The Fantasy of Harry Styles Is Now the Stuff of Fiction

Books Features Romance
The Fantasy of Harry Styles Is Now the Stuff of Fiction

In The Idea of You, a romantic drama directed by Michael Showalter, Anne Hathaway plays a single mother who falls for a world-famous pop star. He’s younger than her, which inspires much fury among practically everyone around them, but through this boyband member who unabashedly adores her, she finds a new side to herself that is often denied of women who dare to enter middle age without shame. The love interest is played by Nicholas Galitzine, best known for Red, White & Royal Blue, and his aesthetic— bouncy hair, lots of tattoos, boyish but with an edge—is blatantly inspired by a certain singer with his own share of media obsession.

The Idea of You is not Harry Styles fanfiction. The author of the original novel, Robinne Lee, told Vogue “This was never supposed to be a book about Harry Styles.” But it was inspired by One Direction, she admits. While it was initially published in 2017, the story of a pop singer falling for an older woman gained traction through fervent word-of-mouth and the highly publicized romance between Styles and actress-director Olivia Wilde. The Styles connection was heavily pushed in later marketing as a result. When the film was initially announced, Entertainment Weekly even described it as “Harry Styles fanfiction.” The fantasy was evident, and it was no longer shameful to sell it to the masses. It wasn’t the first or last time that Styles and fellow celebrities of his kind would find themselves becoming the stuff of novels.

The most famous Styles fanfic, published three years before The Idea of You, is After by Anna Todd. Having started life as a self-insert 1D fic on Wattpad, the exceedingly long story was picked up by a major publisher, split into multiple books (seriously, this thing is long enough to make The Lord of the Rings look like a novella), and turned into a major bestseller. It’s also been adapted into a trilogy of Amazon films. The publisher never made a secret of the fact that its protagonist Hardin was originally Styles, and that all his friends were his fellow band members. Indeed, it was a major selling point during the publicity process. In a post-50 Shades of Grey world, your book being fanfic with the serial numbers filed off was no longer something to hide.

The Harry of After is, obviously, not the real thing, but it is fascinating just how little the character bears resemblance to the extremely famous man he’s ostensibly supposed to be. To put it in academic terms, he’s the absolute f**king worst. He’s cruel, stupid, verbally abusive, treats the self-insert heroine like a child, and adheres to gender politics that went out of style with the dodo. He’s far more like Christian Gray than Harry Styles. Many of the post-50 Shades erotic heroes were this particular brand of sketchily dominant, more scorn than brain. It’s undeniably an intriguing trope to many romance readers, but to shoehorn it into Styles’ brand was always a perplexing choice.

Styles’ appeal in real life is completely unlike that of After. He’s known for his easy-going charm and down-to-earth personality. His music is highly appealing to women with its lyrics of love won and lost. Crucially, while he takes inspiration from the retro stylings of Brit rockers, he largely eschews the c*ck-strutting masculinity of his ancestors. Much has been made about his androgynous fashion choices, often mixing skirts and lace with sharp-cut suits. It’s been truly exciting to see the biggest male pop star of his time wear nail polish and pearls, particularly during an era of intense transphobia and misogyny that has sought to reinforce a limited gender binary. So, why isn’t that the Harry we see in After? Why project something so un-Harry and so derivatively sexist onto a guy who’s worked to refute such expectations? Misogyny or lazy writing? You decide!

Styles’s influence can be found in other recent novels. The boyband romance has long been popular, well before 1D told us we didn’t know we were beautiful. There’s a good case to be made that boybands are a generational tradition. After all, your grandmother screamed over the Beatles (or at least mine proudly did) then your mom went gooey-eyed for Duran Duran. I had the Backstreet Boys. My Gen Z friends have any number of K-pop groups. And the ways we talk about them, celebrate them, and use them for creative inspiration are near-identical across the decades (just check out their respective pages on Archive Of Our Own.)

So, of course, much of the current crop of boyband romances seems to be very Styles-centered. At the very least, plenty of 1D fans seem to think so, as noted in many a Goodreads review. If This Gets Out by Sophie Gonzales and Cale Dietrich, about two boyband members who fall in love and must keep their romance hidden from their eeevil management, reads like Larry fic (the conspiracy theory that Styles and Louis Tomlinson were or are in a secret relationship.) Zan Romanoff’s YA romance Grace and the Fever details what would happen if a superfan of a 1D-esque band met her dream man and was forced to confront the realities of her hardcore and oft-messy fandom. Wattpad even tried to recreate the success of After with Loving the Band by Emily Baker, a straight-up self-insert 1D fic where the author makes out with half the band (it did not sell well and 1D fans rejected it wholesale.)

Styles romances haven’t become as weirdly common as, say, Adam Driver romance novels, but the trend is evident. It’s also perfectly understandable and hardly the last time such things will happen. Every generation gets the boyband hunk they want, need, but maybe don’t always deserve. It must be strange for Styles, who had previously expressed intense discomfort with After, a series that doesn’t paint him in a particularly decent light. Becoming famous means wearily accepting that your life is up for grabs at every turn, that your very being will become the stuff of content outside of your control. Styles has been famous since he was a teenager, and almost from the moment he became a star, people have obsessed over his love life. To this day, any woman he’s seen with in public can expect intense harassment and abuse.

Styles has largely tried to keep his private life out of the headlines and doesn’t talk about the brand of Harry that is separate from his own. There is one exception. In 2019, he executive produced a one-season CBS sitcom called Happy Together, wherein a pop star who is clearly inspired by him moves into the home of a suburban couple to get away from the paparazzi. Even Styles sometimes feels the need to make sure the fantasy version of himself is kept in line. Perhaps one day, the romantic ideal of Harry Styles the world has created will feel more like the man himself. At least let him wear a cool feather boa once in a while or something!

Kayleigh Donaldson is a critic and pop culture writer for Her work can also be found on IGN, Slashfilm, Uproxx, Little White Lies, Vulture, Roger Ebert, and other publications. She lives in Dundee.

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