Opinion: Queerbaiting is an Overused Term

8 mins read

Queerbaiting is Gen Z’s new buzzword. Originally formed on internet forums in the 2010s, the term was used to describe entertainment companies’ marketing technique of implicitly hinting at queer relationships within fictional stories. Under this definition, queerbaiting attracts viewers interested in queer storylines, bringing in increased profit without having to deal with censorship or audience concerns. Today, queerbaiting is defined as a label for any public figure who produces or otherwise participates in queer media without explicitly being out as part of the LGBTQ+ community, creating the harmful perception that people who aren’t out aren’t allowed to create explicit queer media. 

Today, queerbaiting is defined as a label for any public figure who produces or otherwise participates in queer media without explicitly being out as part of the LGBTQ+ community, creating the harmful perception that people who aren’t out aren’t allowed to create explicit queer media.

While the term itself was first coined in the 2010s, the general idea of queerbaiting dates back to the Hays Code, which was in effect from 1930 until 1968. The Hays Code governed the content of films and significantly impacted the portrayal of on-screen LGBTQ+ characters.

While the Hays Code didn’t explicitly target queer content, it banned the depiction of any “sexually perverted” content in films, which at the time included queer content. This meant that, in order to include queer characters in their projects, filmmakers had to make their queerness implied rather than explicit. This practice later became known as “coding” and saw queer characters, particularly men, represented as overly effeminate and flamboyant. This both signaled to the audience the characters were queer without the label that would lead to backlash, while simultaneously reinforcing stereotypes of the time period.

Several films from the dubbed “Hays Code era” exhibit this phenomenon. Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and released in 1940, includes a character named Jack Favell who tries to manipulate the film’s protagonist and is heavily implied to be either gay or bisexual through his flirtatious behavior and eccentric clothing.

The pattern of queer coding villainous characters has continued long past the removal of the Hays Code and into modern society. Notable queer-coded villains include Ursula from The Little Mermaid (who was inspired by the drag queen Divine), Scar from The Lion King, and Tamatoa from Moana—all of whom are presented as more effeminate and flamboyant than the protagonists of the films. 

Queerbaiting is queer coding’s annoying twin. Producers and writers have figured out that by implying a character is queer but never actually saying so, they can get people talking about the show on social media, boosting its popularity tremendously and increasing the media’s fanbase while not having to do the actual work of writing well-developed queer stories into their shows or risking alienating cishet audiences. But that’s a whole other story (and a whole other article). 

While numerous TV shows have been accused of queerbaiting over the last several decades or so—notable ones include Glee, Buffy, The 100, Voltron, and Sherlock among others—only recently has the term been used to describe the actions of celebrities. To today’s audience, to queerbait means to portray or produce queer media without actually being queer yourself (or, in several cases, just not out). 

This leads to the harmful online discourse surrounding actors, writers, and other figures in the public eye, forcing them to make statements surrounding their identity that they may not be comfortable with yet. It not only disrupts an intimate process (as being queer is still something that is persecuted today) that should be respected and left to the individual’s discretion, but it creates the narrative that only “out” queer people are valid and only they are allowed to create explicitly queer media. 

An infamous article by the New York Times called “Look What We Made Taylor Swift Do” details Swift’s apparent “clues” that she is part of the LGBTQ+ community. However, the article is entirely speculative and provides no true reasoning or statement from Swift confirming––or denying––her queer identity to the public. The only mention of queerness Swift has ever referenced has been to state her allyship during her Lover era. Swift’s team was disturbed by the article, calling it “invasive, untrue and inappropriate” in the Advocate, since it was based on opinions and not facts.

While articles centered around this kind of speculation may initially be dismissed as a result of overactive fans or inconsequential, they have negative impacts for the real-life people they are written about. The near-constant pressure from the public may force celebrities to come out before they are truly ready to in order to validate the art they are creating. It also puts pressure on them to label themselves, forcing them into a box just to sate their needy fans’ desire to see their favorite celebrity come out. 

The near-constant pressure from the public may force celebrities to come out before they are truly ready to in order to validate the art they are creating. It also puts pressure on them to label themselves, forcing them into a box just to sate their needy fans’ desire to see their favorite celebrity come out. 

Perhaps a more prominent example lies in the story of Kit Connor, the hit star of the Netflix series Heartstopper, which follows teen boys Charlie and Nick as they navigate the magical, messy world of young love and romance. Based upon a webcomic by Alice Oseman, the series has been highly praised by the queer community for showing the reality of being a young queer person.

In late 2022, after the release of the first season, Connor was seen holding hands with female co-star Maia Reffecio, sparking debate online that he fit into the public’s new definition of queerbaiting: a straight actor playing a queer character.

Fans flooded social media with comments like,  “I must say what a shit job @AliceOseman did putting kit connor in the cast, how could you be able to find a perfect actress to represent elle but couldn’t find a blonde queer actor.” Many of the comments called for Connor’s removal from the show, despite him having previously said in an interview, “I don’t feel the need to label myself, especially not publicly.” 

The intense backlash and speculation by several news outlets caused Connor to delete his account on X (formerly Twitter), only to return briefly and announce, “Back for a minute. I’m bi. Congrats for forcing an 18-year-old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show.” 

This label of queerbaiting ultimately pressured Connor to out himself before he was ready. Despite being only 18-years-old, Connor faced obsession from fans over his sexuality, which was uncalled for and directly contradictory to the values of acceptance that the queer community often claims to believe in. 

This phenomenon doesn’t stop with Connor, though. Several celebrities have been accused of queerbaiting, even when they have previously stated that their sexuality is fluid or not necessary for the public to know. Sometimes those accusations are just blatantly wrong, such as the case with My Chemical Romance singer Gerad Way, who said publicly, “I’ve always identified a bit with the female gender,” and uses he/they pronouns. Yet he was still accused of queerbaiting by fans on X because of his refusal to give a precise label to his queer identity. 

Singer-songwriter Billie Eilish also dealt with the backlash of the public shortly after the release of her music video for her single “Lost Cause,” which featured Eilish at an all-girls slumber party in a mansion. The video has several sensual moments between Eilish and the other women, prompting the public to nearly instantly accuse her of queerbaiting, even though she had stated in a 2021 interview with Elle magazine that her sexuality wasn’t anyone’s business but her own. In 2023, she came out in an interview with Variety, saying “I love them so much. I love them as people. I’m attracted to them as people. I’m attracted to them for real.” When Eilish walked the red carpet at the Variety Hitmakers event, she expressed her exasperation with the public’s speculation around her identity, something that has been going on since the star was in her early teens, asking, “Why can’t we just exist?” Eilish is presumably referring to the influx of assumptions made surrounding her own sexuality, and how people only started perceiving her queer media as valid once she came out. 

Throughout his solo career, singer Harry Styles has frequently been accused of queerbaiting because he embraces gender fluidity in his clothing, much like David Bowie did, and he refuses to clarify his sexuality in interviews. In a 2017 interview with The Sun, Styles emphasized, “I don’t feel like it’s something I’ve ever felt like I have to explain about myself,” referencing how much of his fanbase has speculated about his gender identity and sexuality throughout his career. 

In a 2022 interview with Rolling Stone, Styles again addressed the rumors surrounding his sexuality, “I think everyone, including myself, has your own journey with figuring out sexuality and getting more comfortable with it.” Styles’ refusal to clearly label himself creates frustration within the queer community, as many feel that he’s capitalizing off of them in order to reach a broader audience, but they don’t consider the fact that Styles may simply not want to broadcast his sexuality to the whole world, regardless of how supportive his fans would be. 

It’s also not just pop stars and actors. Authors who write stories centered around queer characters also often face accusations of queerbaiting. Love, Simon author Becky Albertali came out as bisexual in 2020 but said in her coming out essay posted to Medium, “I felt uncomfortable, anxious, almost sick with nerves every time they discussed [my sexuality]… I was still figuring it out myself.” 

Albertali detailed that part of her reason for composing the essay in the first place was because “I was frequently mentioned by name, held up again and again as the quintessential example of allo cishet inauthenticity. I was a straight woman writing shitty queer books for the straights, profiting off of communities I had no connection to.” The private reckoning of her sexuality was forced to become public as pressure from the media and fans to “come out” or label herself increased. 

This cycle of saying public figures are “queerbaiting’” solely because they haven’t defined their sexuality for the public is becoming increasingly common, and increasingly more harmful. The choice of the public to call out these figures who are “misrepresenting” the queer community fails to consider the fact that those people may simply not be ready––or not want to––to discuss their identity with the public, or like Albertali, still questioning and figuring out what they feel. These assumptions not only strip people of their privacy, but they perpetuate the idea that only “out” queer people are valid. 

Coming out can be one of the most vulnerable times in a person’s life. Once you announce it, there’s no taking it back, especially if you’re a celebrity. In fact, their celebrity status gives them all the more reason to respect their privacy and let them have the coming out they choose to have since they’re already so publicized—even if that means never revealing their identity to the public.

Outing celebrities isn’t the answer.

As a queer person, I understand wanting your favorite actors or artists to be queer—it makes you feel truly seen in media. But outing celebrities isn’t the answer. No matter how famous these figures are, they still deserve to come out on their own terms without pressure from the public, the media, or their fans. Stars like Billie Eilish should be allowed to make queer art without having to come out or justify its creation.

Ellen is a senior at M-A and in her first year of journalism. She hopes to write about stories that highlight social issues within M-A’s community. In her free time, she enjoys baking, reading, swimming, and spending time with friends.

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