Let us begin this article with a thought experiment. Suppose you are watching a show where the two lead male characters are very close to each other; their camaraderie, while speaking volumes, also hints at something more. Something more which is not only realised by you, the audience, but also by the other characters of the show. Their landlady just naturally assumes that they live together because they are in a romantic relationship with each other. You, the audience, also recognise that they have chemistry together and find yourself rooting for them, only to have all your hopes crushed when one of them decides to get married to a woman.
But, wait a second, wasn’t there something hinted at between the two of them and NOT this new character who you know NOTHING about? Well, my friend, you are what appears to be a victim. A victim of queerbaiting.
So, what exactly is queerbaiting? Queerbaiting is a marketing technique employed by creators to hint at but not depict a romantic relationship between two same-sex characters in books, movies, TV shows, comics, you name it. And, if you are a regular consumer of pop culture content, you have probably come across it many times.
Famous examples include: John and Sherlock from BBC’s Sherlock; Kara and Lena from Supergirl; Hannibal and Will from Hannibal; and Finn and Poe from the recent Star Wars sequels. All of these duos have that something extra in their friendship that has given rise to thousands of pieces of fan art and fan fiction. And, yet, their relationships are never confirmed by the showrunners.
You could almost say that people of the queer community are being outright baited into consuming media of this kind with the promise of seeing themselves represented, only to be disappointed. And you would be absolutely correct.
The problem with queerbaiting is an integral one because it offers us an insight into what many of these famous and big-name companies and creators are really after. Profit. And, in making this intention clear, the message these shows spread is a negative one. Not that of acceptance, inclusiveness, and open-mindedness, but that of ridicule and heteronormativity (the assumption that all human beings are either male or female in both sex and gender, and that sexual and romantic attraction and activity only occurs, or is only normal, between people of different sexes).
Bluntly put, the Sherlock showrunners were being both crowd-pleasing and cowardly when they decided to marry John off to a new character that the audience was not even familiar with. The same could be said for Disney’s refusal to acknowledge Finn and Poe’s love despite the actors themselves acknowledging it in interviews.
Queerbaiting may sound like a step forward to some. It’s some sort of progress, right? But it is not. On the contrary, queerbaiting is a step backwards. It is a cheap ploy to attract queer audiences, only to fail. It is harmful as the enforced heterosexual romances of these characters appear to emphasise the message of the old Victorian nuclear family model even more strongly.
If we are to make progress and amplify the voices of the marginalised LGBTQIAS2+ community, should we not try our best to erase the picture of a “normal” or “idealised” family? Because what really is “normal,” anyway? Individual human experiences differ vastly across even as few as two people, and as such we can never really define “normal.”
What is normal to me may not be normal to you. Therefore, it becomes crucial to display the multitudes of ways people can find love and family. It is glaringly obvious and has been proved quite a number of times that queer people have ALWAYS existed. So, denying them representation seems foolish.
A slightly minor form of queerbaiting is the “blink and you miss it” trope that huge corporations, especially Disney, has adopted to allow movies to sell to countries which ban homosexuality. This usually begins with an enormous ceremony. For instance, this was the case with Avengers: Endgame and the recent Disney animated movie, Onward. Announcements flooded social media that the new Avengers movie would introduce the “first gay” character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Similarly, Onward was hailed as the first Disney animated movie to introduce a lesbian character.
This particular tactic, while being extremely problematic, is deeply misleading as well. In both cases, the screen time offered to these characters was less than five minutes, with vague mention of their identities making up less than a minute of their dialogues. The inherent problem in this kind of representation is that it tokenises queer people only so that creators and companies can boast themselves as being “progressive,” when they are clearly not doing anything of the kind.
Moreover, the ineffectiveness of queerbaiting also lends itself in the context of the plot. It seems a plot flaw to ignore the developed relationship between two characters only to suddenly thrust them in a different direction. Of course, it is the decision of the writer how to advance their plot.
But in the century we live in, where media consumption is massive, it is the responsibility of creators to spread a message of acceptance and positivity, especially when it comes to portraying people from marginalised communities. Queerbaiting fails to do exactly that. Instead, it presents a façade of indifference and an unwillingness to give queer stories a voice.
Shows like Steven Universe, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, and She-Ra are a handful of shows which have gracefully embraced the portrayal of queer characters. And these shows have rightly been commended and celebrated in their portrayal. They have helped build empathy and allowed LGBTQIAS2+ children to see themselves represented.
The fundamental difference between these shows and those that queerbait is that these creators are willing to boldly tell queer stories instead of chickening out and taking the profitable way out. The days of queerbaiting, I believe, are long over. The importance of telling different stories will always be crucial to remove misconceptions and build acceptance. And to do that, showrunners and million-dollar entertainment companies must stop the need to please everyone just so they can become more commercially successful.
Miftahul is a curly bigfoot who can be seen reading — whenever you spot her, that is. Occasionally, she writes.