In primetime television, writers and producers of popular shows often engage in a practice called “queerbaiting” to draw in LGBTQ+ audiences. Queerbaiting is defined as “a strategy by which writers and networks attempt to gain the attention of queer viewers via hints, jokes, gestures, and symbolism suggesting a queer relationship between two characters, and then emphatically denying and laughing off the possibility” (Brennan, 2016). Shows particularly guilty in female queerbaiting include ABC’s Once Upon a Time, The CW’s Supergirl and Riverdale, and TNT’s Rizzoli and Isles. Show creator/actors reactions to these “made up” wlw ships vary, from promoting the non-canon ship on social media to completely refuting the idea of the homosexual pairing. In the end, the couple in question is always confirmed as straight, invalidating the homosexual implications the show pandered to. We argue that WLW queerbaiting is harmful to the queer women community, as it invalidates the experiences of queer women and reinforces the age old “gals being pals” trope.
Once Upon a Time’s first season features Emma Swan, the protagonist, coming to the enchanted town of Storybrook to get back her biological son Henry. Along the way she is pitted against his adoptive mother, Regina, an evil queen who has cursed Storybrook. Their relationship starts off as antagonistic but are united by their love for their son, Henry. In later seasons, they work together rather than fight and consider themselves to be Henry’s two moms. Many viewers noticed the sexual tension and celebrated the representation of what seemed to be a two-mom family and related to how hate could turn to love over something as mutual as motherhood. Viewers who shipped “SwanQueen” saw themselves in this unconventional family and hoped that these characters would end up as less than a metaphor for a same-sex couple and their son and end up married or romantic.
However, as the seasons went on, the focus on Regina and Emma Swan’s relationship dwindled significantly, dwarfed by a new heterosexual relationship between Hook and Emma. For viewers that saw themselves or the people they knew in the eyes of Regina and Emma Swan, the deliberate drift away from the focus on Regina and Emma’s relationship in favor of other, plainly heterosexual relationships was disappointing. Although there are other queer characters in Once Upon a Time, the creators, writers, and actors don’t seem to think of “SwanQueen” as any more than a joke. Lana Parilla and Jennifer Morrison pose with matching sweaters and use the hashtag “swanqueen” on their twitter posts. In interviews, Lana Parrilla calls the tension between them “very sexual.” These two conflicting messages, one validating the audience’s views and the other pretending they don’t exist, only confuse and serve to invalidate the queer women that watch the show and view SwanQueen as a rare form of representation on primetime television.
The CW is infamous for handling its LGBTQ+ representation poorly, leading its queer audiences on to impending heartbreak and frustration. The network’s hit show Supergirl is no exception. The “friendship” above of Kara Danvers (Supergirl) and Lena Luthor, garnering the ship name Supercorp, is interwoven with immense queer subtext. Lena often buys Kara flowers, they engage in flirtatious dialogue, and often hold each other in long, lingering embraces. The show also included a BTS shot of an iconic Supercorp scene, where Supergirl flies through the air carrying Lena bridal style. Their physical chemistry is extremely apparent, with dialogue of Kara promising to never leave Lena’s side/pledging an “everlasting bond” to her emphasising the romantic aura. Queer women find this pairing so relatable due to the intense emotional bond that the two women form with each other, as they pledge to never leave one another.
The actresses who play Kara and Lena had never commented on the Supercorp shipping, but cast member Jeremy Jordan, who plays Winn Schott, publically made a mockery of the ship in a comic-con interview. In the interview, Jordan directly addresses Supercorp shippers and yells “They’re only friends! They’re not gonna get together, and they’re only friends.” This bluntly dismissive comment made by a cast member de-legitimized the entire LGBTQ+ fanbase, denouncing the representation they were forced to create, due to lack of representation, that the community so often craves. For many viewers, fictional characters are their only/most emotionally resonant queer person they know. The harmfulness of these comments is not just disappointment in their ship being confirmed as non canonical; the harm causes mental and emotional pain when their personally identifiable characters are dismissed and shut down so quickly.
When the first trailer for Riverdale came out, viewers were presented with a brief clip of Betty and Veronica kissing during cheerleading tryouts. To a queer person with limited knowledge of the comic book or a faith that the CW would take a chance with displaying these characters as bisexual, this was a sign of possible representation, a reason to watch the show. In the episode itself, it was quickly revealed that the kiss meant nothing (described as a “faux-lesbian kiss” for attention), but queer women hopeful to find representation still found hope in the way the two women interacted. Betty asks Archie to go to the dance with her and Veronica. When Betty gets angry with Veronica, she sends her a giant bouquet of roses begging her forgiveness. Riverdale is a show that is especially directed at teenage viewers; many young queer women therefore could see themselves in actions as small as this. Why, after all, advertise a relationship is not meant to be?
But as Riverdale proceeds to its third season, Betty and Veronica are canonically still straight with no hopes of anything else. They hug, seek each other for comfort, and continue pursuing and dating Archie at the same time in a surreal Bachelor-esque sort of race. When confronted with the kiss and its appearance in the trailer, actress Lili Reinhart, who plays Betty, stated that Riverdale “is not meant to be a fan fiction. We give them a taste of it when they kiss but that’s all it is.” (Burt, 2017) Reinhardt’s comment is especially harmful because it treats queer representation as nothing more than fanfiction, something that simply does not belong in the world of Riverdale. This type of thinking casts queer relationships as the proverbial ‘other’ and informs queer viewers that the only safe spaces are the ones they make themselves. This is especially harmful to queer youth who were drawn into the show by the subtext between Betty and Veronica.
TNT’s Rizzoli and Isles is quite possibly the most lesbian centered show currently on TV, with one exception; there are no actual lesbians in it. The popular WLW ship Rizzles consists of female characters Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles. The show is filled with eroticized and sexual subtext between the titular characters, as seen in the advertisement poster above where the two women are bound together by handcuffs while wearing sexually appealing clothing. The women often engage in homosexual conversation; they lay in bed and talk about sex together (not specifying hetero or homosexual sex), they engage in flirty banter (i.e. “It’s a good thing you’re not my type.” “What do you mean I’m not your type? How rude.”), and they share physical contact within a sexual context (i.e. Jane getting flustered when Maura touches her arm while wearing purposefully revealing clothing).
The above photo is taken from a TV spot by TNT promoting Rizzoli and Isles. The network proudly boasts “WE SHIP RIZZLES”, furthering the (almost) validation of this WLW ship. The network provides a declaration of acknowledgement of this popular lesbian ship, effectively drawing in queer women to watch the show thinking they are going to see LGBTQ+ representation on screen. Instead, the community is greeted with commentary provided by writer/creator of the show Janet Tamaro that explicitly denounces this homosexual lens of viewing the relationship. Tamaro is quoted in saying, “The lesbian theory endlessly amuses me, and it amuses the cast. Rizzoli and Isles have been heterosexual from the first episode”, turning the longing for queer representation on TV into a sort of humorous game. The constant tease of a homosexual relationship combated with mockery of the mere idea of lesbianism is deeply disrespectful to the lesbian community, devaluing and invalidating their experiences as queer women. This denial and mockery reinstates the heteronormative narrative of primetime TV, and crushes the hopes of the queer women community that they will ever see themselves represented in titular roles on screen.
Using subtext, advertising, and occasionally actors feeding into fan theories, queerbaiting draws queer audiences in to shows with the promise of representation viewers will not find. Instead, they will be met with blatant denial of such subtext from creators and/or jokes being made by cast members, all aggressively denying that a non-heterosexual relationship would exist in their show. This kind of reaction is harmful to queer audiences and in the case of Rizzoli and Isles, Supergirl, Riverdale, and Once Upon a Time, it is specifically harmful to queer women. It teaches these viewers that the only “safe spaces are user-created” (Sheehan, 2015) and that queer relationships are only available for particular stories and have no place in the television show they are currently watching. It also discourages queer audiences from applying relating their own experiences to the ones they see on television. This is especially harmful to younger queer viewers who often benefit from exploring their identities in relation to the characters they see in the media. Rather than queerbaiting, creators should skip out on subtext altogether. The best way to show a relationship that queer audiences will support and relate to is by showing a queer relationship.
Sheehan, C. (2015). Queer-baiting on the BBC’s Sherlock Addressing the Invalidation of Queer Identities through Online Fan Fiction Communities. VCU Scholars Compass. Retrieved March 2, 2018, from https://scholarscompass.vcu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://scholar.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1121&context=uresposters.
Brennan, J. (2016). Queerbaiting: The ‘Playful’ Possibilities of Homoeroticism. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 21(2), pp. 189-206
Anne, V. (2014, September 16). “Once Upon A Time” star Lana Parrilla talks SwanQueen, fan art and Season 4. Retrieved March 03, 2018, from http://www.afterellen.com/tv/227091-once-upon-a-time-star-lana-parrilla-talks-swanqueen-fanart-and-what-regina-and-emma-will-be-up-to-in-season-4
Glover, C. (2017, July 23). “Supergirl” Is Missing An Opportunity By Dismissing Kara & Lana Shippers. Retrieved March 03, 2018, from https://www.refinery29.com/2017/07/164712/supergirl-dismissing-lena-kara-shippers
(Burt, K. (2017, January 26). Are Betty & Veronica Love Interests on Riverdale? Retrieved March 03, 2018, from http://www.denofgeek.com/us/tv/riverdale/261603/are-betty-veronica-love-interests-on-riverdale
Hochman, D. (2011, July 05). Rizzoli & Isles: True Womance. Retrieved March 03, 2018, from http://www.tvguide.com/news/rizzoli-isles-season2-preview-1034937/