Queerphobia and Fatphobia in Criticism of Sam Smith
The song opens with clips of Judy Garland’s Over the Rainbow and drag queen RuPaul calling for self-love, imposed over a decadent scene of Sam Smith flying into a manor party via gold helicopter. Smith emerges clad in pink ruffles – a picture of queer joy.
Among the video’s many costume changes, Smith is shown in high-heeled boots, nipple pasties, corsets and – most wonderfully – a showgirl headdress and skintight black dress. The lyrics declare, “I’m not here to make friends, I need a lover”, a motto Smith developed after being “friend-zoned” on dates.
The video rejects heterosexual, traditional gender roles in favor of queer representation. It features gender-defying outfits and writhing men in revealing underwear, reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s Alejandro or the hypersexualized images of gay art icon, Tom of Finland.
Smith’s video also includes “voguing”, the dance style of the gay ballroom scene (made mainstream by Madonna’s music video for Vogue), many sequins and – at one point – references to erotic urination as champagne bottles pop onto Smith’s waiting face.
Throughout the video, many people’s genders are unclear. The manor rooms are filled with drag queens and people who look feminine, masculine, and androgynous. Smith takes center frame, being lifted, sought after, and gazed at adoringly as they proclaim, “30 almost got me, and I’m so over love songs.”
Smith, frankly, is out to fuck for fun. And this is no different from many other mass-market pop songs with explicit sexuality woven throughout their lyrics.
The backlash to Smith’s queer joy
I’m Not Here to Make Friends is an upbeat song that makes listeners want to dance, an explicit celebration of queer sexuality. This is a departure from Smith’s oeuvre, formed of songs about break-ups, infidelity, loneliness, pain, and self-loathing. It highlights the elements of queer life worth living.
While it may be worth analyzing Smith’s joy as connected to their position as a wealthy, white, LGBTQ+ celebrity (as well as their decadence amid a cost of living crisis), the criticism that has emerged most aggressively in response to the video is explicit in its trans, fat and femme phobia.
Newspaper columnists, social media influencers, and other conservative pundits have responded to Smith’s video with claims that their non-binary identity is attention-grabbing, that their fatness should be covered up, that their video is a bad example to children, and that they are “morally debased”, “perverted” and “disgusting”.
As an expert in sexuality and gender, I’m finding much to consider in the reactions to Smith’s work. Having previously presented as a gay man, Smith had already been subject to homophobia. However, they are now one of the only publicly non-binary celebrities, leading to accusations that they are manipulating their identity for further fame.
This is a continuation of the transphobic discrimination non-binary people often experience, which attempts to portray any deviation from the gender binary as foolish and misguided.
For non-binary people, whose mental health is often worse than their cis counterparts (that is, individuals whose gender aligns with their sex at birth), well-being might be improved by representation. The negative reactions to Smith’s work could contravene the positive impact of their public display of queer joy.
The impact of fat and femmephobia
Fatphobia (the social disgust and structural discrimination that fat people experience) further colors reactions to Smith’s work.
Smith does not have a figure conventionally associated with pop stardom. While it would be far from true to call them “fat”, they have experienced significant fatphobia in the calls for them to cover up and show modesty.
The body positivity social movement has made some progress in diversifying the range of body types we see, such as in social media posts tagged with #bodypositivity which show varied representations of body types. Evidence suggests that media exposure to different body types alone can encourage kindness towards diverse body types. However, the uptake of positive depictions of fatness has been slower in print and patchier in television media.
Femmephobia (anti-femininity experienced through social and structural discrimination) underscores the types of trans, and fatphobia Smith is receiving.
Smith has gradually been shifting over their career from wearing masculine suits to sexy black dresses and corsets. Femme and fatphobia underpin reactions to their body, their gender expression, and – ultimately – the willingness to take Smith seriously as an artist.
The public rejections of queer, femme, or fat joy found in the backlash to Sam Smith’s video don’t just impact the singer. They have consequences for anyone who sees a glimmer of themselves in Smith’s art. For non-binary, trans, femme, or fat people, the conservative repudiations of Smith have the potential to cause harm and pain.