This summer, Courtney and Jorie are planning to get matching tattoos. A pair of 22-year-olds from Texas, the two met a few years ago at a concert, bonded over their love of the same bands, and have been best friends ever since. These days they go to shows together about three times a week.
The tattoos will commemorate their friendship — but they also carry a much deeper meaning, even though at first glance they're just a pair of cute little birds. In fact, here they are as seen on one incredibly famous chest: that of One Direction band member Harry Styles.
Sometimes called Haz, Styles is the perpetually tousled hunky one, often inaccurately portrayed as the band's lead singer mainly by virtue of being deemed the hottest. (One Direction's other contender for "hottest," Zayn Malik, famously left the band in 2015 and recently released a record-breaking solo album.) Styles has covered his body with tattoos, but this one — at least to a large subsection of One Direction fans — has special significance.
"Jorie is getting what has been deemed the 'Harry' one and I am getting the one deemed 'Louis,'" Courtney tells Vox, "due to me calling her Tommo and her calling me Haz."
Courtney is referring to the slight differences in the two birds as they appear below Styles's collarbone. Look closely at the photo above: The bird on the right is slightly larger than the bird on the left, and if you squint, you'll notice it also has a straighter, slantier hood marking where its eyebrow might be.
For millions of Directioners, these two little birds are deeply symbolic. According to their theory, the bird on the right, the larger one, represents Styles. The smaller bird on the left represents his fellow band member Louis Tomlinson (sometimes called Tommo). The birds' size difference is said to represent the size difference between Styles and Tomlinson — and also, doesn't the bird on the right clearly have Styles's slanted eyebrows?
To fans like Courtney and Jorie, Styles's bird tattoo is crucial evidence in favor of one of the internet's most fascinating and convoluted conspiracy theories: the widespread belief among One Direction fans that Styles and Tomlinson are in love with each other.
What is Larry Stylinson?
To understand what's happening in the One Direction fandom, you have to understand what shipping is. In fandom terms, shipping generally means rooting for two fictional characters, or in some cases real people, to get together. "Ship" in this context can be both a verb and a noun. For instance, if I really wanted Mulder and Scully to kiss when I was watching The X-Files, I might say that I really ship Mulder and Scully, or I might say I love the Mulder/Scully ship.
In the post-'90s world of fandom, shippers usually label their favorite hypothetical relationships with a unique name, usually a portmanteau of some sort. If I ship Glee's Kurt and Blaine, I say I ship Klaine. The ship name is a huge part of how people self-identify in fandom. These days, you can be part of a fandom for a TV show, film, franchise, book, or band and never interact with people outside your ship. Which brings us to One Direction and Styles and Tomlinson.
If you combine the names "Harry" and "Louis," you get "Larry." If you combine the names "Styles" and "Tomlinson," you get "Stylinson."
Thus, the internet's biggest boy band ship name is "Larry Stylinson," or just Larry for short.
"Larry" has existed almost as long as the band itself
Styles and Tomlinson have, or at the least used to have, a very obvious friendship. One Direction's members have always enjoyed an easy physical intimacy, but fans decided soon after the band hit it big in 2010 that these two were special.
Indeed, the internet is teeming with Larries — as Directioners who ship Larry often refer to themselves — who've spent years chronicling every microgesture and millisecond of the way Styles and Tomlinson interact with each other:
In the band's early years, Styles spoke openly about the "Larry Stylinson" label and said that he and Tomlinson had talked about moving in together later in life due to their friendship. This 2011 tweet of endearment from Tomlinson to Styles is the second most retweeted post in Twitter history:
Always in my heart @Harry_Styles . Yours sincerely, Louis— Louis Tomlinson (@Louis_Tomlinson) October 2, 2011
Some One Direction fans view this affection as an obvious sign of more than friendship. The anonymous blogger behind Sex at Oxbridge, a well-known tell-all blog run by a 20-something student in London, found herself drawn to the Larry ship in 2013, totally by chance and purely on the strength of Styles and Tomlinson's interactions with one another. Speaking to Vox via email, the blog's author — known on the web only as SAO — said she was shocked when she realized they weren't actually a couple:
I saw their video for "Best Song Ever" and really liked the song, so it was only by chance that after the video ended on YouTube one of the suggested videos was about Larry Stylinson and when I watched it I was like, "Oh, cute - two of them are together. I didn't know that!" I just thought it was common knowledge and that, from their behavior, they were clearly out as a couple.
THEN I realized that wasn't the case and basically that is when I began to look deeper into what was going on. I basically absorbed all the information about Larry and One Direction humanly possible in a weekend, including blogs and videos with arguments that Larry wasn't real and at the end of it all I just looked at things that were unexplainable for both outcomes and there was a lot more that couldn't be explained if you accept that Larry is not real.
Because the Larry ship is so huge within the One Direction fandom, the list of exhaustive, detailed manifestos full of signs that Styles and Tomlinson are in love is virtually endless. The following video in particular has long been known as the Larry "bible" — a compilation of evidence of their love for each other that's so compelling that many fans believe you can't come away from it unconvinced:
Styles and Tomlinson's tattoos, in particular, have been analyzed and decoded and interpreted as a breathtakingly detailed map of a years-long secret romance. Fans believe they often get matching tattoos or tattoos that symbolize the milestones of their relationship.
For Jorie and Courtney, the tattoos were the smoking gun. "I couldn't give you one defining moment, because for me there wasn't," Jorie says regarding when she began shipping Larry. "But [for] Courtney … it was all the matching tattoos the boys had. Because it is one thing to have a best friend tattoo, but they have multiple matching romantic tattoos … the tattoos are definitely what got us both to not even question it."
The ship puts a new spin on an old fandom conspiracy practice called "tinhatting"
Most, but not all, ships concern fictional characters, and in many parts of fandom there's an understanding that if you're shipping real people, you're only shipping the idea of them being in a relationship. Often, however, a ship that's built on the idea of real people getting together quickly spawns a subgroup of truthers who firmly believe the couple has already gotten together — that the idealized relationship is being conducted in secret in their real private lives.
There have been many iterations of these subgroups in various fandoms over the years. For example, fans of The Lord of the Rings have theorized and speculated about clandestine relationships between cast members; the same is true for the TV series Supernatural. And it's a fairly common occurrence with ships involving touring bandmates and members of pop groups. (To give credit where it's due, sometimes the conspirators turn out to be entirely correct, such as when Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson revealed they were dating in secret after working together on the set of Twilight.)
The conspiracy theories put forth by these fandom subgroups employ nearly identical explanations for why we never hear about the theoretical relationship in public. They unfailingly involve the band's management, or the TV show's producers, or the agents in charge of managing the two people involved in the relationship. It's usually suggested that whoever controls the pairing's purse strings has embarked on a massive micromanagement conspiracy to prevent the couple from revealing their love to the world.
Their motivations usually involve a number of reasons based in reality — like a film studio or record label being reluctant to alienate fans by revealing that one of their idols is off the market. (This is actually a common practice among Asian idol groups, many of which have strict no-dating clauses in performers' contracts.) Another commonly cited motivation for secrecy is the potential for homophobic backlash; if the ship isn't heteronormative, studios and labels may fret about alienating less open-minded fans.
Because these shipping conspiracy theories tend to follow such similar patterns, the ways in which fans who subscribe to them respond to real-life events also wind up being very similar. If one or more members of a gay pairing has a girlfriend, fans will insist she's a beard — usually one who's been hired by the pairing's managers.
If the so-called relationship continues for a long time without anyone confessing to it, fans develop the belief that the silenced lovebirds are contractually obligated not to reveal their sexuality and/or relationship until their term of work ends. This belief is usually accompanied by the assumption that as soon as a major significant milestone (like a movie release or a successful world tour) has passed, the pairing will be free to come forth and declare their love — like an end-of-days prediction, but usually gayer.
Fandom has dubbed the practice of forming elaborate theories and then fitting news events and occurrences into them "tinhatting," a name meant to evoke tinfoil conspiracist hats. Like every other conspiracy group, fans who tinhat read and decode secret messages from the members of their ships to both each other and the public. Said fans are convinced that the couple is sending the messages as a way of affirming the love they can't express publicly.
Usually tinhatters comprise just a small portion of an otherwise diverse fandom. But the belief that Larry Stylinson is real has become such a popular and dominating theory among One Direction fans that it often dwarfs other branches of the One Direction community. For more than four years — that's at least as long as people have been quantifying Tumblr's tag usage and noting Twitter's frequently Larry-centric worldwide hashtag trends — the ship has been one of the largest elements of the One Direction fandom, which itself is one of the largest fandoms on the internet.
The result is that Larry fans have constructed an enormous echo chamber of belief around the Larry Stylinson "conspiracy." In fact, plenty of Larries use the term "tinhatting" for what they consider a really delusional idea, in order to bolster their assertions that they, by contrast, are just collecting evidence of the obvious, rationally observable fact that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are queer and closeted together.
Larry Stylinson is bigger than any previous conspiracy theory of its kind
The scope of the Larry conspiracy theory is immense and features a number of regularly espoused beliefs, including the idea that One Direction's management company, Modest (which Larries usually refer to insidiously as just "Management"), is heavily controlling Styles and Tomlinson's social media images and public appearances at all times. Management's alleged perniciousness extends to securing beards for both Styles and Tomlinson, contractually forbidding the two to be gay, and regularly distributing fake pictures of their involvement in straight, heteronormative relationships.
In addition to all of these "typical" conspiracy tropes, Larry boasts its own set of uniquely weird particulars — starting with two rainbow-colored stuffed teddy bears that accompany the band on tours. The bears, dubbed Rainbow Bondage Bear and Sugar Baby Bear by the fandom, evidently belong to either a band member or a crew member.
Until recently the bears had their own (now-deleted) official Twitter accounts, which often featured humorous updates posted from the stage and on tour. Because rainbows are associated with gay pride, many Larries see the bears as yet another code for the progression of Styles and Tomlinson's relationship.
Indeed, after news broke in 2015 that Tomlinson's friend Briana Jungwirth was pregnant with his child, nine months of intense speculation followed that the pregnancy was fake. When the birth of Tomlinson and Jungwirth's baby was announced in January, fans switched to arguing that the baby itself was a surrogate, a doll, or a complete fabrication, going to staggeringly elaborate lengths to uphold the conspiracy.
Here's how aforementioned Sex at Oxbridge blogger SAO described the fake baby theory — what the One Direction fandom calls "Babygate" — on her Tumblr:
They would GENUINELY rather have you believe that Louis Tomlinson knocked up a girl he was cheating on his former girlfriend with whose name he has literally NEVER said out loud, ignored her for nine months, started dating someone else, took a couple faux artsy photos with the baby once it was born, but then generally went back to doing whatever the hell he wants whilst apparently in the midst of a custody battle, didn’t get his mum any kind of cyber security after the last 3,847 times she was hacked thus allowing super private photos of this baby to emerge and be PRINTED IN NEWSPAPERS, lets the baby mama ride around with the baby in the backseat blasting music while her friend does "look mum no hands" Tokyo-drift style driving and simultaneously snapchatting, is so important that he gets papped every time he even looks at a supermarket or shopping centre, and now is rumoured to be pushing a doll around in a buggy?! ... They would have you believe all those things than just be like, "Look, that guy loves that guy. Sorry for the confusion. I’ll leave you alone forever now."
For her part, SAO describes falling so deeply into the Larry ship that she created a BuzzFeed Community account and posted an infamous ship manifesto for the pairing, which BuzzFeed eventually took down, along with all of her previous contributions, after she wrote separate posts insinuating that Tomlinson's baby isn't real. SAO told Vox that the evidence of Styles and Tomlinson's relationship is so compelling that she's never seriously considered any other possibility:
I have never thought "Okay, well maybe this is all fake." There is too much evidence to the contrary and the fact that their bodies are literally littered with matching tattoos is enough to convince most. The stark contrast in public narrative vs actions is too disparaging to ignore. I'm a very literal and logical person and I have looked at this situation every which way and each time I do I come to the same conclusion, which is that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are in love with each other.
Larry shippers want to save their fave band from homophobia, but the conspiracy theory linked to the ship has created its own problems
Any Larry shipper will tell you that homophobia is the main reason Styles and Tomlinson are still in the closet. And one of the main reasons Larry shippers are so vocal is that they hate the idea that these two men can't openly express their love. SAO told Vox she stays invested because "I feel it's a harsh injustice not only to them, but to their young followers, to make it seem like being gay is wrong or somehow makes you lesser."
SOA added that the One Direction fandom is full of younger queer and questioning individuals who have been alternately helped and hurt by the Larry phenomenon. "There are a lot of young fans and I constantly get messages on Tumblr and Twitter from people saying that Larry helped them come out or asking if it's that wrong to be gay considering the lengths they've gone to cover it up. … That's a huge reason for why I stay active in the fandom."
But these good intentions have led to some unfortunate complications. Most of the support for Larry being real is rooted in the way fans interpret the physical intimacy between Styles and Tomlinson. But those who keep the closest eye on such things also note that there's been a sharp drop in their level of physical intimacy. Since 2011, Styles and Tomlinson have gone from joking about posing for photos "with our arms around each other" to rarely standing next to each other in public.
In a 2012 interview with Tumblr's now-defunct Storyboard, Tomlinson was blunt about blaming the Larry Stylinson phenomenon for changing his public behavior:
"This is a subject that was funny at first but now is actually hard to deal with, as I am in a relationship," he said. "Me and Harry are best friends. People look into our every move — it is actually affecting the way me and Harry are in public."
In other words, fandom's insistence that Styles and Tomlinson's ability to comfortably share physical intimacy with each other means they must be gay resulted in the sad but predictable drop-off of said physical intimacy between them. Ironically, the movement attempting to liberate them from the closet has essentially forced them to behave unnaturally — to conform to rigid standards of masculinity in order to quash the rumors.
The Larry ship also trades in perpetual misogyny: While Louis was dating longtime former girlfriend Eleanor Calder, she and her family were subject to constant backlash and harassment from fans convinced she was serving as a beard.
Some Directioners were so committed to the Larry cause that they even began harassing a record producer and his son who happened to share Calder's last name. The reason? They believed he was the key to unlocking proof that Eleanor had a secret identical twin that Management was using to help fake photos of her relationship with Tomlinson.
In the waning years of the One Direction fandom — Malik left the band last March; the remaining members kicked off a long hiatus last fall; Styles is starring in an upcoming Christopher Nolan World War II epic with more rumored movie roles on the way; Tomlinson is, however unwittingly, starting a family; and the idea of the other band members moving on has begun to seem inevitable — the misogyny accompanying Larry Stylinson has faded, though belief in Larry is still weirdly as strong as ever.
Neither Styles's many girlfriends nor Tomlinson's new girlfriend, Danielle Campbell, has suffered from the deep level of harassment that Calder and her family withstood for many years. But the belief in the conspiracy still overrides everything else.
Larry Stylinson is ultimately about One Direction fans and their relationship to media
Courtney and Jorie told Vox unequivocally that the Larry ship had brought them closer together and given them a community of friends. "Just because the band ends doesn't mean our friendships will," Courtney says. The two recently began making YouTube videos to document their concert-going life and explain the basics of Larry Stylinson, and they are totally unfazed when I ask them about some of the more problematic aspects of the One Direction fandom.
"We don't know [Styles and Tomlinson's] sexual orientations — we just don't," Jorie explains. "Just because we say they are in love, no one is denying them the ability to be pansexual, bi, or any number of different sexualities there are."
And she's quick to note the kicker that brings the entire conspiracy into sharp relief: "If these actions [by which she means Styles and Tomlinson's friendship, their physical intimacy, their tattoos, and many other so-called hints of their love] were happening between a boy and a girl, no one would ever question the legitimacy of their being in a relationship."
And maybe that's what Larry Stylinson is really about, beyond all the debates over whether the One Direction fandom is delusional or misogynistic, beyond the worry over whether Larry Stylinson has made it harder for Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson to simply be themselves as individuals and friends.
Prior to Larry Stylinson and perhaps the age of internet culture itself, the media could craft and carefully produce narratives about celebrities and boy band members; the popularity of the Larry Stylinson theory is, perhaps, a testament to the unprecedented agency that fans now have with regard to shaping those narratives. It's a byproduct of their ability to question and challenge the media they consume.
"[Styles and Tomlinson] have only ever denied Larry rumors in forms of type or text — never in person," Jorie insists. "We also know that Management has access to their social media accounts." For Jorie and Courtney and countless fans like them who believe that Management is "controlling" the two bandmates, every piece of information that One Direction's production team distributes is another piece of information to dissect, critique, and ultimately talk back to.
Jorie points to the recent news that Malik was forbidden to grow his beard or dye his hair while he was a member of One Direction, and that the band was prevented from experimenting with different musical styles and genres.
"If they could be controlling over that, of course they would be controlling over sexuality," she says.
It's almost enough to make you second-guess reality.