Last week, Calvin Klein debuted a controversial new video in which supermodel Bella Hadid appears to make out with the computer-generated influencer, Lil Miquela. The ad was part of the brand’s #MYTRUTH campaign, which was photographed by Mario Sorrenti and also features Pose actress Indya Moore and musical artists Troye Sivan, A$AP Rocky, and Billie Eilish.
“The concept for our latest #MYCALVINS campaign is to promote freedom of expression for a wide range of identities, including a spectrum of gender and sexual identities,” the brand wrote in a statement, shared on Twitter Friday night. “This specific campaign was created to challenge conventional norms and stereotypes in advertising. In this particular video, we explored the blurred lines between reality and imagination.”
Of course, no matter how Matrix-y this moment may feel, we are still firmly planted in reality — one where real, meaningful representation of LGBTQ+ people is still not the norm. To some, the “blurred lines” in this campaign read as a harmful example of “queerbaiting,” or the act of alluding to queer relationships without actually depicting them.
“CK’s ad borrows sexuality for clickbait, othering queerness as ‘surreal’ (and combining it with the added virtual human gimmick) as engagement-driving content,” wrote Emma Hope Allwood for Dazed. Allwood added that the campaign “makes a spectacle of lesbian sexuality, inauthentically using the image of it to appear progressive and sell a product without actually representing the community.”
Calvin Klein is known for its provocative ad campaigns, especially when it comes to exhibitions of sexuality. But this particular imagery arguably highlights the gap between real progress and empty gestures in fashion. It also overshadows more tender images from the campaign, like the ones featuring the openly gay musical artist, Kevin Abstract — who has been accused of “queerbaiting” himself — embracing his collaborator Austin Anderson in an ambiguous but intimate way. If the intention was to make a statement about fluidity, it was arguably undermined by the relationship between Bella Hadid, who is publicly dating the Weeknd, and Lil Miquela, who is not real.
Generally speaking, Lil Miquela has been used by her creators to raise awareness for a range of causes, from Black Lives Matter to Planned Parenthood. She also engaged with a fictional, pro-Trump avatar last year, in a mind-boggling stunt meant to mimic our country’s political divide. Those pulling the strings seem to see her as a modern-day Schoolhouse Rock, using depoliticized platforms like Instagram to send subliminal political messages. In other words, if you see Bella Hadid making out with what looks like a girl as you scroll through your feed, perhaps you’ll be more accepting toward queer people in your real life. But we seem to have skipped over the part where real-life queer women get a platform, and a paycheck.
“We understand and acknowledge how featuring someone who identifies as heterosexual in a same-sex kiss could be perceived as queerbaiting,” Calvin Klein added in its statement. “As a company with a longstanding tradition of advocating for LGBTQ+ rights, it was certainly not our intention to misrepresent the LGBTQ+ community. We sincerely regret any offence we caused.”