Once upon a time, queer folks, mostly men, used a coded question to find others when being out wasn’t safe: “Are you a friend of Dorothy?” While its roots point to varied sources — Dorothy Gale’s coterie of outcasts (especially that fey lion) in The Wizard of Oz, the movie character being played by the mother of all gay icons, Judy Garland, and even Dorothy Parker, who frequently invited gay men to her soirees — the phrase was in use until at least as recently as the ’90s, when it was uttered in Clueless.
Gen Z, of course, has its own version, and this one’s by and for the girls: “Do you like Girl in Red?”
Hitting its peak in 2020 thanks to TikTok, 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 — directly 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 huge fan of how the internet works when it works good and it does good stuff … I just thought it was funny when it happened, and then I was like, ‘hey, this is cool.'”
She embraced it to the point of using the hashtag question herself, as well as putting up posters with the question in spots around the world.
“We thought we could do something more around it, and kind of make it not necessarily political, but … maybe put it in places where people might actually have to rely more on something speaking in code than actually just saying it out loud, like Russia or Brazil or whatever, Poland [for the] people that struggle there,” she says.
Though use of the meme has largely died down (“This is, like, a very old thing,” she points out), Ulven — whose dreamy-angsty songs like “Girls” and “We Fell in Love in October” speak unambiguously about girl-girl crushes, love, relationships, sex and heartache, and who recently helped a fan come out to her mom by calling her from onstage — places great importance on queer visibility in pop music and the broader pop-culture zeitgeist.
“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 little town and you really wanna be a football player and you have someone to look up to, ’cause that’s your biggest dream… It’s the same thing for someone in some city having feelings around their sexuality, and maybe thinking that they’re queer, or they feel different than other people. I think it’s important to have that person that you can look up to and kind of help you just come to terms with those feelings.”
While Ulven has previously spoken out about what she’s seen as a lack of LGBTQ role models, she tells Yahoo Life that she’s been heartened to see that changing, “whether it’s that Heartstopper Netflix series” or anything similar.
Of that boy-boy romance series, based on the British graphic novels by Alice Oseman and a huge hit with American teens and tweens, she adds, “I also think boys really need to see that boys can be bi and boys can like boys because I’m noticing a lot of my male friends are very, very, my male friends are very careful when trying to figure their sexuality. They know they like women and they’re like, ‘I’m gonna stop here.’ They’re too scared to even go further.” For encouragement in that realm, Ulven is grateful for what she sees as “more and more representation” and more and more artists saying, “in just, like, a tiny sentence, ‘I’m bi, I’m gay,’ whatever” — as well as folks that go big with their gayness, like Lil Nas X.
“He’s like, ‘I’m gay, I’m gay, I’m gay! And I’m so proud of it!’ And everyone is listening to him. And I just think that’s really cool,” she says.
Ulven first burst onto the scene with “I Wanna be Your Girlfriend” in 2016 when it went crazy on SoundCloud. She’s currently in the midst of a European tour and recently joined forces with another queer Gen Z pop-culture hero: Hunter Schafer, of Euphoria fame, who made her directorial debut on the Girl in Red music video for “hornylovesickmess,” released in May, to the delight of both of their fans.
“I personally wanted to work with another creative that I was, like, really excited about — someone that I really respect and I really think is cool … And that to me at the time felt more exciting than going to find X, Y, Z type of director,” says Ulven, noting that she is a “huge fan of Euphoria.”
Schafer, when approached by Ulven, said she’d been keen to try her hand at directing, so the two met up for lunch in Los Angeles and “talked for hours” before continuing with FaceTime sessions, through which they hatched the concept for the video. “Then we were like, OK, let’s get a real production company in here. Let’s actually do it. And then we just did it.”
The result is a moody, passionate, edgy portrait of longing, and emblematic of the way Ulven appears to put her whole self into her music — as with “Serotonin,” a 2021 song in which she’s bravely transparent about mental health struggles, referring to everything from “intrusive thoughts like cutting my hands off” to being “stabilized with medicine.”
“It’s just me saying exactly what was on my mind at that time and not putting any sort of filter on the lyrics and just pouring it all out,” she says. “So, it just really came to me very 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 do reflect a lot, but never when I’m making something … I kind of just do whatever feels cool and feels right, and what makes the song the best.”
In the several-month lag time between her writing “Serotonin” and putting it out into the world, Ulven says, even she was struck by her own honesty.
“I was like, ‘holy f***. This song is like, really brutal. I’m talking about cutting my hands off. I swear to God, someone’s gonna cancel me [because] there wasn’t a trigger warning on the song.’ And [then] I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I cannot be alive in this world right now with people being like that!'” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s a song, and I think music or art or whatever you wanna call it … if someone gets offended, that’s OK.”
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