Queerbaiting – Definition and Meaning
What is this queerbaiting I speak of?
Well, since you’ve asked, queerbaiting is a marketing strategy in many spheres of popular culture (TV, fiction, music) that baits audiences into consuming the product with a promise of same-sex relationships or LGBTQ+ representation. Suffice to say, no such thing ever occurs: only hints are dropped, and fans are left disappointed. No wonder there’s so much queer fanfiction.
As we celebrate Pride Month, we should be able to recognise problematic practices around LGBTQ+ representation like rainbow-washing (brands pretending to support LGBTQ+ but never following through, like greenwashing) and queerbaiting. This is why I’m taking the liberty to trash some of the most popular and notorious examples.
Why is Queerbaiting Harmful?
I know that many people dismiss LGBTQ+ representation in the media, saying that what happens in the real-life fight for equality is far more important. They are right to a degree: Real-life rights are certainly more impactful than TV rights. But they are also wrong. In order to normalise LGBTQ+ in wider circles, the world of entertainment needs to step up and increase visibility – and queerbaiting is a lousy way to do it.
Normalising queer content is only the tip of the problematic iceberg. The most harmful effect of queerbaiting is that it invalidates LGBTQ+ experiences. Imagine watching a TV show where you relate to the character: they seem to have the same dreams as you and hint at following through, and then, suddenly, they do a 180° turn and go off to raise a mongoose farm (although there might be something to it). You might feel disappointed, right? Well, queerbaiting is ten times worse than that.
The LGBTQ+ community already suffers from erasure and invisibilisation in history, politics, and media, so seeing someone out there to whom they can relate can offer solace and comfort. The bait-and-switch tactic of queerbaiting denies them that opportunity and possibly increases anxiety and depression because the media sends a (somewhat subliminal) heteronormative message by doing so.
The Most Notorious Queerbaiting Examples
I promised I would trash popular culture, and I’m going in with a bang with some of the most mass-consumed media content that suffers from incorrigible queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting in TV Shows and Movies
If anything is massively produced and consumed, it’s TV and film. You’d think that it would also mean more legitimate representation, but alas, it seems like all the major productions are only rainbow-washing. For example:
- Sherlock and Watson. There is both implicit and explicit queerbaiting going on here. Explicit queerbaiting is when characters joke about or express outrage at the idea of being in a romantic relationship (which happens in the first episode when Mrs Hudson assumes that the two are in a relationship and seeking to move in). Implicit queerbaiting happens in various symbolic hints, subtexts, and underlying ideas, which Sherlock abounds in. And yet, Watson marries Mary, and it seems like even Sherlock has a thing for Irene Adler. Not. Nice.
- Dean and Castiel from Supernatural. Now, this is a hot mess of a show. Dean and Castiel build a steady, definitely-looking-like-a-romance relationship before the show tanks everyone’s hope of it ever happening. The fans are outraged, massive criticism happens, and, suddenly, Castiel is confessing his feelings. Only to die straight afterwards. Like, what!? The whole ‘bury your gays’ trope is detrimental to the entire LGBTQ+ community because it acts as the so-called narrative prosthesis that serves as a crutch for luring audiences in before being stomped out of existence.
- Once Upon a Time – basically everyone. If there ever was a show that was throwing queer hints like that dude dishing money in a meme, it was Once Upon a Time. Emma and Lana, Kristin and Lana, Maleficent and Regina – all those baits and nothing to show for it.
- Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel producers announced it was high time Marvel got a queer superhero, only to have a throwaway comment dropped in in Avengers: Endgame. On the flip side, the Valkyrie in Thor is widely accepted as queer, with Thor himself (somewhat) clumsily supporting her. We’re waiting to see what Loki brings in his TV show, especially since Loki is extremely gender-fluid and pansexual in actual mythology.
- Daenerys and Missandei from Game of Thrones. Now, Daenerys has had her fair share of lesbian sex in the novels, but it seems that the TV adaptation was not so keen on developing it into a more structured narrative.
And, sure, Dumbledore and Grindelwald in the Fantastic Beasts franchise. JK has stated that Dumbledore was gay, but the movie seems too reluctant to tease that out. Make of that what you will.
Queerbaiting in Cartoons
Cartoons also use queerbaiting tactics sometimes, although, arguably, not as much as some other media. For example, the Disney movie Luca hints heavily at a same-sex relationship between the protagonist and another kid, but there is no realisation in the end. Still, given that the protagonists are children, maybe it’s not the most dramatic thing if the cartoon is not too focused on sexual themes (not because it’s not for kids, but because sometimes it is nice to stay kids).
Disney has been criticised for upholding ‘traditional American family’ values and using queerbaiting as a marketing strategy. So far, it seems that they are aware of the potential in creating LGBTQ+ content, but we haven’t got much to go on. We’ll see when the real full-fledged LGBTQ+ protagonists will hit the Disney screen.
Queerbaiting in Music
Music is not exactly the first source of queerbaiting that comes to mind because it generally does not come with a whole narrative in each song (unless we’re talking about musicals, but I’ll be honest with you, Broadway is fairly queer). Music functions on multimedia levels right between the screen, the reality, and the sound system.
Like TV shows, music’s success depends on fans’ active engagement. If fans aren’t watching music videos, buying CDs, and listening to songs on Spotify, the artist’s revenue suffers. Even more so if the fans aren’t there for live performances. Some pop-culture icons have resorted to queerbaiting in order to draw the fanbase in, promising representation and falling short of it.
A Few Common Examples
Pop music is everywhere: it’s catchy, melodic, and easy to consume, and we love it. What we don’t love is when people decide to use queerbaiting as a promotion and marketing tactic. Recently, Billie Eilish was accused of queerbaiting following her music video for ‘Lost Cause’. In the video, she’s at a slumber party with girls, and the usual American slumber party imagery ensues with pillow fights, water guns (like, who brings that to a slumber party?), and cuddling, all with an Instagram post saying ‘I love girls’ to boot. You can imagine her queer audiences going nuts about the possibility of Billie being lesbian, but no. Her video, among many similar ones, callously treats same-sex relationships, degrading them into ‘not real’ relationships by saying ‘that’s how all best friends act’. Not cool, Billie.
You remember Katy Perry’s song ‘I Kissed a Girl’? Yeah, that’s also right up there, but even worse because she takes a somewhat humorous, nearly derogatory approach to the idea of having kissed the girl. While her song, in some ways, hints at the potential of bisexuality as a theme in pop music, the idea is scrapped as soon as she maintains that her heterosexual relationship takes precedence (I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it).
With Cardi B’s ‘Wild Side’ having very graphic homosexual imagery, Ariana Grande dropping some hints about possible bisexuality in ‘Thank U, Next’, and Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Britney Spears’s on-stage kissing at the VMAs; it’s clear that queerbaiting in music is nothing new. However, it seems even more injurious to LGBTQ+ people due to the rise in parasocial relationships between fans and their idols. When pop icons use a queerbaiting tactic, they deepen the degree of relatability in their queer audiences, only to erase it completely. As I said, LGBTQ+ has had enough erasure throughout history, so let’s just cut it out.
A Case Against K-Pop
K-pop is one of the more extreme examples of queerbaiting. There is something about extremely (almost uncanny) synchronised dance choreographies that draws people in, even if they don’t understand a single word of what’s being sung. However, K-pop also boasts gender-fluid fashion and highly androgynous ‘idols’, and there is not much difference between boy and girl bands in terms of style. For instance, it’s perfectly normal and common to see heavily made-up men and women in suits, all of which sends an LGBTQ+ positive message.
PS It is perfectly fine!!!! to wear make-up as a cis-male or suits as a cis-female! I’m just discussing the iconography of K-pop bands.
The problem of K-pop arises when all those innocent looks, hugs, touches, and so on among band members don’t come to fruition in any way because most of these people are straight, thus claiming LGBTQ+ spaces in order to make money; all the while erasing the actual LGBTQ+ community. In other words, they are capitalising on the allure same-sex relationships hold for their predominantly teenage audiences.
PPS There is a noticeable trend of teenage fans, mostly girls, being enticed by seeing same-sex relationships in the media (books, TV, music, etc.). While fan interest can promote actual LGBTQ+ representation and increase visibility, I generally frown upon exoticising LGBTQ+. It’s not meant to be exotic, nor is it there for your entertainment.
All that said, when K-pop bands suddenly (or slowly) don’t deliver on their LGBTQ+ representation promise, they invalidate the LGBTQ+ audiences’ experiences, creating loneliness and dejection.
Queerbaiting: What Can We Do?
To recap quickly, queerbaiting is a marketing strategy that some pop culture content uses to lure audiences in with a promise of LGBTQ+ representation and visibility without ever fulfilling that promise. It is a toxic practice that contributes to the invisibilisation of queer content in favour of heteronormativity.
What can we do about it? Hard to tell, but it’s imperative to learn to recognise these practices and (why not) boycott the content that claims LGBTQ+ spaces and erases them from the inside. LGBTQ+ is not supposed to be used for any capitalist ventures, and it certainly is not meant to be treated as teasing entertainment. Oh, and it definitely shouldn’t be metaphorised or exoticised by the audience.
Ultimately, queerbaiting is homophobic at its core and rests on a very long tradition of suppressing and oppressing queer content and communities. The only way to combat it is to take an active stand. It is the age of social media, and popular culture colonisers like Netflix and Hulu are listening. So, take it to the web: celebrate Pride, demand real LGBTQ+ content, and speak out against queerbaiting. Unless there are audiences, this type of content will not be produced. In the meantime, take a look at some positive examples of representation like Gentefied and Atypical, or check out some queer literature.