By Jem Wilcox
When we think of queer relationships on television, plenty of great examples come to mind: Willow and Tara in Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Klaus and Dave in The Umbrella Academy, Raymond and Kevin in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Yorkie and Kelly in Black Mirror’s ‘San Junipero’ — and the list goes on. But what about the LGBT relationships that were never meant to be?
Queerbaiting, a technique deployed by creators in entertainment to tease the development of a queer relationship between two characters without ever actually confirming it, has been used for decades to attract the support of LGBT audiences and increase viewer ratings. The suggestion of certain characters having an LGBT identity can be an exciting prospect for an audience in need of representation and its momentum can be sustained for a long time. It’s only when the creators or the characters themselves speak to the contrary that these illusions of queer representation are shattered, and a show’s reputation for inclusivity is taken away as quickly as it was gained.
It may not be immediately obvious to some audiences which TV shows are guilty of queerbaiting and some relationships are often brushed off as mere “bromances” or even denied entirely due to the subtlety of the characters’ interactions. However, it is impossible to deny the purposeful homosexual subtext of certain on screen relationships, particularly when their creators admit to doing it. Rizzoli & Isles became a subject of controversy when its writers confessed to emphasising the “gayness” of its two titular female characters, despite simultaneously confirming that they “have been heterosexual from the first episode”, according to Janet Tamaro, which was naturally disappointing for fans rooting for a relationship between the two, only to find out it was never even a possibility.
Its only effect today is to undermine real queer people and their relationships
Whilst queerbaiting itself should not be considered as an acceptable technique, some writers were able to resolve the issue and develop the teased relationship into a canonical storyline. An example of this is lesbian couple Santana and Brittany from Glee, whose first season together was treated as a casual, “just gals being gals” hookup before writers undertook a more serious exploration of the characters’ sexualities, leading to their marriage in the final season.
Another is Eleanor and Tahani in The Good Place: Eleanor (Kristen Bell) makes frequent off-hand comments throughout about her physical attraction to Tahani, which was brushed off as a “girl crush” until the show presented them as canonical soulmates (at least, in one version of reality). These examples demonstrate that, despite not originally intending for the involved characters to actually have LGBT identities, it is possible to later include these aspects of a character’s life in a more thoughtful manner and successfully rectify the initial problem.
Unfortunately, not every show is capable of managing this. For years, Supernatural has come under fire for its controversial stance on the relationship between characters Dean and Castiel, one of the more recent well-known examples of queerbaiting. Having stated that neither character was written to have romantic feelings for the other, the creators of the show suddenly backtracked on their previous comments in the ante-penultimate episode in a meagre attempt at fan service. Castiel, having just admitted his love for Dean, which actor Misha Collins confirmed he played as a romantic confession, is killed off just moments later, leaving his feelings unanswered and unrequited forever, as well as awkwardly fulfilling the “bury your gays” trope. Fans were left completely unsatisfied, both by the death of a beloved character and by an inadequate attempt at back-pedalling on previous admissions of queerbaiting. The inconclusive ending of what was already a largely false depiction of a homosexual romance was written purely for the amusement of viewers, but without any intention of being taken seriously until the very last moment.
Perhaps, once upon a time, it could have been argued that queerbaiting was a more subtle demonstration of progressive inclusivity on our screens (for example: Ryan Evans in the High School Musical films, a character retrospectively confirmed as gay by director Kenny Ortega, who suspected explicit homosexuality may have been “too far” for a family-friendly Disney film when they premiered in the 2000s), but nowadays it’s an outdated and cheap tactic to attract more viewers. Its only effect today is to undermine real queer people and their relationships, using them as the punchline of a joke or as a lazy marketing technique instead of depicting them as equal in validity to heterosexual relationships. By promoting the underlying message that non-heterosexual characters and relationships are best used for comedic purposes, creators run the risk of eventually alienating the very LGBT audiences they seek to attract. Instead, they should aim to realistically depict queer relationships, normalise them alongside heterosexual experiences, and show real support for their audiences.