The Dangers of Queerbaiting
by Caroline Levin-Cardenas
“The term queerbaiting refers to the practice of implying non-heterosexual relationships or attraction (in a TV show, for example) to engage or attract an LGBTQ+ audience or otherwise generate interest without ever actually depicting such relationships or sexual interactions.” (Dictionary.com) This is a relatively new term, only beginning to be used in popular culture in the 2010s, but in that short time, countless writers have been accused of employing it in their work. From an outside perspective, the solution may be to simply stop consuming the problematic media; however, for an already vastly underrepresented group, positive representation is far and few between. Minorities have long since been forced to settle for a lesser version of the content majorities can easily access, and without more minorities in positions of power, there is not much that can be done. After all, those responsible have both freedom of speech and plausible deniability, making it nearly impossible to hold them accountable for these microaggressions against the LGBTQ+ community.
Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of queerbaiting comes from the television show Rizzoli & Isles. Angie Harmon, a leading actress in the series and one half of the pairing, admitted that, “sometimes [they’ll] do a take for that demo.” Sasha Alexander, the other leading actress and second half of the pairing, well aware of the acting choices both she and Harmon made, laughed at the implication of anything romantic occurring between their characters. “There’s nothing gay about them,” she said. “What’s gay? That Jane has a raspy voice?” To make matters worse, this attitude extends beyond just those in front of the camera. Janet Tamaro, a writer for Rizzoli & Isles, joined in on the ridicule. “The lesbian theory endlessly amuses me, and it amuses the cast. Rizzoli and Isles have been heterosexual from the first episode, though there is no way I would want to interfere with my viewers’ fantasy lives,” she said. Many fans of the show have taken great offense to this. Not only are they being strung along by a show with no intention of following through with the buildup they admit to having developed, but they are also being mocked for thinking the series would go in that direction.
Another egregious example of queerbaiting is found in the Pitch Perfect movies. Beca Mitchell (Anna Kendrick) and Chloe Beale (Brittany Snow) are an extremely popular pairing from this trilogy. Throughout the course of the three movies, their interactions become more and more romantic-coded, as is noted by fans. Teasing the possibility of this couple getting together is one of the most frequently used techniques in promoting the films. In fact, a teaser clip of the two leaning in to kiss, only to pull away and tell viewers to “swipe up for more,” was released by Universal Pictures, the trilogy’s production company, as promotion for Pitch Perfect 3 tickets. Except, instead of following through with the blatant teasing, Pitch Perfect 3 goes in the opposite direction, ending with Chloe kissing a new male character introduced in that movie.
The impacts of this go far beyond disappointing a fan base. In a world where LGBTQ+ people are still highly marginalized, on-screen representation is more important than ever. While it has definitely improved over the years, the amount of canonical LGBTQ+ characters and relationships still pales in comparison to the number of cisgender and heterosexual characters and relationships. LGBTQ+ people, especially those living in situations in which they don’t get to see people like them in day-to-day life, are being used for views. Writers, directors, actors and others in positions of power in the entertainment industry utilize queerbaiting to their advantage. They put enough subtext into their work to draw in an LGBTQ+ audience, continue with the teasing in order to get people invested and then, the second it stops being convenient for them, they act as if the fans are insane for expecting them to follow through. The terrifying fact is that those who control what stories are told hold the LGBTQ+ community in such low regard. Being forced to constantly fight for representation and being expected to be satisfied when granted the bare minimum can get exhausting very fast.
I have fallen victim to queerbaiting more times than I care to admit. When Pitch Perfect 3 was released, I was twelve years old and struggling with finding my place in the world. The idea that characters I held dear were like me brought me great comfort in a time when I felt little more than shame about my identity, and I held onto it like a lifeline. I walked into the theater instilled with hope and left it struggling to hold back tears. As a lesbian, the pressure from the outside world to be attracted to men never stops. Seeing Chloe, a character who lacked any attraction to men for the first two films and spent the majority of her screen time flirting with her best friend, end up happy after finding the “right man” did a lot of damage. Putting her with a man after making her queer-coded from the beginning is not only unfair— it’s dangerous. While it’s a stretch to blame internalized homophobia (the application of homophobic biases to oneself due to the societal assumption that everyone is or should be straight) and acts of violence against the LGBTQ+ community on queerbaiting, it is definitely safe to say that queerbaiting doesn’t help with the problems that already exist, especially since it often encourages the harmful narrative that LGBTQ+ people can be “fixed” (as is portrayed in Pitch Perfect 3).
While this is a complicated issue to tackle due to the number of people in charge of what content is released into the world, a good way to start is by increasing diversity behind the camera. When the majority of the people deciding what is produced are cisgender and heterosexual people who simply don’t understand how it feels to be on the receiving end of their actions, there is not much hope for change. If more LGBTQ+ people are given the opportunity to help create stories, especially stories about people like themselves, then the quality of the content produced will be much better. Take Pose for example: set in the 1980s-1990s, Pose is about “New York City’s African-American and Latino LGBTQ+ and gender-noncomforming drag ball culture scene.” With LGBTQ+ writers and actors of color, the show depicts an accurate and respectful portrayal of its characters and storylines.
Another way to make a difference is to refuse to remain silent. It is easy to give up after being disappointed one too many times; there was a point where I accepted that this is simply how it is. However, I drew strength from friends and acknowledged that this isn’t how it has to be. Following the series finale of Supergirl, a television show on the CW with quite possibly the worst queerbaiting yet — the romantic pairing of main character Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) and her best friend, Lena Luthor (Katie McGrath), was developed and hinted at for five seasons —LGBTQ+ fans are taking action. Showrunners are being demanded to answer for their wrongdoings, articles illuminating their misdeeds are being written and there are even talks of boycotting the CW altogether. Additionally, those who see the two characters as a romantic pair have banded together to donate over $8,190 to the The Trevor Project (an organization dedicated to suicide prevention for LGBTQ+ youth), offering the support that the CW refuses to provide.
Unlike cisgender and heterosexual people, the LGBTQ+ community can’t look outside and immediately see people like them. In many situations, on-screen representation is the best thing we have to work with. For creators to deny them that because they know they can get the same number of views by queerbaiting their audience is more harmful than people realize. To begin solving this problem, more diversity is required in positions of power and we, as a society, must make our voices heard.
Outside of school, I love being with my friends, listening to music, writing and playing with my animals. I volunteer for a cat rescue and am an officer of a few clubs here on campus, where I am a junior.
What was the most difficult part of your writing process for this work?
I think the hardest part was probably organizing my ideas and making sure to include emotion without allowing the piece to be controlled by it. This is something I’m very passionate abou, and I really needed to resist the urge to rant about it with no clear structure. I want to give a big thanks to Mrs. Bolaños for reading my piece and giving me helpful and insightful feedback to make it what it is.
How do you resonate with your piece? Why is it personal to you?
My piece is so important to me because it is about something I have not only experienced multiple times, but also something I don’t want to see continue to happen to members of the LGBT+ community (particularly the young ones). Being toyed with because of who you are is terribly damaging, especially for someone just starting to find their place in the world. I’m fortunate enough to have a loving and supportive group of family and friends, but I am incredibly aware of how many don’t. Sometimes, seeing someone like you on TV is all you have, and I can’t just stand by and watch as a whole new generation goes without that without at least trying to make a difference.
What message do you hope to convey to the reader through your piece?
I want readers to know that it’s not “just a show” and that these things matter. While I’m aware that queerbaiting is not the most prevalent issue in our society, I still want to stress the importance of bringing attention to it. Right now, television and movie creators have no problem with mistreating their LGBT+ viewers because it is typically only LGBT+ viewers who notice, and many of us stick around anyway just in case the outcome is positive this time around. To LGBT+ readers, I hope you know you are not alone in this, and one day, it’ll be better. To readers who are not a part of the community, I simply ask you to pay more attention when consuming media in the future. Queerbaiting is easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, but it’s something that can only exist if people keep watching these programs and enabling the writers.