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Pop Culture’s Double Standard Against Shawn Mendes

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Pop singers Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello announced their breakup Nov. 17. Publicized via Instagram, the separation was met with widespread speculation. Although the pair are no strangers to gossip, with one of the many rumors they faced being allegations that their relationship was a PR stunt, this time was different. 

Almost immediately, fans revived the long-held rumor that Mendes is gay, and that his sexuality caused the breakup between him and Cabello. Mendes has previously affirmed that he is heterosexual, expressed his frustration over the rumors and revealed how they made him so self-concious of the media’s perception of him that he tried to adjust previously subconscious behaviors of his. However, fans continue to analyze viral clips of him and make jokes and at his expense, showing a microcosm of how society’s acceptance for alternative forms of masculinity and LGBTQ+ identities does not extend as far as it would suggest. 

The actions displayed by fans regarding Mendes’ sexuality following his breakup is appalling and indicative of a double standard within pop culture. This double standard is one that, on the surface, promotes acceptance of different identities and ending toxic masculinity, while also confining celebrities to the public’s ideas of how they should act. Male artists who do not adhere to traditional definitions of masculinity often elicit very mixed responses from their listeners. 

Fellow singer Harry Styles, for example, is allowed to experiment with traditionally feminine forms of self-expression in his music and fashion choices to little criticism from pop listeners, even being hailed as “revolutionary.” But when Mendes acts in a way deemed “too feminine,” some fans will disparagingly take it as evidence that he is gay, even during his relationship with Cabello. As people continue to advocate for ending toxic masculinity, bullying Mendes for perceived “feminine” traits is counterintuitive to the goal of creating a more accepting society. 

This double standard doesn’t just exist in the treatment of Mendes. There has been a long-running cognitive dissonance in the social portrayals of feminine men even as the LGBTQ+ community has gained greater societal acceptance. For example, the outdated “gay best friend” trope in media, which reduces gay men to a sassy, flamboyant sidekick to the female protagonist began to take root in real friendships between gay men and straight women. This dynamic reduces the sexuality of gay males to something solely for their straight female friends’ benefit, dictating that an individual’s sexuality can be defined by others. 

Since  Mendes started out as a young influencer and gained an audience comprised of “teenyboppers,” the dynamic between him and his (mostly) female fanbase regarding his sexuality plays out in a similar way. Mendes has been in the public eye for over seven years starting during his teenage years and according to him, has faced accusations of homosexuality ever since. 

 Mendes’ life has been so thoroughly exposed to the public view that speculators are able to view clips of his behavior and believe that they have knowledge of his private persona. This is reflective of the gay best friend trope, as it shows an entitlement on the part of the outside party to dictate the sexuality and behaviors of someone based on stereotypes and preconceived notions of how they should act.

This ongoing speculation portrays more than an ideological inconsistency among the people speculating on Mendes’ sexuality. The desire for outsiders to label his sexuality is also part of the bigger trend of invading the privacy of artists’ love lives that has become too common in pop culture, from the decades-old obsession with “Jelena” that outlasted their actual relationship to the vile chatter about Taylor Swift and Jake Gyllenhaal that has recently resurfaced following the re-recording of her 2012 album “Red.” As the Internet has given gossip outlets and fans a bigger platform to voice their opinions, the speculation over artists’ orientations, relationships and sex lives has become rampant and, as in the case of Mendes, can make public figures self-conscious of how their millions of fans will perceive their actions. 

The comments and gossip regarding Mendes highlights a double standard in pop culture that still exists despite a growing acceptance of different sexualities, gender identities and forms of expression. His sexuality should be his business, and no one should define him based on stereotypes they associate with gay men or femininity. If we want to have a more accepting culture that preaches tolerance of LGBTQ+ identities and redefines masculinity, it is time to let Mendes be.

Johnny Nguyen is an Opinion Intern for the 2021 fall quarter. He can be reached at johnnln1@uci.edu