Queerbaiting happens when The Powers That Be (TPTB) of a show or other work openly acknowledge that their text could have a queer reading, but don’t ever actually make any of their characters queer. It’s when TPTB try to satisfy the slash-loving part of fandom’s need for shippy content by allowing their characters to engage in long, heated stares, share dialogue that could be read romantically, and be physically affectionate with each other—without alienating their straight audience and pigeonholing their show into a ‘gay and lesbian thing’. It’s the showrunners placing suggestive things into the text and then yelling “No homo!”
This creates a couple of problems.
First, this plays into the assumption on the part of TPTB that fans who want to see real queer relationships on a show are simply fangirls who fetishize gay relationships. They pay lip service to the idea of the ship in question, but don’t take it seriously, because they assume that the people who want it to become canon are just in it to see two hot guys (or girls) make out. This is patently not true. Although gay-fetishizers will always be a part of slash fandom, a large part of the fandom is queer, and we read these characters interactions as queer because we are desperate for shows that represent our own experiences.
Second, whether intentionally or unintentionally, queerbaiting perpetuates the idea that queer relationships are not important and that they’re not worthy of representation. It’s like, “Sure, we’ll give you some suggestive dialogue, but actually spend time telling a story about you in a thoughtful and complex way? No, we can’t be arsed. You don’t matter enough for that.”
Shows like Merlin and Sherlock are chock-full of queerbaiting. Steven Moffat for one has admitted to explicitly including ambiguously queer content, while still sticking to his “they’re not actually gay” guns. Sherlock is particularly bad, because queer characters like Irene can make exceptions for the opposite sex, but straightness like John’s is sacrosanct.
Although I don’t watch Teen Wolf, I know that creator Jeff Davis is well aware of the Stiles/Derek ship, and has teased about its inclusion in upcoming seasons. Davis has certainly hinted that Stiles could be bisexual, although so far he’s only been shown in relationships with women. If the show takes the leap and does make the Sterek relationship canon, then good for them! That’s awesome, and I will be really happy about it and might even watch the show even though werewolves as a whole bore me. But unless they are concretely identified as a couple on screen, any tension written between them is queerbaiting. Teen Wolf‘s has also used Sterek as leverage for awards shows (in a “we’ll make Sterek canon if we win this” way). While there is no evidence that Davis was directly involved in this, it’s unlikely he didn’t at least know about it, so it’s still spectacularly shitty queerbaiting if he doesn’t follow through on that promise.
Queerbaiting happens in comics as well—one big example is the super-ambiguous relationship between Pamela Isley/Poison Ivy and Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn. Although they are always portrayed as being very close, no one has ever come out and said either character is queer in an actual comic. Outside of the comics, opinions on their actual relationship vary from writer to writer. In this situation, the queerbaiting is intended to appeal to gay-fetishizing straight male readers rather than females, but the point is still the same. Two characters who have a close and apparently non-platonic relationship are teased as being queer but are never actually outed to the audience, and therefore serve as titillation for readers rather than actual representation—queerbaiting at its finest.
And then there’s Supernatural. Supernatural, in part due to the general lack of any sort of wall between the creators and fandom, is very aware of its fandom’s love of queer ships. In show, they’ve referenced and poked fun at the Wincest ship—and honestly, I don’t mind that. Wincest is never going to be canon, and an incestuous ship like that would likely alienate both straight and queer fans. The real issue of queerbaiting in relation to Supernatural comes up with the relationship between Dean and Castiel.
Dean and Cas are constantly shown in situations like the above picture; Dean throws around lines like “Not for nothing, Cas, but the last time someone looked at me like that, I got laid.” The writers seem to be aware of the huge fandom support for a canon Dean/Cas pairing, but when asked about it, they give bullshit “why put their precious brolationship in a box??” evasive answers like these:
Full disclosure: I ship Dean/Castiel. But it’s gotten to a point, for me, that I’m not in it for the fanfic or the porn or whatever. I’m bi and I want Dean to be outed as bisexual on the show, in canon, because if he was, he would be basically unique on current television in terms of representation. Sure, other shows have queer characters, but how many of those shows are about something besides that character’s queerness? The whole point of Modern Family and shows like it is pretty much “OMG we’re showing gay people on TV!”
If Dean were bisexual, Supernatural would still be about saving people and hunting things, and that would be a revolution in queer representation on TV. Dean’s seasons-long journey to coming out (and, if he were to get with Castiel, the build of their romance) would be far more realistic and representative of a real queer experience than any Very Special Episode of some teen drama could ever be. If nothing ever comes of the tension between he and Cas, on the other hand… then the writers have successfully dicked the show’s queer audience around for eight-going-on-nine seasons, giving us one really positive queer character (Charlie Bradbury) whose sexuality is both confirmed and not the punchline of a joke.
Queer people are people too, and we desperately want to see ourselves in the media we enjoy. I honestly didn’t realize how much queerbaiting I was putting up with until I got into Homestuck. The webcomic has its issues, don’t get me wrong, but when Act 6 both introduced a new queer couple and outed a long-running femslash ship as canon, I sort of couldn’t believe it. Had I finally stumbled on a popular fandom where the creator wasn’t afraid to include characters who were actually and not just subtextually queer? And on top of that, they were all well-developed, three-dimensional characters whose personalities were not defined by their queerness?
It shouldn’t have been shocking to me, but it’s the sad truth that situations like this are few and far between in popular media. Queerbaiting is not and will never be a substitute for queer representation. It only serves to perpetuate heteronormativity and repress real queer representation, and it needs to stop.