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Queerbaiting And Representation: Where Do We Draw The Line?

Queer-baiting is a term used in media literacy and cultural studies. And Kit Connor is just 18 years old, he doesn’t have a fan base or cultural influence at par with Harry Styles.

An Unfortunate Forced Outing

A few days back, Kit Connor, the breakout star of Netflix adaptation of Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper tweeted

“back for a minute. i’m bi. congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself. i think some of you missed the point of the show. bye.”

Unfortunately, this was a forced coming out of an 18 year old after vicious accusations of queerbaiting levied against the actor. Twitter has been on fire with discussions around queerbaiting, pink capitalism, and where do we draw the line for representation in the limelight. What we do need to understand is there are a few things at play here – queerbaiting, representation, acting, coming out, and marketability of openly gay actors (especially in Hollywood).

Queerbaiting Is Something Else

The queerbaiting discourse has been used to demand accountability from corporations and shows which exert a cultural influence and have queer-coded characters or characters with queer undertones, but who never explicitly identify with queerness on any spectrum. Another idea closely attached to this narrative are the tropes of ‘bury your gays’ (queer characters being killed off), ‘fridging’ (queer characters being killed off because there’s no possible way for the creators to carry on their story in a meaningful way), and ‘queer as evil’ (the trope of queer-coding villains, especially the media representation of trans people as serial killer).

To negotiate authenticity between creator and fans, demands of legibility of sexual orientation or gender identity defeats the purpose of having inclusive, progressive narraitves. In his podcast titled The Outing of Kit Connor (Special Podcast Episode), James Somerton discusses the thin line between queerbaiting and representation. At the same time, he also discusses that how the people who funds the movies in Hollywood are mostly old white men and they don’t believe that actors who are openly gay are marketable. And while the queerbaiting discourse is the one to tackle, there is no denying that the idea that openly gay actors aren’t deemed marketable by Hollywood.

The demand from the section that you have to come out and without it, you’re ineligible to play a queer character is just illogical. Coming out unfortunately still has its cons where there are consequences to the kind of films you’ll do, the kind of roles you’ll get, and what direction your career will take. Along with this, queerbaiting is an accusation when the people who are engaging in queerbaiting profit off their media. Or when they do things like Disney queer-coding villains but not streaming the show Love, Victor and instead pushing it to Hulu. This is definitely different from Harry Styles talking about what is the right way of portrayal of gay sex in movies and in his own way, reinventing what closet is supposed to be, through a very white-man dominated narrative (what Nicole Woods and Doug Hardman calls social queerbaiting and cultural queerbaiting ).

Queer-baiting is a term used in media literacy and cultural studies. And Kit Connor is just 18 years old, he doesn’t have a fan base or cultural influence at par with Harry Styles. Particularly at a time when the movie Bros. with two lead gay characters (regardless of how the movie was) bombed spectacularly at the box office, there has been a furore over Netflix tagging their documentary Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story as LGBTQ+, and Harry Styles had been making weird comments about movies and gay sex, Kit Connor is one the most wholesome and awesome things to happen to Hollywood, especially in terms of the story it’s telling for and about queer people.

Representation is Complex

The aspect of representation is complex because queer people lie at the intersection of multiple marginalizing social positions, and that makes the activism space that asks for representation very competitive. This also takes back to trashing of Vogue and Harry Styles by Billy Porter when the former appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine. While having a position of a celebrity does lead to an exponential rise in the increase of demands of accountability, it can’t be asked of an 18 year old person who’s just starting out in a place that literally had The Hays Code which banned movies from depicting any form of non-alternative sexuality.

We need to at least discuss if we really want only queer people play queer characters because then what about the queer actors who aren’t out. I had a lengthy discussion with a friend and only then I realized that this idea is faulty. Representation is something we all should strive for, but we should also strive for queer narratives and portrayals that are not stereotypical or harmful. And at the same time, support shows which actually show a positive narrative, and one that is affirming one. No one can decide if you’re good enough of an actor to play a queer role only if you’re queer enough. And this is vastly different from cisgender people playing trans characters in a horrific manner that stigmatizes them more.

Forcing Authentic Identity has Disastrous Consequences

One particular incident that comes to mind is the military science fiction short story I Sexually Identify as an Attack Helicopter by Isbael Fall. The story follows a Barb, who has been assigned the gender as an attack helicopter to make her a better pilot. The story rammed intro controversy and criticism that increased her gender dysphoria to a point where the author had to ender a psychiatric hospital due to suicidal ideation. The author, who identified as trans, dropped out of their transition process citing in an interview, “If other people want to put markings on my gender-sphere and decide what I am, fine, let them. It’s not worth fighting”. There are consequences to overindulge in people’s sexuality or gender especially when they have a platform.

Heartstopper explores queer joy, and premises itself on taking time and space to figure out your identity. And it’s a show that’s aimed at pre-teen and teenage audiences without discussing explicit adult themes. It’s not that explicit adult themes are not respectable but given the moral climate of people, it’s easier to watch queer shows that don’t have excessive sex or drugs but instead focus on tender love and heartwarming moments. I echo James Somerton’s words for conclusion, “It’s not fair to force anyone out of the closet if they’re not being a cause of bad for the community.” And it’s high time to retrospect we expect of queer people, especially those who are representing us or who seem to be representing us.

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Rajeev completed their under graduation in Political Science Hons. from Sri Venkateswara College, University of Delhi in 2020. They graduated with Masters in Women’s Studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai in 2022 and were a participant at the International Writing Program’s Summer Institute, University of Iowa for the 2021-22 session. They have been the recipient of Mavelinadu Collective’s grant for non-fiction for the first issue of Debrahminising Gender. Their work can be found in EPW, Women’s Link Journal, Shuddhashar, Gaysi Family, Feminism in India and Hindu College Gazette among others. Their research interests include queer experiences, feminist ethics of care, and masculinities.

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