Harry Styles Is Being Accused of Queerbaiting Again — Here's Why
Harry Styles had a big night at the Grammys. The 28-year-old took home album of the year for his 2022 album "Harry's House," winning over the likes of Beyoncé, Adele, Bad Bunny, Lizzo, Kendrick Lamar, and Brandi Carlile.
But after Styles's acceptance speech, even some of his most dedicated fans are raising eyebrows. During his speech, Styles said, "This doesn't happen to people like me very often, and this is so, so nice. Thank you very much." Now, it's unclear what Styles was referring to — perhaps his start on the reality talent competition "The X Factor"? Other interpretations are less generous, as people exactly like Styles — which is to say white men — enjoy accolades of success far more than queer artists and/or artists of color.
Including Styles, white men have won album of the year a total of 33 times in the award show's 63-year history, per Yahoo News. Comparatively, only 11 Black artists have taken home the accolade, per Insider. Beyoncé — despite the commercial and critical success of multiple albums spanning her industry-defining career — hasn't won the award.
As a result, Beyoncé's loss was a huge upset, with many viewers and fans arguing her album "Renaissance" was snubbed. Twitter users responded immediately, with many criticizing both the Grammys for giving the award to Styles and his acceptance speech. One user wrote, "'This doesn't happen to people like me' is the most white privilege-iest thing to ever be uttered at an awards show ever for all time." Others defended the artist, interpreting his speech to be a reference to Styles's queerness, with one user saying, "love he's queer. he was saying underground that queer people don't get opportunities."
Now, this isn't the first time Styles's supposed queerness has been used to defend the singer's choices. And for some, it's especially hard to accept when "Renaissance" was, as Entertainment Weekly writer Lester Fabian Brathwaite put it, "the history of dance music from the past 50 years, through the lens of the Black queer community."
There's definitely a discrepancy here. Styles is defended through allusions at best to queerness, and Beyoncé explicitly honored queer people during her own Grammy acceptance speech with her comment, "I'd like to thank the queer community for your love and for inventing this genre."
Again, the conversation over queerbaiting is reinvigorating, as people wonder how much Styles benefits from his career's flirtation with — but never commitment to — queerness. But are these claims of queerbaiting founded? What does queerbaiting even mean? Let's discuss.
What Is Queerbaiting?
Queerbaiting, essentially, is a twofold phenomenon. In media (like movies, TV, and books), queerbaiting is what happens when creators mislead the audience to think certain characters or plots are queer by dropping just enough nods to LGBTQIA+ romance or representation to engage the queer fan base but never make good on the promise. A great example of this is how ostensibly queer "Game of Thrones" character Arya Stark felt through the storyline, gender expression, and behavior of the character — only for her to reveal her heterosexuality in the final season. The problem with this kind of large-scale, media-driven phenomenon is that queer representation is sacrificed in order to privilege heterosexuality and more common relationship arcs and gender expressions.
The other kind of queerbaiting happens on a more individual scale. A celebrity adopts the aesthetics of queerness — playful gender expressions, edgy haircuts, and ambiguous sexuality — without actually, you know, being queer. By boiling down queerness into a set of aesthetic choices, this kind of queerbaiting denies the very real way that queerness is politicized. Queerness is a lived-in reality, a sociopolitical position people occupy with intense consequences, good and bad.
Celebrities who queerbait spin these aesthetic selections to pad their wallets, increase their fame, and justify taking up space in what should be queer-focused conversations. Then, when the fad is over they go back to gender conformity and socially acceptable, solid heterosexuality. A potential example of this? Styles's recent casting as a closeted gay man in the romance movie "My Policeman." It's set in the '50s, when same-sex relationships were criminalized in the UK. The ongoing, industry-level issue of casting nonqueer people to tell intense, traumatic stories of queer history can be painful for many queer people who want their stories told with dignity and accuracy. Plus, when cis heterosexual actors are applauded for the roles denied to queer and trans actors — like when cis actor Eddie Redmayne won an Academy Award for playing a trans woman in "The Danish Girl" — it adds another layer of injury.
These sorts of career moves (namely taking gay character roles) pad Styles's sense of untouchability and can be used to excuse any off-color comment the singer may make about his career. It can also be used to justify his win over explicitly queer artists' work or queer tributes such as "Renaissance." But a Grammy win for "Harry's House" just isn't a win for the queer community. Because really, what about it celebrates or names queerness?
At its core, the problem with queerbaiting is that it's predatory. Imagine taking the best parts of queerness — the joy, the community, the creativity, the artistic expression, or the current social clout — and leaving the hard parts behind: high suicide rates, disownment, hate crimes, loneliness, institutional and interpersonal discrimination, lost housing and economic opportunities. It's this huge discrepancy that leaves many queer people, especially those who have suffered and struggled in a queer-hostile world, resentful of the rise of sexually ambiguous, colorfully dressed celebrities.
So, Is Harry Styles Queerbaiting?
Styles has frequently pushed back against the need to label his sexuality. In an exclusive interview with Better Homes & Gardens he said: "The whole point of where we should be heading, which is toward accepting everybody and being more open, is that it doesn't matter, and it's about not having to label everything, not having to clarify what boxes you're checking."
Of course, celebrities don't owe anyone their private life or dating history. And the specifics of Harry Styles's sexuality, as a private individual, don't really matter. But on the public stage, and especially when playing with extremely loaded images of gender and self-expression, it does matter who uses the symbols of queerness, to what end, and who gets left out.
The main issue gay people like myself have with Styles's use of imagery is that it's acontextual and zero-risk. While Styles flirts with femininity and makes winking "post-gender" remarks about the "outdated" nature of labels (which are full of beautiful, important queer history, solidarity, and self-affirmation, but I digress), he only publicly dates women. It's an issue of privilege — of walking the walk and putting some skin in the game, even if that means jeopardizing your career.
I can only speak for myself, but I'm really tired of the cultural fixation on Styles's sexuality. Likewise, I'm tired of folks defending his success as a win for LGBTQ+ people, when so few out artists have taken home a Grammy. I watch as the world marvels over the desirability of men who will neither commit to queerness, nor risk their heterosexual privilege. I feel exhausted. I'm ready to move on and see a world where people who truly inhabit the socio-political position of queerness get more than scraps — a world in which the attention, praise, and accolades honor unwavering, loudly queer voices.