Here's why you need to stop accusing Harry Styles of queerbaiting

The frilly blouses, the pearl earring, the ambiguity. Is it too much to ask for some clarification? Well, yes, maybe.

by Otamere Guobadia
20 July 2021, 11:57am

Still from "Watermelon Sugar"

Accusations of queerbaiting have been rife in our recent pop cultural discourse, flung extensively and scattergun at many a celebrity, with the most recently accused including Madonna, Billie Eilish, and repeat offender Harry Styles. The allegation in short: that seemingly non-queer stars 'appropriate' queer culture and aesthetics in an attempt to secure the monetary support and standom of LGBT fans, without actually committing to identifying publicly as queer. It purports that this facade allows them to brush up against the perceived edginess of queer identity — without the cost of openly occupying one in a queerphobic world.

One central tenet of the queerbaiting critique is aimed at celebrities' often on-the-fence declarations of sexuality. Comments that have brought on widespread criticisms of queerbaiting range from Andrew Garfield’s irritatingly pandering “(I’m) a gay man right now just without the physical act”, to statements that refute labels, like Ariana's tweet stating that she [hasn’t labelled her sexuality] before and still [doesn’t] feel the need to]”. Then there’s those that draw upon and foster a playful ambiguity, such as Harry Styles proclaiming “we’re all a little bit gay”.

For critics, particularly of Harry and Ariana, these sentiments are a way of avoiding being explicitly queer; it allows celebs to occupy that liminal, hazy space on the spectrum of gender and sexuality — a plausibly deniable queerness. Another facet of the accusation takes aim at the 'appropriation' of would-be queer aesthetics. Harry shed the River Island, Topmaniac tendencies that dominated his One Direction years, opting for more dandyish, baroque tastes as a solo artist. This new style, evolved to take minor strides into gender nonconformity — the polished nail, the pearl earring, the frilly blouse — has seen the overwhelming and histrionic praise of straight society, and a Vogue cover in which he 'groundbreakingly' wore a blazer over a dress.

The criticism goes that, from the safety and vantage point of his red-carpet fame, palatability and ostensible 'straightness', Harry’s gender non-conformity is an easy feat, one praised and worshipped as transgressive for the very reasons that visible members of our community are violently rebuked for in the streets. The implication is that the praise and valour he receives for services to non-conformity are a stolen trophy: his dresses and camp boas are uniforms and badges of honour, ones he cannot wear having not publicly declared himself in friendship and favour of Dorothy.

Even James Charles, the eternally mired-in-drama enfant terrible of the beauty community, and an out gay cis man, has faced adjacent intracommunity criticisms: that he appropriates trans-feminine 'doll' aesthetics for simply posting airbrushed photos of himself in a dress and a wig.

And yet these arguments rely upon a hypocritical essentialism that needs to be rejected, even when directed at hyper-capitalist skirt-wearing TikTok e-boys or beleaguered beauty gurus. This is not to say that adornment — how we clothe our body in a world that constantly appraises it — cannot be radical, cannot be some outward expression of inner truth, but these relationships are unique and individual, and cannot be prescribed. In this arena of expression and becoming, queerness has no designated look. It may feel that our gender nonconformity is hard-won, its presence and glorification in public spaces the result of our tenacious struggle against the grain of normality. But it is not our property. The queer countercultural cannot be bottled or claimed. Gender and its manifest signifiers have no domain, no rulers nor legislators, no oaths of allegiance, and certainly no price of admission.

Much of this criticism can be distilled down to a celebrity's queerness as only valid if declared explicitly in public spaces and conversations, or if performed to expectation. Ambiguity is seen as sinful. In Harry’s case, this manifests as frustration that his purported bisexuality continues to be inferred and winked at rather than explicitly declared by him, or that some sort of irrefutable evidence has not emerged proving that he does indeed also fuck men.

Before its widespread applications to those in the public eye, the critique of queerbaiting began its life as an accusation launched at the machinery of literary and cinematic storytelling; the act of paying lip service to often more explicitly queer canons and source materials, but sanitising them, to not alienate more conservative markets and sensibilities. Representation often remained firmly stuck in the innuendo, glances and inferences of the 20th century's celluloid closet. It was a criticism not of an individual's romantic politics or wardrobe choices, but one lodged at storylines and producers, at cowardly directors and censored scripts.

But as the partition between brand and celebrity has worn threadbare in an age of Kardashians and Jenners and Keeping Up, so has the distinction between authentic emanations of agency and those in which they are simply vessels for the marketable. It's easy enough to see the logical leap from criticism of on-screen characterisations, to applying that same critique to the characters and expectations that celebrities ostensibly play and play with, as part of their branding. But it is also this context that betrays the fundamental instability of launching queerbaiting critique at living people and not the fictional contexts whose creators it was designed to produce accountability from. Namely, it is an accusation that can only be made at icons and idols whose pedestals render their inner lives, to us, a great and distant fiction — more soap-opera projection than any material fact. We cannot accuse him of queerbaiting without necessarily prescribing that he is not queer — our estimations of his relationship with queerness are simply a shot in the dark.

We crave superstar idols whose beatifying touch and currency of adoration might elevate us and our queer cause if only they had skin in the game: out, proud, explicit skin.

It is no coincidence that Harry is perhaps most singularly plagued by accusations of queerbaiting. He is, after all, a latter-day matinée idol of the first water — one of the shiniest and most prized in our pantheon of stars, wielding a vast and disproportionate cultural power. His existence in popular culture is emblematic of our parasocial celebrity relations. Harry is, for millions of adoring fans, a proxy for dreams, a divine symbol of beauty and success more akin to a pin-up on a bedroom wall than a human being with agency.

This space is ripe for fantasy, and out of it has arisen a sentimental entitlement to some queerly-aligned, pantomime prince version of Harry waiting in the headcanon of fans across the globe, to sweep them off their fan-fictioned feet. It has been a decade in which these shared fantasies have become increasingly meticulous and manifold in the cauldrons of Wattpad and Tumblr; one that has seen Harry and his set, customised and role-played to every possible specification; plotted out and entangled in our desires and machinations like Sims on a screen. Underpinning many accusations of queerbaiting is often a bristled response to a denial of romantic and erotic fantasy — an upset at the severing of some imaginary, conditional and far-off romantic possibility with those accused of 'baiting' them.

But often woven into the undercurrents of frustration is a more vulnerable desire for kinship; a search for draftees in the culture war, greater numbers and visibility by which we may resist our oppression and erasure in public and private spheres. We crave superstar idols like Harry and Billie, whose beatifying touch and currency of adoration might elevate us and our queer cause if only they had skin in the game: out, proud, explicit skin. Much like critiques of appropriation around gender non-conformity, the argument recognises a material injustice: on the one hand, that many queer people are in a fight for their lives and livelihoods (and in desperate search of those that will take up arms with them); on the other, the bitter double standard of praise heaped on such stars, when those who originate these aesthetics face daily violence in the streets.

Both strands, however, fail to address the structural factors which alienate gay and queer people from full participation in rights and resources — instead confronting only the symbolic. This leaves us to guard and defend the realms of our own queer and narrow pie, rather than interrogating the institutions that produce the small slices of representation we battle royale over. So, we need to stop accusing Harry Styles of queerbaiting.

Queerbaiting critique levelled at public figures, rather than having any liberatory effect for queer people and communities, has a deleterious function — it further essentialises queer identity, distilling it into a list of aesthetic and performed tasks. It forces them to choose words to define, or in some cases confine, their experiences of gender and sexuality into forms that are pleasing and recognisable to us, their audience. It is a bitterly ironic inversion of the demands that a heterosexist society has spent time immemorial wrongly demanding of us.

This kind of queer gatekeeping often has messy consequences, such as forcing stars like Rita Ora to out themselves to ameliorate a barrage of criticism or preventing others from being candid about their sexuality in the first place. It might seem, on the face of it, that some stars want to have their queer cake and eat it too, but an equitable queer praxis requires we afford all people the agency speak about and self-determine their sexuality — even in the vaguest of terms — whether or not they have the experience, public performance or ‘credentials’ to underscore said identity. It is a critique that, taken to its natural conclusion, renders queerness not as a site of possibility — of freedom and conjuring —  but one of rules.

It ultimately falsely supposes that queer desire and identity can be tided, contained, dictated. It cannot. It iterates, reboots, finds new and different words, and sometimes none at all.

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Harry Styles