The Belvedere Journal
by Tessa H
Queer viewers are more likely to engage with queerbaited content because they are more likely to be looking for something more once the show is over and they were left unsatisfied. Maybe they spend hours imagining how scenes could have gone just slightly differently.
Queerbaiting is when creators of a movie or TV show hint at the queer identity of a character exclusively in the subtext. It's done with the intention of engaging queer viewers, without losing a conservative viewership, by never depicting it explicitly.
Most commonly, it takes the form of a gay romance, but alternatively of representation of identities outside the binary, or asexuality. Sometimes the creators may outright say that a character is queer, but don't do anything in the onscreen to make that known to an audience member who hadn't seen the press announcement. Or maybe it's done with the guise of 'making it child friendly' even though the same creators have no problem depicting hetero relationships.
At its roots, queerbaiting is a marketing ploy, the media equivalent of rainbow washing. Putting rainbows on your products will make a queer person who wouldn't otherwise buy it feel included, but wont stop a homophobic shopper who doesn't understand the iconography of a rainbow from buying it. Win-win. As you can see, LGBTQ+ people are no stranger to being used by large corporations for money.
And this is a strategy that works. Queer viewers are more likely to engage with queerbaited content because they are more likely to be looking for something more once the show is over and they were left unsatisfied. Maybe they spend hours imagining how scenes could have gone just slightly differently. They might read/write fanfic, keeping them in the fandom for longer, leading to more money for the creator.
Obviously, in some cases, it can be argued that queerbaiting may be a matter of interpretations and subtext. For example, when I told my mum about the queerbaiting in Good Omens, she was confused to find out that some fans thought Aziraphale and Crowley were together. But this is exactly the point, when show creators leave these things up to imagination, it creates a narrative that queerness is something that should be hidden and only acknowledged if you want to, surrounding the subject with shame. To only see yourself reflected in the side-lines of media is just another form of social exile, which is accepted as scientific fact to increase depression and anxiety.
The term 'queerbaiting' came from 1950s, when the US was in the midst of what became known as the Lavender Scare. Queer US citizens working in government were thought of as untrustworthy, and at risk of being fired. As a result, people had to hide their identity. To identify those who were queer, people would queerbait, posing as allies and members of the community, only to turn in the names of those who had come out to them. While the reason for queerbaiting has changed, it has always been steeped in empty promises.
Queerbaiting itself can be traced back the 30s with the creation of the Hays code in the US. The Hays code was made by Congress as a response to Christians who were unhappy with how the rise of film was allowing new widespread freedom of thought. It limited what could be shown onscreen, and one term was that there could be no positive depictions of homosexuality.
In response to this, the film industry began to use subtext. Certain euphemisms would be used to say that a character was gay rather than just showing it. In this way queerbaiting has one positive, as it shows that homophobes aren't smart enough to understand the subtext. This is what I would pinpoint as the birth of queerbaiting, but back then it was necessity.
This changed in 1968 when the Hays code was abolished, but that didn't slow the negative portrayals of queerness in Hollywood. In 1989, The Little Mermaid came out, and Ursula the villain was directly inspired by a drag queen called Divine.
When researching this debate I found that Disney came up a lot. Firstly there is the backdrop of the fact that Disney donated to every sponsor of the Don't Say Gay bill. But then you see them making press announcements that their characters will be diverse and progressive - see Cruella (Artie), Beauty and the Beast (Le Fou), Frozen (Elsa). All were disappointing when we saw them onscreen. You also have shows like Luca; a seemingly perfect metaphor for the queer experience, critics drawing comparisons to Call Me By Your Name, and yet Disney denies any purposeful queercoding.
Queerbaiting Isn't The Problem?
It must be acknowledged that some people don't telegraph their feelings. Maybe there is a deeper problem, that of the romance conventions in mainstream media. Why do couples have to kiss to confirm their relationship? I think it's fair to argue that pandering to these expectations is the opposite of progressive. In relation to queerbaiting, it perpetuates an ideology that queer people should have to 'prove' their sexuality constantly to those around them in order to be seen as legitimate. Not only this but it assumes that heterosexuality is the default and queer people only exist if they are explicitly depicted as such. But that a wider issue with different roots.
Who Is To Blame For Queerbaiting Today?
So who is to blame for Queerbaiting. Quite often it's not the fault of the content creators. Censorship is a real issue. Not every show is actively trying to queerbait its audience - often writers are caught in a complicated web of censorship. Writers may be actively and desperately trying to avoid queerbaiting, wanting to present characters authentically, but unable to because of the red tape.
You have probably heard about how parts Secrets Of Dumbledore were cut to appease Chinese law, but the UK isn't exempt from discriminatory censorship decisions. Steven Universe, a show frequently celebrated for its ground-breaking LGBTQ+ characters and content, has also been victim. In 2015, the UK broadcast of the episode “We Need to Talk,” cut clips of Pearl and Rose romantically dancing. So from this point of view, government censorship is the root of the blame for queerbaiting, and we should shift anger away from showrunners.
Why does this censorship occur if it's blatantly oppressive? Because there is no international standard for censorship that has to be adhered to. This means that showrunners in countries
with progressive regulations may still try to stick to the rules of more regulated areas in order to create a wider viewership.
Still, it could be written off as not an urgent problem that needs to be addressed; maybe you are thinking there are much more prominent issues for this community, that need more recognition. But lack of representation, naturally leads to stereotypes and prejudices. Prejudice has been said to be the root of discrimination and maybe even persecution. As such, society can't move forward in how it views queer people without transparent positive representation.
My point is, that over the last hundred years, we've seen a lot of progress, but queer erasure in media is still reminiscent of historians’ attitude toward Sappho, Hephaestion and Achilles. I think this in itself is evidence that the history of queerbaiting should stay history.
Some People Who Have Been Argued To Be Queerbaited
Crowley and Aziraphale - Good Omens: In the case of Good Omens, author Neil Gaiman has confirmed more than once that Crowley and Aziraphale are in love, but this was done after the show was released. Homophobic fans will have already spent their money.
Dean and Castiel - Supernatural: In a show like Supernatural which started in the early 2000s it's no surprise that queer rep wasn't in the first few seasons due to the culture. Fans always said that it was obvious they should get together, and even the actors agreed in interviews. But it wasn't until the final season, which aired in 2020, that Castiel confessed his love to Dean. He then promptly died.
Jughead Jones - Riverdale: TV censorship of queer content isn’t just limited to gay characters; Jughead, a canonically asexual character in the Archie comics, had his orientation erased on the CW’s Riverdale, despite actor Cole Sprouse’s attempts to convince the show’s writers to preserve his character’s identity.
In anime it's very rare that queer characters will have their identities solidified in canon, probably due to the strict censorship in Japan, but that doesn't stop the very heavy subtext.
Ash and Eiji - Banana Fish: This barely qualifies.
Joe and Cherry, Langa and Reiki - SK8 the Infinity
Will Byers - Stranger Things: Some people had to be told that will was gay by Noah Schnapp himself becasue the show is somewhat vague.
Korra and Asami - The Legend of Korra: confirmed the couple, but left it "purposefully ambiguous" so it could air on a children's network.
The Rise of Skywalker (Disney) faced criticism after director J.J. Abrams stated in the promotional press tour for the film that he had included queer representation in the film, but it turned out to be a single shot of a kiss in the background of one scene.
Merlin and Arthur - BBC Merlin: A show whose premise is a perfect metaphor for LGBTQ+ issues.
Jaskier - Witcher: Jaskier was little more than comic relief in the second season
Some other examples include;
Finn and Poe - Star Wars
Steve/Sam and Bucky - MCU
Luca and alberto - Luca
Sherlock and Watson - BBC Sherlock
Stiles and Derek - Teen Wolf
Eddie and Richie- IT (Muschietti)
Some celebrities have also been accused of queerbaiting. Harry Styles and Billie Eilish for example. These claims will always be void because they are people, not plot devices. With Harry Styles, it was originally because his style was said to make his sexuality ambiguous (a stereotype). Ambiguity is demonised by fans who demand to be entitled to every part of a celeb's life.