Rita Ora’s “Girls” may be problematic, but it’s no excuse for biphobia
2018 is a great year to be bi. From Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s resident bisexual Rosa Diaz (played by openly bisexual Stephanie Beatriz) to Harry Styles’ lowkey coming out through new song “Medicine”, we’ve got more mainstream cultural touchstones available to us than ever before.
On Friday, Rita Ora dropped star-studded new single “Girls”, featuring Cardi B, Charli XCX, and Bebe Rexha. It’s pretty unambiguously queer, with all four artists chiming in on the chorus: “Sometimes, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls.” Cardi B gets more explicit, talking about having a girl “down with the scissor”, whilst Rexha and XCX sing in unison “I put the lion in the cage and then I laid with her.” We know all these artists have dated men in the past, so does this make “Girls” a bisexual anthem?
The response from… well, pretty much everyone would suggest otherwise. A massive backlash has seen widespread criticism of the song and suggested it’s a bunch of straight women co-opting bisexuality to sell records.
If that was definitely the case, fair enough, but this critique makes the incorrect assumption that all of the collaborators are straight.
Whilst Ora is resistant to the song being labelled a bisexual anthem — calling it “narrow-minded” in this interview with People, she does add that “I’m not hiding what I am, who I am, if I wanna do this, if I wanna do that. That’s just how it’s gonna be. For me and my career, this is definitely the most open-booked I’ve ever been, if that’s a word.” Considering that “Girls” states she “I ain’t one-sided, I’m open-minded, I’m fifty-fifty and I’m never gonna hide it,” who she is seems pretty clear. Of the song more generally, she told Billboard that it’s “about freedom and acceptance, and being what you want to be, and it being OK.”
Cardi B may be a transphobic mess, but she is also openly bi — see this tweet from 2016.
Critiquing the space she’s entering into as a possible LGBT+ role model is totally valid given her past mistakes, but is erasing her bisexuality in doing so not similarly harmful? The plethora of people tweeting claiming that she is straight don’t seem all that bothered, and are happy to equate their false presumption of her straightness as equal with her legitimate missteps.
Whilst I don’t know enough about Bebe Rexha to comment on her sexuality, and the response to “Girls” has now made a Google pretty much impossible, she responded ambiguously to a question about it on Twitter last year, suggesting gender may not be a factor in her attraction.
The only one of the four to have explicitly stated her straightness in the past is Charli XCX, which does beg the question as to why she’s featured here. That said, if we’re to sincerely defend sexual fluidity in any other context we also have to be open to the possibility that it might apply here. There’s every possibility that someone could call themselves straight while they’re in the closet, or even have not realised their queerness yet.
Accusations of fans “reaching” to defend these singers’ possible bisexuality are rife from those firing out critiques. I’m not particularly invested in any of these artists, but I know that it’s hard as hell to come out as bi, and can appreciate that in an industry where heterosexual appeal is a lucrative quality there are incentives to remaining vague. Why do women have to explicitly state their queerness for it to be considered valid, when male artists like Harry Styles can be lauded for releasing a bisexual anthem with far more ambiguous lyrics?
Random Twitter users aren’t the only people to have strong opinions about the messages of “Girls”. Lesbian singer Hayley Kiyoko put out a statement calling the song “tone-deaf”, stating that it “belittles and invalidates the very pure feelings of an entire community.”
Whilst it’s lovely that Kiyoko has always known she loves women, some of us have not been so lucky. Some of us did need to drink wine to explore the feelings we’d been taught were taboo. Kiyoko’s insinuation that only those who have always been utterly secure in our sexuality are valid is harmful — it’s this message that keeps bi folks in the closet for fear they’re going to be condemned as fake or attention-seeking. Whilst straight people’s experimentation can absolutely be harmful to the LGBT+ community, placing limits on what’s acceptable behaviour for bisexual people is not the answer.
There are bisexual women out there who’d love to kiss girls but have never had the chance, and those who’ve only worked up the courage when they’re drunk. There are those who are attracted to women or other genders far less often than to men. There are those who have threesomes or date multiple people at once or cheat. Bisexual people aren’t all perfect, and the way they express their sexuality might make you uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, or give you licence to invalidate it.
Kiyoko’s statement also blames the artists involved in “Girls” for contributing to men’s fetishisation of queer women, something most bisexual girls are all too familiar with. It’s a common line of argument used to invalidate us that again comes back to accusing us of being secretly straight, and all expressions of our sexuality as a performance for men.
That said, as pointed out by gay musician Shura, out of the nine writers on the track, only three are women: Ora, Almanzar (Cardi B), and Tamposi.
For men to be writing about women’s sexuality in this way is something that ought to be challenged, but that’s not what most people seem to be going for. The fact that most criticism targets the women who recorded this song instead of the men behind it is not only biphobic but misogynistic in the extreme.
MUNA’s Katie Gavin provides a balanced critique within the context of her own bisexuality. She comments on how “the songwriting world is full of people that feel entitled to write about communities to which they do not belong”, but also acknowledges the possibility that “Girls” reflects the experiences of many on the road to discovering their own sexuality.
Of course, “Girls” has elements that are problematic, there’s no denying that. If any of the artists involved are straight, they ought to be open about that and apologise for capitalising on queerness for financial gain. The fact that this song was penned by a bunch of industry bros should absolutely be scrutinised. Cardi B must be held to account for her transphobia and lesbophobia. Lyrically, there are several stereotypes that could have been avoided.
All of these things can be true without “Girls” itself being accused of embodying harmful fakery. The real problem is people’s seeming inability to include this nuance in their critique; instead reverting to invalidating biphobia that will cause wider reaching harm to our community.
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