Make a peace sign with your fingers, hold it against your chin, and stick your tongue out between them. (Yes, like you’re performing a sex act.) Welcome to 2007. You and your friends have flat-ironed your hair within an inch of its life and are gathered around a Nikon Coolpix point-and-shoot digital camera to take photos you’ll later post on Facebook and, a decade later, come to regret and promptly delete.
Back then, that graphic pose felt provocative, like you were doing something you shouldn’t. It also felt equal parts terrifying and thrilling, if you were, like me, a closeted lesbian. Like hiding my queerness in plain sight for Facebook likes. Like it was OK to pose like this, because it was only a joke, and we were living in a post-Britney/Madonna kiss economy. It wasn’t serious. It was only for attention.
These memories came rushing back to my mind this weekend when Billie Eilish, the teenage musical icon who I think perhaps controls the weather, posted some photos of herself and a bunch of women on the set of her most recent music video. “I love girls,” reads the Instagram caption. In one shot, Eilish and another woman in the photo have their tongues sticking out. I glanced at the photo so quickly that my brain superimposed the v-face hands over their faces. Which, had they indeed done the pose and that image not just been a cerebral reflex, might have made the flurry of accusations that Eilish posted the pictures in an act “queerbaiting” a bit more grounded in reality.
Queerbaiting is the pratice of capitalizing on perceived queerness without, well, actually being queer. A great—“great”—recent-ish example of this was “Girls,” a song by Rita Ora featuring Cardi B, Bebe Rexha, and Charli XCX. With lyrics about getting red wine drunk and wanting to kiss girls, the backlash to the song was swift and harsh from out LGBTQ artists, like Hayley Kiyoko and Kehlani. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed hearing Cardi B say the words “down with the scissor” as much as the next person, but the song trafficked in queer stereotypes peddled by apparently straight artists.
Ora later came out as having had relationships with both men and women, by way of her apology for the harm the song caused and why she’d recorded it in the first place. (A murky turn of events given that nobody, not even celebrities who are acting out, should ever be forced to come out of the closet if they don’t want to.) Cardi B and Bebe Rexha have both also talked about being bisexual and “fluid,” respectively, since the release of “Girls.” All of this perfectly encapsulates how queerbaiting works. If Rita Ora is a straight woman hawking hackneyed portrayals of queer women, it’s tasteless pandering. But a queer person, well, they can do that too—if they really want to. Do the lyrics to “Girls” feel stuck in Katy Perry’s cherry-chapstick, “I Kissed a Girl” era of pop? Yes, absolutely. But LGBTQ folks get to deploy cliches, if that’s how they want to represent their experiences. If that’s how they want to make art, or, hell, just make money, OK then; go ahead. And you can, of course, be critical of those representations. What queer people can’t do is just take off their queerness whenever they want to (though many are forced to do just that, or else face mortal consequences). Straight people putting it on for profit is exploitative.
Which isn’t to say plenty, or at least some, straight folks haven’t and can’t make art about LGBTQ people. Had “Girls” not opted for the cheapest form of representation when it comes to queer women—getting drunk and smearing some woman’s lipstick in a make-out session, because of course she’s wearing lipstick—the song might have just been a blip on the pop charts and nothing more. But queer works by straight artists have to be imbued with depth and nuance, with research and thoughtfulness. The 2020 movie Ammonite was boring as all hell, but the sex scenes were, well, not. (While Ammonite director, Francis Lee, is gay, these particular moments were entirely choreographed by Saoirse Ronan and Kate Winslet, who are straight.) The lead actresses’ level of care in making these scenes feel authentic keeps them from veering into the artistic equivalent of a straight person dropping their hand over, limp-wristed, to imitate a gay man. (See here: James Corden’s painful turn as Barry Glickman, the flamboyant Broadway burnout in The Prom. Not exactly the right vehicle for telling LGBTQ kids that “it gets better.”)
Consider, also, Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down” versus her song “Betty.” “You Need to Calm Down” was a rainbow capitalism puke fest, complete with the word “glad” stylized “GLAAD,” per its official lyrics and music video. The single was the stuff of corporate-sponsored Pride parade nightmares. But “Betty,” on the other hand, is a simple tune with a Sixpence None the Richer vibe and a story that could be interpreted as about a relationship between two women without doing any reaching to get there. If you want to hear the song from the perspective of a male character, as Swift later explained was her intent, that’s fine. But if you’re, say, a gay Swiftie who fell in love with Swift’s canon of songs that often omit pronouns and, by doing so, keep space for queer people to hear themselves in the lyrics, the option to listen to “Betty” and feel kinship is a welcome one. It’s one I have to assume Swift, who described LGBTQ people in a 2019 interview with Vogue as “a community that I’m not a part of,” was fully aware of when she wrote the song. (For what it’s worth, that quote was part of a longer answer about her commitment to allyship.)
It’s not a perfect binary. There’s no one queer person who can act as a queerbait-o-meter. For every lesbian (me) who makes watching Carol an annual holiday event in her house, there’s another who finds the film stilted by its heterosexual stars. Though before you go and make an argument about the yuckiness of foisting an LGBTQ identity onto a straight star like Swift or Cate Blanchett, let me remind you that queerness is not an insult. And if these stars are going to take advantage of queer narratives, then I’m going to consider Blanchett’s role as a sentient, well-fitting pantsuit in Ocean’s 8 to be nothing more than fan service. But the really, truly blatant stuff, like Kendall Jenner teasing a big announcement and then “coming out” as having acne in a Proactiv commercial … that’s hard to miss.
Which is why the accusations of queerbaiting some Billie Eilish fans are lobbing at the 19-year-old singer are genuinely harmful. Not to Eilish, who I hope is perfectly fine wherever she is right now, diving into a pool of money and content in the knowledge she did nothing wrong here for expressing affection for girls. Flinging the word queerbaiting around for something as mundane as a picture of Eilish and some other women posing together undermines the community’s ability to call out when the practice is actually harmful. The word used to describe Eilish’s harmless Instagram photos and, let’s say, Nick Jonas’ entire Scream Queens era cannot be the same, because the impact is not the same. The intent, I’m willing to bet, isn’t either. Billie Eilish posted a picture of some women she’s worked with and said, literally, how she felt about them. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m so glad Billie Eilish loves girls. I love them too.