From Taylor Swifts new video to M&S sandwiches everyone is capitalising on Pride. Is it cause for concern?
When Taylor Swift released her video for You Need to Calm Down, it was satirical news site the Onion that delivered the funniest and most poignant response: Taylor Swift Inspires Teen To Come Out As Straight Woman Needing To Be At Center Of Gay Rights Narrative.
The video, directed by Drew Kirsch and Swift herself, was designed to make a statement: it sees the musician parade around a campsite with a bunch of celebrity LGBTQ+ friends. Theres a same-sex wedding, a drag pageant and a food fight a parade of out and proud behaviour provoking the videos redneck protesters who hold placards with slogans such as Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve. With cameos from Ellen DeGeneres, Laverne Cox, Jonathan Van Ness, Adam Lambert, Billy Porter and the crew from Queer Eye, it certainly brings out all the LGBTQ+ big guns. But as you watch them cavort around fulfilling gay stereotypes (tea parties for the gays, forearm tattoos for the lesbians) in a nauseating set, you wonder why they agreed to it.
For Swift, who until recently remained conspicuously apolitical as a pop star, this is a bold show of LGBTQ+ solidarity. At the end of the video, text appears, reading: Lets show our pride by demanding that, on a national level, our laws truly treat all of our citizens equally, before asking viewers to sign her Change.org petition for the Equality Act.
However, the video has been divisive. Some have praised the singers allyship, others have dubbed it a cynical attempt to win over queer audiences. Many are arguing about whether her hair in the video is bisexual (its dyed the colours of the bisexual flag). Cara Delevingne called it brilliant, while the gay American writer Louis Virtel tweeted: Taylor Swift threw the first bachelorette party at Stonewall.
We jest, but the video for You Need to Calm Down is not very funny, despite being intended as a campy celebration of queer culture. If singing shade never made anybody less gay was meant to be Swifts idea of allyship, the bad execution and cynical timing with Pride month make this video feel more like empty virtue signalling and its not particularly virtuous, in my opinion, to caricature the homophobes in the video purely as hillbillies, as if only those people can be bigoted.
You Need to Calm Down is just one example of a pop-cultural moment thats been lambasted for queerbaiting recently. This is still a new-ish term, explains queer sociologist Professor Amin Ghaziani. It means using aspects of queer cultures or queer political support to signal hipness, coolness, political correctness, tolerance or open-mindedness; the performance of a liberal sensibility in a self-interested way, such as for selling a product.
The reason that this creates such outrage, he says, is because it takes away the humanity of LGBTQ+ people and reduces us into pawns in a game of profitability and politics.
Queerbaiting comes in many forms. There was the Dua Lipa and St Vincent performance at the 2019 Grammys that was criticised for playing up queer female desire. There was the Calvin Klein advert, released last month, which pictured supermodel Bella Hadid kissing computer-generated influencer Lil Miquela. Then there was the BBCs advertising campaign for Killing Eve, which plastered London with billboards saying: Has anyone seen my girlfriend?, and saw Villanelle bombard Radio 1 with song requests for Eve. As a gay woman, and a fan of the show, I didnt give it much more than an eye-roll, until Sandra Oh, in an interview with Gay Times, denied that there were lesbian undertones: You guys are tricky because you want to make it into something but it just isnt, she said. It makes you wonder: then why are you marketing it as such?
This queerbaiting is not a new phenomenon. Cast your mind back to Madonna and Britney kissing at the MTV video music awards, Tatus entire pop career, Demi Lovatos Really Dont Care video and Nick Jonass album campaigns over the last few years, in which he has honed in on his gay fanbase, despite having high-profile relationships with women. Lately, queerbaiting seems to have reached its peak. Especially when you look at the number of brands getting on board with sponsoring Pride, or creating some kind of product that supposedly endorses Prides values. Like Marks & Spencers recent release of an LGBT sandwich (lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato, in case you were wondering) or Sainsburys strange and superficial series of instore posters saying it supports LGBTQ+ rights, with very little context. Pride in London has lent itself to branded causes repeatedly: 2016s Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie float, or 2017s Minions. It has basically become a parade of glorified adverts for things that are in no way queer.
According to Forbes, a 2018 US survey by Community Marketing and Insights found that more than 75% of LGBT Americans will spend more with a company that supports equality, and one-third of consumers in the US feel more positive about a brand that supports Pride. Brands are always looking for ways to engage new audiences in order to grow revenue. Thats marketing and thats business, says Stephen Lepitak, editor at ad industry publication The Drum. However when they decide to get on board a purpose and align with an aspect of society, they must be careful not to do it tokenistically. There has to be a reason for them to align that makes sense, otherwise they risk alienating people as it will ring false.
British Airways, for instance, has come under fire for sponsoring Pride when their planes deport LGBTQ+ migrants from the UK. Primark has also been accused of pinkwashing its brand by releasing Pride collections and not donating the proceeds to charity.
It is easy to criticise faceless big brands for co-opting LGBTQ+ causes, but when it comes to specific celebrities, complications arise when we dont consider how someone might have felt the need quash their own desire due to social stigma or the entertainment industrys prejudice.
For example, Rita Oras 2018 song Girls was unanimously criticised for perpetuating stereotypes of drunken, faux-lesbian hookups, prompting the singer to come out as bisexual. Chlo Grace Moretz got similarly slammed for playing a lesbian in the film The Miseducation of Cameron Post and was later pictured kissing a girl. There is a delicate line to tread between policing peoples affiliation with certain labels and holding them accountable for earning the title of ally if they want to use it.
So, what should we think about We Need to Calm Down? There is some authenticity, albeit borrowed: the fact that Ellen, Laverne and Billy Porter appear does lend the video some credibility. She also has a cause: the video promotes a petition for the US Senate to recognise the Equality Act; and Swift put her money where her mouth is, making a donation to the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (Glaad). However, unlike longstanding queer ally Lady Gaga, it could be said that Swift hadnt really nurtured her gay fanbase enough before the video dropped. You cannot just suddenly decide to be a queer ally and earn the title overnight.
Buttering queer fans up with a Jonathan Van Ness collaboration or getting caught sniffing some poppers might have helped, but better yet, would have been using the last 10 years of her career to peddle the message that gay is OK. The real test will be how she uses the next 10.
The UK LGBT+ helpline can be reached on 03003300630
Queer Intentions: A (Personal) Journey Through LGBTQ+ Culture by Amelia Abraham is out now
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