An advert featuring the human and virtual models is late-capitalist hell, ‘queerbait’ and digisexuality all at once
Bella Hadid, a human supermodel, has been accused of “queerbaiting” after making out with Lil Miquela, a computer-generated influencer, in order to sell designer underwear. I know, I know, there’s a lot going on in that sentence. Please take a deep breath: we will unpack this late-capitalist hell together.
Miquela Sousa, also known as Lil Miquela, is a fictional character created by a Los Angeles startup called Brud. Miquela has 1.5m followers on Instagram, where she shares pictures of her imaginary life and proclaims her support for LGBT rights and Black Lives Matter. In the past few years, the virtual model has become a veritable celebrity: starring in Ugg ads, interviewing artists at Coachella and collaborating with Prada. In her latest project, a video for Calvin Klein, she kisses a half-naked (and heterosexual) Hadid as a voiceover proclaims some marketing nonsense about dreams and doors.
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While Miquela may be a futuristic creation, manufacturing girl-on-girl action to flog your brand is as old as time, and the ad immediately sparked a backlash. On Friday, Calvin Klein issued an apology, acknowledging that featuring “someone who identifies as heterosexual in a same-sex kiss could be perceived as queerbaiting”. While I’m no fan of brands exploiting lesbianism to sell stuff, I found the nature of the Miquela/Hadid controversy slightly odd. As far as I’m concerned, the most disturbing aspect of the campaign isn’t the faux-lesbianism, it’s the fact that Miquela is, you know, a fictional character.
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Miquela isn’t a one-off gimmick: computer-generated influencers are increasingly common. Shudu Gram is a fictional black Instagram model created by a white photographer; Liam Nikuro is a Japanese male influencer; and YouPorn recently launched a virtual spokeswoman called Jedy Vales. It’s easy to see why brands are interested in fictional influencers; as one venture capitalist told the Wall Street Journal recently: “You can create the Kardashians without any of the inherent issues that come with being human.” Virtual celebrities don’t age and they don’t cause any (unintended) drama.
The rise of computer-generated celebrities poses interesting questions about identity and sexuality in the digital age. Last year, for example, a Japanese man “married” a celebrity hologram called Hatsune Miku, prompting discussion about whether “digisexuality” should be considered a new sexual identity. Hadid’s kiss with an imaginary model may have been a marketing stunt but it’s also a rather terrifying glimpse into the future.
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