By Rory McKeon
Queerness in the public eye is controversial. The responses it garners are polarising, either supportive or disdainful but nonetheless always impassioned irrespective of which camp they represent. It’s no wonder conflict arises when discussing queer visibility: queerness is by nature confrontational in its breaking of typical social norms regarding gender and sexuality, and we in the Western world live in an age where queer people have never been so visible and so celebrated.
However, this visibility is a double-edged sword – while queerness becomes more normalised and welcomed, it also welcomes in the opportunity for others to profit off of the lived experiences and desires of the LGBTQ+ community, whether that’s through targeted advertising campaigns, political lip service to stir up electoral support or the appropriation of queer stories by cishet artists and producers in film and TV. It’s this pilfering of queer aesthetics and narratives to lure in certain audiences for personal profit, which has come to be known as “queerbaiting”. Queerbaiting isn’t new, and it isn’t surprising – it’s been going on for centuries. The commercialisation and commodification of our society hasn’t done anything to help either (thanks, capitalism).
An example of this which springs to mind is the recent casting of Harry Styles in a film based on Bethan Roberts’ My Policeman. In the film, Styles will play a closeted queer man caught between his wife, played by Lily James, and his male lover, who is yet to be cast. While this casting has been met with general positivity, it does also beg the question: should an actor who has not explicitly addressed their sexuality be offered queer roles over actual queer actors? And does this constitute queerbaiting? To answer these questions, we must examine this casting in a wider context.
Harry Styles is a nuanced case study in queerbaiting. In recent years, he’s become acclaimed for his gender non-conforming dress sense: feminine-presenting clothing, painted nails and jewellery are staples of a Stylesian look, with his sheer black outfit for the 2019 Met Gala serving as a prime example. Furthermore, he has publicly supported the queer community in concert and online, and the ambiguity of some of his lyrics has pointed many fans towards the possibility of his being bisexual. And maybe that’s true – if anything it’s pretty possible, and fluidity of gender expression and sexuality should be celebrated in all regards – but it is this ambiguity which simultaneously encourages and undermines him as a ‘bisexual icon’. Whenever asked about his sexuality, Styles is never explicit and tends to dodge a direct answer to the question.
And why should he give a direct answer? Surely it’s well within the rights of anyone under the scrutiny of the wider world to keep certain details of their life to themselves, to keep their private life private? If anything, queerness should be a celebration of living in-between the lines of definition and labelling, rather than focussing on exactly what classifications a person falls under. In all honesty, his approach is something I do respect; it must be tough being dogged by obsessive fans, the press and every other blog writer who decides to delve into the matter, especially from such a young age. Having fan-fiction written about you and your same-sex bandmate at age sixteen must be somewhat overwhelming to say the least, and quite possibly affected Styles’ relationship with sexuality and expression for a long time. Thus, remaining ambiguous in today’s explicit world is in itself a statement: it flips the bird at the expectations of celebrity status that your entire world must be laid bare for the world to drool over, it retains a sense of privacy and humanity, it separates the individual from the persona of the individual that we are allowed to see. Plus, even for those of us who aren’t the apple of the public’s eye, the idea of coming out is outdated and extremely invasive. So why should celebrities need to?
And surely any visibility is good, right? Sexual ambiguity does still bring up the possibility of queerness in a public context, and makes people ask questions that might not previously have been asked, particularly when in relation to stars they already admire. And when it comes to Styles’ fashion sense, I will happily be the first to say that the encouragement it gives to straight men in particular to blur gender boundaries and express themselves however they see fit is an absolute godsend. Say what you like about Harry Styles, but his fluidity when it comes to these matters is certainly something to be praised. If even one straight man decides to try wearing high-waisted trousers, then his work here is done.
However, as much as I do agree with these arguments, there is certainly another side to it. Having just celebrated the contribution his celebrity status brings to visibility, it is also ironically the very thing that undermines him. Styles’ self-presentation as a fashionably fluid dresser without explicit clarification of his sexuality would be great if it weren’t for his enormous platform and global renown. The idea of celebrity is all about performance – it is an outward projection, usually aesthetically pleasing and idealistic, which people latch onto, relate to and support financially. Celebrity is so intrinsically linked with generation of profit that it can’t be overlooked. Whether Styles is queer or not, it cannot be denied that his outward projection employs queercoding (the use of identifiably queer traits and characteristics which queer audiences will pick up on, and which go under the radar of cishet ones). When queer people see these hints, it’s no surprise that they put two and two together. But when these hints are specifically and duplicitously sprinkled in with the intention of luring in a new fanbase or listenership – and when it leads to stunt casting which production teams know will bring in a queer audience – it becomes problematic. Would Styles have been cast if he didn’t have a large queer following? Hard to say. Unfortunately, whether he wills it or not, by remaining ambiguous Harry Styles profits off of both queer and cishet audiences, keeping one finger firmly stuck in every pie (metaphorically speaking – get your mind out of the gutter).
Furthermore, if we think about Styles’ dress sense and supposed queerness generally, positive responses are the overwhelming majority. Straight people and queer people alike enjoy his music, and his acting career is evidently thriving. And that’s great – the fact that a man is celebrated for typically feminine aesthetics is fantastic, and it’s indicative of the strides we’ve made in our society as far as these matters are concerned. It’s by no means the first time an artist has pushed the gender boundary – think Prince, David Bowie, Grace Jones, as well as countless other queer and gender non-conforming people throughout history – and reverence for doing so isn’t new either. The issue here is that this isn’t representative of the typical queer or gender non-conforming experience. Without the protection of celebrity exceptionalism and pretty privilege, many people, especially trans and non-binary people, are discriminated against for the breaking of gender stereotypes that Styles is venerated for. Obviously, the blame can’t be lumped onto Harry Styles for that; he’s far from complicit in this discrimination, and I’m not trying to negate any personal homophobic experiences he may have had. But it is important to note the discrepancy between genuine queer experience and the performance of queer aesthetics: when the latter is employed in order to reap the rewards of being proclaimed a queer icon without the negative feedback normally associated with queerness, something needs to be said.
For me, both the issue and the respect I have for Mr Styles stem from the lack of an explicit answer regarding sexuality. If he’s queer – fantastic! He’s into boys and we love seeing out and proud queer men celebrating their identity– a true queer icon. If he’s straight – also fantastic! He’s super supportive of queer rights and encourages fluidity – a true ally. If he’s bi – even better! He still appeals to everyone and that’s great bisexual representation, which is scarce and has its own minefields (hello, biphobia and bi erasure). It’s the lack of clarity that irks me.
So, does Harry Styles queerbait? In short, I would argue yes. While I do respect his decision to remain ambiguous to retain some element of privacy, the point is that it was a conscious decision, likely in collaboration with his PR team, and one which has far more benefits than downsides. While visibility and the normalisation of queerness and genderless clothing is very important, it can undoubtedly be exploited to gain the admiration of queer communities, and the vagueness surrounding his sexuality allows him to appeal to all audiences without disappointing or ostracising anyone.
Of course, he’s allowed to live in between the lines and blur boundaries – more power to him for doing so in a world that thrives on the toxically masculine principles of patriarchy – but I think the real question that we should be asking is: should he? At the end of the day, queer visibility is still in its infancy, and we are privileged to live in a society that accepts the LGBTQ+ community (don’t get me wrong, there’s still a lot to be done, particularly for trans rights and visibility). But look at the situation we find ourselves in: queer-free zones in Poland, an anti-queer and pro-conversion therapy presidency in America, over seventy countries criminalising queerness, eleven countries imposing the death penalty. Sadly, considering the current political climate, and the terrifying way that many political systems seem to be tipping, sexual ambiguity is a luxury that most queer people don’t have the privilege of enjoying, let alone employing it to make a profit.
This is why visibility is so important. We need explicit, overt representation in media, in day to day life, in politics, in celebrities, because it encourages the normalisation of breaking social ‘norms’. To be visible is to be justified. To be visible is to not be ashamed or afraid.
It’s unfair to have Harry Styles be the figurehead in this argument, really. He’s one man who may or may not be queer, and the reasons that this is problematic have nothing to do with him at the end of the day. Surely the real issues are the idea of celebrity and the invasive transparency that is expected along with it; or the ignorance, hatred and fear surrounding queerness, and the lack of representation which comes as a result; or the exploitation of any people for profit; or the sexualisation of our society; the list goes on. While it’s important to hold individuals accountable, we don’t know the ins and outs of his life, or how these societal problems affect him.
But the fact that he actively profits from the queer aesthetics and coding he employs without saying either way what team he plays for – the fact that people are happy to call him a ‘bisexual icon’ without him ever having come out – the fact that his vagueness means he is cast in queer roles over out and proud queer actors, thus taking away opportunities from those he purportedly represents – is why I have a problem with Harry Styles and queerbaiting.