After having a discussion with some people, one question has been plaguing my mind: is RWBY queerbaiting? Usually this would be a cut and dry answer—it’s typically not hard to point out media implying and using queer romantic tension to pull in the views, but not actually acting on it in canon. With the precedent set by the show already, it’s honestly difficult to tell as all couples appear to be equally teased by the creators. In my exploration, however, I believe the complications arise beyond the scope of the show. This is to say that the canon of RWBY may not be queerbaiting, but the meta from the creators definitely is.
“But Rin,” you may say. “How are these things different from each other?” To which I’ll hem and haw because the difference between them is somewhat negligible—each of them is obviously going to have an impact on the other which is why this is so messy in the first place. In the end, though, I think it has to do with what has been shown on the show as opposed to what the creators imply from outside sources. In the case of LGBTQ+ representation, these are two very different things. So in the end, the question of whether or not the show is queerbaiting may be missing the larger issues at hand. I think the more pertinent question is “where are any queer people?” But we’ll start from the jumping-off point of potential queerbaiting.
In its four seasons, RWBY has had two canon romantic relationships: Jaune x Pyrrha and Nora x Ren. Both of these ships are, presumably, straight. Jaune and Pyrrha took a season to build up and then a season to end following the untimely death of Pyrrha, while Nora and Ren was hinted at throughout all four seasons and only became official during the fourth season’s finale. Following the precedent put forward by these ships, we can make the assumption that unless someone is about to die, any romantic relationship between the characters will take an extremely long time to come to fruition.
With the end of the fourth season the fandom was mostly blowing up about two competing ships, those being Bumblebee (Yang x Blake) and Eclipse (Blake x Sun), and with Bumblebee being the main source of the queerbaiting question, I think it’s only fair to look at these ships in particular. Following RWBY’s precedent with their ships, it stands to follow that the relationship must take a long time to develop (over seasons) and their interactions must be plentiful. In both cases, this is true. Blake and Sun spent the entirety of the fourth season together, getting to know each other and from the moment Sun showed up the two bonded over both of them being Faunus. Blake and Yang have spent countless hours together as part of Team RWBY, supporting each other on and off the battlefield, and Yang risked her life to save Blake during the battle at Beacon.
In both of these budding relationships, Blake has seemed to reciprocate the friendship and is not necessarily adverse to developing deeper feelings, but it’s clear that she needs to figure out where she herself stands first before she allows herself to connect to anyone on a deeper level. I hesitate to call what the show has presented its audience queerbaiting because it’s not only baiting the lesbian ship. If we take a look at shows that are clearly queerbaiting, like Supernatural or Free!, I find that the difference is how out of the way the writing goes to put the homoerotic undertones in the limelight, but never addresses it through the characters’ words or actions, or worse, actively ridicules the idea of a queer relationship forming. That is not what’s happening in RWBY, in my opinion.
While both Yang and Sun have made bold moves that may be indicative of romantic feelings for Blake—Yang puts herself directly between Blake and Adam, losing her arm in the process, and Sun follows Blake to Menagerie to make sure that she doesn’t seclude herself and convince herself that she doesn’t have friends, in addition to a lot of minor flirty things from both of them—it’s Blake’s reactions, and the reactions of the narrative around them, that keep the show from going fully queerbait-y. Blake is slow to open up to both of them. She also never treats one person’s affections as more legitimate than the other’s: she mostly rejects Sun’s flirtations and gets mad when she realizes that Yang lost her arm because of her. In the same vein, neither support group dismisses Yang’s or Sun’s feelings. Sure, Sun has the support of Blake’s mother, but Blake’s parents haven’t had the chance to meet Yang yet, being on an entirely different continent and all. And the other members of Team RWBY constantly reassure Yang that Blake will return and talk with her, giving the impression that they accept whatever feelings Yang may have and are willing to support her in this. It seems to me like the writing is building up to Blake arriving to her own decision in time, avoiding a love triangle and coming to understand what she wants going into the future. A better indication will come, though, when Blake, Sun, and Yang are all in the same place again.
Meanwhile, in the meta….
So, the fans and the people working on RWBY (be it through voice acting, writing, or whatever) have a relatively open communications channel. Fans are well aware that the writers know about all the ships, and the voice actresses for Yang and Blake have even expressed their support for Bumblebee. (I’m sure other people working on the show have likewise had kind words to say about other ships as well.) Upon release of the soundtrack for Season 4, though, things are starting to get a little more worrisome. On this newest soundtrack, one of the songs is named “Bmblb”, a cute pop-y love song that includes lyrics like:
Baby can’t you see?
You could be with me
We could live inside a garden of ecstasy
You could be my queen
I could be your dream
Our lives like a fantasy
Maybe set me free?
Just looking at the name, this is clearly implying that this is a song for the Bumblebee ship. Not to mention that this isn’t the first shipping song that has been on a RWBY soundtrack; the other obvious one being “Boop”, a song about Nora’s feelings for Ren. Even RWBY is giving a fair chance to all the ships; not allowing any sort of fetishistic, queerbaiting lens to direct the interactions of the show, if the outside content is going out of its way to imply queer ships and they don’t end up including any, then yes, that would definitely be queerbaiting.
Some people have argued that people shouldn’t be caring so much about shipping. The characters are trying to save the world, you guys! Or that perhaps being queer shouldn’t be one of the defining traits of a character. Both of which I agree with on some level, but to write this worry off so easily is to give a pass to the creators who are—four seasons in—being extremely lazy and cagey about LGBTQ+ inclusion and to insult viewers who just want to see someone like themselves in the show. Bumblebee isn’t just about shipping, it’s the fans holding onto a promise that the creators have failed to follow through on. Before his passing in 2015, RWBY creator Monty Oum said in an interview with AfterBuzz:
Sure. Absolutely. The best part about that is, you know, maybe they’re [queer characters] there now because they’re kids. We’re on a path to try and help them discover themselves, so, I mean, I don’t even think we need to make that decision right away because as we write these characters, we learn about them and help them figure themselves out. They’re very real to us. We’re definitely not opposed to it. I–a lot of us are for it, even. I have some cast members and some crew members who are like ‘this would be really cool’ but the thing is we can’t just shove it out there. It has to be earned, which is the better way to do it, and a lot of these characters we try and look at them outside of their genders. We’ll want to do what’s natural for them and best.
While having to “earn” one’s queerness or a queer relationship is a problematic statement, Oum seemed excited or at least open to having queer characters in the RWBY universe. Additionally, just last year at MCM London, Barbara Dunkelman (the voice of Yang) responded to a question asking if fans should even still be hoping for queer inclusion at this point by saying, “…We’re still staying true to those decisions” and that they’re “absolutely going to focus on all types of relationships, and love, and people…” To which I have to ask, why haven’t you already? As far as I can tell, the world of RWBY is a world devoid of homophobia or any prejudice based on romantic inclinations. Yet there is not even a hint of a non-straight relationship outside of the potential Blake and Yang. Even looking outside of the main cast, at events like the Vytal Festival or the school dance they had in Season 1 or even just random people on the street, there has been no overt same sex couples. Would it really have been so hard to put two men holding each other’s hands, or two women enjoying a dance? Or even one of the main cast having two moms or two dads?! These are the barest of bare scraps, but right now while the world of RWBY is a world with magic and powerful girls, it’s also a world where queer relationships don’t exist. (And no, you can’t use the “what if they’re bi/pan!” argument as an excuse when every confirmed romantic relationship shown so far has been M/F, with no reason to even assume any level of queerness.)
After coming to the conclusion that I don’t think RWBY is queerbaiting, I’m still unsatisfied with that answer. I’m absolutely in the camp that deep character development is more important than forcing characters into romance, but this doesn’t exclude the need for representation as a whole, and a character can be queer without being actively involved in a romantic arc. With no scraps of representation, the writers are making it seem like heteronormativity is fine, but any level of queerness has to be snatched from the claws of death and doom, and then and only then is a character worthy of being openly LBGTQ+. Bumblebee itself is not the problem, but it is indicative of a writing team that doesn’t exactly understand why people are frustrated with them, and that is more concerned with not “ruining the surprise” than making a show where everyone can feel included. While it’s true that I ship Bumblebee pretty hard, I wouldn’t be angry at the show if Blake ended up with Sun. I would be angry, and would seriously reconsider if I should watch the show at all, if Bumblebee, one of the major queer ships, ended up not being a thing and there were no other important queer ships or characters at all. It’s 2017; we shouldn’t have to be fighting so hard for one non-straight ship, or one openly non-straight character, in a show with such a huge cast.