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Billie Eilish, Harry Styles, and Queerbating

For LGBTQ+ history month, Bonnie Dowler considers the issue of queerbaiting in the music industry.

By Bonnie Dowler, Second Year English and Philosophy

For LGBTQ+ history month, Bonnie Dowler considers the issue of queerbaiting in the music industry.

From Billie Eilish to Harry Styles, artists have often utilised a branding tactic known as ‘queerbaiting’. Queerbaiting is essentially when an artist teases a possible same-sex relationship to gain greater publicity, promotion or capitalistic gain from queer audiences. The most common instances of queerbaiting involve artists who hint at being queer in songs, interviews or music videos without explicitly committing to a queer identity. Of course, an artist deciding to exist without labels is their prerogative, but artists who queerbait often foster ambiguity around their sexuality deliberately. And they usually aren’t queer. It’s easy to see why fans, myself included, are frustrated.

Queerbaiting means corporations capitalise on queer fans without having to represent LGBTQIA+ relationships and issues, actually contributing further to lack of representation. For young queer people, this can be harmful to their burgeoning self-confidence of their identity. I remember the crushing blow of discovering that Panic at the Disco’s ‘Girls/Girls/Boys’ was far from the bisexual anthem marketed to pre-teen me, and was in fact about the lead singer’s threesome with two women. It was disheartening and left me mildly offended. Discovering that the queer tendencies of your favourite artist have been fabricated to inspire greater publicity is a tough pill to swallow.

in June 2021, a freshly blonde Billie Eilish released a music video for her single ‘Lost Cause’, which evoked an eruption of queerbaiting accusations. The video depicts Eilish lounging in a bed with multiple women. This, along with an Instagram caption ‘I love girls’ for the post promoting the video, led to the accusation that Eilish deliberately provoked speculation around her sexuality to appropriate the perceived edginess of queer identity (where historically, being queer has not been as trendy) to engage queer audiences and expand her fanbase.

Eilish’s blatant branding tactic re-opened the discourse on queerbaiting in the music industry, particularly through (usually) straight women teasing potential bisexuality to garner publicity and appeal to the male gaze. There is no denying Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’ earns her the crown for queerbaiting queen. Perry’s pop-rock, bi-curious anthem that’s been stuck in our heads since 2008 is a lot more problematic than we remember. The song perpetuates a harmful stereotype that sapphic desire is about experimentation, belittling the strength of emotion lesbian relationships are capable of. A decade later, Rita Ora’s 2018 song ‘Girls’, featuring Cardi B, Charli XCX and Bebe Rexha, faced similar accusations of sapphic queerbaiting. Ora sings the lyrics ‘I’m open minded’ before a chorus about drinking red wine and kissing girls.

The song is clearly designed to lend a spark to fantasies of the male gaze rather than represent queer communities. Out singer Hayley Kiyoko, who’s lyrics often tackle LGBTQIA+ issues, tweeted in response: ‘I don’t need to drink wine to kiss girls; I’ve loved women my entire life. This type of message is dangerous because it completely belittles and invalidates the very pure feelings of an entire community.’ While it can be said that Perry’s pop hit was a product of a less educated era, artists like Eilish and Ora prove queerbaiting still remains a problem.

But the question remains: should we, as fans, join the ranks of those fighting against queerbaiting and hurl accusations at our favourite artists? The answer is murky.

Queerbaiting accusations have the potential to force artists to define, and thus, confine their gender and sexuality. Harry Styles has recently faced accusations of appropriating queer aesthetics, eliciting a discussion over whether such accusations are doing more harm than good. After his split from 1D, Styles adorned himself with more flamboyant style, pushing the boundaries of gender non-conformity by wearing a dress for the cover of Vogue. The pop star was bombarded with accusations of appropriating queer culture to appear trendy and distance himself from his 1D days. Fans felt entitled to a clarification of his sexuality, even going so far as demanding he come out.

Personally, I believe this seems absurd. Here fans are essentially saying queer expression is only valid if the artist explicitly identifies as queer. This narrative is potentially detrimental to celebrities’ who might be toying with the idea of experimenting with gender presentation and style. If artists exist under the threat of queerbaiting accusations, we, as fans, might miss out on some funky new styles from mainstream artists. Aside from that, as fans we should allow artists freedom to experiment with gender expression and question their sexualities without getting cancelled - just as we would our friends. In queer communities off the red carpet, we would never demand someone reveal their sexuality and we should hold artists to the same standard of acceptance. That being said, holding an artist accountable for the potentially harmful message they emit is important despite the fact that accusations can potentially deter experimentation in queer expression.

The backlash against Styles’ begs a more abstract question: can real people actually be accused of queerbaiting? It seems odd that a critique designed for characters on film and TV can be levelled at real people, no matter how detached from ‘ordinary’ life they may be. But how different are the characters written for TV and the branding designed for an artist through media teams and record labels? While it’s true that a thin line divides the artist and the character they play as part of their branding, the branding is a type of character also able to queerbait.

Ultimately, we crave stars like Harry Styles and Billie Eilish, who could validate and elevate queer existence, if only they had skin in the game. But perhaps we need to refocus our investigation into queerbaiting celebs towards the structural factors that work against greater queer representation. After all, if we focus our praise on actual queer artists and foster greater representation for the community, less power lies in the hands of queerbaiting artists who capitalise on our desire for representation on the red carpet.

Featured Image: Tyler Mitchell for Vogue, Billie Eilish Instagram

What's your opinion on queerbaiting?