Zolita on Why We Need More Joyful Queer Love Stories

·7 min read
Jade DeRose
Jade DeRose

I will never forget the day the “Born This Way” music video came out. My best friend and I rushed home from school, arranged ourselves on my bed, and flipped open my laptop. There Gaga was in her prosthetic, alien glory, sitting on a crystal-like throne as she declared her manifesto: “The beginning of the new race—a race that bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom.” Halfway through the song, Gaga sang the word “lesbian.” To hear my favorite pop star proudly say the word I had been taught by society to believe was a dirty one, and had so fiercely rejected as a label for myself, was life-changing.

Music videos are an incredibly potent medium for activism. In the age of zero attention span and short-form content as king, they are a digestible and effective way to create social change. With platforms like YouTube accessible to the majority of the world, music videos have an undeniable reach and ability to shift the culture. As a multimedia artist, they’ve always been my favorite medium because they are the intersection of everything I love: music, filmmaking, performance, fashion, and dance.

While studying film at NYU, I made a music video for a song I had written called “Explosion” to fulfill a class final. I uploaded it to YouTube, and by some stroke of luck, I was blessed by the algorithm gods and it went viral. When I saw the way queer viewers bonded in the comments over the experience I had depicted, I decided music videos were my calling.

Telling sapphic love stories has become a benchmark of my art, and I’m lucky to have built a strong community of people who find a safe place in my work. I grew up in the era of Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” t.A.T.u’s “All the Things She Said,” and the Madonna/Britney/Christina VMA’s performance, pieces that blatantly appropriated the lesbian aesthetic for shock value and the male gaze, but were the closest thing we had to sapphic representation in mainstream music. It’s been really special creating and releasing what I wish I had growing up: authentic queer art told by and for queer people.

Last September, I put out a music video for one of my songs called “Somebody I F*cked Once.” In the video, I play a Type-A cheerleader who falls for the edgy art outcast and, in a grand declaration of my love, I leave my boyfriend for her at the senior prom. The video is packed with classic rom-com tropes and references, and has a very happy ending. Today it has 39 million views (it received 5 million views in its first week alone), which for me is a whole new level of virality. I’m an independent artist and at the time had no backing or funding. My ability to make such high-quality videos was entirely reliant on the fact that I do so much of the creative myself (producing, directing, editing, starring in, etc.) and have an incredible group of queer creators around me who believe in my vision. The week “Somebody I F*cked Once” came out, it was inescapable. Edits of the video and reactions to it appeared on virtually every queer woman’s TikTok feed, and audiences fell in love with the love story and chemistry between me and “Gia,” played by my co-star Tatchi Ringsby. I had to ask myself: After almost six years of releasing music videos, what was it about this one that resonated so instantly with so many?

There’s been an incredible influx of LGBTQ+ representation in the mainstream media over the last few years but, for queer women, the representation almost always falls under one of these distinct categories: period piece, traumatic coming-out story, &/or the “Bury Your Gays” trope. The most mainstream sapphic films in 2020—Ammonite, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Happiest Season—all fall under one or two of these categories. Most recently, the TV show Killing Eve succumbed to the “Bury Your Gays” trope in its finale, killing off the lead Villanelle just after we see her and Eve finally get together. “Bury Your Gays” is a trope that dates back to the 19th century and is the reality that queer characters in film and TV die more frequently than their straight counterparts—and are rarely allowed happiness. LGBTQ+ historian Lillian Faderman recently said in an interview, “The tragic ending was always considered the ‘redeeming social value.’ That’s the way these writers could get away with writing about lesbians—either the woman had to commit suicide, drown in a well of loneliness, or be converted to sexuality. They could never end happily.”

Queer women rarely get to see themselves depicted in modern, realistic scenarios with happy endings. I think this is the crux of what made “Somebody I F*cked Once” so successful: the lack of, and hunger for, joyful queer love stories.

I decided to turn “Somebody I F*cked Once” into a trilogy of episodic music videos. In the sequel “Single in September,” we see Zolita and Gia graduate high school and experience a classic first-love summer romance. When summer ends, they break up, and Zolita goes to NYU to study music, while Gia takes a gap year abroad. They part with the hope of reuniting again one day when the timing is right.

In the finale to the trilogy, “I F*cking Love You,” we flash forward five years into the future and Zolita is now a major pop star who has just been through a very public breakup. Gia is hired as a photographer on one of her music video sets and they reconnect for the first time in half a decade. All of the chemistry is still there, and they get their happy ending.

During high school, the majority of LGBTQ+ kids are still closeted, questioning, or are punished for living openly and end up missing out on formative experiences like prom or summer love. Seeing the characters in the trilogy positively live out experiences that queer people may have missed out on can be incredibly healing and affirming. But what I didn’t consider until more recently is the purpose the trilogy served for an entirely different audience—one I have always wholly ignored: straight people.

“Somebody I F*cked Once” reached a wider audience than my music videos ever had before, and I believe it’s because it was packed with elements of familiarity and nostalgia. By presenting a queer story through the framework of a story that is familiar to a straight audience (i.e. the high school romance between the cheerleader and the outsider), the queer experience is normalized, humanized, and demystified. Using storylines that are ingrained within the public’s psyche to spotlight LGBTQ+ people allows a more close-minded audience to see themselves in the story depicted, even if they aren’t actively being represented. A familiar format helps viewers emotionally connect to the story and lead with empathy, and the story becomes about two people falling in love, rather than two women falling in love. I believe centering queerness within heteronormative structures is a major way an artist can influence broader cultural acceptance of LGBTQ+ people.

I’ve watched the trilogy with a wide range of people in my life and I’ve had the privilege to see its dual effect in action. Last holiday, I had dinner with conservative family friends, and they asked me how my music career was going. I told them about my viral video, and they wanted to see it. I pulled it up and held my breath. When Gia appeared on the screen, they inhaled: “Oh, she’s hot!” When my character tells Gia, “I’m just interested in ceramics,” they laughed. When my character wins prom court and leaves my boyfriend to kiss Gia in the crowd, they all cheered. They reacted the same way, at the same moments, as anyone else I had shown. Then, just a few weeks ago, I watched the entire trilogy with the group of queer friends and artists I made it with. There were a lot of tears, smiles, and hugs. Ultimately, the heart of the trilogy lies in the combined intention we shared creating it—the desire to feel seen, understood, and authentically represented.

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