Normani’s MTV VMAs performance of her single “Wild Side” paid tribute to Janet Jackson by recreating Jackson’s famous “Would You Mind” vertical lap dance that she performed with lucky fans in concert, with a twist, as she performs the tribute with Teyana Taylor, a woman. While Normani’s artistic choice displayed female sexuality and intimacy that and could be seen as a powerful and iconic reference, online discourse saw this as another instance of queerbaiting. The choice was especially curious after earlier queerbaiting accusations were made against her and Cardi B, (who is an open and out bisexual woman), for their “Wild Side” music video for featuring the two women naked and embracing. Reactions circled around whether this was continued queerbaiting or a confirmation of her sexuality.
But what exactly is queerbaiting? What does it mean to “queerbait” versus to “queercode” and why is the discussion around it so complicated? “Queerbaiting,” as a term, emerged as a way to describe the use of hollow, superficial, or inauthentic LGBTQ+ representation in media such as television and movies to gain and capitalize on the attention of an LGBTQ+ audience. For example, one of the biggest and most egregious cases of queerbaiting was Netflix’s use of a kiss between Betty and Veronica, two historically shipped fictional characters, to promote the show, Riverdale, to then dismiss any romance between them.
Normani is one of the latest artists to be surrounded with questions of their sexuality and their engagement (of sorts) with queer presentation(s) both in their artistic choices and their everyday life; the issue arises of whether these people are “queerbaiting” or “queercoding.” Like Normani, celebrities such as Billie Eilish, Nick Jonas, Harry Styles, and Ariana Grande have been called out for “different shades” of queerbaiting such as “being vague” in their gender and sexual display, appropriating queer cultural aesthetics/language, and possibly performative homosexuality/bisexuality. On the other hand, as some portion of queer discourse argues for the community to move beyond the need for identity labels, celebrities are entitled to their own form of expression without explanation.
With the increased ability for people to monetize themselves through avenues like social media, one’s sexuality, gender display, and sexual preference also becomes a site to “mystify” and market oneself. Unlike with previous generations of celebrity, Leo Herrera, writer, activist, and filmmaker, as well as other media scholars, see that queerbaiting has come to include celebrities who rely “on the suspicion that they may be romantically involved with another same-sex person for the sake of publicity, promotion or a capitalistic gain.”
In contrast, to “queercode” or “queercoding,” while being in the same fold as queerbait, refers to the presence of implicit yet recognizable queer representation through behaviour, traits, or presentation (which can be good or bad, re: “the sissy villain”) that is not used to attract an audience. Rather, the queer representation in media or public persona can seem more authentic because it seems like a wink and a nudge to a queer audience that notices and is welcomed into a little inside knowledge. An example of queercoding in media is Thor: Ragnarok’s Valkyrie as played by Tessa Thompson, an openly bisexual woman who explains this shaped her portrayal of the character. Another example is Jo March from Louisa May Allcot’s Little Women, who based on Allcot who expressed her own attraction to women. At the same time, the inclusion of the public personas of celebrities, (eg. their choice of work, artistic choices, and public statements/behaviors) as a ground for possible queerbaiting is troubling because it can cause a misunderstanding of “queerbaiting” and a misuse of the term itself.
From Harry Styles’ colourful, “eccentric” style and statement of “we’re all a little bit gay,” to Ariana Grande’s Monopoly lyrics of “I like women and men,” and twist ending of “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” music video that saw her about to kiss a woman, it is frustrating to see public figures engage with queer aesthetics, expression, or subtext without openly identifying as part of the LGBTQ+ community. This is especially the case when doing so could bring attention to the issues faced within these marginalized communities or help bolster representation and community that may not seem like it exists.
Though the critique of celebrities profiting off of being in a “liminal space” in which they are not straight but not openly queer (nor living in what that means) is extremely justified, the use of queerbaiting against real people relies not only on the assumption that these individuals may be straight, which is invalidating of their own being, but also on the assumption that gender and sexuality is bound in strict categories of expression and practice. It confines our personal relationship to the feminine and masculine in hard, gendered constructs that were intended to be dismantled and conflates it with our sexuality. Our expression and behavior becomes prescriptive of who we are without our own resolve, i.e. it project the image of what is “queer.”
As Otamere Guobadia states in their piece on Harry Styles and queerbaiting, the application of queerbaiting on real people “renders queerness not as a site of possibility — of freedom and conjuring — but one of rules.”
However, it is important to note that two women in the nude, one of whom identifies as bisexual, touching on screen for a few scenes is vastly different than purposefully playing up a sexually vague aura to a queer audience to promote an upcoming album (looking at you, Nick Jonas).
In response to queerbaiting accusations over the “Wild Side” music video, Cardi B states that not only is the term being overused but that “it pressure[s] artists to talk about their sexuality or their experiences that they don’t feel comfortable speaking about. If a artist kiss a girl on a video does that means she gotta show videos & text wit other women?” What Cardi B is pointing to is the need for individual actors to have space, agency, as well as and importantly, the privacy needed in order to understand and express themselves despite how it may not adhere to the wants, needs, or conditions of others.
Rather than investing in celebrity personas as a site of representation or community, especially when it can lead to the policing of other’s expression of gender and sexuality, it is imperative to create our own forms of representation, demand more from those trying to tell our stories, and continue to open up spaces for all the queer possibilities to blossom.