In an interview with Elite Daily in 2016, Kiyoko explained her motivations for choosing to highlight elements of her own sexuality in her work:
“I think the reason I’m just continuing to tell my story is because I didn’t really have that growing up. I never really had someone that I could 100 percent relate to. It was difficult, to never have that.”
After the release of the video for her first hit single “Girls Like Girls” in 2015, the online LGBT community – headquartered mostly on Tumblr – were thrilled to see an accurate and heartfelt representation of a lesbian relationship. The video was shared across the internet and to date has received 86,468,468 views. Now being hailed as the “Lesbian Jesus,” the once popular Disney Channel star has built an entire brand around her sexuality. A Buzzfeed article () covering the 26 year old star’s meteoric rise explained her appeal best:
“Over the span of her still-young musical career, Hayley Kiyoko has mastered the sort of populist stage persona to which many young musicians can only aspire: sexy, but vulnerable, and shy, like you; a cocky underdog, indebted to her fans.”
Fan posts about Kiyoko’s influence echo this assessment this sentiment:
Kiyoko frequently draws attention to how she makes use of her platform to express her personal experiences with her femininity, her sexuality, and her racial identity to much acclaim from her hyper-active, niche fanbase. However, as she has become more well recognized, she has broadened her artistic style to encompass a more conventional pop aesthetic, and with that a broader commercial appeal.
In this essay, we examine two of Kiyoko’s most popular videos in order to gauge how her presentation of her lesbian identity has changed over the course of her short career as she has gained dramatic success. We start with analyzing the uniquely queer and female gaze highlighted in the video for her first hit song, “Girls Like Girls.” Next, we examine the representations of women and sexuality at play in the video for her most recent hit, “Curious,” off her debut album that drops at the end of this month. Throughout, we focus on how the aesthetics of these two videos balance authenticity and commercial appeal in Kiyoko’s ongoing negotiations with identity within popular music spaces.
The video of Hayley Kiyoko’s first hit single, “Girls Like Girls” – co-directed by Kiyoko herself – tells the story of a young woman who struggles with her unspoken feelings for her Crush, a close female friend in a relationship with a hyper-masculine Boyfriend. Throughout the course of a day, the Crush reveals she reciprocates the Protagonist’s affection and attempts to kiss her before the Boyfriend violently interjects, injuring the Protagonist and verbally abusing the Crush. The Protagonist responds by tackling the Boyfriend to the ground and repeatedly punching him as a montage plays of her memories of intimate moments between her and the Crush. The video ends with the Crush pulling the now bruised Protagonist off the Boyfriend and finally kissing her to a triumphant swell of music.
THE LESBIAN GAZE
“Girls Like Girls” makes careful use of the visuality of gazing with the goal of reframing it into a uniquely feminine and uniquely queer way of Looking.
“The Lesbian Gaze” is a response to the intersectional threats of misogynistic and homophobic male violence queer women face when they actively express their identity. Much analysis of the film Carol (Haynes, 2015) has focused on the way The Lesbian Gaze has historically been used by women to convey their romantic relationship within unsafe hetero-spaces. As opposed to the male gaze, which finds pleasure purely in the voyeuristic observation of the sexual object, The Lesbian Gaze is a form of communication. The pleasure is not in the looking, but in the reciprocation of the gaze.
The use of this fundamentally queer communicative method in her first breakout video is part of why it was spread so widely and became so popular in LGBT online communities. From the very start, Kiyoko’s claims of authenticity
In “Girls Like Girls”, the dynamics of The Lesbian Gaze function as the chief narrative mechanic to convey the blossoming relationship between The Crush and The Protagonist as they negotiate a hetero-space made dangerous by the looming threat of the Crush’s hyper-masculine Boyfriend.
In the scene below the Protagonist looks on as her Crush dances, unaware she is being watched, as her bra strap casually slides down her arm. Where this image may be otherwise seen as a common example of the male gaze – taking pleasure in the Crush’s personal moment of sensuality – the framing and editing employed in the video clearly assert the Protagonist as the lens through which the gaze is focused.
In A, use of an over the shoulder (or more accurately, over the hip) shot of the Crush’s movements very clearly framed the point of view as being from the Protagonist’s gaze. In B, we see one example of the functional narrative dynamics employed in the video: the shot-reverse-shot. This editing style throughout the video is used to emphasize the dynamics of the gaze. The Protagonist is presented as compelled but unfulfilled.
By the end of the video, when they finally actualize their feelings for each other, the threat is also made real, reinforcing the need for The Lesbian Gaze as a mode of communication in unsafe hetero-spaces.
Kiyoko’s choice to focus on the relationship between two girls exploring their sexuality reflects her claims to authenticity as a lesbian artist. The representation of The Lesbian Gaze in “Girls Like Girls” is part of why this video rang so true to Kiyoko’s LGBT fan-base, ultimately rocketing her to viral stardom. Her role as author of the video was heavily touted in the media and with on set photos, further forwarding her claim to being the real deal lesbian pop star.
And yet, despite her deific status as Tumblr’s “Lesbian Jesus” and amongst the uber fans on Twitter that make up #KiyokianRevolution, in more recent interviews, Kiyoko has made a point of de-emphasizing the role of her personal experiences with her sexuality in media interviews and instead choosing to emphasize her femininity. With her rise in popularity over the past 3 years, her image has seen some shifts as she prepares to make the transition from popular viral darling towards a more commercial pop music artist with the release of her upcoming album. With this transition, Kiyoko has swapped intimate and realistic portrayals of her identity for more slick, produced, and most importantly hyper-sexualized representations that leverage her sexuality and femininity in often fetishistic scenarios in line with male fantasies about lesbian sex. In the following section, we analyze how this transition is depicted in her most recent video, “Curious,” with the goal of evaluating how she manages to balance the authenticity established in “Girls Like Girls” with the commercial appeal of fetishized portrayals.
Kiyoko’s newest video is Curious, her latest single for her upcoming first full-length album. Since her ‘coming out’ moment two years ago with her song Girls Like Girls, Hayley has only grown in popularity. Girls Like Girls has acquired 86 million views over the past couple of years. Curious already has 6.5 million. Girls Like Girls averages 111, 444 hits per day, while Curious averages 216,667 per day. As her popularity has grown, it seems like Kiyoko has adopted some more mainstream practices.
The most obvious example would be the dance sequence shown below.
Kiyoko and her squad of backup dancers performing an impractical boyband style routine in a cramped hallway is a dramatic departure from the more sincere, indie feel of the Girls Like Girls video. Girls Like Girls is essentially a short film, with no breaks to acknowledge and entertain the audience. This implies that Girls Like Girls isn’t about the audience. It’s about the story being told. It’s about coming out. Curious cannot say the same thing.
Another mainstream practice she may have adopted to appeal to a broader audience is the aesthetics of the male gaze.
The first instance of this is featured above. The women may be only touching and gazing at Kiyoko, but Hayley is looking directly at the camera, at you. It is an invitation to look, to be a voyeur of this scene. This is where the Male Gaze comes in. This type of voyeurism, charged with sexual energy, is a hallmark of the male gaze.
That previously extended invitation takes you to this particular scene. After arriving with her new boyfriend, Kiyoko’s ex gives into her jealous impulses and desires, dragging Kiyoko into the bathroom for this clandestine scene. The heated kissing, lingering shots of caressing exposed skin, and multiple images of their coupling from the mirrors only intensify the sense of scopophilia that the audience feels.
Both of these scenes are a deliberate move away from the images seen in Girls Like Girls. It lacks that emotional intimacy, that vulnerability that is obviously seen in Kiyoko’s first video. The first scene looks like something out of a lesbian pornography, you know, the ones made without lesbians in mind. The openness of the body placement is similar to that of porn, in which the view is given a way in, an encouragement to participate. Both scenes have shots that draw attention to the exposed skin of the two girls in such a way that emphasizes their femininity and sexual desirability. This emphasis leads to an importance being placed on these female bodies being sexualized in ways that seem familiar. Given that the male gaze is so pervasive in all forms of media, this portrayal of conventionally attractive women isn’t something unusual. What is unusual is that the video was co-directed by Kiyoko herself, and there is still this objectification of these two women. Which begs the question, is Kiyoko purposefully employing these dominant ways of looking just to garner more success?
However, while Kiyoko employs a popular music video trope and the aesthetics of the dominant way of looking (the male gaze) to appeal to a broader audience, to make herself more in line with other contemporary pop stars, some of the male gaze is cut through.
As seen in the photoset above, the makeout montage is broken up by flashes of what appear to be Kiyoko’s memories. In them the ex is seen without makeup, in casual comfortable clothes, and smiling and laughing. This undermines the power and dominance of the male gaze, creating a soft and intimate image, briefly, in its place. It is something reminiscent of the Girls Like Girls video, where the only thing that mattered was the two girls and their ways of seeing each other.
Kiyoko’s career isn’t a fixed point of the past. She’s in the prime of it, navigating through essentially uncharted territory. With mainstream success comes the struggle of remaining authentic or marketing yourself to a broader audience, especially when it’s the struggle of a queer women who can’t quite be coded as white. While the music video for Girls Like Girls is unquestionably queer, it is a little more murky for the Curious video, the conflict evident given the presence of the male gaze. Where Kiyoko will fall, actual Lesbian Jesus or sellout, is something only time will tell.