Queerbaiting: Unpacking a problematic past

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Photo by Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic for Sony Music
Photo by Jeff Kravitz / FilmMagic for Sony Music

Over the past few years, anyone who's been consistently on the internet has probably come across the term "queerbaiting." In classrooms of higher education, during conversations with friends, and all over social media feeds, queerbaiting has almost become a (Queer) household word. More recently, a string of high-profile celebrities like Nick Jonas, Billie Eilish, and Harry Styles have all come under scrutiny and been accused of queerbaiting.

In the wake of these discourses, though, I've been left to wonder two things: what exactly is queerbaiting, and are all these allegations actually warranted?

Don't get me wrong, I'm relieved and happy to see people across the world gain the social and media literacy that allows them to hold others accountable and look at things through a more critical lens. In order for the conversation (and the Queer community) to be strengthened the most, however, I believe some clarification is needed.

What is queerbaiting, exactly?
In an interview with USA Today, Melvin Williams, professor of communication and media studies at Pace University, summed up the concept: "Queerbaiting is a strategy used by content creators and media producers to attract queer audiences — via homoeroticism, suggestive marketing and storylines, and other symbolisms — and to insinuate queer identities and relationships between media characters and viewers."

What is important to the definition and understanding of queerbaiting is the intentionality behind it. Is a celebrity simply exploring their gender expression by wearing a skirt to an event? Or is a corporation branding its products with Queer flags during Pride month to increase sales? (This kind of queerbaiting is similar to "rainbow washing," a term used to describe companies utilizing rainbow aesthetics to attract Queer consumers.)

To clarify: this is usually no accident. Queerbaiting and rainbow washing often happen because marketing teams know the importance of the Queer consumer. As of 2019, the global LGBTQA+ population had a collective purchasing power of approximately $3.7 trillion (referred to as "pink money").

This represents an important aspect of queerbaiting: it's often done for profit. Most public figures and large corporations are smart; they know that appealing to the Queer community is a financially smart move.

What we ought to be asking them is what else they are doing for us. How else are they helping? When someone (a person or brand) appears to be embracing queerness without doing any of the extra work to support and uplift the community, they might queerbaiting.

Harry Styles and Emma Corrin in My Policeman — Photo courtesy of Prime Video  

The Bury Your Gays trope
In her article "Bury Your Gays: History, Usage, and Context," Haley Hulan lays out the problematic "Bury Your Gays" trope that's been observed in media (specific literature) since the 19th century. This trope originally asserted that narrative works with Queer relationships have to kill off one of the lovers, often soon after the relationship is established. Closely related to queerbaiting, Bury Your Gays began as a tactic to grant some representation to LGBTQA+ authors and stories while still ensuring that a book would sell. Because explicitly Queer stories didn't get consistent engagement from audiences, the Bury Your Gays trope arose as a marketing technique.

I mention this trope because it demonstrates the tandem use of Queer representation and heteronormativity to maximize profit. This is often the basis of queerbaiting: when people and organizations understand that there is a lack of representation and use that scarcity for their own benefit while neglecting other ways of supporting the Queer community.

Ambiguities and the importance of media literacy
We live in a world so digitally saturated that a new term, "chronically online," has emerged to describe those who are on the internet so often that their sense of reality is warped from a lack of real-world experience.

It's easy tell ourselves, "Oh, but that would never apply to me." Realistically, though, this probably applies to most of us to varying degrees. We are all online every day; in many ways, day-to-day life demands that we be.

It is more important than ever, then, that we hold ourselves accountable for this aspect of our lives, especially when it comes to forming our opinions on cultural phenomena, social issues, and people. Having any involvement or presence online means that we are being constantly perceived, and this is especially true for celebrities — their details sometime seem like part of the public domain.

Photo by Guglielmo Mangiapane / Reuters  

We need to remember, though, that they aren't. We need to remember that these are people with personal lives entitled to as much privacy as anyone else. They do not owe it to anyone to disclose their inner worlds, to publicly declare their identities, and label themselves in any way that they don't want.

With this in mind, the speed and ease with which we can often accuse public figures of queerbaiting raises a red flag. When we jump too quickly to allegations of queerbaiting, we are weakening the community in two ways.

First, each time we mention queerbaiting without truly investigating the rest of a situation (like how a celebrity spends their money, their history of interacting with Queer people, and if they use their platform for advocacy), we are weakening the issue and taking away its power, which only makes it harder to hold queerbaiters accountable when it really does happen.

My second point is a bit more ambiguous and slippery a slope, but it still ought to be said. When we demand that celebrities who want to explore their self-expression choose between publicly labeling themselves and facing social backlash, we are upholding a narrative that queerness is only valid when it's public. This is harmful. Self-exploration and expression is a personal journey, and within the Queer community, it can often be painful and isolating (at least at first) — why would we want to reaffirm those struggles for anyone?

This is by no means a suggestion that we reject the notion of queerbaiting entirely or absolve celebrities of social responsibility. Rather, it is an encouragement to check our assumptions and review the details surrounding these dramas as they pop up on our feeds, news searches, and for-you-pages. Yes, our role as media consumers means we need to hold public figures accountable for their behavior and demand that they use their status to advocate for positive change. On the other hand, they are still people, and we ought to remember that they don't owe us any explanation about their personal lives.

The key to both Queer acceptance and healthy accountability for public figures is a more critical media consumer. Considering the scope of the internet today, we hold immense power in choosing which narratives are told there and where they end up.