By Toby Oliver-Clarke, BA History
With the rise of Queer representation on the big and small screen, queerbaiting is a term which has become a fixture of our modern pop culture vocabulary. Whilst the term can mean different things to different people, it can loosely be described as ‘when a celebrity or public figure feigns sexual difference for monetary gain’. It’s a phenomenon which is only growing larger, with Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, and Nick Jonas all recently being accused of queerbaiting. With those accused defending their right to sexual ambiguity, and the accusers defending their right to truly authentic representation, queerbaiting has quickly become a cultural minefield.
For many, the term entered the public imagination following the screening of ‘Sherlock’, the BBC’s wildly successful remake of the classic detective story. The show’s two protagonists, John and Sherlock, are locked in a constant will-they-won’t-they, with the audience left in the dark over whether the two truly hold feelings for each other. The underlying attraction between the two is a constant throughout all four seasons, and yet the two never share so much as a kiss. With the show’s principal producer Mark Gattis himself a gay man and many of the less prominent producers on the show also identifying as Queer, one has to question their hesitancy to portray a queer romance. The answer is as predictable as it is lamentable; for major production companies, the priority has always been profit. Sherlock is a drama with an audience which is just as complex as its storylines. On the one hand, its viewership is composed of young, socially progressive under 25’s, and on the other, it’s viewed by older fans who hold nostalgia for the older, more conservative iterations of Sherlock. For the show’s creators, the sexual ambiguity of John and Sherlock allows them to seem up-to-date, whilst also being wary of the more conservative sensibilities of its older viewership.
“In a media culture which refuses to speak equally for all, our only option is to speak, or be spoken for”
Of course, queerbaiting is a phenomenon which has extended itself far beyond the big screen, with many celebrities falling foul of accusations in recent times. One such star is Harry Styles, the singer-turned-actor who recently starred in the queer romance ‘My Policeman’. Styles caused controversy when he made the claim that his role would bring “tenderness” to an industry dominated by raunchy, unaffectionate sex. At best, the comments seem lazy and ill-judged, and at worst, they feel like a reflection of age-old stereotypes of queer deviance and promiscuity, either way, the star woefully misses the mark. Evidently, criticism of Styles should differ from that of Sherlock or any other TV series, after all, he is himself a human being with the right to both sexual fluidity and anonymity. However, his ambiguity feels forced, particularly when viewed alongside his controversial comments, it seems as if his queerness is merely a constituent part of a carefully crafted identity; the diamond atop the crown of a pop culture prince.
In the face of the evident harm that queerbaiting continues to inflict upon LGBTQ+ communities, we should remain vigilant in not falling into the trap of gatekeeping an identity which so many fought so hard to make visible. At the heart of queerness is the desire to embrace abnormality, deviance, and difference in all their forms – including those whose queerness seems opaque and unintelligible. For many Queer people, the burden of representation is one which falls upon our own shoulders. With a media that can offer us ambivalent representation at best, it’s on us to embody the characters that we wish to see. This means living our queerness in a way which is both visible and personal, mundane and eccentric, and unafraid to discard the stereotypes that have long defined the Queer experience. In truth, legacy media will never reflect our experiences the way that we can ourselves, in a media culture that refuses to speak equally for all, our only option is to speak or be spoken for.