Opinion: Is Harry Styles Simply a Successful Queerbaiter?

Yoni Tiran Cohen
Yoni Tiran Cohen August 30, 2022
Updated 2022/08/30 at 5:45 PM
Harry Styles poses as he arrives for the Brit Awards at the O2 Arena in London, Britain, February 18, 2020 REUTERS/Simon Dawson

A new Harry Styles interview has sparked social media outrage due to his comments about the sex scenes in his upcoming film ‘My Policeman.’ As a result, the old debate over queerbaiting resurfaces, with Styles being accused of exploiting the LGBTQ+ community. And for every good reason.

The “As It Was” singer plays a gay police officer in the 1950s who struggles to keep his marriage together while having a same-sex affair, which was illegal in England at the time.

In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, he explained how important it was to him that the sex scenes in his new movie will be “sensitive” and “loving”: “So much gay sex in the film is two guys going at it, and it kind of removes the tenderness from it,” he says. “There will be, I would imagine, some people who watch it who were very much alive during this time when it was illegal to be gay.”

During the interview, Styles also addressed the public’s intense speculations regarding his sexuality, claiming that he finds people’s comments about his identity stupid, saying:   “Sometimes people say, ‘You’ve only publicly been with women,’ and I don’t think I’ve publicly been with anyone. If someone takes a picture of you with someone, it doesn’t mean you’re choosing to have a public relationship or something.”

His response incited a lot of discussions online, with people claiming Harry Styles is once again refusing to answer questions about his own sexuality, while simultaneously stringing his LGBTQ+ audience along and profiting from his strong public image by wearing androgynous and extravagant fashion, which has frequently been linked to the LGBTQ+ community.

Despite his solidarity with the community, Styles’ intentionally ambiguous sexuality turns out to be normative in practice. Doubts about his non-heterosexual orientation stemmed from a fictitious pairing created by the ‘One Direction’ fandom between him and bandmate Louis Tomlinson. His known relationships, however, have all been with women.

Styles’ sexuality is one of the few things he claims to have control over as a public figure. Despite that stance, his relationship with actress and director Olivia Wilde has been well-documented in the press since 2021, as they’ve been photographed and spotted at events together numerous times.

In this regard, the accusation of queerbaiting arises again as Styles, who has never publicly stated his sexual orientation, is known for leading his LGBTQ+ fanbase by wearing provocative, flamboyant outfits, demonstrating a playful relationship with his gender expression. 

But exactly what is queerbaiting? And why is it done at all? Here’s what you need to know about the bait-and-switch strategy.

Quuerbaiting 101: What is Queerbaiting?

The term queerbaiting, also known as “queer bait,” refers to a marketing strategy based on the suggestion of including an LGTB+ character or a homosexual relationship in a story that is ultimately not faithfully represented. Although this false hope draws a collective audience, the plot is still designed for the normative heterosexual gaze.

What is harmful about “queer bait” is that it fetishizes and generates unreal and banal stereotypes to the liking of normative discourse. It also creates frustration in LGBT+ people who clamor for more genuine representation in all branches of culture. In this regard, however, Styles is not the only example of a cisgender male artist who has served as a model for the industry, media, and general public. Bad Bunny, Tylor, the Creator, Jaden Smith, and the recently popular Damiano David (vocalist of the Italian rock band Måneskin), are all viewed similarly. They all share the use of sexual and aesthetic ambiguity to build their character.

Although the majority of the pop mainstream public defends the existence of these types of profiles in music as aiding in the visibility of non-normative ways of being and favoring greater freedom, the light of their influence also casts shadows.

While these artists enjoy the fame that their groundbreaking artistic image brings them, as well as the peace of mind that comes from not having to face discrimination daily, coming out of the closet, freely expressing themselves, and connecting with the masses – remains a real challenge for artists from the LGTB+ community. And though the singers’ nails may be painted, the only universal discourse in music is still masculine and heteronormative.

Queerbaiting = Cultural appropriation

Unfortunately, queerbaiting does not exist only within the music industry, and this phenomenon can be found in various forms throughout culture, including popular youth literature. A wave of gay-romance youth literature has swept the US and the entire global book industry in the last five years – and they are extremely popular. 

‘Here’s to Us,’ by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera, ‘Heartstopper,’ by Alice Oseman, and ‘The Blueprint,’ by S.E. Harmon are just three examples of coming-of-age romantic novels in which the main characters are all identified as LGBTQ+. But do not be fooled: these are not niche books, as evidenced by their consistent presence on New York Times bestseller lists and current and future adaptations for television and films.

The books’ success is undeniable; however, something is surprising about the authors’ identities: they are mostly women; more specifically, straight white women. Another surprising statistic rounds out the picture: 87% of these novels’ readers are women. These are books written by and for women who identify as straight.

But why on earth are so many women interested in writing and reading gay romance novels these days? This is obviously queerbaiting. And the way I see it, queerbaiting is just another form of cultural appropriation, a term describing situations when cultural elements are copied from a minority culture by members of a dominant culture while being used outside of their original cultural context.

Personally, I’m getting tired of it. Our community’s history is rich in long years of fear, concealment, and shame that we endured as a result of the treatment we received from the dominant straight population, and the fact that we are finally able to express ourselves in the way we want nowadays is not trendy – it is our way of life.

Billy Porter was the one who most accurately expressed the problem in the cultural appropriation known as queerbaiting, who apologized to Styles for accusing him of doing so in an interview with The Times magazine on October 17, 2021: “This is politics for me. This is my life. I had to fight my entire life to get to the place where I would wear a dress to the Oscars and not be gunned now. All he has to do is be white and straight.”

At the end of the day, many questions remain: Is Harry Styles queerbaiting to gain fame and glory? Or are we simply policing someone’s expression of queerness? Is this individual, who is uncomfortable labeling himself, should consider his sexual attraction because he is a young, up-to-date, and famous pop artist?

Such questions are difficult for me to answer, just as it is difficult for me to ignore the fact that, on the whole, this is a service that benefits our community. True, we are talking about straight men who paint their nails and wear vibrantly colored dresses, or even kiss their dancers on stage in front of millions of viewers around the world, but one thing is clear: the way these artists are challenging gender or sexual roles affects what people think of us. And after all, that is a good thing, isn’t it?

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