Exploring The Rise In Queer Ambiguity Amongst Gen Z Icons & The Implications For Mainstream LGBTQIA+ Representation
Scrolling on Twitter through a timeline filled with queerbaiting allegations is not uncommon. Over the past few years, we have seen celebrities and influencers, ranging from Noah Beck to Harry Styles, accused of queerbaiting. As fans flood comment sections debating their faves’ sexual orientation, a broader question is left unanswered: can celebrities actually queerbait? And if so, what are the implications for the LGBTQIA+ community both on and offline?
Since the onslaught of queerbaiting accusations against Billie Eilish last month, this question has been on my mind. In case you missed it, Billie found herself at the centre of a queerbaiting controversy after releasing her music video to Lost Cause. Featuring Billie and a group of women dancing at what appeared to be a slumber party, many fans felt the video appropriated queer female desire to appeal to LGBTQIA+ demographics. Others, defending the singer, questioned why dancing with other women was related to her sexuality at all.
With queerbaiting long alienating, frustrating and disappointing the LGBTQIA+ community, we must continue to raise awareness around the issue. To start, we should interrogate how queerbaiting influences the pop culture landscape and how celebrities are using this to their advantage.
So, what is queerbaiting?
Simply put, queerbaiting refers to patterns within popular culture. The concept is often applied to TV shows and films where writers and producers flirt with queer subtext to earn support among the LGBTQIA+ community. As sociology professor Amin Ghaziani told The Guardian, “[Queerbating] means using aspects of queer cultures or queer political support to signal hipness, coolness, political correctness, tolerance or open-mindedness; the performance of a liberal sensibility in a self-interested way, such as for selling a product.” Using queer culture as a tool to expand viewership, queerbaiting has become a way for Hollywood to commodify queer identities.
Unfortunately, very rarely does this promise or suggestion of queerness breed meaningful LGBTQIA+ representation. Writers of some of our favourite shows (Riverdale, Glee and Once Upon a Time, to name a few) imply certain characters might be gay without actually embracing their queerness. Instead, characters are trapped in “will they, won’t they” plotlines, reinforcing heteronormativity while exploiting LGBTQIA+ audiences’ hunger for representation.
Naturally, accusations of queerbaiting have transcended the fictional space where celebrities themselves are criticised for co-opting queerness. Though they don’t owe audiences a public declaration of their sexuality, this doesn’t stop fans from wondering how celebrities choose to label themselves. But without knowing how an artist personally identifies, accusing celebrities of queerbaiting is often more complex than it may seem.
Let’s explore both sides of the argument.
No way! Celebrities can’t queerbait…
Keeping up with our favourite celebrities and influencers has become easier and easier with the personalisation of social media. Flooded with content on our Instagram feeds and TikTok FYP, it feels as if we engage with celebrities on a personal level. However, this surplus of content often makes it easy to forget that what we see is only a snippet of their reality. With this, we have developed a sense of entitlement to every detail of a celebrity’s private life. Needless to say, this is how accusations of queerbaiting can become problematic.
When criticised for queerbaiting, celebrities often feel pressured to label or, at least, clarify their sexuality to ease the backlash. After being accused of exploiting female queerness and perpetuating harmful stereotypes of drunken, lesbian hookups in her song ‘Girls,’ Rita Ora publicly came out. Apologising on Twitter, she wrote, “Girls was written to represent my truth and is an accurate account of a very real and honest experience in my life…I am sorry [if] how I expressed myself in my song has hurt anyone.” She went on to say that she has “had romantic relationships with women and men” in the past.
It’s extremely unsettling that Rita was pressured by social media backlash to define her sexuality. But, it is also fair to assume that upon releasing ‘Girls,’ a song so obviously declaring love for women, Rita was comfortable and confident in her sexuality. Not all celebrities are so lucky, especially younger women. Billie, for instance, is only 19 years old and deserves time to make sense of her sexuality before being criticised for queerbaiting. The accusations against her only limit opportunities for experimentation and fluidity.
All this is not to say that we shouldn’t call out queerbaiting; but instead, remember that celebrities are on their own journey trying to navigate queerness and identity. We have to tread a delicate line between policing our affiliation with labels and outing artists who may not be ready to label themselves.
Yes definitely! Celebrities can queerbait…
Queer audiences of the past flocked to celebrities like Barbra Streisand and Madonna. While these “gay icons” personally identified as straight, their message of inclusivity helped normalise queerness and increase LGBTQIA+ visibility. However, with Gen Z’s growing influence and contribution to popular culture coupled with our tendency to buck gendered labels and norms, younger audiences crave genuine representation alongside racial, sexual and gender diversity. Today’s fans don’t just want to support celebrities who accept them; they want to see artists who are them – or in other words, celebrities with similar experiences.
While I am no expert in celebrity branding, it is fair to assume that this shift has changed how celebrities are marketed to the masses. Carefully constructing the public persona and brand of a celebrity is a team of business managers, stylists, publicists and agents. As Steve Olenski writes for Forbes, “celebrities realise it’s not about them… [instead] they must reflect what the target audience really wants.” So, if LGBTQIA+ audiences wish to see themselves represented in popular culture, queerness quickly becomes a branding tool for celebrities.
Take Ariana Grande, for example. From performing with pride flags on the Sweetener World Tour to headlining the Manchester Pride Festival in 2019, the LGBTQIA+ community resonates with her public persona. However, remaining ambiguous about her sexuality, she has stirred up controversy for using aesthetics of lesbian intimacy in her music videos and alluding to queerness in her lyrics. Think her music video for ‘break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored’ from the thank u, next album, which concluded with Ariana leaning in to kiss another woman. Or her collaboration with Victoria Monét on the song MONOPOLY which included the lyric, “I like women and men.” Fans are often left speculating whether this is Ariana’s “coming out” or simply a way to win favourability among the LGBTQIA+ community.
As audiences, we cannot definitively claim that Ariana is a “queerbaiter”. However, the relationship between the pop star’s public persona and queerness alludes to something bigger. The hunger for representation and the rise of consumerism has created the perfect storm for the hyper-commodification of celebrity. Today, every facet of a celebrity’s identity has become a marketable product. Treating singers, actors and influencers more like corporations and less like human beings, the function of celebrity moves from producing art to profit. With this, celebrities can use queerness as a marketing tool and take advantage of LGBTQIA+ excitement without offering meaningful representation.
So, can celebrities actually queerbait?
Both yes and no. Considering queer representation has the power to validate emerging LGBTQIA+ individuals, misrepresenting queer identities can be extremely harmful to fans exploring their sexuality. With this, it is only fair for queer audiences themselves to draw the line between a celebrity’s expression of allyship and the construction of a brand profiting from queer aestheticism.
As queerbaiting continues to plague popular culture, we must be careful not to encourage artists to come out before they are ready. But, neither can we praise an industry that lets sexually ambiguous celebrities exploit queer communities, especially while “out and proud” artists sometimes struggle to find a place in the mainstream.