Sexualized Saturdays: Queerbaiting

originally by nissanissas on tumblrQueerbaiting 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.

harley-ivyQueerbaiting 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.

dean castiel i'm going to hang up nowAnd 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:

tumblr_mkagljvJZh1rtnrq2o1_500

Depressingly, I found this image via a tumblr post that quoted this tweet as evidence that Dean/Cas was canon now. Nope, sorry, that’s not how representation works.

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.

rose kanaya kiss homestuck rosemaryQueer 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.

31 thoughts on “Sexualized Saturdays: Queerbaiting

  1. I have to disagree with one of your “facts” – Davis has also used Sterek as leverage for awards shows (in a “we’ll make Sterek canon if we win this” way), which is spectacularly shitty queerbaiting if he doesn’t follow through on that promise. Jeff Davis has never said that. Never. So please either find a source for it or remove it, as you can not prove it.
    The ship video was organized and done by the person who runs the Teen Wolf social sites (Tumblr and Twitter). And besides, in the video, there is no such fact. If one wants to interpret it that way, it is their right. But stated as it is in your article it is a lie.

    • Jeff Davis may not have actively stated this but he at least knows what other people working on the show are doing. He is the show runner. And while the video never states that Sterek will be canon if the show is voted for it is heavily implied in the video. Do we think this video is an evil bad thing? No, it’s only bad if Teen Wolf doesn’t recognize either the pairing or one of the characters as gay. By either actually making Sterek canon or making Stiles bisexual as we mentioned earlier in the article.

      Furthermore, Jeff Davis has said that if the ship becomes popular enough then he could be persuaded to make it canon.

      Source: http://io9.com/5951888/teen-wolfs-bromance-triangle-will-heat-up-in-season-three

      If one of these things aren’t followed through on it’s queer baiting. That being said, I feel it’s unlikely for Davis not to follow through on any of these things considering that he himself is openly gay. I think it’s likely that Davis views gay visibility as something of a priority.

      • Funny, I ship Sterek, but nowhere in that video do I see “Sterek happening if we win the award” implied, heavily or otherwise. Besides, Davis stated that he had nothing to do with the video. The people responsible for that are 3 – the guy who runs the Teen Wolf Tumblr, Dylan O’Brian and Tyler Hoechlin. And the lines where mostly an improv from O’Brian. So, the sentence that he has used Sterek as a leverage to win (one!) award is still factually incorrect, which I can classify as a lie.
        Jeff Davis is by no means perfect or without a fault, but that particular sentence in your article presents an uninformed opinion as a fact.

        Yes, he said that in a tweet early on in Season 2. Still, where is the connection with him using Sterek for the award win, as your article is saying, ’cause I still haven’t seen one.

        • Okay, so I can’t find any evidence that Davis knew or did not know about about the video so I will just give you that one. And as far implied whether it’s implied or not I’m afraid we’ll just have to agree to disagree. Even if Davis wasn’t involved in the video it’s still queer baiting because The Powers That Be are involved. Furthermore, whether or not Davis was working on this video doesn’t mean he never engages in potential queer baiting. But as I said before I doubt Teen Wolf won’t follow through on anything.

          http://www.afterelton.com/tv/2012/08/slashwink-sterek-teen-wolf?page=last

          • Please point me where I have said that Davis doesn’t get involved in what is perceived to be queerbating?
            My problem is the fact that the sentence “Davis has also used Sterek as leverage for awards shows (in a “we’ll make Sterek canon if we win this” way),” which you conclude is “spectacularly shitty queerbaiting” is a lie. Because if he had done that, it would have been shitty, yes. Has he done that particular deed you accuse him of? No evidence suggest that and if I had several free hours I could go thought the Sterek blogs I follow, because several months back the story of how that boat video came to life was posted. And it had nothing to do with Jeff Davis, but the 3 people I mentioned before.
            He has not pimped Sterek for the one! award they won connected to that video. But that is what your article says and what I don’t agree with. And just the way you fell justified for calling people out on the queerbaiting issue, I feel justified to call you out on this issue.

            • I’ve edited the section in question; if you show me evidence to support the statement that Teen Wolf’s Powers That Be were not aware of the making of that video at all, I’ll gladly edit it further.

              • HI, sorry to interupt this conversation. Maybe Jeff Davis knew about the video (though he stated on his now-deleted Twitter page that he had nothing to do with it, meaning it wasn’t his idea), he never made such a promise that he would make Sterek canon if they won the award. What happened was, they released gifs from the shipping video, and they said they would release the whole video if they won the award, which they did. It was more fanservice than queerbaiting imo.
                Jeff did say on Twitter that he could be persuaded to make Sterek happen. But that part of the article is still inaccurate. I think what can be considered queerbaiting is the fact that overall they are not saying no to Sterek, yet not saying yes either. It’s an ugly phenomenon to keep both sides of the fandom interested.

                Anyway, great article

  2. I’m glad you pointed out the Destiel thing. It’s not pictured in your blog, but another girl tweeted him that it sounded a lot like queer-baiting and he said he disagreed, basically stating that he wanted everyone to be able to interpret it the way they wanted to (some people want romance, some just want friendship, some don’t even know it’s a debate) so “they belong to the fans”. I don’t think he understands that not picking a side so you don’t “alienate” a particulr portion of fans IS queer-baiting.

  3. The argument, that Davis might not have known about the awards video, is invalid. Not a single word or picture or any form of press/publicity can be released without the consent of the producers and the TPTB. The actors and other members of the crew have their clear instructions what to say and have signed for it. Everything has to be approved by both parties what goes out. Nobody can do what they want and the last word is with the TPTB. That is a basic rule in show business.

    • Your argument is very flawed. If we were talking about an official PR release to all media, then it would have merit. Or if we were talking about the business 30 years from now. Nowadays, thanks to social media the lines have blurred a lot more. Jeff Davis is ONE of the producers and the main writer/series developer. There are at least 2 more producers with similar cloud as him (excluding writing, but here we are talking marketing decisions), not to count countless other people responsible for that at MTV. So if you think everything released from the social media platforms representing the show has passed the approval of Davis before it is put on the web, you are almost delusional and have no idea how time consuming his job is. So please don’t assume without proof.

  4. Y’know, LadyGeekGirl and I discussed this briefly over the Saturday posts specifically about Harley and Ivy, and now that I’ve been and read the Harley and Ivy Comics, by Jove you are right! It was the most infuriating read I’ve had in ages. Maybe it was naive of me to expect more than fanservice-y buddy comedy like it was Abbott and Costello meets Barbarella or something. Gotham City Sirens is better, somewhat. I’m not sure why but I find the idea of these two as the subject of a tragic ‘goodness-on-the-wrong-side-of-the-law’ romance very compelling, given Harley’s usual gig moonlighting as a posterchild for domestic violence and Ivy’s well-intentioned extremism. Lots of fanfic has taken a valiant stab at it (even mine) but the canon stuff never gives Harley the depth she deserves nor their relationship any layers.
    It’s especially aggrieving since I know Dini and Timm are better writers than that, but as you say, they can’t take it anymore seriously than pandering to shallow titillation.
    *phew* Sorry, been meaning to get that out of my system for a while now.

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  12. Hi. I know this article is old, but I have to write this. At the beginning you put a picture of Thor and Loki as queer bating and then you spoke about Wincests as a couple that, due to its incestuous nature, can’t and shouldn’t happen. My question is, since the other couples included in the other pics at the beginning are “possible” at least, if you count Thor and Loki as unincestuous due to the fact that they are not blood-related. As an adoptee, I see that way of thinking as extremely problematic, but sadly, really easy to find in MCU fandom. Is not the ship that bothers me (I shipped siblings myself), but the fact that a lot of people discount its problematic nature as “not blood-related; not real family”. Thor and Loki’s relationship is not perfect but they are still family.

    • Hi! First off, I want to clarify that I didn’t make that first image, so I didn’t decide what to include or not. That said, I definitely still consider Thorki an incest pairing; genetics or not they were raised as brothers and it’s silly at best and ignorant and problematic at worst to ignore that. I focused on Wincest in the post because it’s engaged with so actively by the SPN team (including repeated canon mentions of it in the show) and is therefore a much more egregious example of queerbaiting that will never (and in this case should never) happen. (Thorki comparatively has significantly less queerbaiting, and I think that Thorki ‘happening’ in the MCU is probably even more unlikely than Wincest given that the MCU is run by Disney.) But yeah, I’d definitely say they’re siblings. Thanks for commenting!

  13. ‘Welcome to Night Vale’ also has a gay canon couple, Cecil and Carlos, and they are the two main characters aswell. It’s also one of, if not the, most popular podcast in America. The two are also well rounded characters, and not just there because they’re gay. Heck, fans of the podcast weren’t even given hints that Carlos liked men until *that* faithful episode.

    • Carlos and Cecil are an awesome couple! Sadly I hadn’t listened to WTNV yet when this post was written, but I definitely think they’re a great example of good queer representation.

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