In June 2021, pop singer Billie Eilish put out the music video to her newly released single, “Lost Cause.” The video features Eilish at a sleepover with a handful of her girl friends. As a promotion for the video, she posted a set of photos of behind-the-scenes moments with the caption: “I love girls.” Soon after, her comments were flooded with questions about whether or not she was coming out.
This photo set caused her to be one of the many celebrities in recent years that have been the subject of queerbaiting accusations. Amid the online discourse, however, one Twitter user uploaded a tweet that perfectly summed up the current place where this discussion stands in our cultural landscape. “The conversation around queerbaiting has reached a confusing place — on the one hand, we say don’t worry [about] labels,” they wrote. “and on the other hand, if an artist presents even remotely ‘queer’ we interrogate them [about] their sexuality?”
What is queerbaiting?
The term queerbaiting is complex and convoluted but can briefly be defined as being when “a celebrity or a public figure capitalizes on the suspicion that they may be romantically involved with another same-sex person for the sake of publicity, promotion or a capitalistic gain,” filmmaker, writer and activist Leo Herrera tells Rolling Stone. He says media makers “play with our lack of representation and desires to get us in the theaters or get us to watch.”
When the Pixar film Luca was released earlier this year, social media users drew comparisons to the 2017 film, “Call Me By Your Name” and the New York Times even titled their review “Calamari By Your Name.” The studio was accused of alluding to a queer relationship between the two main characters, but the director later shot down the rumors saying it was just about friendships.
While the Oxford English Dictionary recently recognized the term in March 2021, it’s been used in the cultural lexicon for decades. According to Julia Himberg, director and associate professor of Film and Media Studies at Arizona State University, the origins can be traced back to the early days of the internet when there was less explicit LGBTQ representation in media on fan blogs and internet forums.
“What has been interesting to trace is that [the term queerbaiting] gained more traction as LGBTQ representation has increased and become an accepted part of the pop-cultural landscape,” Himberg says. “This is because queerbaiting is understood as a tactic where media producers imply queer stories and media texts that are never actualized.”
She says the reason there has been a push for representation in media by the queer community is because “visibility is this form of cultural currency that provides this recognition and validation that LGBTQ+ people are valued part of the national landscape.”
Why do people accuse musicians, actors and other artists of queerbaiting?
Eilish is not the first — and indeed not the last — person to be accused of queerbaiting. Throughout the years, many artists have been subjected to accusations. Most recently, Normani was criticized on Instagram by a user and accused of something similar, which was later shared across Twitter. In her recent video for her song “Wild Side,” featuring Cardi B, the two are pictured naked and gyrating against one another.
While some accusations might not hold much water, there are some that do. In 2016, Nick Jonas was promoting his soon-to-be released album “Last Year Was Complicated.” During the publicity tour for his album, he frequently visited gay bars, toyed with the question as to whether or not he’d experimented sexually with men by saying, “I can’t say I have or I haven’t,” among many other things.
Ariana Grande and Rita Ora faced backlash because of songs they made. In 2018, similar accusations were drawn towards Ora after she released her song “Girls” with Cardi B, Bebe Rexha, and Charli XCX as Perry finally admitted her song “I Kissed a Girl” is problematic. Ora sang lyrics about how she was “open-minded” before going into a chorus which talks about drinking red wine and kissing girls. It not only upset fans but other musicians as well like Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani — who called the lyrics harmful. Ora later apologized and revealed she had relationships with men and women.
Grande’s “Monopoly” — which featured her close friend/co-writer Victoria Monet — was a topic of conversation in 2019 after singing the line: “I like women and men.” Social media users claimed this was queerbaiting, but she later responded on Twitter saying she “doesn’t feel the need to” label herself.
Many cultural moments that were seen as boundary-pushing at the time are now being re-examined as actual queer representation is being presented on screen. Rapper Lil Nas X took the BET Awards stage in June 2021 and kissed one of his back-up dancers. The stunt immediately drew comparisons to Madonna’s 2003 VMA kiss with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
Madonna later posted a collage of Lil Nas X’s kiss and her infamous kiss on her Instagram story with text that said, “#DidItFirst.” She was immediately called out by fashion watchdog account Diet Prada, who said that her kiss was “hardly as revolutionary as Black queer men doing so.” They continued, “White [cisgender] [heterosexual] people have always been given the space to do whatever they please… including, but not limited to queerbaiting.”
History of homophobia and the “Lavender Scare”
If one was to look back even further, the term was used to describe “homophobic practices in politics and law,” Himberg says. During the early 1950s, there was the Joseph McCarthy-era “Lavender Scare” — not to be confused with the “Red Scare.” The “Lavender Scare” was a policy that was based on “unfounded fear that gay men and lesbians “posed a threat to national security because they were vulnerable to blackmail and were considered to have weak moral characters,” historian David K. Johnson told Time magazine.
Historian Nadine Hubbs wrote in a 2009 academic study for the University of Nebraska Press that when law enforcement attempted to round up and question people they suspected to be a part of the LGBTQ+ community, political officials used queerbaiting as “information-gathering tactics.” Himberg says this strategy during the McCarthy era was “about drawing out ‘suspected homosexuals’ using various tactics including entrapment, blackmail, affiliations with various organizations, and artistic traditions.”
Of course, it wasn’t too long ago that “gay panic” was a common legal defense against “indecent advances” — so the fact that younger generations are now courting LGBTQ+ audiences through explicit queer performativity is seen by many as a progress and a positive development. In fact, it’s become an expanding field of media and cultural studies, as Judith Fathallah explains in a recently published essay in Journal of Popular Music Studies. Fathallah claims that “a restrictive notion of ‘truth’ in discussions of queerbaiting” can close off the “very possibilities of transformation and open-ended configurations of sexuality.” She investigates emo bands as a “natural case study,” since it’s an offshoot of hardcore and punk, which “sought to complicate the hegemonic masculinities dominating those genres, both in its musical and lyric content and the “performativity of its artists.”
Why false claims of queerbaiting can be harmful
In the age of social media, however, sometimes people are loud and wrong in projecting misguided accusations, similar to the ones Eilish and Normani faced. Jesus G. Smith, an ethnic studies professor at Lawrence University, tells Rolling Stone that false accusations — or those premature to critical thinking — are harmful to any movement online. “People also have to decipher the difference between those who are performing for the heterosexual lens and queerbaiting, which are very different.”
Smith says there are pros and cons to having these sorts of discussions online. On the one hand, writing helps people better articulate specific points than speaking, but on the other, “it can flounder in all different ways,” he said. “These spaces can be really harmful to have these discussions.” He added, “It depends on how people utilize and manipulate technology.”
Regardless of the discussions, LGBTQ+ community has been asking to let themselves been seen in roles/storylines that were made for queer people and by queer people. One way the activist Leo Herrera connects with his followers is through text posts uploaded to his Instagram account, where he gives his opinions and thoughts about events taking place in the queer community.
In December 2020, Herrera wrote a post titled “Scraps” and declared he was tired of the “scraps” the LGBTQ+ community is given for everything from lack of healthcare to the lack of queer representation in media, while headlines and media space is given to straight men wearing dresses. He writes, “Tired of decades-old scraps repackaged as ‘visibility.’ Scraps are for famines. We are not starving. Queers have feasts in our history and banquets in our closets. Keep your fucking scraps.”