Gender Differences in 21st Century Queerbaiting

by Christine Nguyen and Alexandria Guerrero

Modern American life is rife with rich and varied identities, but popular media has not always been reflective of this diversity. From the 1930s to 1960s, the Hayes Code restricted portrayals of queerness to mere suggestions or transgressions to be punished. When these limitations were lifted around the 1970s, LGBTQ roles began to be written for television, although they were frequently minor roles rather than starring. Shows like Ellen (1994) and Will and Grace (1998) paved the way for the normalization of queer leading roles in media and were the catalyst for later TV successes such as Modern Family, Sense8, Transparent, and Orange is the New Black. The importance of representation cannot be emphasized enough, as multiple links have been identified between queer representation in media and resilience in LGBTQ+ youth. In the face of discrimination in their own lives,  media representation has aided the resilience of queer youth through “coping through escapism, feeling stronger, fighting back, and finding and fostering a community” (Craig et al., 2015). 

Despite this, not all representation is good or even representation at all. Queerbaiting is one prominent example of this. There are many different interpretations of the term, but it is generally defined as a media marketing tactic wherein creators will “hint” at same-sex romance or queer representation without actually depicting it, or worse, “laughing off the very possibility” (Nordin, 2015). This is harmful because it entices LGBTQ+ audiences to tune in with the hopes of seeing much-needed representation without actually delivering any. To many, this practice is deceitful and exploitative, and there is always much debate about whether a show is or isn’t queerbaiting.

Unsurprisingly, there appear to be gender-specific differences in the way queerbaiting is executed between male/male relationships and female/female relationships. Through analysis of films and television shows frequently accused of queerbaiting, we can see that queerbaiting using m/m couples is often built on developed and nuanced relationships, camaraderie, and emotional connections while queerbaiting using f/f couples is often centered around the visual titillation of seeing the two characters together in a sensual context and the two leads’ physical attractiveness itself. 

MALE/MALE QUEERBAIT RELATIONSHIPS

Sherlock’s Sherlock and Watson

BBC’s Sherlock, which is an adaption of Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic novel series, is frequently accused of queerbaiting through the characters of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. They rely heavily on each other to solve crimes, risk their lives for each other, quarrel frequently and reconcile, and for all intents and purposes, share a strong and unique bond. The show has been accused of utilizing both implicit and explicit queerbaiting. Its implicit queerbaiting comes from homoerotic subtext teased by lingering camera angles, lighting, and dialogue. For example, one scene depicts Sherlock climbing a roof at night, silhouetted by the moon, while Watson looks up at him in awe.

The show also demonstrates explicit queerbaiting in the way that any suggestion that Sherlock and Watson are dating is laughed off by the shows’ characters themselves. This is particularly troubling to fans who feel that showrunners are essentially making fun of the very idea of LGBTQ+ representation, or at least the hope for such. Yet, these are the same showrunners who included a clip of Sherlock saying “I love you” to a reflection of Watson in the season 4 trailer. 

Despite all this queerbaiting, Sherlock and Watson’s physical bodies and sensualities are never exploited as an aspect of the queerbait. There are no scenes where Sherlock and Watson kiss or get into explicitly sexual situations. Both Sherlock and Watson could be considered as nearing middle-age, and thus their physical attractiveness and desirability are not a major selling point in the marketed queerbait relationship. Even Sherlock’s promotional poster does not visually depict any romantic or sexual tension. The entirety of the perceived romantic relationship between the two characters is built upon their deep understanding, trust, and willingness to sacrifice for each other, not on their physicalities or sexually charged situations.

Supernatural‘s Dean and Castiel (Destiel)

In the Supernatural fandom, there is a circulating “Destiel” queerbait in which two of the characters, Dean and Castiel, share an intimate relationship with homoerotic undertones. The queerbaiting is based on subtext that has been acknowledged by the show but ultimately rejected. In episode 200 of the series, appropriately titled “Fan Fiction”, the two main characters, Sam and Dean, stumble upon a fan-made musical of their adventures that discusses the “Destiel” relationship of the show. However, Dean denies that it’s true and leaves it in the hands of the musical’s creators. This can be seen as a message to the fans that Destiel is fake but to enjoy it anyway. This show thrives on its fandom and delivers with hinted jokes, suggestive glances, and rom-com tropes. Without confirmation, Dean’s sexuality has long been up for speculation, leaving fans of the show dissatisfied. Overall, there is no transparency and leaves false hope to the possibility of Dean’s queerness.

Dean and Castiel Gazing at Each Other

Dean and Castiel’s relationship is built up from the fourth to the fifteenth season, giving showrunners ample time to tease fans with veiled suggestions based on the two character’s intense and nuanced bond. Castiel is quite literally Dean’s guardian angel, and yet both men endanger and rescue each other at different points throughout the series. Despite this, Dean and Castiel never cross the line into overt romantic or sexual situations. They never share a kiss or a genuinely sensual moment. Both men are traditionally attractive in their own right, but their bond is never bastardized by putting them in sexualizing or fetishizing scenarios just for the sake of queerbaiting. Their version of queerbait is based purely on the strength of their emotional connection, which has been built up through the trials they have undergone together and their own character development. 

Fantastic Beast‘s Dumbledore and Grindelwald

The author of the beloved Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling, has infamously been accused of queerbaiting in her novels. Revisioning her early works, she creates relationships that are not evident in the movies and exist only on her social media platforms. This is specifically true for the character of Albus Dumbledore, who in his younger wizarding life supposedly had a romantic relationship with Gellert Grindelwald, who later becomes the a villain. Previously, their relationship was only confirmed and talked about on Twitter, but the release and presence of both characters in the Fantastic Beast series showed no evidence to support their romantic relationship. Consequently, this is damaging to LGBTQ+ representation, since there is no visual nor verbal proof that the relationship claimed by Rowling exists. Many who love the series expressed their disappointment in the author for not committing to or even mentioning the relationship in the films. This again leads to a lack of LGBTQ+ representation on the big screen when it could’ve been present in a huge movie franchise. 

J.K. Rowling, Author of ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘Fantastic Beasts’

This is a unique example of queerbaiting after the fact to deepen the complexity of a relationship since the producers were either too lazy or too cowardly to include visible LGBTQ+ representation. This form of queerbaiting requires the audience to take what they know about two characters and extrapolate their personalities and actions to fit into a claimed relationship. Clearly, there are not even opportunities for the main characters to engage in any overtly romantic, sexual, or fetishizing situations. The entire “alleged” relationship and queerbait is built upon the developed personalities and backstories of Dumbledore and Grindelwald themselves. 

Hegemonic Masculinity in M/M Queerbaiting

One interesting thing to note is the fact that many of the male characters accused of being in queerbaiting relationships subscribe to norms of hegemonic masculinity and are portrayed as behaving in traditionally “heterosexual” and “masculine” ways. Characters are very rarely written as acting openly effeminate or in a stereotypically “queer” manner. With some notable exceptions, like Star Wars’ Finn and Poe, male characters in queerbait relationships are predominantly white, cis, and able-bodied, which are hallmark traits of hegemonic masculinity. For example, Sherlock and Watson fit neatly into these categories, with Sherlock embodying many traits idealized as “masculine” in the 21st century such as “bravery, rationality, and intellectual strength” (Walrecht, 2017). By queerbaiting their audience, and also strictly using protagonists who subscribe to hegemonic masculinity to do so, showrunners are not only depriving viewers of LGBTQ+ representation, they are also upholding some of the hegemonic patriarchal, racist, and homophobic norms of society. 

FEMALE/FEMALE QUEERBAIT RELATIONSHIPS

Riverdale’s Betty and Veronica

A clearcut example of queerbaiting using female characters is Riverdale’s inclusion of a kiss between main characters Betty and Veronica in its season 1 trailer. Fans were initially excited to see what could potentially be a full-fledged lesbian relationship and were later disappointed when both Betty and Veronica turned out to be straight. Worsening the matter is the fact that they only kissed to seem edgy and exotic for their cheerleading tryouts. Not only was the viewership of LGBTQ+ audiences and allies exploited, but the characters Betty and Veronica also exploited the traditionally queer action of a lesbian kiss in order to gain points at an audition. This is incredibly insensitive considering the fact that LGBTQ+ youth still experience “microlevel homophobia and macrolevel stereotyping” in their daily lives (Craig et al., 2015).

Betty and Veronica Kiss

In contrast to the dynamics of most m/m queerbait relationships, Betty and Veronica had no sort of close relationship before they shared the kiss. In fact, they had just met at the cheerleading auditions that same day. Thus, the entirety of the queerbaiting is based on the fact that they are both young, traditionally attractive girls sharing a sensual moment. The camera lingers on them before panning to show a group of basketball players watching and catcalling in the background. Thus, it is clear that this kiss was meant to be something fetishized and taboo and not a genuine moment of LGBTQ+ representation. Their bodies, and the allure and desirability of such, were used as a vehicle with which to deliver the queerbaiting. As will be reiterated in the subsequent example, it is common for f/f queerbaiting to include explicitly sexual or sensual moments. This is much rarer in m/m queerbaiting, which often never crosses this sexual line.

Killing Eve‘s Eve and Villanelle

The relationship between M16 agent Eve Polastri and assassin Villanelle from Killing Eve is much more complex but has similarly been accused of being queerbait. Eve is charged with hunting down Villanelle and the two vie for dominance in a cat-and-mouse game during which both women develop a twisted obsession with the other. Killing Eve seems to follow the conventions of the popular enemies-to-lovers trope without ever actually turning Eve and Villanelle into lovers. Despite the lack of delivery on LGBTQ+ representation, marketing for the show seems to explicitly tease a sexual or romantic relationship. One promotional image from the show depicts the two characters in an intimate embrace, with Eve gazing into Villanelle’s eyes. Killing Eve posters carry this theme by saying things such as “Does this excite you Eve?” and “Have you told your husband about us Eve?” This explicitly sensual tactic diverges from the marketing of m/m queerbaiting relationships which rarely contain such in-your-face romantic themes in their promotional materials. 

Killing Eve Promotional Image
Killing Eve Promotional Posters

Within the show itself, Eve and Villanelle share dialogue that is explicitly erotic, such as Villanelle telling Eve, “I masturbate about you” and Eve telling Villanelle, “We’d consume each other before we got old.” The two characters even share a kiss in season 3. Despite this, Sandra Oh, who plays Eve, denied the existence of a sexual relationship between the characters by saying, “You guys are tricky because you want to make it into something…but it just isn’t.” It appears that the sexual tension depicted between the two characters is simply to further the high stakes and drama of the show, and not as a confirmation of truly LGBTQ+ characters or LGBTQ+ representation. While Eve and Villanelle do have a complex relationship like similar m/m relationships accused of being queerbait, there is an explicitly sexual thread throughout all of their interactions that is either nonexistent or merely implied in m/m queerbait. Viewers use these instances of explicit sensuality to validate Eve and Villanelle’s perceived relationship whereas fans of m/m queerbait relationships often have to rely on the implicit closeness, camaraderie, and emotional connection between the two male characters to “prove” their romantic connection.

Fetishization and the Male Gaze

One possible explanation for the apparent gender difference in queerbaiting could be the disproportionate number of men behind the camera in Hollywood and how this contributes to the male gaze in media. In fact, in 2018, women comprised only “20% of all directors, writers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers working on the top 250 domestic grossing films” (Lauzen, 2019). The male gaze occurs when the audience is placed in the perspective of the heterosexual man, and it tends to objectify and sexualize the female form, reducing her to a passive player. This might explain why m/m queerbait is often dependent on the backstory and personal development of the individual characters as well as the strength of their emotional bond. In contrast, f/f queerbait does not necessarily need any of these things.

For example, Betty and Veronica’s kiss was depicted as carrying no emotional weight and was executed for a shallow purpose. They became passive objects to be viewed by both the other characters in the show and the audience watching Riverdale. Eve and Villanelle do have a special bond and strong character development, but the overtly sensual elements of their queerbaiting are way beyond the bounds of what most m/m queerbait is extended to. Their queerbaiting relies both on their emotional connection and the eroticism of their interactions, thus subjecting two strong female characters to a degree of fetishization.

Queerbaiting serves more as a publicity stunt to “satisfy” or entice the LGBTQ+ community and less as a respectful and accurate form of representation. It is little more than a scapegoat from confessing the truth of LGBTQ+ individuals out into the world by hiding what little might be seen. As the world is made up of a variety of individual identities, it is important to value minority communities through thoughtful representation that informs, educates, and uplifts instead of degrading what little portrayal there is through stereotypes or veiled assumptions. Additionally, through these few examples, it can be seen that almost anything associated with women, even queerbaiting, will be more hypersexualized than the equivalent concepts connected to men. This likely will not change until gender parity and equal respect are achieved in the television and film industries, and that might be a long time coming.

Citations

Craig, S. L., Mcinroy, L., Mccready, L. T., & Alaggia, R. (2015). Media: A Catalyst for Resilience in Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Youth. Journal of LGBT Youth, 12(3), 254-275. doi:10.1080/19361653.2015.1040193

Gennis, S. (2014 November 17). Supernatural Has a Queerbaiting Problem That Needs to Stop. TV Guide. https://www.tvguide.com/news/supernatural-queerbaiting-destiel-1089286/

Lauzen, M. M. (2019) The Celluloid Ceiling: Behind-the-Scenes Employment of Women on the Top 100, 250, and 500 Films of 2018. Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film. Retrieved from: http://womenintvfilm. sdsu.edu/files/2018_Celluloid_Ceiling_Report.pdf

M, S. (2020 June 29). Pride Month 2020: How fanfiction queered straight TV by dwelling uncomfortable between real life and fiction. Meaww. https://meaww.com/pride-month-2020-how-fanfiction-queered-straight-tv-dwelling-between-real-life-fiction-superwholock

Mahoney, N. (2019). J. K. needs to stop Harry Potter queerbaiting. 29(5), 6–8. http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.utexas.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=1&sid=499a9b41-5894-42bd-b3d9-65dbc247ad40%40sessionmgr4006

Nordin, E. (2015). From queer reading to queerbaiting: The battle over the polysemic text and the power of hermeneutics (Unpublished master’s thesis). Retrieved from https://www.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:839802/FULLTEXT01.pdf

Shukla, P. (2020 June 10). JK Rowling Has Been Disappointing Harry Potter Fans For Years. the quint. https://www.thequint.com/neon/social-buzz/jk-rowling-disappointing-harry-potter-fans

Walrecht, G. (2017). Brainy is the new sexy: masculinity in Sherlock Holmes (Unpublished master’s thesis). Retrieved from https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/57104/Walrecht_Dissertation%20Final_Student%20Repository.pdf?sequence=1

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