully line up with the identity created around him, otherwise, no correction or redirection would be needed.

Harry Styles’ persona and queerbaiting

These presentations of Harry Styles together show a persona. With his presentation of self, but also his presentation by others, it becomes clear Styles has multiple presentations that all combined present Harry Styles. However, there are differences between how Styles presents himself and how a part of his audience views him. This has to the accusations of queerbaiting.

In interviews, he can present himself as average and sporty, whereas on stage and in photoshoots he shows his flamboyant, colorful, and free side. Added to that, there is also a part Styles does not present at all, including his relationships and sexuality. It shows that his personal side in the media is not a presentation of self, but rather a presentation by others. Based on rumours a persona is formed around him being straight. This shows how posture is, like Meizoz states, not just based on discourse, but also on non-verbal behavior. This non-verbal behavior leads to conclusions about Styles’ sexuality, which are then a reason to accuse him of queerbaiting.

There is a dichotomy between whom Styles says and shows he is and who his accusers think he is. Whereas Styles presents himself as free and wearing and doing what he wants, by his audience this is seen as an intentional representation of the queer or LGBTQ+ community, with the goal to reach a queer audience, which is queerbaiting. Where Styles does not open up about his sexuality, at the same time the audience views him as straight based on the narratives around his relationship history.

This dichotomy in different views on whom Harry Styles has led to accusations of queerbaiting. In queerbaiting, the performer makes references to queer identity, without being queer, to reach a queer audience (Woods & Hardman, 2021). Styles shows that he is not using a queer identity but expressing and presenting himself, which might include bright colors, jewelry, and feminine clothing. Whereas the audience accusing him of queerbaiting does not think this is a presentation of self, but of the queer community, just to reach that community as an audience.

At the same time, the audience accusing him would not mind him representing the queer community if he were queer. Because that would mean there is no intention to benefit from a fake persona. However, based on presentations that have been made of Styles in the media, they assume Styles is not part of this community. Even though Styles himself has never made it clear if he is or is not.


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