By Florence Moran
Queerbaiting is a contentious term with various interpretations. Within film and television, it describes tactics used by production companies to appeal to the LGBTQ+ community, increasing their viewership. These underhand techniques allow content creators to widen their demographic, whilst simultaneously exploiting a body of people in need of representation. Filmmaker and LGBTQ+ activist Christopher Racster described queer baiting as the attempt of “actors and producers and studios and publicists […] to appropriate or to capitalize on a community.”
Typically in the form of homoerotic subtexts, hinting at – but never confirming nor denying – potential relationships between leading characters can be a cruel way that production companies ‘bait’ an audience. The BBC’s Sherlock is a prime example. Often playing up to a fan base that ‘ships’ Sherlock Holmes and John Watson as ‘Johnlock’, the show sees characters frequently mistake the pair for a couple, as well as moments of awkward intimacy between them. This is a direct response to the fan art, fan fiction and general hype of young fans of the show that latch onto the potential of a prime-time gay relationship, but the consistent refusal to ever elevate these relationships to anything real means that LGBTQ+ youth are left dissatisfied.
Queerbaiting can be more overt, sometimes unintentionally. In an attempt to be ‘progressive’, content creators may incorporate queer characters and queer storylines into their shows. Yet the reality is that these are tagged onto the original plot to boost popularity without actually taking any real steps forward. This is so often accompanied by a strange phenomenon, known as the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, or ‘Dead Lesbian Syndrome’, in which these characters are killed off after having fulfilled their purpose or their storyline has dried up. This is most explicit in the CW’s The 100, which sees a relationship develop between protagonist Clarke and her rival-turned-lover Lexa. Once the pair spend their first night together, the next morning Lexa is suddenly and somewhat randomly killed, inciting outrage from fans and widespread boycotting. Not only do these fictional deaths hit harder on a community that has only a handful of characters to invest in, but on a political level, it suggests that queer characters are expendable.
It goes without saying that there is a lack of diversity within mainstream entertainment. When the queer community are searching for visibility to help normalize queer relationships, it seems cruel to offer it piecemeal. Lauren McInroy from the University of Toronto says, “[In our research] we have found good representations are validating and normalizing for LGBTQ+ youth, and contribute to their identity development…However, many youth have to go online to find these affirming representations.”
There is clearly work to be done. In particular, lesbian relationships seem to be the rarest and hardest to find. In GLAAD’s ‘Where We Are on TV’ Report for the 2016-17 television season, lesbians made up only 17% of LGBTQ+ characters on broadcast television. And unfortunately, the more perverted side of queerbaiting sees the consistent sexualisation of lesbian relationships for those beyond the community alone; commodifying and objectifying female-female intimacy as yet another selling point.
Queerbaiting is not always a malicious attempt to increase profit and television ratings or box office numbers. Hints, subtleties and certain readings of characters’ interactions may be utterly unintentional or alternatively well-meaning. There are also some within the LGBTQ+ community that are disparaging of the idea, deeming it mere wish-fulfilment of fans seeking empathy with the characters they adore.
It is worth noting that this phenomenon is not the case for out-and-proud LGBTQ+ content like Queer As Folk (released in 2000 and the first of its kind as a definitively queer show), The L Word (likewise, but for the previously starved lesbian community) or Orange Is The New Black (simply brilliant in terms of its diversity). These are shows that aren’t afraid to own and articulate their nature as queer content. They’re not baiting, they’re welcoming people in and responding to an unanswered request. This kind of entertainment is vital in the fight for accurate representation on our screens. Queerbaiting needs to be acknowledged in the conversation about diversity in all forms of media. Women, LGBTQ+ folk, people of colour, people with disabilities are all in shocking minorities both in front of and behind the camera. If we want entertainment that actually tells the stories of the people we live amongst, then we need to call out the manipulation of audiences and half-hearted attempts at representing them. We need to demand and create better content that holds up an accurate mirror to the diverse world we live in.
Photograph: karendesuyo via Flickr