Rita Ora, "Girls," and the Reckoning of Queerbaiting

Rita Ora

On Monday, Rita Ora issued an apology and some clarification about her recently released track “Girls.” The song, which features Cardi B, Bebe Rexha and Charli XCX, had come under fire by other entertainers as well as fans for being problematic in its portrayals of affection between women. Kehlani went so far as to say it contained “harmful lyrics.” So Ora apologized for that harm and went further, providing context.

Related | Rita Ora Apologizes for 'Girls' in Wake of Twitter Backlash

“‘Girls’ was written to represent my truth and is an accurate account of a very real and honest experience in my life,” she wrote. “I have had romantic relationships with women and men throughout my life and this is my personal journey.” The statement led some to say that listeners had been overzealous, forcing her to come out. INTO accused fans of dragging Ora out of the closet and The Indpendent asked “why are we as queer people questioning and policing how someone presents their sexuality?” But the question and assertion lack a specificity for what is happening here.

Long have queer people, celebrity or not, have had to hide their queerness, subvert it for whatever heteronormative option was available in order to, in the worst scenarios, be allowed to live, and, at the upper echelons, be allowed to succeed. There was a commonality here amongst those we saw on the covers of glossy magazines and ourselves. There was an unspoken but shared language. It allowed queer audiences to connect with queer celebrities while those same celebrities were allowed to not only exist but enjoy the adulation from straight audiences as well.  We were happy for that success; we understood. And then savvy straight celebrities realized they could do the same thing.

The road to stardom is littered with individuals who used queerness and queer audiences as a way to galvanize support and launch into mainstream. Nicki Minaj, Jessie J, Katy Perry, Nick Jonas and many more have been accused of queerbaiting; of making specific overtures to queer communities as if to be of the same experience. Of giving vague answers or in some way being ambiguous about their desires as to not turn off fans who hoped to find a thread of commonality. It was a marketing tactic for sure but it was also deceitful.

And so today queer audiences are wary and Ora, is an unfortunate part of that reckoning. When Ora starts talking about a sexually “ambiguous” relationship she had with Cara Delevingne and then releases a song that hints at bisexuality but shies away from the topic in interviews, queer people feel as if they’ve seen this before. It seems to those audiences that this isn’t an experience; this is exploitation.

To be clear: no celebrity deserves to be outed. No person deserves to be outed. No audience is owed any admission of anything. We get what we get and we aren’t really even entitled to that. But without context, people are left to assume. Without context, listeners think to history, of how others have tread these same paths in an abusive manner. And that it wouldn’t be a leap to say the same thing was happening again.

But there’s another reason that context is significant in 2018. As marginalized groups have not historically been the gatekeepers of perceptions and ideas surrounding them, today there is an important need to disrupt that pattern. Now, more than ever, we expect for people of color to speak about issues pertaining to people of color, the voices of trans people to be centered when we discuss their rights and for queer people to be the individuals talking about queer experiences.

In July 2017 speculation broke out in a fever pitch surrounding the sexuality of Tyler, the Creator. In “Ain’t Got Time” on his latest album Scum Fuck Flower Boy, he talked about kissing boys while “Garden Shed” sounds like a metaphorical closet to come out of. And while Tyler demurred on being definitive, his inclusion as a part of the LGBTQ community would recontextualize his career which had been criticized in the past for liberal usage of gay slurs, seeing him banned from the United Kingdom.

So while Rita, Tyler and anyone else for that matter, don’t owe the world a coming out it could provide the context needed to ensure fans better understand, interpret and react to their music. And particularly when it comes to a community who has routinely had others in your same position gaslight them for financial gain, its quite understandable.

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