COLUMN: You can’t fake your way to icon status
The queer and gender-nonconforming community knows the difference between people who fight for them and those who treat being an ally as a performance.
Dec. 21, 2019
Abigail Ruhman is a sophomore journalism major at MU. She is an opinion columnist who writes about student life, politics and social issues for The Maneater.
This column is part seven of Abigail Ruhman’s “Twelve Gays of Christmas: The Sequel” series. Twelve Gays of Christmas is a 12-column series about a variety of LGBTQ topics. During the holidays, members of the LGBTQ community are more likely to experience depression. By informing readers of the issues facing the LGBTQ community, these columns are meant to support the community this holiday season. This year is the second year of this series and shows that even though it can seem like things are fine, there is still a lot of discrimination and challenges facing the LGTBQ community.
People are not inherently dumb. While their knowledge may not present itself to the world, people know a lot more than they give themselves credit for. That’s why communities tend to know who is on their side. For the queer and gender-nonconforming community, this can lead to an ability to recognize performance allies.
With the added social incentive to be seen as an ally, there is a group of people who act as allies, but don’t put in the work. Performance allies, or people who engage in “ally theater,” act as if being a supporter of the community is a badge you can wear without actually supporting queer and gender-nonconforming individuals.
This is the reason that parts of the community have an aversion to people who aren’t actually helping the community. When it comes to the classification of being a queer icon, being a genuine supporter is a large part of the role. Queer icons have the social capital to help the community, and they choose to use that to actually help.
There is a lot that celebrities can do for queer and gender-nonconforming individuals, and that’s how queer icons are created. They use their platform to encourage others to stand by the community. While queer icons are not always in the community, the recognition is not an invitation into the community, but rather the community giving back to those who fight for them. The difference between a straight celebrity who is a queer icon and one that is a performance ally can be debatable, but an easy way to think about it is to compare Carly Rae Jepsen and Taylor Swift.
After the release of her album, “Emotion,” Jepsen was met with a queer fanbase. In interviews following her unexpected classification as an icon, she explained that she was thankful for the role she can play in the community. She considered the fanbase the “gift of her career,” according to Attitude Magazine. While on the “Table Manners” podcast, Jepsen said, “I’m definitely passionate about any support I can give towards fighting the good fight ... I’ve had friends since childhood who’ve gone through some pretty severe experiences that have enraged me enough to make it a calling of mine.” Jepsen was considered an icon for her support and continues to be considered an icon because she has put in the work.
Jepsen was active in her allyship. She didn’t put herself in front of the community. She worked to give the community space and support. In contrast, Swift only needed one song in order to show how performative her support was.
Despite releasing her “You Need to Calm Down” music video, which featured more than 20 other celebrities, Swift has been criticized for being an ally in a more performative sense. While the song seems to be an outward show of support, the video and lyrics both seemed like a weak grab at being an ally. The whole project carried the same connotation of a bachelorette party at a gay bar — out-of-place but also covered in rainbows.
The inclusion of queer celebrities seemed to give her some merit, but many people pointed out that the timing of the song seemed to point to another move to capitalize off of her political stance. She might not be outwardly against queer people, but she hasn’t spoken up for them until it became profitable and worth the risk. In 2019, saying that you are not homophobic is not groundbreaking, but it does create a buzz that leads to more attention. That attention means something, but Swift also minimized the experiences of the queer community. Her video treated them as if they were equal to her experiences.
Not only did she utilize the queer and gender-nonconforming community to sell more singles and merch, all while keeping the profits, but she also did three things that especially impacted the community. First, she depicted homophobic people as “a caricature of the rural American working class,” according to the Independent. This ignores the fact that homophobia exists outside of that caricature. It is present in all socioeconomic classes and in every part of the world. Presenting homophobia like this demonizes the lower and working class while also letting people who are quieter about their hatred off the hook. Homophobia isn’t always a group of protesters. It can be the quiet dismissal of a queer applicant or protecting those who discriminate more than those who are oppressed.
Another problem with Swift’s portrayal of the queer experience was the way she treated discrimination. Her lyrics position her experiences with criticism as equivalent to queer and gender-nonconforming individuals facing homophobia and transphobia. The structure of the song makes it seem like criticizing Swift, comparing female artists and being homophobic are the same experience.
Maybe the online criticism was traumatic for Swift, but she made the song more about her than the community. As an ally, you have to step back and let the community have its moment. Her experience was not the same as homophobia, but somehow she attached it to homophobia. Constance Grady, a writer at Vox, explained in an article, “She’s linking criticism of her as a celebrity and as a musician with homophobic and anti-feminist bullying, and she’s suggesting that they’re all equally wrong. It’s as though she thinks there’s a marginalized group of people … and that group is named Taylor Swift.”
Queer icons are celebrities who use their position to give the queer and gender-nonconforming community room to speak. From Lizzo to Ariana Grande, celebrities have proven that it’s more than being quietly supportive. While it may seem like there is a power-of-the-universe force that decides who is a queer icon, the community is smarter than they give themselves credit for. They know what a performance ally is and know how to recognize them. Some celebrities, like Swift, use the community to gain more room to speak for themselves and end up impacting the community in negative ways. Performance allies are harmful, but when they come with the social capital to change how allyship is viewed they become a threat to the queer community.
Edited by Bryce Kolk | firstname.lastname@example.org