When I first heard about Rita Ora’s new song, Girls, a summery bop with the chorus ‘I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls’, I was apprehensive: from t.A.T.U’s All The Things She Said to Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl, pop has a history of straight women capitalising on and commodifying same-sex attraction with little consideration of the effects on gay and bisexual women.
With lyrics like, ‘I ain’t one-sided, I’m open-minded / I’m fifty-fifty and I’m never gonna hide it’, Girls initially seems like a pretty clear declaration of Ora’s bisexuality. Yet when asked in an interview for People Music if she identifies as bisexual or fluid, she responded: “If people look at it like that, it’s very narrow-minded, and I don’t think that’s what this record is. I don’t think that that even matters.” Which begs the question: if Ora does not identify as bisexual or fluid, what does this song mean both for women who do identify as gay, bi or queer, and for straight-identifying women who ‘just wanna kiss girls’ from time to time?
Discussions like these are always fraught because while it’s essential to remain critical of media which has the potential to invalidate the experiences of LGBTQ+ people, I also do not want to be in the position of policing women’s expressions of desire within a society which already does its best to shame them for those desires. But the fact remains; it’s hard to tell whether Girls is sincere, or merely a cash-grab of a summer single capitalising on queer women and on a veneer of progressiveness.
“The one consistency in all of Ora’s comments is the sidestepping she does to avoid equating the song with LGBTQ+ identities.”
In an interview with #legend last June, Ora said of the song, “at the first listen, you’ll be, like, ‘Oh, wow. She’s definitely letting us know that she likes girls.’ But it’s not that. […] The song is basically about females complimenting other females and supporting each other.” And speaking to Chart Show TV in August, she said, “it’s my twisted way of showing love for the girls in the industry.” These comments make it unclear whether the song is an expression of desire, a somewhat misguided display of platonic affection, or a little bit of both. The one consistency in all of Ora’s comments is the sidestepping she does to avoid equating the song with LGBTQ+ identities, sometimes to dizzying extremes: referring to the song’s themes of girls kissing girls as ‘twisted’ is a kick in the teeth to those of us for whom same-sex love and desire is our reality.
The discord between Ora’s commentary and the song itself could perhaps be explained by the fact that, with the lone omission of a verse by Cardi B, the entirety of Girls is written by men (and with lines like “I’m the hunter and she the prey”, it shows.) It’s possible that Ora’s initial vision was translated by male writers into something altogether more fetishising.
If Girls does come from a place of sincerity – if Ora really does enjoy kissing girls sometimes and wants to sing about it – it’s interesting that she chose to collaborate on this song with Cardi B, Charli XCX, and Bebe Rexha. Neither XCX nor Rexha have openly identified as bisexual or gay – responding to a tweet asking for her sexual orientation, Rexha merely gave the ambiguous answer, “Love is love”. And while Cardi B is openly bisexual, she’s made a number of problematic comments about queer women, including referring to lesbians using the ‘d’ slur and saying of prospective sexual partners, “like, I just gotta rape your face sometimes”. Such comments may come from a place of ignorance as opposed to malice, but still mean that she’s failing to send out healthy messages to queer audiences (on 15th May, as part of a response to the backlash to Girls from the LGBTQ+ community, Cardi B tweeted what appeared to be an apology for these remarks.)
If XCX and Rexha do consider themselves straight (or mostly straight) – and it is not my intention here to speculate about the singers’ orientations – Ora’s decision to collaborate on a song about kissing and sleeping with women with a group of majority straight artists raises questions about how this song interacts with ideas of female same-sex desire. In the aforementioned People Music interview, Ora states that she “had this vision of wanting to bring these powerful women together”. This vision, along with Girls as a whole, makes me wonder if making this song, and (if XCX and Rexha do identify as mostly straight) specifically making this song with a group comprised mostly of straight women, felt like a safe way for Ora to explore same-sex desire in a setting that centres women and female connection, without having to associate that exploration with or align herself with queerness.
On the one hand, we live in a sexist and heteronormative culture which strongly discourages women from expressing attraction towards other women; if women who consider themselves mostly but not entirely straight are feeling able to explore their same-sex desires in ways that feel fun, safe, and liberating to them, I’m all for it. On the other, the distancing of such exploration from bi, gay, and queer identity all too quickly throws gay and bisexual women under the bus. It says there’s no reason to think women who want to kiss other women are actually queer. It says it’s okay for us to kiss girls because we’re straight. Such messaging serves only to compound the invalidation of queer women’s sexualities already so prevalent in society.
“Expressions of female same-sex desire only make it big in pop music if they are still perceived to fit within the unthreatening and acceptable bracket of heterosexuality.”
It’s also important to note that pop music focusing on female same-sex desire in the charts has largely been the domain of women who are straight, or at least perceived as such. Katy Perry’s 2008 hit I Kissed a Girl made damn sure to be clear that it was about a straight woman’s brief experimentation, and Demi Lovato’s Cool For The Summer, released before she publicly stated that she dates men and women in her 2017 documentary ‘Stay Strong’, was largely read as a light-hearted jam about bi-curious experimentation.
The likes of Janelle Monae’s PYNK and Make Me Feel, Kehlani’s Honey, or any of Hayley Kiyoko’s songs just don’t receive the same level of mainstream attention. Expressions of female same-sex desire only make it big in pop music if they are still perceived to fit within the unthreatening and acceptable bracket of heterosexuality. It is frustrating and disheartening to listen to such nuanced and authentic depictions of love and sex between women as released by the likes of Monae and Kiyoko, and to know at the same time that the only song about women desiring women likely to be reverberating across club dancefloors this summer is one which the singer seems uncomfortable explicitly aligning with LGBTQ identity.
I want to be clear: I do not think Rita Ora owes anyone, least of all the general public, a definition of her sexuality. But I do think her statement that questioning whether she is bisexual as a response to a song about wanting to kiss women is ‘narrow-minded’, and that the song ‘isn’t about that’, is irresponsible and serves to distance the song from queer female identity in a way that is potentially harmful.
To Ora’s credit, when asked if she hopes the song becomes a bisexual anthem, she answered, “Definitely […] I want there to be a sense of freedom for anyone who listens to it.” Whilst uncomfortable with the assumption that she herself may be bisexual, she is happy for others to frame the song as a queer anthem. In the same interview, though, she says she was inspired by I Kissed a Girl, a song long felt to be offensive and trivialising by the LGBTQ+ community. It seems that whilst her intentions may be good, Ora hasn’t taken the time to really consider the implications of Girls and the messaging surrounding it.
If women who identify as straight – or at least not as LGBTQ+ – and feel some form of same-sex attraction are feeling able to explore those feelings whilst encouraging other women in similar positions to do so, that’s a wonderful thing. But I ask them to be mindful that in doing so they are not distancing themselves or their messages from queer identity. I ask them to consider the ways in which their voices are privileged over those women who do identify as LGBTQ+, and in what ways they can use their platforms to support and promote those women.