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Who Actually Benefits When Digital Queerness Gets Trendy?

Digital Queerness as the Hottest New Commodity

Written by Sloane Holzer.

Queer people finding solace in animated creations is nothing new: one has to take only a cursory look at gay internet culture’s discussion of its “roots” to find fictional characters — ranging from Ms.Frizzle to Han Solo — as sources of queer childhood recognition. But Lola Bunny was never cloyingly splashed with water in an ad for Chanel perfume, and Hans Solo wasn’t tasked with trying to sell anything other than Star Wars DVDs.

In fact, none of these characters have been directly created for, and marketed as, queer representation. Not until Lil Miquela.

Miquela is the creation of Los Angeles-based Brud Media, a “a transmedia studio that creates digital character driven story worlds.” While Brud has created other polygonal avatars, like Bermuda (@bermudaisbae), Lil Miquela is by far their most popular, with well over a million instagram followers. Her popularity is largely driven by her on-trend social media existence: designer fashion selfies, links in her bio to Black Lives Matter and LGBT organizations, and even pseudo-confessional captions that imply a life of normal, young adult longing. In a recent post, she’s shown wearing a royal blue Calvin Klein bathing suit and matching cowboy hat, with a caption reading “I have so many things I’m supposed to be doing right now, but I’m not doing any of it and wishing I was sitting at this pool instead” — as if a digital avatar could procrastinate on homework or put off responding to emails. 

In fact, none of these characters have been directly created for, and marketed as, queer representation. Not until Lil Miquela.

Miquela’s recent bout in the spotlight is due, in no small part, to this affiliation with Calvin Klein. In an Instagram post on May 15th, model Bella Hadid is seen in a saturated colorful void, reminiscent of a James Turrell color space, slouching gracefully toward the camera. Lil Miquela’s projected shadow emerges, before the two walk towards each other, embrace, and kiss. The caption for the ad is tagged #MyTruth, a massive Calvin Klein ad campaign that seeks, as the brand says “to promote freedom of expression for a wide range of identities, including a spectrum of gender and sexual identities.”

Image via Calvin Klein.

To be fair, the campaign does feature some real models (aka not 3D-rendered) who are queer or gender nonconforming. The incredible Indya Moore, who is best known for starring as Angel on FX’s Pose, is a great example.

But Lil Miquela’s contribution feels markedly different. While the Calvin Klein ad campaign is about exploring the “blurred lines between reality and imagination,” this skews closer to queerbaiting: a way of marketing a neutered gay sexuality as something transgressive, while remaining palatable to mainstream heterosexual audiences. Hadid never really kissed Miquela, and Miquela was only animated to do so by a design team at an advertising agency, begging the question of how “free” this expression of gay sexuality actually was.

Queerbaiting is nothing new as an advertising tactic, and the bodies depicted within are often thin, white, and cis — and until now, real people. But while a computer generated model might look like, act like, and behave like a 19-year-old influencer, the lingering difference is the real world that real queer people have to live in outside the app.

Queerbaiting: a way of marketing a neutered gay sexuality as something transgressive, while remaining palatable to mainstream heterosexual audiences.

Lil Miquela stands as the first wave of digital models used to advertise queerness as a chic, polygonal advertising choice, but CD Projekt Red, the developers of the upcoming video game Cyberpunk 2077, are right behind her. In the gameplay trailer, the main character is shown walking through an abandoned, futuristic mall, and in one of the advertisements strewn about, a woman wearing a tight bodysuit, a bulging penis silhouetted against her stomach, is shown advertising a soda brand. The fictional soda brand’s tagline is “16 flavors you’d love to mix”, a degrading joke about transgender bodies that dehumanizes them solely to “controversial” advertising potential, because of their non-cisgender qualities.

So what does better representation look like? Indya Moore’s Calvin Klein ad, while still promotional, differs from both depictions of “queerness as advertisement” above because Moore is, well, a real person. Their words speak to the complexities of existing as both a trans person in the spotlight, and the actual narratives of our lives, which are often far more complex than media about us, or advertising campaigns featuring us, care to depict. 

The content is sponsored, but Moore’s candid writing (about sexuality, debt, money, sex work, and cissnormativity) as a black non-binary person challenges many mainstream narratives. While Indya Moore has risen quickly in public profile, being the first black transgender woman to speak at Essence Fest, they have remained outspoken on twitter and instagram about being a black queer person in the real world.

The reality, as Moore writes in the post for their Calvin Klein ad, is that capitalism is the system we live under, and that “…freeing people still impacts peoples lives and experiences in tangible ways.” While computer generated models are posed by design teams for ad campaigns, trans women still lack basic material resources, as the recent decisions by the Trump administration so painfully illustrate.

At the end of the day, what are we imaging as possible futures when even the models hired for “queer” ad campaigns are themselves a digital construction of an acceptable notion of queerness? Our vision of the future for queer and transgender bodies — and the models we have for that vision — must include the physical reality of our lives, in all of our fleshy, living, complicated truth.

Sloane Holzeris a writer living in Northern California. She likes seltzer, her car’s cassette collection, and writing about transgender history, sexuality, and leather culture.

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