Ariana Grande: sexuality is not your punchline
In the music video for the newly-released break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored (stylised in the lower case), Ariana Grande jealously eyes a couple on the dancefloor and in a swimming pool, purring lines like, “Now I wanna know how you taste… Then I realise she’s right there” and “but I only hate on her ‘cause I want you”, while making eye contact with the man who clearly enjoys her attentions.
Then the final few seconds of the video totally, irrationally, contradict this set up. Grande swoops in on the eponymous “girlfriend”, with a cut to black before they kiss. The heteronormative pronouns, the sexual chemistry between Grande and the taken man, the title of the song itself a euphemistic, sly suggestion to the boyfriend she ostensibly desires – all of this was necessary to create a concluding plot twist. A relationship with a woman, conducted under the male gaze.
It’s not new to use LGBT+ plot twists in music videos. Recall, for instance, Carly Rae Jepsen’s notably more gender-neutral 2012 video for Call Me Maybe, in which the distant male object of the singer’s desires pursues another male member of her band, challenging our conceptions of what a “straight” or “gay” man should look like. In break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored, it’s Grande as narrator who is revealed as being attracted to women in the final glimpse of the video, portraying alternate sexualities as a sting or a shock. It’s a plot twist because, in the world that the video portrays, it’s a diversion from the normal; i.e.: the heterosexual.
Furthermore, the bisexual character she creates for the video plays into the tropes of a capricious, promiscuous woman with a doubled dating pool that she eagerly goes after. In the video, the “girlfriend” doubles Grande: they swap reflections and share hairstyles and jewellery. Some fans have interpreted this in the sense that the girlfriend is meant to represent Grande, and that the apparent “kiss” is a representation of the singer breaking up with her own boyfriend, reconciling with and loving herself instead. But the link is so tenuous that, if this were to be true, then Grande’s portrayal of self-love in this way is painfully tone-deaf, especially considering how bisexual women are hypersexualised and perceived as disloyal partners, with half experiencing sexual violence in their lifetimes. Whether it’s a half-hearted attempt at queer inclusion or a superficial expression of self-confidence, using love between women as a punchline always leaves a bad taste.
Grande, however, doesn’t account for the whole problem. The music industry for the most part works institutionally to sideline and exploit the LGBT+ community, while imbuing lyrics and videos with the shallowest, unarticulated suggestions of alternative sexuality to profit from LGBT+ consumers without taking real risks to diversify music. The video comes mere weeks after the release of Lost in the Fire by The Weeknd, wherein the artist addresses his female bisexual partner as “going through a phase”. So much LGBT+ representation in pop continues to centre straight people, viewing the queer community through their fetishising eyes. And just a month ago, lesbian pop artist and advocate Hayley Kiyoko also recently revealed in an interview that she had been pressured to “tone down” her sexuality to benefit her career, showing how the industry actively polices and suppresses the sexual expression of openly LGBT+ artists. Such advice is to be expected when we perpetuate the idea that sexuality is like an outfit to be worn and cast off again according to the direction of the cashflow.
The truth is, queerness is not a gag. It isn’t a metaphor. It’s neither a trend nor a phase – and it’s time artists realised that.