As a lesbian who’s followed Hayley Kiyoko’s career since the launch of the now-iconic “Girls Like Girls” music video, I’ve become gradually more accustomed to seeing Hayley, a sometimes-dorky 26-year-old, surrounded by gorgeous women. Whether in a white demicup bra under a robin’s egg blue shirt with anonymous women’s arms strewn over Kiyoko’s body and around the frame, in her underwear and a pink robe sitting on the floor while a blonde woman lounges on the bed in lingerie, or—as in album cover for her forthcoming debut, Expectations—in a jacket, yellow bralette, and pants tilting her head at a naked woman who in turn stares only at her, Kiyoko has gifted us with visuals of lesbian desire—and desirability.
Until “Curious”, her newest single, Kiyoko’s music hasn’t reflected the same bold, sexual arrogance as her promotional photos. “Girls Like Girls” contains elements of it: Kiyoko brags about “stealing kisses from your missus” and “[taking] your girl out,” thwarting the straight boys who would never suspect a lesbian, much less a half-Japanese lesbian, to charm their girlfriends away. “Gravel to Tempo” represents a more typical view of herself: the video shows Kiyoko dressed in a comfortable, clearly gay, but neither bold nor sexy double-denim outfit with a simple purple shirt and baggy shorts. This contrasts the objects of her desire, the impossibly beautiful, straight, popular girls who stand in a line in the hallway, each wearing makeup, crop tops, short-shorts, or fitted jeans, and who consider Kiyoko with contempt. In the video, Kiyoko responds to their derision with confidence, performing a dance routine and teasing some of the girls who, the audience assumes, once teased her.
The lyrics betray a more fragile self-image: the lines “I don’t feel adequate / Thinking I’m a monster in disguise” resonated with me as someone who, when I was eleven years old and had just broken up with my first boyfriend because “it didn’t feel right,” asked myself if I was a monster, because I couldn’t love like everyone else did. Shakespeare & Punk’s previous article about Hayley Kiyoko argued for her music, and this song in particular, as a necessary contribution to teen pop that directly speaks to young lesbians and bi/pan girls. This is absolutely true, and “Gravel to Tempo” is exactly the right song for LBPQ teens who feel shunned, unwanted. However, when I listened to the song and watched the video, I wondered—can Hayley Kiyoko give us visions of a world where LBPQ women are wanted?
“Curious” answers that wish. Those images of Kiyoko complemented by women wearing lingerie, or nothing at all, while Kiyoko looks right into the camera and at the viewer—disrupting any attempts to turn her pictures of lesbian sexuality into (straight male) voyeurs’ material—culminate in the maybe-fantasy, maybe-reality sequence at the beginning of the “Curious” video, where Kiyoko lies in bright pink lingerie on a bathroom floor while two women lay their heads on her chest, run their hands over her body, and stare at her while biting their lips. Here, too, Hayley stares at the camera, but the time it’s obvious she’s addressing another woman—the “you” who left Kiyoko to date a boy, but still can’t stay away.
from the “Curious” video, © 2018 EMPIRE / Atlantic Recording Corporation
This is the first time we see Kiyoko in the video, and when I saw it, it shocked me. I thought of all the times I had seen straight men use women in their videos as props to prove the sexual superiority they claimed in their songs. I couldn’t even think of a video where a straight woman reciprocated the favor with male dancers. With “Curious,” Kiyoko gave us a vision of an irresistible, powerful, sexually present lesbian. Beyond just that sequence, the rest of the video tracks Kiyoko as she charms other women within the line of sight of the girl who left her. She makes the girl so jealous, she tries to hook up with Hayley in the bathroom, but Hayley questions the girl’s new straight relationship with, “I’m just curious, is it serious?” and leaves.
This hook is as clever as it is catchy. It turns two of the most common ways straight people delegitimize Sapphic relationships—reducing a girl’s wish to date or kiss other girls as “curiosity” rather than a real longing and categorizing girls’ and women’s gay relationships as shallow and fun rather than “serious”—back onto straightness. It questions the validity of the “you” girl’s new heterosexual relationship as well as the validity of the assumption that heterosexuality will always win out over lesbianism, that young lesbians will always settle down with men once they’ve grown up. This power play marks a huge difference between “Curious” Hayley and “Gravel to Tempo” Hayley, who could only gaze at other girls and revel in her undesirability. “On the floor, like a model,” Kiyoko embodies the confidence and boldness that that line suggests, a kind of confidence that comes from knowing one’s own beauty and allure. Although “Curious” may tell a more-bitter-than-sweet story about rejection, its bravado and reclamation of lesbian sexuality represent something new and long-needed from pop music. Lesbians can be more than curiosities—we can be icons.
Dean Symmonds is a lesbian poet from the South seeking their BAs in Creative Writing and Religious Studies at Hollins University. Their poems have been published in magazines such as Bad Pony Magazine, Monstering, Crab Fat Magazine, Gravel, and The Album, and forthcoming from Lavender Review. Their academic work on the Virgin Mary and Southern womanhood was published in the Hollins Digital Commons in 2017. You can find them on Twitter.