Then a sense of familiarity sets in, like when you watch the first few scenes of a movie and realize you’ve seen it before. Ohhh, I see. People aren’t outraged that it’s been sexualized. They’re outraged because it’s blatantly queer and sexualized. People don’t know how to deal with their discomfort — so they think the video itself must be the problem. They were offended, they thought, so the video must be offensive .
Apparently, Sam Smith isn’t the first artist to cause outrage with a music video. As many were quick to point out online, Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” was so controversial at the time that it was condemned by the Vatican. But the Madonna dances before the burning cross. That was…33 years ago. It’s no exaggeration to say that beneath all the “but what about the kids?” is the looming presence of queerphobia. If a slim cis woman wore a corset with nipple tassels, there wouldn’t be this level of pearl-grabbing and heated debate–it certainly wouldn’t be described as “erotic.” We see it all the time.
To really understand the backlash against this rather funny and relatively tame popular video, it’s worth zooming out a bit and seeing how a very specific kind of queerphobia arises has infiltrated the cultural landscape in recent years. Last year, right-wing protesters gathered outside the British Library, holding signs that read “Welcome, beautician” and “This is child abuse” in response to Drag Queen Story Time, an event in which drag queens read stories to children. Family friendly activity. Protesters seem to equate drag itself with sexualized adult entertainment — albeit with zero sexual content involved. Again: they felt offended, so they decided the event must be offensive.
Over the past few years, under the guise of “concern,” there has also been a potential moral panic eruption among trans people – especially in relation to children receiving gender-affirming treatment , or even just education around trans issues. These ideas may be very different from silly, contrived Sam Smith videos, but there are plenty of viewers who believe that simply being an overtly queer or transgender person is inappropriate for children. Loud or sexual behavior will constitute a crime. The point of the outrage, then, is not the sexual nature of the video, but the non-binary people who dare to intervene in it.