Harry Styles in a tutu
Illustration by Carmel Ada, American Academy of Art

Criticize Harry Styles’ Acting Skills, Not His Wardrobe

The musician is becoming the artist people love to hate. His fashion doesn’t deserve the criticism, but his acting skills definitely do.

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Harry Styles in a tutu
Illustration by Carmel Ada, American Academy of Art

The musician is becoming the artist people love to hate. His fashion doesn’t deserve the criticism, but his acting skills definitely do.

Harry Styles has come a long way since One Direction, but the path he’s taken to get here is studded with a surprising amount of controversy. In the past few years, Styles has increasingly become the subject of debates about queerbaiting, or more specifically, artists appropriating queer aesthetics to gain what may be perceived as undeserved popularity. People can and should criticize Harry Styles for his lackluster acting skills, but it’s time to leave the negative conversations about his gender expression at the door.

As someone who skirted the Directioner trend and never really connected with Styles’ solo work, the amount of cynicism and vitriol surrounding his style is baffling. His outfits are subversive but generally inoffensive: bold prints, sailor pants, Victorian silk-chiffon blouses, sequined jumpsuits. Styles favors ’70s-inspired glam that, while flamboyant and unique in comparison to other male pop stars like Justin Bieber or Shawn Mendes, has ultimately been done before and doesn’t deviate too wildly from established trends. Ultimately, he’s a mainstream artist, and his aesthetics appeal to a mainstream audience. To the mainstream, Styles wearing a skirt or a sequined jumpsuit might feel like it has the power to change the world. But for people who primarily engage with queer artists, where queerness is central to their work, Styles’ idea of subversion reads as a cheap, muted imitation of an exclusive club that he has not been initiated into.

Fashionista Friday: Stephanie J. Bl...
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Queerbaiting is the popular term, but I don’t think it accurately represents what people are taking issue with. People are upset that Harry Styles has become a mainstream mouthpiece for queerness while simultaneously skirting the label of queer. A valid complaint, but there is no “bait” in that equation — nobody is forcing you to stay on the hook, and nobody materially gains anything by learning that Styles is “truly” queer. There is a popular notion that celebrities must declare their queerness in order to claim the aesthetics of queerness; ambiguity and privacy are unacceptable.

Styles is a unique figure in that he has always been the subject of a peculiar brand of fantasy. His imagined relationships with fellow band members were chronicled in fan fictions; every touch, every lingering glance was analyzed by fangirls desperate for “proof” that Harry and Louis were really, truly in love. This blatant denial of privacy would encourage anybody to retreat inwards, to withhold essential parts of themselves from hungry fans. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Styles said, “Sometimes people say, ‘You’ve only publicly been with women,’ and I don’t think I’ve publicly been with anyone.” Styles’ perceived refusal to confirm or deny his queerness does not come from a desire to profit from queer aesthetics without putting in the “work” to actually be publicly queer. The answer is more simple than people want to admit: He just wants to be left alone.

This incessant need for proof that Styles is “actually” queer is ultimately regressive and unproductive. Is he materially gaining anything by wearing a skirt on stage? He would make just as much money wearing jeans and a button-down; the Harries will buy tickets either way. Love him, hate him, do whatever you want — just stop demanding that celebrities must come out in order to engage with queer aesthetics. Why should we deny anyone the right to experiment with gender expression, to blur the lines between masculine and feminine?

I will never be one to shut that door, but I will shut the door on Styles’ budding acting career. Styles’ lackluster performances lead one to ask why he continues to be cast in star-studded productions like “Don’t Worry Darling” and Marvel’s “Eternals”; Vulture describes Styles’ performance in the former as akin to a “wet blanket.” As an actor, there is an emotional register that Styles seems incapable of reaching at this point in his career. This is a disservice to his co-stars. In trailers for “Don’t Worry Darling,” Styles is completely outmatched by Florence Pugh, who performs with a crackling intensity that Styles just can’t connect with. Although he is playing an American businessman, Styles seems incapable of picking an accent and sticking with it; whether that was an intentional artistic choice or an indication of his lack of training remains to be seen.

In his most recent film, “My Policeman,” Styles brings that same lack of emotional intensity, as if he is incapable of accessing the raw spark that could make his performance feel intimate and real. Ryan Lattanzio from Indiewire said, “To play a repressed gay man involved in a steamy, behind-closed-doors affair requires levels of complexity and conveying inner turmoil that Styles can’t provide.”

Additionally, he appears to fundamentally misunderstand the roles he plays. “It’s not like ‘This is a gay story about these guys being gay.’ It’s about love and about wasted time to me,” Styles said about “My Policeman.” Well, Harry, it is a gay story about these guys being gay, and it is also about love and wasted time; the story can be two things at once. The more interviews I read, the more I’m convinced that Styles is just horrible at expressing himself, to the detriment of his reputation. In an interview for “Don’t Worry Darling,” Styles said, “My favorite thing about the movie is that it feels like a movie,” while Chris Pine sits dead-eyed beside him.

His fame as a musician has skyrocketed him past the trials and tribulations a new actor would normally be forced to endure. Because of his success as a musician, he was not forced to prove himself as an actor. As a result, roles keep landing in his lap, and he simply doesn’t have the experience or growth to do them justice. Maybe one day he could be great, but that day is not today.

Nobody, not even celebrities, is required to bare their soul to you in order to prove their queerness. Limiting the freedom to experiment and play with gender expression only to people who have “proven” their queerness is harmful and regressive. If you have to complain about Harry Styles, complain about his acting, and leave the sequined jumpsuits alone.

 

Writer Profile

Maria Merlo

Eastern Michigan University
English with a Creative Writing Concentration

Maria Merlo is a fourth-year English major at Eastern Michigan University with a variety of passions: unhinged female protagonists, Fiona Apple lyric analysis, and talking through movies. Oh, and writing. Lots of writing.

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