By Oshi Agarwal
As social media continues to tackle the problem of correct word usage, “queerbaiting” has become one of many such buzzwords. What is repeatedly ignored are the implications and consequences of shifting its inclusion in the discourse surrounding real people. This article looks at the complexities contained in this shift of “queerbaiting” as a narrative technique to the sexuality of celebrities.
(I would like to make it clear that the involvement of celebrities and fandom cultures in this article might suggest that I wish to make an opinionated piece. That is not what I intend to do by bringing up the conversation surrounding this concerning issue. The article attempts to throw light on all sides while not sticking to a strict understanding as the subject of sexuality or gender cannot be articulated using terms that limit and recreate forces of oppression).
On 31st October 2022, rose to fame through the Netflix original show Heartstopper, actor Kit Connor was forced to come out to his almost a million followers on Twitter. Reason? He was spotted with a woman in public and faced backlash through various social media platforms that accused him of presenting a “false sexuality” to the world. The actor tweeted in response to these accusations:
back for a minute. i’m bi. congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself. i think some of you missed the point of the show. bye— Kit Connor (@kit_connor)
Followed by this, soon after, Connor deactivated his Twitter account. After playing an incredibly popular queer character “Nick Nelson” on TV, he became subject to assumptions and speculations about his sexuality. The grounds of the allegations are based on Connor’s supposed ‘queerbaiting’ which, in the context of a celebrity, means expressing oneself as queer publicly while actually being heterosexual. The “coming-out” tweet of the actor sparked a lot of debate. Many people, including the cast and crew of Heartstopper, came forward to voice their support but also called out the borderline cyberbullying that Connor had to face after the release of the show. But he is not the first to become the centre of overwhelming public surveillance of sexuality. What is this phenomenon of queerbaiting and why does it keep making reappearances in various ways?
The Case of Queerbaiting
Queerbaiting, when it first originated, had a different connotation than how it is utilised now. It was primarily a slang term in the queer community for cis heterosexual men who were considered attractive by queer men. Its later usage derived from the rise of rainbow capitalism and the awareness of pink money’s relevance. The term came back into popular use, especially on the internet, after its conversion into a media production tactic that was frequently noticed in TV shows during the early 2010s. These TV shows majorly focused on male protagonists and their archetype sidekicks; they can be a friend, a co-worker or even an antagonist in some cases. The portrayal of their “fraternity” crosses a lot of platonic limits through subtext— but that is all these shows or even films offer. This marketing tactic of media production ensures love and support from the queer community while also avoiding explicit queer representation, making the piece of media consumable by a large audience. The repeated use of this tactic and the unapologetic exploitation of the queer audience brought out the valid outburst from the community for creating a queer ‘bait’. The same can be observed in the unclear homosociality inching towards romantic suggestions between women on screen. I have not explored that side of visual media here as it involves different complications of “misrepresentation”.
The criticism of fictional media for using the device of queerbaiting is necessary, especially seeing how it has expanded into a more complex but invisible faux representation. Although the article mostly discusses western media, it should be mentioned that this change in films and TV shows has also been noticed in the media of other regions. I have written about Thailand’s case of mass-producing queer (male-dominant) TV shows previously. It loosely mentions how the queer portrayals of the actors in these shows bled into their real lives and were consumed by their fans in the same way as the consumption of fictional material. It cannot exactly be labelled as queerbaiting as the case of Thai BLs is a lot more complicated, both in terms of production and consumption. What it does bring to the table is the performance of false queerness for the same purpose as the queerbaiting TV shows and films. But can queerbaiting really be applied to understand the performance of sexuality by celebrities?
Creation of a Character: The Celebrity Persona
The surveillance of a celebrity’s sexuality is not at all a new practice. . Since the celebrity image is more often than not crafted as an appropriate product for the consumption of the public, it becomes easy to separate the image from the celebrity’s very real existence. Its presence in an unattainable setting, whether it is a screen or an award show or a stage separated by several barricades, dehumanises them. What becomes of them is an almost fictional figure that is quite imagined. The wall of separation from celebrities of the “normal people” increases the need to look over it, into their personal lives. Ultimately, what becomes of the celebrity is a commodity, as discussed by Graeme Turner in Stardom and Celebrity. The false image is solely for the purpose of material gain of everyone involved in its constructive process, banking on the emotional responses of the fans. Based on this understanding of a popular figure, it can be said that queerbaiting as a marketing strategy can be used to attract the queer community to invest in these celebrities, both with time and money. Most accusations that are made about ‘queerbaitor’ celebrities are related to their gender expression, behaviour on social media, interaction with fans and other uses of symbols that are particularly associated with the queer community. But this understanding only holds its ground with several assumptions, most importantly the fact that a celebrity’s sexuality might not be part of their brand image.
Consider Harry Styles— someone who has been associated with queerbaiting for years now. Styles’ public image has often been a flamboyant one, even during his boyband days. Although the whole concept of the boyband involved assigned ‘roles’ to be performed by each of its members, Styles was known for experimenting with his gender expression. As he progressed with his solo career, the fluidity in his media presentation, through fashion, music or stage performances, only became more explicit. While all this should have led to positive responses from the queer community, it was not the case. With a mass-fan following, it was not long until Styles was added to the list of queer icons. What ticked off most people was his ‘public’ relationships with women exclusively and unlabelled sexuality which consequently led to the hyper-speculation of his queerness. Although his and Kit Connor’s cases are quite different, a striking similarity is the absence of an explicit affirmation of their sexuality. Since they seem to be or are profiting from exhibiting queerness in media, they are expected to show solid evidence of it. In Connor’s case, he was only playing a fictional queer character while Styles has hinted at his gender fluidity through songwriting and has involved queerness as a significant theme of his celebrity persona. While we can easily debunk the queerbaiting allegations placed on Connor, it cannot exactly be said about Styles.
Does this mean that Harry Styles is queerbaiting? Not really.
The “Right” Kind of Queerness
Discourse surrounding queerbaiting has been acknowledged by academics for quite some time now. In a study done by Nicole Woods and Doug Hardman, they suggest new taxonomy under the umbrella term of queerbaiting. The one associated with real people or celebrities is called “Social Queerbating”. They explain it as a “term to encompass everyday encounters and what has been termed ‘queer coding’.” What they specifically attempt to do here is divide ‘queerbaiting’ on the basis of ways the queer community feels exploitation of their identity. But social queerbaiting primarily demands the coming out and an established relationship from a person as it requires solid evidence. Coming out as a concept has been criticised for its oppressive nature. The existence of the ‘closet’ implies the existence and power of heteronormative forces, as discussed by Judith Butler in “Imitation and Gender Subordination”. The same can be said about the establishment of a relationship which is again dominated by heteronormative ideologies. And this is all on top of the potential violence that the world outside of the “closet” continues to demonstrate. Queerbaiting, in this sense, would not be an appropriate or accurate term to be applied to a celebrity.
To focus on another facet of these queerbaiting allegations, there is a certain involvement of limiting elements of queerness to openly queer people. The allegations imply that one can only express themselves in gender-fluid or gender-disruptive ways when one openly identifies as queer. This ideology only reinforces the barriers and norms related to gender expression and further creates gaps between other identity groups like race, class, ethnicity, etc. This might not apply to popular subjects of queerbaiting discourse, who are often white, cis, male and of course, wealthy celebrities like Harry Styles. But the very existence of this debate sets boundaries for many, especially on social media which can be a seriously intimidating space.
The queerbaiting discourse has not reached a clear conclusion and for fair reasons. During the times when people are slowly moving into a free understanding of queerness and gender, dealing with such complex issues involving a sensitive space like fandom can get really complicated. But the above discussion does try to emphasise the inappropriate usage of the term ‘queerbaiting’ in the context of real people. While this is not an attempt to propose a defence on the part of any celebrity’s public behaviour, it does encourage criticism on a valid basis than something that could prove to be harmful to the broader understanding of societal issues.
About the Author
Oshi is in her third year at the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, majoring in Literary Studies. Her interests include film and visual media studies, queer studies and learning languages.