"No, Billie Eilish isn't 'queerbaiting' in her new video"

·7-min read
Photo credit: YouTube/Billie Eilish
Photo credit: YouTube/Billie Eilish

Five days ago, Billie Eilish uploaded a carousel post to Instagram. Promoting the release of her latest music video 'Lost Cause', Eilish curated a series of behind-the-scenes shots of herself and her dancers, posed in earthy-toned lingerie and loungewear. In both the video and the accompanying post, they clumsily fall into one another, dance together, and play Twister together - the Instagram caption reading “I love girls.”

Initially, most of the comments were usual Eilish fan responses: professions of love, and trying to guess what the next single from her upcoming Happier Than Ever album will be. But this was quickly, and vastly, overshadowed by comments falling into two camps: those presumptuously congratulating her on coming out, and those accusing her of queerbaiting. “Are you gay or are you queerbaiting?” one user asked in the replies.

For those who are unfamiliar with the term, queerbaiting is a media term for when creators hint at, but don’t directly portray LGBTQ+ representation. Think Sherlock Holmes and Jim Moriarty, or Villanelle and Eve Polastri of BBC’s Killing Eve. In both plots, the idea of the characters’ queerness is toyed with, but a satisfactory conclusion is never drawn from it. The reason it's described as ‘baiting’ is because this approach is presumed to be strategic.

So why are people accusing Eilish of the same thing over a caption? There's a little more to it. The 'Lost Cause' video includes scenes of Eilish and her dancers rolling on top of each other in bed in their underwear, hyping each other up while they twerk, and one shot of Eilish grabbing a dancer’s ass. While I don't believe there's anything inherently queer about this, it's easy to see why some LGBTQ+ people feel differently and worry those behaviours are being appropriated for commercial gain.

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Though I took the theme of Eilish’s music video to be about how women crave the energy of other women for healing, particularly after being hurt by men, others felt she - like the aforementioned TV characters - was queerbaiting. Unfortunately, audiences clearly still assume a woman is queer when she’s seen enjoying the company and celebrating the beauty and allure of other women.

Twitter soon filled with opinions on whether or not Billie’s expression of love for other women was ethical or not. “The new Billie Eilish mv is queerbaiting no matter which way you look at it if she’s not wlw. Stop defending her,” oneuser wrote. Another user, however, blames the male gaze for this criticism of Eilish; “sapphics have always been sexualised - seeing a group of women together, you automatically think it’s more sexual than it is.”

Ultimately, the discourse around Eilish shows how little room women are allowed to explore their identity. Even in 2021, where we’ve (thankfully) progressed in terms of acceptance and recognition that sexuality exists on a spectrum, there’s a remaining degree of control over women’s sexuality.

Some social media users have spoken out to dismiss the idea that what Eilish is doing is harmful to the LGBTQ+ community, including queer public figures like Matt Bernstein who highlighted the more pressing issues queer people have to worry about: “more than 100 anti-trans bills have been introduced in state legislatures this year and they are all infinitely more harmful than a 19 year old publicly exploring her sexuality without labels”.

Photo credit: Dave J Hogan
Photo credit: Dave J Hogan

Another Twitter user pointed out the damage of presuming Eilish is straight with “forcing us explain behaviour that deviates from traditional heteronormativity are the reason for this and are infinitely more harmful than acting a bit gay or w/e”

Drag Race UK runner up Bimini Bon Boulash also tweeted, “Can’t a human experiment their sexuality without the need of labelling? Why do we assume everyone has to be straight until proven otherwise?”

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As Boulash also points out here, there’s a clear sexist double standard when it comes to who can experiment with queerness and explore their identity without committing to labels, and who can only do so at the risk of being ruthlessly criticised.

Many male celebrities have publicly experimented with sexuality as part of their creative expression, including Harry Styles (who adopted camp fashion following the release of his Fine Line album and even graced the cover of Vogue in a Gucci dress last year), James Franco, and Brendon Eurie. Most have done so with little criticism from the LGBTQ+ community.

Meanwhile, Eilish is not the first woman to be openly accused of queerbaiting. Back in April, Megan Thee Stallion was accused of queerbaiting after flirting with Yung Miami. Quickly, social media users began accusing the two of “performative bisexuality” and queerbaiting. Ariana Grande has also fallen under fire for this type of signalling. In 2019, Grande released her song Monopoly, which contained the lyric “I like women and men (yeah)” which prompted fans to pressure her to come out.

As a bisexual person who’s long relied on the allusiveness of queerness to allow myself room for manoeuvre, this criticism scares me.

Before coming out, I arguably queerbaited. I was the girl who made out with other girls while drunk and blamed it on alcohol the following day. I dipped in and out of gayness by playing with camp clothing, marathoning Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Blue is the Warmest Colour, and uploading pictures of me kissing my friends on my public Tumblr. But if I was asked, I’d say I was straight. This was a way of exploring my queer identity without coming out, which wouldn’t have been safe in my situation at the time.

Having room for expression and experimentation without the pressure of commitment is everyone’s right. I know that as a child I thought I was a lesbian and up until a few short years ago, I outwardly identified as a straight woman. Now, I don’t identify as either. Embracing my queer identity during adulthood, later than many of my LGBTQ+ peers, serves as a reminder that identity and sexuality are not always fixed, they can be fluid and often in flux.

And while I’m sure of myself and my sexuality, I know that like everything, this could change, whether that’s in 20 years or tomorrow.

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I worry this criticism could result in a return to outdated, rigid ideas of queerness. Those who accuse a young woman exploring their sexuality of queerbaiting are reinforcing the misconception that all people who are not explicitly queer are automatically straight, erasing women who are bisexual, heteroflexible, or even those that just prefer not to be (or can't be) out. I’d rather shape a world free of these presumptions, and I assumed the rest of the community wanted this too.

For most, wanting to experiment and play with queerness before stepping into the world, is part of the process of figuring out who we are. Especially when we consider that coming out involves huge life changes for many. Presenting queerness as something that cannot be dabbled with, only wholly embraced or left entirely, will shun anyone who is questioning themselves. That was all of us, once.

There's no way for us to know if Billie Eilish is queer unless she tells us, and speculating based on her image, music, or what she writes on social media only perpetuates the same attitudes that erase us. We’ve moved past speculating the sexuality of those in the public eye , understanding the damage it does to those that, quite simply, aren’t ready to be out. To take a term originally coined for important criticism of the media and use it against people who are innocently experimenting with their identity, is counterproductive to achieving equality.

It’s understandable that LGBTQ+ people will feel protective and perhaps even territorial of their spaces - especially when real queerbaiting is a prevalent issue and queer people still face shame and discrimination every day - but everyone deserves to be expressive and explorative without pressure.

Follow Beth on Twitter and Instagram.

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