I am tired of watching gross misrepresentations of queer women in entertainment. I find myself mentally reminding the artists involved in these works, “My queerness is not a publicity stunt. My queerness is not for your straight self-promotion. And my queerness is definitely not your personal fetish.”
So when I first watched Ariana Grande’s music video, “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” which has been criticized for its staged girl-on-girl kiss, I was not surprised to encounter the queer tropes I have become all too familiar with. However, I was surprised to find a strange new form of appropriation of the queer experience by a straight artist: using female queerness as straight girl empowerment and self-love.
In the music video, Ariana follows a heterosexual couple through a crowded party. The girlfriend, played by model Ariel Yasmine, is dressed exactly like Ariana — high ponytail, false eyelashes and all. As Ariana flirts with this couple, there are subtle hints that Ariana is flirting with the girlfriend — not the man we assume she is after. The video ends with a plot twist when Ariana confirms this suspicion by pushing away the boyfriend and leaning in to kiss Ariel.
In her recent projects, Ariana has been highlighting self-love over romantic interest. In songs like “thank u, next,” she focuses on admiring herself, rather than a man. In “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” fans laud how she pushes away the man. Despite the tropes the video plays into, it has largely been met with praise. While fans applaud the empowering “I don’t need a man” moment, in reality they are supporting the tired, problematic tactic of queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting refers to hinting at same-sex attraction for attention from a primarily heterosexual audience while still catering to heterosexual norms and themes — essentially using queerness as an attention grabber. It’s easy to see this tactic unfold in Ariana’s new video. The video hints at same-sex attraction with Ariel but leaves the relationship foggy. These loose ends left fans questioning what the kiss implied — was Ariana coming out?
There’s absolutely no evidence that this was Ariana’s coming out statement. The last shot of this video is extremely telling — if this were truly a celebration of queer love, Ariana and Ariel would kiss, as she does with a number of male romantic interests. Instead, the screen goes black just before their lips touch, as if teasing the audience. More practically, it has been a month since the release and Ariana has said nothing on the subject.
Some viewers argue that the video is not about queerness at all, but a metaphor for self-love. The logic of this reading is that the girlfriend character is dressed and made-up to look exactly like Ariana, down to the tattoos. This suggests that Ariel represents Ariana. At the end of the video, Ariana pushes the boyfriend away and kisses a stand-in for herself. This again brings up the theme of valuing self-empowerment over romantic relationships with men.
This isn’t the first time queer couples have been used as a prop to represent “self-love” in the media. Recall the “gay classic” Call Me By Your Name. Although the film has its merits, it is clear that the queer couple is a metaphor for autoeroticism and Elio’s self-discovery. Elio and Oliver — the queer couple in the film — are represented as mirror images of each other. The title itself, which refers to a scene in which the couple calls their own names during sex, cements the idea that this story may be more concerned with the autoerotic than the homoerotic.
More importantly, the original Call Me By Your Name novel is written by a straight man, and the film stars two straight actors. It does not include a gay sex scene, but does include an explicit straight one. Given these factors, queerness seems to be used largely as a tool in this story, leaving its “gay classic” status unearned.
The problem with straight artists using queerness for their own ends is that it ignores the lived experience of queer people. My queerness is not a disposable metaphor or an outfit I can change for the next music video — it is a real aspect of my identity that is often met with marginalization or harassment.
Given all of this, I can’t help but wonder why Ariana would appropriate queer aesthetic in this video. After all, it has nothing to do with the lyrics, which are very straightforward. A similar self-love theme could have been achieved had she kissed her reflection in the mirror at the end.
The queer “plot twist” is a clear publicity stunt for the straight pop star’s personal promotion. The video uses the “shock” of the ending to garner attention without offending conservative viewers too much by actually showing the kiss. Ariana’s video profits off the fetishization of female relationships and the male gaze.
This all comes from a star with a large LGBTQ+ fan base, who was labelled “Gay Icon of the Generation” by Billboard in 2017. Apparently, Billboard didn’t see the irony in giving this title to a straight star. And honestly, we really shouldn’t be surprised by Ariana’s problematic behavior by now; in fact, we should be seriously questioning whether to support her at all. Ariana has a long history of controversy amongst numerous communities. Aside from her play on queer tropes, she has also been accused of appropriating Black and Asian culture, most notably in her song “7 Rings.”
Despite all of these issues, Ariana reigns Queen of Pop. After she’s done shooting this video, she can have a laugh about kissing her co-star and still top the charts. Meanwhile, her women-loving-women fans are left with a music video that perpetuates negative stereotypes and delegitimizes their existence.