Closet Politics: The Ethics Of Queerbaiting

Caitlin Kelly

On the 31st of October 2022, actor Kit Connor tweeted: “I’m bi. congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself. i think some of you missed the point of the show.” Caitlin Kelly examines what happened, and what could bring someone to release a statement like this.

Connor starred in the hit Netflix series Heartstopper (2022) based on the web comic by Alice Oseman. The show follows the experiences of queer teenagers as they come to terms with their identities and relationships. The series was received well and was praised for its representation of LGBTQIA+ people.

Connor played Nick Nelson, a teenage boy who realises that he is bisexual when he falls for his classmate Charlie. The young actor became an overnight sensation. Fans loved his performance and the character of Nick spoke to many queer fans. But online discourse quickly began to take a turn. Because he played a queer character whilst his own sexuality was not ‘confirmed’ in the public sphere, Connor was accused of ‘queerbaiting’.  

Queer subtext is commodified to make film and TV both marketable and brand-friendly

The term ‘queerbait’ finds its roots in the criticism of film and television and emerged following the Hays Code of the 1930s-60s – which, among other things, prohibited the representation of explicitly homosexual characters. As time went on, writers attempted to work around this and provided their characters with queer subtext that was never explicitly queer.

In the 21st century, however, the tropes created by this have been exploited by writers who lure in queer fans with the promise of queer representation, but never show it unambiguously, so as to avoid backlash. Notable examples include romantically coded relationships between men in shows like Sherlock (2010) and Supernatural (2005) or the queer-coded villains of classic Disney movies. Today, queerbait and queer subtext is commodified to make film and TV both marketable and brand-friendly.  

A fine line between seeking representation and assuming that people owe you a label

So what does this have to do with the eighteen year old actor? In short; nothing. The term has been misused as another Twitter buzzword, with many now accusing real people of queerbaiting. Fans of Heartstopper felt that the queer characters in the show should all be played by queer actors. Herein lies the ethical conundrum. It is a valid enough argument that a straight person shouldn’t play a gay character, or a cis person shouldn’t play a trans character – queer actors deserve representation in media.

However, in the case of Connor, this argument was prioritised over the privacy and safety of the actor. Furthermore, the show itself did no harm to the communities it represents. There exists a fine line between seeking representation and assuming that people owe you a label on their identity.

As Connor mentioned in his tweet, the ‘point of the show’ was to allow people to come out in their own time and not push labels onto them. It is also worth noting that it’s still dangerous for public figures to come out as well as being harmful to their careers. As a cisgendered white male, the backlash for Connor may not be as detrimental as it might be to other minority groups, but the danger is still very real. 

When applied to real people [the term queerbaiting] can cause big problems

The other issue here is that real life celebrities cannot, by definition, queerbait. Within online discourse, this is becoming a common misconception. Celebrities such as Harry Styles, Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish have been accused of queerbaiting for all kinds of reasons from their fashion sense and song lyrics, to their queer fanbases and the artists they choose to work with.

The term itself applies only to media literacy and, when applied to real people can cause big problems. First of all, we will never move on from rigid binaries and stereotypes if a man wearing a dress or a woman wearing baggy clothes are labelled as gay – even if it is queer people doing the labelling. Secondly, this behaviour further normalises a culture where labels must be assigned to people and, if they refuse, they can be pressured to do so.

Ultimately, if the term is misused in this way, genuine arguments against queerbaiting within fictional media lose substance when overshadowed by tweets harassing teenagers. Is it possible that queer aesthetics and experiences can be commodified by cishet people to make money? Yes, and it has been happening in media for decades. Is this queerbaiting? No. Is this the same as refusing to out yourself on Twitter and requesting respect for your privacy? No. 

We also need to reach a point where queerness cannot fit into seperate boxes, where binaries and rules are broken

I’m not trying to defend immensely wealthy, international superstars like Harry Styles – I’m sure he’ll be fine. But the queer fans of his music or shows like Heartstopper are undermining themselves and their own history by demanding labels and public outings. As queer people, we need to criticise the media we consume, demand more than subtext and fight for representation. But we also need to reach a point where queerness cannot fit into separate boxes, where binaries and rules are broken. We cannot continue to contribute to a culture where cisgender and heterosexual is the norm, where queerness is otherness and harassing people until they come out of the closet is acceptable. We owe ourselves and each other more than that.  

Caitlin Kelly

Featured image courtesy of Marta Branco via Pexels. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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