One Direction pose at the Logies last year.
If ever there was a pop group perfectly engineered to fuel the fantasy lives of adolescent girls (and a subset of grown woman and gay men), it’s One Direction. The Simon Cowell-managed and -manufactured fivesome are equal in looks and charm (if not necessarily in talent) and sing about parties, kissing, and girls who don’t know they’re beautiful, in songs tailor-made for the Twilight generation.
It wasn’t like this when I was growing up. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the talent was just as uneven and the songs equally corny, but even within the boy band genre, the “cute one” was a one-man role (alongside the “bad boy,” “shy one,” and the “one with the talent”), rather than a prerequisite for appearing on stage at all.
But One Direction differ from the all-male singing groups that came before them in other, less superficial, ways as well. Take the video for their latest ditty, Kiss You, in which Harry Styles, riding on a motorcycle behind Zayn Malik, reaches forward to cheekily tweak his band mate’s nipples. Or their previous hit, Live While We're Young, in which the boys wrestle, hug, and play with giant inflatable banana. Not to mention the countless TV appearances, interviews and live concerts in which the band have groped or mock-kissed each other for the cameras.
Yep, there’s a definite whiff of the homoerotic about 2013’s foremost boy band.
Groups of young men who sing, dance and wear brightly coloured jeans (or back in the 1990s, plastic trousers and tight t-shirts) have long been objects of sexual mockery. ‘N Sync, the American boy band famous for launching Justin Timberlake, was the butt of homophobic jokes long before Lance Bass came out of the closet in 2006. The Backstreet Boys? “More like the Backdoor Boys,” the turn of the millennium joke tittered.
One Direction are no different. No sooner had the band’s Kiss You video hit YouTube than a parody emerged with jokes about “gay leprechauns,” “dropping the soap,” and liking men’s butts. Hilarious, no?
But what distinguishes One Direction from their predecessors is that rather than trying to fight these stereotypes by gushing about women and being careful not to stand too closely together, they play up to them. They flirt. They roughhouse. They touch each other’s bottoms at concerts, and perform at gay nightclubs. They also have girlfriends. People may call them gay, but (most of the time, at least) they don’t give a toss. Because for the One Direction generation, being “gay” isn’t a bad thing.
In fact, amongst the demographic Harry, Liam, Louis, Zayn and Niall occupy, this kind of behaviour is common, says UK masculinities researcher, Eric Anderson. Anderson is the author of a 2010 study which found that 89 percent of 18- to 25-year-old self-identified heterosexual men had kissed another man on the lips - and in most cases, there was nothing sexual about it. “This is what young men of that age do in the UK,” Anderson says. “Touching, hugging, cuddling, and bum/testicle slapping are all ways you show your mates that you love them.”
It’s a shift that is deeply tied to a broader decline in – and increasing unacceptability of – homophobia, Anderson believes. In periods of high "homohysteria" he argues – places and points in history in which same-sex attraction is both widely recognised and reviled – men will keep their distance from each other in order to avoid being labelled as “gay.” At when homohysteria is lower, men are able to be more freely intimate: whether that means One Direction-style horseplay, friends holding hands in the Middle East, or rugby players posing with their arms draped around each other instead of standing with their arms solemnly folded.
Australian sociologist Michael Flood has observed a similar blurring of boundaries between straight and gay cultures, pointing to the rise of the metrosexual, the hipster, and indeed of men like himself: for whom going to Mardi Gras or hanging out with same-sex attracted friends is second nature, but who go home to female lovers and partners. He calls them “straight queers.”
But this blurring has been “very uneven,” Flood warns. “It’s much more common amongst urban young men than rural young men. It probably goes along with particular peer cultures as well. You’ll find fewer straight queers in death metal or pub rock than in hipster cultures, cafes and so on.” And while the prevalence of homophobia is lowest in the 18 to 24 age group, it is significantly higher amongst 14- to 17-year-olds. Not to mention that One Direction are playing with gay culture in a safely heterosexual space. “Coming out would be different,” Flood maintains.
Then again, it seems that in this case, coming out isn’t really the point. One Direction’s mock kisses and crotch grabbing may garner attention on YouTube, but they represent the flirtatious tip of a decidedly more platonic iceberg. Beneath them lie a myriad of more subtle intimacies, and a gradual shift to a culture that allows men to banter, make body contact, and even love each other a little bit, without it marking a threat to their status as men. In other words, a culture that allows young men to enjoy the kind of friendship and intimacy that has traditionally been associated with young women.
As for One Direction themselves? When asked by an American interviewer why they grab each other’s butts and crotches on stage, Niall replied, “See, that one, that one’s just to make the girls scream, isn’t it?” “See, [Harry’s] done that, and the crowd’s going crazy,” chimed in Zayn.
“We do it for a laugh,” they concluded.