Finding — and Hating — the Real Zayn


On January 30, my alarm went off and I immediately opened one of the many links I’d been sent to Zayn’s “Pillowtalk.” After I watched, I felt nauseated because no one, save for Georgia O’Keeffe, has permission to pull flowers as vagina imagery. A video that looked like it came straight out of a 2007 VH1 roundup, “Pillowtalk” is practically a guide on how to objectify women in music videos. As someone who has been watching One Direction videos very closely for the last four years, I was shocked. I knew that Zayn’s solo career would be very different from his work with the band, and much of what he’s said about his departure has related to the idea of showing us the “real him.” Turns out that the “real Zayn” is an asshole.

Given his five-year involvement with One Direction, I expected Zayn to be at least decent to women. I developed this expectation of decency as I watched One Direction grow from “this is a boy band with particularly beautiful creatures” to “look at these beautiful boys croon to me about how women can do anything.” One Directions has evolved since the seminal (yet lyrically trashy) “What Makes You Beautiful” (off their first album, Up All Night). Recent albums Four and Made in the A.M. were overwhelmingly positive in their messages about women, emphasizing consent and agency. Take, for example, “Temporary Fix.” The boys sing, “Feel you on my neck while I’m calling a taxi/Climbing over me while I climb in the backseat/Now we’re taking off, now we’re taking it off tonight.” Here, the woman initiates intimacy, and the actions of removing clothing are mutual. The lyrics state we’re, not I’m or you’re — emphasizing mutual consent. Not to mention, the band has a history of respecting — they never call their fans crazy, and always correct reporters who do — and thanking their female fans. They adhere to the tenets of “Girl Almighty.”

The first signal that something was different about Zayn was the #realmusic debacle. On July 29, 2015, Zayn tweeted an explanation for leaving One Direction (to show us who he “really is”), punctuated with #realmusic. The sentiment that One Direction’s music is somehow not “real” (a/k/a “good”) does not express a contrarian opinion. Despite dominating charts and record sales, the band has never been nominated for a Grammy; perhaps this is in part due to the volume at which their public image cries, “This is for teen girls.” Because the music isn’t “real” fans are “crazy” (note, not “passionate”) to love it so much. Those of us who love 1D are used to hearing variations on this theme any time we mention we’re fans (especially those of us on the older side of the fandom). What’s hurtful about Zayn’s #realmusic is that someone from the inside, someone we expected to respect us, is now doing the opposite: being openly disrespectful.

With “Pillowtalk,” Zayn handed us the antithesis of music and images that empower women. The sole purpose of women in the video is to be naked, beautiful, and useless — except for when they’re smoochin’ Zayn. The video’s graphics (faces stretching and distorting, women crying blood), paired with the chorus (“Be in bed all day/fucking in, fighting on/It’s our paradise and it’s our war zone”), suggest a volatile relationship. That in itself is fine — what’s troubling is that despite Zayn professing mutual responsibility for the “war zone,” we never see him suffer in the video. The act of suffering is visible solely in the woman (Gigi Hadid, his current IRL girlfriend), who holds her face in agony and is pulled to and fro by Zayn.

Contrast this imagery with perhaps the most charming One Direction video of all times: “Night Changes.” Shot from a woman’s point of view, “Night Changes” takes us adoring fans on a series of “dates” with each of the boys. All the dates end poorly (in cute ways — Niall spills sangria all over me and I leave!), but what really matters is that the woman on the date calls the shots — she does the looking and she chooses to go.

Taken by itself, the objectification in “Pillowtalk” would just give me pause. But paired with Zayn’s recent statements in his Fader and Billboard interviews, it makes me quite sad. It seems like showing us “Zayn Uncensored” is an attempt to prove that Zayn has attained some sort of mutant version of adulthood that he can now express as a solo artist. In his recent cover stories, he smokes weed, talks about sex as though he invented it, and brags about graffitiing his house with phrases like “fuck this life.” If he acts in that way because it is his true, “mature” self, that makes his interview statements about women all the more troubling. Making assertions about women that range from how he likes women who are “chunky” in the “nice areas” to how fangirls are “crazy” is nothing short of deplorable, and completely surprising given the language used by the other members of 1D.

As a fan, these statements and the actions Zayn has recently engaged in hurt; they’ve even shaken my faith in the other members of the band. Zayn being a total tool opens the door to the possibility that Niall, Louis, Harry, and Liam are also closet misogynistic douches. On August 17, 2015, Zayn tweeted “Nothing changed you just never knew.”

Perhaps Zayn had tremendously savvy media training and was faking it all along. I know that celebrities play parts, but it’s still painful to realize that someone you loved as a public figure was doing a bit and learned nothing from it at all. Even worse is the fact that because one of the five boys has come out and blossomed into his true, chauvinistic cave-troll form, now I feel that I’m just waiting for the rest to follow suit. And it sucks that one former member wields the power to make me doubt the reason I’ve been so fervent in my love: that these boys helped create empowering space for young women.