Harry Styles, Timothée Chalamet, Billie Eilish… Why are they accused of “queerbaiting”?

On April 15, while he was on the prestigious Coachella stage, Harry Styles invited Shania Twain on stage. Excitement in the crowd, the former star of boy band One Direction describes the country icon as his absolute idol: “I have to tell you, in our car with my mother, when I was a child, this lady learned to sing,” he said before adding the stunning phrase. “She also taught me that ”men are trash” (literally, ”men are trash”) …” A remark that has caused a lot of digital ink to flow on social networks. This phrase “men are trash” is indeed a slogan used by women and people from the LGBTQIA+ community to describe these men responsible for the oppressions suffered by minorities. How did Harry Styles, a cisgender white man who has never spoken about his sexuality (we will come back to this later) and rather privileged, come to appropriate such a slogan? Is it really his role to pronounce this sentence? What’s more on the stage of a festival whose owner, Philip Anschutz, is known for his conservative, anti-LGBTQIA+ and anti-abortion positions?

Very quickly, Harry Styles was accused of “queerbaiting” – this phenomenon according to which certain artists or brands appropriate queer codes for marketing purposes, without being part of the LGBTQIA + community. This isn’t the first time Harry Styles has been accused of queerbaiting. When he appeared in a dress on the cover of “Vogue”, when he waved a trans flag on stage or when he took on the role of a bisexual policeman in “My Policeman”, many Internet users are asked why he was so keen on posing as a member of the queer community. A debate that raises a thorny question: . do heterosexual/cisgender people have the right to appropriate a queer culture that does not concern them? Between questions of cultural heritage, progressivism and malicious appropriation, “queerbaiting” divides, even within the LGBTQIA+ community.

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What is queerbaiting?

If we do not know the exact origin of this term, we can nevertheless associate it with the media and the television/film productions which are largely responsible for it. Very often, these cast doubt on a character’s sexual orientation or dangle a queer idyll to attract the LGBTQIA+ audience., While denying any real representation so as not to scare away heteronormative audiences. This term, and this is what interests us here, can also be used to qualify an artist. Aline Laurent-Mayard, head of the Instagram account @ilikethat and author of “Gender explained to those who are lost” explains to us: “It is the practice of taking advantage of the fact of being perceived as queer when we are not. It is important to specify that it is about profit and will, these are people who purposely leave doubts about their sexual orientation or their gender identity. As a reminder, the term “queer” is an old slur meaning “twisted” or “misaligned” that was inflicted on out-of-the-norm LGBTQIA+ people. Today, members of the LGBTQIA+ community have reclaimed this insult, which has now become a defense tool and a standard against homophobia. The word “baiting”, on the other hand, means “bait”. But then why, the devil, to resort to this practice? Several reasons can be highlighted. The first: to attract a larger audience for the money and the ratings. The second is more subtle: “In a large part of the Western world, it is seen as a ‘trend’ to be queer”, confides Aline Laurent-Mayard. “It has always been there. It’s a tendency to show that we’re different from others, that we’re more open”. It is thus recurrent that the dominant culture comes to slum by taking up the codes of minority cultures that it had hitherto rejected and discriminated against. Used by mainstream culture, these codes (such as expressions of drag queens, the way of dressing, behaviour, etc.), are emptied of their meaning and those who use them omit to notify their origin. This is the case of many singers or actors, who play on this disorder to create a buzz, an artistic imagery or a craze around their person.

Who are the artists accused of queerbaiting?

It is actually quite complicated, even tricky, to accuse people of “queerbaiting”. After all, we don’t know their intimate life (even if we seem to know everything about our favorite artists) and a person who is apparently straight, may very well be queer in reality. Several celebrities have been accused of engaging in “queerbaiting”. First, Harry Styles. The latter has only ever gone out with women (but continues to cast doubt), has a very standardized physical appearance (beard, muscles, tattoos, etc.) and has never taken stock of his sexuality. He even recently explained that labeling himself with a sexual orientation was old-fashioned. A word that Aline Laurent-Mayard applauds with moderation. She welcomes the fact that we no longer label our sexualities and gender identities, which sometimes go beyond a predefined lexicon, but reminds us that it is important to have famous references that dare to proclaim: “I am gay” or “I am not -binary”. Of course, in a utopian world, there would no longer be a need to inflict a coming-out on oneself – which, let us remember, is one of the most traumatic acts for a young LGBT – nor to declare oneself in such a way. or such gender identity.

Other celebrities have faced queerbaiting charges, including Billie Eilish, who posed while mimicking cunnilingus on Instagram and captioned “I love girls.” The latter has never clarified her sexual orientation and has always dated only boys. But we cannot, once again, know if it is really about this practice or if the artist has not yet come out. Aline Laurent-Mayard also remembers an unsubtle “queerbaiting” period of Joe Jonas, who posed for Guess in a homoerotic atmosphere, based on an oiled body and very tight underpants: “It was just obvious that it was queerbaiting. Well, it didn’t fit. And since nothing has proven that he was queer. It was just a trick to show off. These are people who often like to be seen as sexy by gay guys. “. His younger brother, Nick, had also played the role models in a similar atmosphere, revealing his posterior for “Flaunt”. Timothée Chalamet also had to face this kind of accusations on several occasions. The turning point? When he sported a Louis Vuitton harness at the Golden Globes. For innocent souls, the harness is a well-known accessory in queer and SM culture. But it is also a way of recognizing and identifying people within the community. According to Aline Laurent-Mayard, it was not a real moment of “queerbaiting” because she doubts that the actor, himself, knows the meaning of this accessory. The author nevertheless castigates Katy Perry, while recognizing all the same that it was about another era, when she sang “I kissed a girl” in 2008. This single then played only on the male heterosexual fantasy of two women kissing, completely omitting that it is still a fight for many homosexuals who are not lucky enough to be able to appear in public kissing. Still, a question arises: doesn’t seeing Katy Perry kiss another woman on a prime-time music channel advance the cause? Good question.

Between progressivism and appropriation: can we really blame queer baiting?

This is where the question gets tricky. There are often two opposing camps when it comes to “queerbaiting”. Those who think it’s disrespect, even homophobia, to use for profit – and through cisgender heterosexual status – codes that have been so long rejected by mainstream opinion. And those who think that this is a non-debate, and that these people are finally breaking down the boundaries between heterosexuals and queer people. Aline Laurent-Mayard takes the example of Billy Porter. The actor of the series “Pose” and icon of the red carpets, had a hard-working career during his first years. In question ? A homosexual black man always dressed extravagantly, ilet dared to wear dresses during social events. Normal, then, that the 52-year-old actor is indignant when “Vogue” dares to put a man in a dress on the cover for the first time and, that it is Harry Styles. “It was me, personally, who changed the situation. And it’s not a question of ego, it’s just a fact. I was the first to do it, and now everyone is doing it,” he explained to the “Sunday Times,” adding: “I started the debate (about fashion not -binary) and yet, ”Vogue” put Harry Styles, a white, straight man, in a dress on the cover for the first time. Me, it’s my life. I had to fight my whole life to get to this point where I could wear a dress to the Oscars and not be shot. All he has to do is be white and straight,” Billy Porter lamented. Aline Laurent-Mayard joins Billy Porter on this point and regrets that Harry Styles did not suggest that Billy Porter join him on the shoot or even that he cites him among his inspirations. Give Caesar what is Caesar’s, or rather give back to the queer community what is the queer community’s. This is the whole challenge of queerbaiting, and the whole paradox of the question. Of course, seeing artists breaking down barriers is good to see, because the queer community wants to be treated as equals. But it is still unfair for privileged people to claim glory for themselves by appropriating elements for which the LGBTQIA+ community has for so long been ostracized. The creator of the Instagram account @ilikethat would like to remind you that the most dangerous “queerbaiting” is not that which simply consists of straight people putting blush on their cheeks, but rather that of brands and big companies. In the line of sight: Disney which organizes a Pride when there are very few queer characters in the films, or even the pinkwashing of brands which will change their logo to “rainbow” colors during Pride month without donating to associations.

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