Once upon a time, queer people, mostly men, used a coded question to find others when being outside wasn’t safe: “Are you a friend of Dorothy’s?” Though its roots point to various sources – Dorothy Gale’s cabal of outcasts (especially that fey lion) in The Wizard of Oz, the movie character played by the mother of all gay icons, Judy Garland, and even Dorothy Parker, who regularly invited gay men to her soirees — the phrase was in use until at least as recently as the 1990s, when it was pronounced in ignorant†
Gen Z has its own version, of course, and this one is for and by the girls: “Do you like Girl in Red?”
Thanks to TikTok, it peaked in 2020 and the phrase became the fun new code and hashtag/meme for lesbians and bi-girls pretty much everywhere. And this time its meaning is easy to trace – straight to 23-year-old Norwegian queer pop artist Marie Ulven, aka Girl in Red.
“I just thought it was funny,” Ulven tells Yahoo Life about being synonymous with lesbians and queerness. “I’m a big fan of how the internet works when it’s working right and doing good things… I just thought it was funny when it happened, and then I thought, ‘hey, this is cool.'”
She embraced it to the point of using the hashtag question herself and putting up posters with the question in places around the world.
“We thought we could do a little more around it, and not necessarily make it political, but…maybe in places where people might have to rely more on something that speaks in code than just saying it out loud, like Russia or Brazil or whatever, Poland [for the] people struggling there,” she says.
While the meme’s use has largely died out (“This is, like, a very old thing,” she points out), Ulven — whose dreamy-anxiety songs like “Girls” and “We Fell in Love in October” speak unequivocally about infatuation, love, relationships, sex and heartbreak, and who recently helped a fan get to her mother by calling her from the stage – attaches great importance to the visibility of gays in pop music and the broader zeitgeist of pop culture.
“I think it’s important for any type of person to find something in pop culture or anywhere that they can relate to,” she says. “So even if you’re a little boy in a small town and you really want to be a footballer and you have someone to look up to because that’s your biggest dream… It’s the same for someone in a town who has feelings their sexuality, and maybe think they’re queer, or they feel different from other people, I think it’s important to have that person that you can look up to and help you just deal with those feelings. “
While Ulven has previously spoken out about what she saw as a lack of LGBTQ role models, she tells Yahoo Life she is encouraged to see this changing, “whether it’s about heart stopper Netflix series” or something similar.
Of that boy-boy novel series, based on Alice Oseman’s British graphic novels and a huge hit with American teens and tweens, she adds, “I also think guys really need to understand that guys can be bi and guys can be guys fun. because I notice that a lot of my male friends are very, very, my male friends are very careful when they try to figure out their sexuality, they know they love women and they say, ‘I’ll stop here.’ They’re too scared to go any further.” For encouragement in that area, Ulven is grateful for what she sees as “more and more representation” and more and more artists saying, “in a little sense, ‘I’m bi, I’m gay’, whatever” — as well as people who going big with their homosexuality, like Lil Nas X.
“He said, ‘I’m gay, I’m gay, I’m gay! And I’m so proud of it!’ And everyone listens to him. And I just think that’s really cool,” she says.
Ulven first came on the scene with “I Wanna be Your Girlfriend” in 2016 when it spiraled out of control on SoundCloud. Currently in the middle of a European tour, she recently joined forces with another queer Gen Z pop culture hero: Hunter Schafer, of Euphoria fame, who made her directorial debut in the Girl in Red music video for “hornylovesickmess,” released in May, much to the delight of both their fans.
“I personally wanted to work with another creative that I was really excited about – someone I really respect and who I think is really cool… And that felt more exciting to me at the time than going to find an X, Y, Z type of director,” says Ulven, pointing out that she’s a “huge fan of” Euphoria†
When Schafer was approached by Ulven, she said she was eager to try her hand at directing, so the two met for lunch in Los Angeles and “chatted for hours” before moving on to FaceTime sessions, introducing the concept for the video. “Then we were like, okay, let’s get a real production company here. Let’s do it for real. And then we just did it.”
The result is a moody, passionate, sharp portrait of desire and symbolic of the way Ulven seems to put herself into her music – as with “Serotonin”, a 2021 song in which she is bravely transparent about mental health issues, referencing everything from “intrusive thoughts like cutting off my hands” to “being stabilized with drugs”.
“I just say exactly what I had in mind at the time and I didn’t put a filter on the lyrics and just poured it all out,” she says. “So it came to me really quickly when I was writing it. And I didn’t think too much about it. I didn’t think, ‘what does this mean?’ I honestly never think about those things. I never reflect. I reflect a lot, but never when I make something… I just do what feels cool and right, and what makes the song the best.”
In the span of several months between writing “Serotonin” and publishing it, Ulven says, even she was struck by her own honesty.
“I was like, ‘holy f***. This song is really cheeky. I’m talking about chopping off my hands. I swear to God someone is going to cancel me [because] there was no trigger warning on the track.” And [then] I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t live in this world with people like that right now!'” she says. “In the end it’s a song, and I think music or art or whatever you want it call… if someone is offended, that’s okay.”
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