Kit Connor, star of hit Netflix show Heartstopper, recently issued a statement: “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.” Speculation about this teenager’s sexuality arose when he was pictured holding hands with a woman, many queerbaiting claims coming from online, particularly twitter – the venue on which Connor was forced to confront trolls and disclose his identity.
Connor’s much-loved role as Nick Nelson on Heartstopper, in which he plays a young teen discovering his bisexual identity, has unfortunately left him exposed to public gossip and rumour surrounding his own sexuality. Other celebrities have fallen foul to the same culture. Many have argued that Harry Styles in his accused occupation of queer spaces, his recent role in My Policeman being an example, should be forced to define his sexuality – something he too has expressed he doesn’t want to share with the public.
Defined as “a marketing technique for fiction and entertainment in which creators hint at, but then do not depict, same-sex romance or other LGBTQ+ representation” in order to profit from a queer audience, it is clear neither Connor nor Styles fulfil the definition of the accused crime: queerbaiting. Exposure to the internet has meant many hot-take trigger words have become overused and dangerously misused. Queerbaiting is just one example.
Big hit tv shows such as BBC’s Merlin, Sherlock and CW’s Supernatural display a ‘queer-coded’ witty homoeroticism in their lead male characters – a step-by-step recipe for queerbaiting at its finest. Whether its Merthur, Johnlock or Destiel, these shows have undoubtedly profited from the popularity of the fandoms’ gay ships and marketed accordingly.
Queerbaiting is also absolutely something a real individual can be accused of. Billie Eilish’s music video for her single ‘Lost Cause’ depicts an all-female sleepover and was marketed on Instagram with the caption “I love girls.” Despite not explicitly announcing anything relating to her sexuality, the musician and her team knew this would draw in a queer audience. Far from a new marketing ploy, Madonna, Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears’ kiss at the 2003 VMA’s portrayed being gay as an aesthetic, the act meant to be a controversial and outrageous moment in their performance. None in this line-up are so ignorant as to not know of the many LGBTQ+ individuals who build up their fanbases. K-pop perhaps has some of the most egregious examples, which the fans not only ‘ship’ members in gay relationships but fetishize this: a dangerous parasocial relationship encouraged by suggestive dancing onstage and the fact many are forced to hide their real-life straight relationships. Nick Jonas’ supposed dabbling into the queer scene, visiting gay bars and feeding into claims of him being a “gay icon” in 2016 to bolster views of his newly released movie is yet another example.
In popular culture, being gay has become seductive and shows and musicians provide a gateway into the elite, sexually ambiguous scene where queer desire resides. Commodifying this, gaining the power of the ‘pink’ or ‘rainbow’ economy, while remaining just ambiguous enough to fit with mainstream, conservative media, is a hot ticket to vast money-making which the music and film industry alike have exploited.
However, a problem arises with forcing these individuals to define their sexuality. In avoiding labels, celebrities can get away with such subtle hints to appeal to the queer market and identity. Yet, with this, we run the risk of forcing an individual, who isn’t quite ready to label themselves, to choose their identity.
But how can we balance this the issue of ‘authentic’ representation – suggesting for meaningful representation all LGBTQ+ characters should be portrayed by actors who publicly share the same sexuality. This question of “authentic queer representation” is a tricky one as while I would vouch for the fact that there is not near enough representation of gay characters being played by queer people in media, does this really mean representation does not count if portrayed by a straight actor?
Heartstopper as a series has quickly become beloved for fans and provided great representation of young people discovering their identities even before Kit Connor’s forced coming out. Speaking about the series, Connor discussed how “Growing up as queer can often mean that you don’t really have as much representation. You don’t have as much guidance in the media [about] how life sometimes goes.” He continued, “It’s always good to have this kind of representation for not just educational purposes, but also so that people can see what it’s like to grow up and be a queer teen.”
Other shows such as Orange is the new black, Killing Eve, and even the fantasy-scifi show Stranger Things have provided effective representation of gay characters not played by gay actors. Orange is the new black in particular did a great job of creating romantic relationships between women that were neither pure or innocent nor explicably burdened by the hardships of homophobia in society. They were romantic and flawed – real people in a real relationship. Nor was their sexuality the entire basis of their characters; no trace of the ‘gay best friend’ trope in sight that often side-lines gay representation, making them only the supporting character.
Therefore, is it not more about representation in the writing: providing authentic, nuanced queer characters that, while not shying away from their struggles, also do not make it the entire basis of their character? Thus, in the quest for more authenticity, are we undoing already good moves towards representation?
Not so long ago our position was that assuming an actor’s sexuality based solely on the role they play isn’t acceptable. Though, with fandom expanding exponentially with new apps such as Tiktok, we are seeing new and increasingly intense forms of media consumption leading fans to feel an ownership over characters, their plotlines and the actors who play them. Even before cancel culture, actors in the limelight have had to mediate their personal lives in line with public opinion, yet nowadays fans seem to have adopted the role of manager for them – who an actor privately dates comes under intense scrutiny even if the relationship has not been made public.
Headlines reading Kit Connor has “broken his silence” on his sexuality in itself portrays a deep flaw in the way we treat LGBTQ+ stars. Such a line, that could easily have been plucked from a gossip mag, suggests he had withheld something owed to us – he finally came clean about his gay lifestyle! Just as everyone else, celebrities do not owe us, strangers, any definition of their sexuality. Acting is a career, and such discussions would not occur in any other workplace.
The last thing however that I want to encourage is a lack of queer representation in the form of gay actors. That is not the message of this article. We would undoubtedly benefit greatly from more members of the LGBTQ+ community working in popular media. Yet, in attacking queer individuals who may not even be in a safe space, never mind be in a position to have realised their identity at such a young age, or simply feel ready to come out, we have failed absolutely in our reach for representation, just as we have unquestionably failed Kit Connor.
Image by Jiroe (Matia Rengel) on Unsplash.