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The Tricky Term “Queerbaiting” - Use It, Don’t Abuse It

Is the term “queerbaiting” getting overused to the point of losing its meaning? Calling out this practice is an important tool in trading the shallow act of subtly suggesting queer romance for better LGBTQ+ representation. However, throwing around the word “queerbaiting” too liberally can erode its power and veer into harmful gatekeeping—making individuals feel they can’t explore their personal sexuality in a fluid, open-ended or playful way without getting policed. So how do we find the perfect medium?

TRANSCRIPT

Is the term “queerbaiting” getting overused to the point of losing its meaning?

In recent years, as the entertainment industry has discovered it pays to draw in queer audiences, this has led to an explosion in queerbaiting — the shallow commercial tactic of subtly suggesting or joking about LGBTQ+ relationships, while never intending to follow this up with actual representation. Calling out this practice is an important tool in fighting for better LGBTQ+ representation — but increasingly the queerbaiting accusation is also being leveled at more and more celebrities, raising the question of whether it’s even possible for actual people to queerbait in their real lives. Throwing around the word “queerbaiting” too liberally can erode its power and veer into harmful gatekeeping — making individuals feel they can’t explore their personal sexuality in a fluid, open-ended or playful way without getting policed.

Here’s our Take on why true queerbaiting needs to end, but it’s important not to let this term limit the full, complex expression of anyone’s sexual identity.

Defining Queerbaiting

Judith Fathallah, one of the first academic scholars to write about the concept of queerbaiting, defines the term in her 2014 journal article as, “A strategy by which writers and networks attempt to gain the attention of queer viewers via hints, jokes, gestures, and symbolism suggesting a queer relationship between two characters, and then emphatically denying and laughing off the possibility.”

Queerbaiting is at its essence a marketing ploy. By simply implying that a character might be anything other than straight, these TV shows and movies can draw in LGBTQ+ audiences, make money from these viewers, and maybe even earn some praise for appearing “progressive,” — all without alienating homophobic viewers or putting effort into queer storylines.

To many, what’s so upsetting about queerbaiting is the intentionality with which producers may lead on viewers over an extended period of time, dropping just enough crumbs of hope for those who ship a potential queer couple with subtextual romantic tension. We can see this dynamic in two of the series that have dominated the conversation about queerbaiting over the last decade, Supernatural and Sherlock.

Many fans thought Supernatural’s Dean and Castiel had a romantic attraction to one another that should have been made canon. Comments by actors and producers revealed that they knew about the desire for this relationship and at times hinted at in the writing. At last, it was revealed in the final season that Castiel was canonically queer and in love with Dean, but Castiel literally dies and goes to hell right after confessing his love — flipping the situation immediately from queerbaiting to “bury your gays.”

Similarly, Sherlock attracted fans who “ship” Sherlock and John — or “JohnLock”— based on numerous subtextual moments and jokes, little nods that seem to converse with queer viewers. Season three even includes an imagined scene of Sherlock and Moriarty leaning in to kiss each other, before the camera abruptly cuts out. The tone of this kind of jokey queerbaiting makes the concept of LGBTQ+ relationships seem like a punchline or absurd suggestion.

Queerbaiting often follows a certain cycle: marketing a series in a way that suggests potential queer romance, then delivering jokes and subtextual tension but not progressing toward explicit romance, and (when the creators or cast are asked about it) denying, laughing at or even acting offended at the suggestion that the characters might be queer. It’s a process that makes some viewers feel almost gaslit, like they’re being treated as delusional for expecting something that was clearly implied.

Sherlock creators Mark Gattis and Steven Moffat have been consistently dismissive and annoyed at questions about whether the characters might be gay. After saying that his comments about minority representation had been taken out of context to support “JohnLock,” Moffat said, “It is infuriating, frankly, to be talking about a serious subject and to have Twitter run around and say, ‘Oh, that means Sherlock is gay.’ Very explicitly it does not. We are taking a serious subject and trivializing it beyond endurance.”

TNT crime drama Rizzoli & Isles followed the queerbaiting cycle to a T with promotional material implying an attraction between the title characters, only for writers and cast to consistently say there was no intention of a romantic pairing. To quote showrunner Janet Tamaro: “The lesbian theory endlessly amuses me, and it amuses the cast.”

2009 movie Whip It was promoted with a Marie Claire photoshoot of star Elliot Page and director Drew Barrymore kissing, but it turned out to be another straight story. And the Pitch Perfect series featured palpable chemistry between Beca and Chloe that led to nothing more than friendship — but that didn’t stop the marketing team from using romantic-feeling moments of them in a teaser for the third movie.

Another form of queerbaiting is including a queer moment for fetishistic or entertainment value without any follow up in the story. Riverdale received backlash after Betty and Veronica kissed in the first episode in an attempt to shock onlookers at cheerleading tryouts. Likewise, The Librarians features a handful of subtle jokes that Cassandra may be attracted to women, ending in a single kiss with a female vampire in the third season. But the vampire is only featured for one episode, and it seems unlikely that Cassandra will ever see her again.

Queerbaiting also often involves a lot of jokes about people of the same sex finding each other attractive — like Eleanor’s constant comments about Tahani on The Good Place — and the actors might play this up in promotional interviews.

Eleanor Shellstrop: “She’s tall and glamorous and has cappuccino skin and curves everywhere and now I’m complimenting her and kind of turned on.” - The Good Place

While some of these examples may seem relatively harmless on the surface, this type of half-baked representation can be both painful and frustrating to a community of viewers who rarely see positive or accurate LGBTQ+ storylines on screen, and who’ve been burned and hurt by the feeling that they were led on for long periods of time by shows that simultaneously profited off of a community that Hollywood long ostracized and degraded.

History and Subtext

Looking back on the history of queer representation (or the lack thereof) in storytelling, we can see how queerbaiting is really the modern flipside to queercoding.

With the introduction of the Hays code in 1930, homosexuality was deemed an “immoral” behavior and barred from the screen, so the only gay characters featured in cinema had to be queer-coded — implied to be queer in subtext but never stated to be in-text.

Even after the code was replaced in 1968, queerness was still widely taboo. Gay characters seemed to almost always receive tragic plotlines, and when Ellen DeGeneres’s sitcom famously made history through Ellen and her character both coming out in 1997, the star received death threats, the sitcom lasted only one more season, and she claimed she couldn’t get work for a long time. So, prior to the 2010s, many shows still resorted to queer coding in order to keep airing and enjoying mainstream popularity.

Ellen DeGeneres: “The phone didn’t ring for three years. I had no offers, no one wanted to touch me at all.” - Tulane University Commencement Speech, 2009

Queerbaiting and queercoding are two sides of the same coin. Both are winking at queer audiences, except queercoding is done out of fear or necessity while queerbaiting is done with the intention of making money. Queerbaiting emerged as a commercial strategy in the 2010’s in response to the rising profitability of diverse narratives and changing social norms.

As scholar Emma Nordin writes “Queerbaiting is a historical[ly] situated term, assuming that we live in a time and place where queer representation is possible yet constantly denied.” To apply these terms with awareness of historical context, let’s look at a classic lesbian favorite, fantasy show Xena: Warrior Princess. Were Xena produced now, it would have almost surely been accused of queerbaiting. But, because the show started airing in the 1990s, the queer subtext that was coded in the show is now understood as a progressive strategy to include a sapphic narrative, while making it explicit would have put the series in danger of being canceled. Thus, it wouldn’t really make sense to call Xena queerbaiting — most would agree it was queer-coding constrained by the parameters of its era’s implicit censorship.

Similarly, 1991’s Fried Green Tomatoes (adapted from an overtly queer book into a movie that softened the romance into a friendship) and 1996’s The Craft didn’t contain direct expressions of attraction between same-sex characters, but in the context of their time the subtextual clues for gay audiences to find were better than nothing.

Now, we’re living in a time where queer representation can occur without as much pushback as in earlier eras, and audiences are increasingly ready to swap queercoding for direct representation. Still, there are spaces that are noticeably lacking in queer representation — like much of children’s media and blockbuster movies with big international markets —and in some of these films and shows, deciphering what’s queer coding or queerbaiting isn’t always black and white.

Most recently, Disney incited a queer coding vs. baiting controversy with Luca, a story about Luca and his best friend Alberto who take secret trips to the surface where they must hide the fact that they are sea monsters. When Luca’s parents find out that the two boys have been doing this together, they try to separate them by sending Luca away — a scene that plays out in many gay love stories after a couple is outed. The boys escape to the surface where they must hide their true identities, until the conclusion of the film where they come out as sea monsters, are widely embraced by the townspeople, and, much to their surprise, inspire other secret sea monsters to come out, too. Many felt that Disney crossed the line into queerbaiting with Alberto and Luca.

On the other hand, others could argue that as a studio with a large conservative audience, Disney may still need to queer code when releasing films under the Pixar label and that this is at least a way for young audiences growing up in conservative households to view some form of ambiguously queer content. Still, others argue that media needs more non-romantic, affectionate male friendships and that depictions of love in children’s stories needn’t be automatically romanticized.

One of the biggest criticisms of the term queerbaiting is that it dismisses the value of subtext in storytelling. As the book “Queerbaiting and Fandom,” puts it, “subtext is framed solely as a means of withholding representation.” This can be an overly rigid, limiting view of art. Drama so often lives in what characters don’t say and the nuanced three-dimensionality of complicated behavior. Queerbaiting conversations can also be dismissive to fans who enjoy subtext or “queer readings” of open-ended media. After all, many people see the appeal of a “will they/won’t they” relationship which lets the audience take the lead in imagining consummation. Think of Mulder and Scully on The X-Files, or Booth and Bones on Bones, both of whom were arguably at their most interesting before they canonically became a couple.

Still, the crucial difference between queer couple subtext and straight couple subtext is that tension between straight characters is almost universally understood as romantic or sexual — an acknowledged fact among most viewers. But when you look at a show like Rizzoli & Isles, which has almost the exact same format as shows like The X-Files and Bones (down to the witty banter between an enterprising cop and an overly logical doctor), the subtext is emphatically dismissed by the show’s creators and other (non-queer) fans. So the issue isn’t really with subtext, but rather that the collective reaction to queer subtext is fierce denial or willful obliviousness.

Can Real People Queerbait?

While it’s clear that studios and networks can queerbait in order to profit off of fans, what does it mean when a real person is accused of queerbaiting?

In June of this year, Billie Eilish’s music video for her song “Lost Cause” included a casual queer kiss. She also made an Instagram post about the video with the caption “I love girls.” Some viewers accused Eilish of queerbaiting, or trying to gain a larger queer audience by making supposedly queer content, or implying she herself might be queer without actually coming out.

Prior to Eilish’s controversy, Nick Jonas was accused of queerbaiting around 2015, when fans felt that he was specifically pandering to a gay male audience by speaking in a deceptive manner about his own sexual proclivities. The tipping point was a speech he made several days after the Pulse Massacre, which angered some fans who thought he was taking up unnecessary space.

Part of what makes queerbaiting on television so upsetting is the investment that fans make over time in a particular relationship, as they’re baited over a period of several seasons, and there appeared to be a similarly drawn-out, cross-promotional effort to do this on Jonas’ part. Ariana Grande has also been accused of queerbaiting for her song “Monopoly” and “Break up with your Girlfriend” music video, as has Harry Styles for his “queer” fashion sense. And Kylie Jenner often gets comments on her TikToks with her best friend Stassie Karanikolaou that accuse the two of acting sexually toward each other for views.

Some of these examples are also loaded due to the legacy of 2000s-era queer fetishizing. The faux-lesbianism of t.A.T.u.’s “All The Things She Said,”, Katy Perry’s song “I Kissed a Girl,” and the famous Madonna/Britney kiss at the VMAs are all examples of queerness in that era being used as a “shock value” stunt rather than a meaningful experience. Moreover, those lesbian kisses tended to be positioned not really as “queer” but as “hot” or titillating to the male gaze.

Yet regardless of valid claims that certain media today fetishizes queerness as an exploitative aesthetic, there is something disconcerting about increasingly frequent accusations of individuals queerbaiting. Celebrities — especially young ones like Eilish — aren’t being given the space to be somewhat ambiguous with their sexuality or gender presentation without making a definitive statement about it. Moreover, the controversy seems to assume that musicians and other artists owe us every detail about their personal lives, and that their artistic creations have to literally adhere to every fact about their actual selves. Artistic expression relies on audience’s understanding that musicians, like poets or writers of any kind, create a character for each song or music video, which may take some inspiration from their personal experience but isn’t actually them.

The video for “Lost Cause” — read as queer by many viewers — does not have to reflect Eilish’s own sexual preference, nor can we be certain Eilish meant it that way. The same can be said for the “twist” in Ariana Grande’s “Break up with your Girlfriend” video — which reveals she’s actually telling the guy to break up with his girlfriend so she can kiss the girl (a change that arguably makes video more compelling than the story in the literal lyrics, of a hot girl telling a guy to ditch his less appealing girlfriend, and also an image that some have read as a metaphor for self-love).

If we want to normalize anything other than a straight-cis experience, then we need to allow people the freedom to explore that option, personally and artistically, without immediately being expected to define themselves — in fact, numerous people today prefer to keep their concepts of their sexual orientation or gender expression indefinitely fluid.

Conclusion

It’s crucial that individuals, whether they be celebrities or everyday people, are free to explore their self expression openly without judgement, and are afforded space for playfulness, ambiguity and discovery in their personal expressions. In trying to create structured rules on what is and isn’t queer, we actually reinforce a dangerous gender or sexuality based binary. This kind of gatekeeping might discourage individuals from trying to discover themselves, thus actually becoming a new form of repression.

Ultimately, the best route to overcoming queerbaiting is for mainstream media to include widespread, authentic queer representation — after all, the only reason shallow queerbaiting holds any appeal is that queer viewers have long been starved for stories that even slightly reflect their lives and romances onscreen. When all text and subtext are possible, the practice of queerbaiting will no longer work and at last be relegated to history, where it belongs.