Briefing

Is Harry Styles 'queerbaiting'?

Why questions about the performer's sexuality have placed him in the center of a social media controversy

Pop star Harry Styles has made a name for himself proudly eschewing gender norms, promoting equality, and playing it coy when it comes to his love life (which, he insists, is none of our business). But that very same sexual and romantic ambiguity has thrown Don't Worry, Darling — Styles' new movie — into the center of a social media controversy in which he has been accused of "queerbaiting," or capitalizing on pieces of the queer identity without actually identifying as queer.

Concerns are more specifically tied to remarks Styles made during an interview promoting a different forthcoming new filmMy Policeman, a 1950s gay love story in which the former One Direction member plays a lead role. "So much of gay sex in film is two guys going at it, and it kind of removes the tenderness from it," Styles told Rolling Stone during the interview in question. "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, and [director Michael Grandage] wanted to show that it's tender and loving and sensitive." Notably, Styles also used the interview to address the queerbaiting allegations, explaining he's decided not to "correct" or "redirect" any of the narratives swirling about him at any given moment. 

"Sometimes people say, 'You've only publicly been with women,' and I don't think I've publicly been with anyone," he said. "If someone takes a picture of you with someone, it doesn't mean you're choosing to have a public relationship or something."

But as critics will argue, when it comes to gay love, does Styles know what he's talking about? Should he be able to comment so freely on LGBTQ culture without expressly and proudly identifying as part of the community? And do these comments, which some view as off-base, prove he is in fact simply co-opting the queer experience, and not living it? 

Let him be

It makes sense that Harry Styles is perhaps the pop star most often accused 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," Otamere Guobadia wrote for i-D. His realm is also one conveniently "ripe for fantasy," in which his cadre of fans — both queer and straight — find themselves waiting, however subconsciously, for some version of him to "sweep them off their fan-fictioned feet." To that end, a feeling of rejection can often underpin accusations of queerbaiting, a sort of "upset at the severing of some imaginary, conditional, and far-off romantic possibility with those accused of 'baiting' them."

But the "queerbaiting critique leveled at public figures, rather than having any liberatory effect for queer people and communities," is actually and ultimately harmful to the queer identity in that it distills it "into a list of aesthetic and performed tasks," Guobadia argued. "It is a bitterly ironic inversion of the demands that a heterosexist society has spent time immemorial wrongly demanding of us."

So rather than accuse Styles or any other star of appropriating queer culture (when, who knows, they themselves might be investigating their own sexuality), the community must "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."  

Either way, he must be more in touch

It feels as though Styles' identity is the public's business — but his desire to shield himself is understandable. "Accusing him of queerbaiting his fans works like a kind of trap," mused New York Times editorial assistant Anna Marks. "He can really deny the accusations only by coming out and identifying himself in a way that would not be wholeheartedly accepted by the public."

But even if his queerness ultimately "ends up being just a mirage, I can't help but believe that it's better to have been a welcoming fool and wrong than to have been a cruel gatekeeper and right." Still, "we must not look away from the uncomfortable truth about his public image," Marks continued. The popstar has "fashioned himself an ambiguous icon, without touching the messy, unlikable politics of claiming a public label." And while it is ostensibly touching to imagine a world in which "it's about not having to label everything, not having to clarify what boxes you're checking" — as Styles recently dreamt in his Better Homes & Gardens profile — the fantasy does little to match the rise in anti-LGBTQ attitudes both in the U.S. and elsewhere, Marks proclaimed.

Ultimately, no matter his orientation, if Styles "wishes to dance with our symbols, he would do well to pay more attention to their politics, regardless of whether he dreams with us of liberation."

The facade is crumbling

"Though it was flimsy from the start, the haute couture shroud of mystery Harry Styles drapes around his sexuality is starting to fray," Jude Dry opined for Indiewire. That Rolling Stone interview gave him away "in more ways than one"; not only did his comments reveal "a lack of awareness around contemporary LGBTQ issues, but he also made bold claims about gay sex in film that are just patently untrue."

Though fans themselves might have found the interview entertaining — "the colorful clothes, the episodes of Love Island he's looking forward to watching" — the conversation more so proved "the facade of his speculated sexual or gender fluidity is quickly crumbling," and meanwhile, "casting a shadow of doubt on My Policeman."

There's really nothing to see here

Alluding once more to the Rolling Stone interview, Dazed's James Greig thinks it "seems safe to dismiss [Styles'] comments as ill-informed," unless the "Watermelon Sugar" singer somehow has "access to a secret canon of raunchy queer cinema that the rest of us don't know about." Though some people think the remarks confirmed his straight identity, Greig doesn't "believe this for a second: complaining about gratuitous sex scenes is something which gay people have been doing for years." Plus, "being this prudish and annoying about sex scenes is, regrettably, one of the most queer things he's done in public."

As for allegations of queerbaiting: Whether Styles "has some kind of ethical obligation to out himself before commenting on queer issues is a separate question (I would say not), but his accusers really need to get better at reading between the lines … I'll say no more and leave it at that."

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