The Insufferable Queerbaiting in Good Omens.
The BBC Two/Amazon Video production Good Omens is a tongue-in-cheek retelling of Armageddon. Based on the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett novel of the same name, the story is about a demon named Crowley (played by David Tennant) and an angel named Aziraphale (played by Michael Sheen) as they attempt to stop the world from ending because they enjoy the vices of humanity a little too much. Where will they eat sushi once humanity dies? This witty tale hits all the beats of a Revelations-inspired, end-of-days romp. We have our war-ready Heaven and Hell, our Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and unfortunately, a whole bunch of queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting is when a text uses indirect cues to imply a queer dynamic between one or more characters. These texts will use queer or romantic language that usually has two meanings. For example, the TV show Supernatural infamously had a character joke with their “friend” that they wanted to open up a bed & breakfast together in Vermont, which, although not directly referring to homosexuality, is a widespread gay meme. This method is by its very nature indirect, and therefore, there is always plausible deniability. Where one viewer, usually a queer one, will pick up on romantic tension, another viewer will just see two good friends who want to run away together.
From a strictly textual interpretation, it’s possible to view Good Omen characters Crowley and Aziraphale as those two friends. They may have known each other for centuries and have intimately bonded over their love for human vices and creations, but that love is not written directly as queer. There is no gay sex or wide-sweeping confessions of romantic love. When Neil Gaiman was asked on Twitter whether the two characters were gay, he promptly dodged the question:
“They’re an angel and a demon, not male humans.”
If you believe in authorial intent (or that the author has the final say in interpreting a work), then the proverbial buck stops here. Neil Gaiman says they are not gay, so they are not gay. Crowley and Aziraphale, though, are two male-presenting characters on screen, and throughout the first season, the tension between them is palpable. The quirk that makes this duo unique is their love for human things like rock music and food, but somehow the metaphysics of celestial beings selectively seems only to apply when discussing nonnormative sexuality.
In essence, if angels can love human vices like drinking and eating, why then, not fucking and romance?
The “angels are agendered” argument is a sketchy justification that ignores the reality that Neil Gaiman, and the hundreds of people who created this show, might be lying about queerbaiting to avoid criticism. Shows lie about queerbaiting all the time because it’s unpopular to admit that you are leading your queer audience members on for ratings. This is done either intentionally, as shows such as Supernatural and Teen Wolf have done, or, as is far more likely in this case, subconsciously. Queer stereotypes unwittingly find themselves in stories all the time, and there are too many queer tropes in this show for this to be a coincidence.
For one, there is the relationship dynamic between Crowley and Aziraphale (the Ineffable Husbands as shippers call them). The two share a relationship reminiscent of the Brooding Boy, Gentle Girl trope seen in romantic TV shows from Jess and Rory in Gilmore Girls to Padmé Amidala and Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels. The website TVTropes has this to say about this trope:
Aziraphale is the queerified version of the sweet, gentle girl. He is an effeminate, male-presenting person who firmly believes in the side of good until close to the very end of the first season. He’s an angel dressed in a pure, all-white who continually has to be pushed by Crowly into leaving his comfort zone.
He is also quite gay. Aziraphale is portrayed as valuing fine-dining, sophistication, and excellent fashion. He risks getting beheaded during the French Revolution to avoid wearing commoner clothing. In the late 1880s, he learns to dance the gavotte in a “discreet” gentlemen’s club in Portland Place, which while not being directly referenced as a gay sex club is definitely a gay sex club. There is a long history of gay men being conflated with aristocratic, foppish dandies. While this trope draws from some real-world examples such as Oscar Wilde, Liberace, and David Bowie, it has also been used to demonize queer people, and quite frankly, still is. Aziraphale falls somewhere in between this paradigm. He may not be outed in the text as gay, but he very clearly is coded as a gay man.
Crowly is the brooding boy of this trope. He is literally a bad boy from the underworld who, throughout thousands of years, slowly tempts Aziraphale into letting down his guard. The two grow to work closely together, and eventually, covertly share responsibilities while on Earth during the thousands of years leading up to Armageddon. Crowly takes on some of Aziraphale’s miracle-granting duties. Aziraphale covers for Crowly in the tempting human’s into committing sins department. They both rely on each other, and it has a very romantic tinge to it.
There are the small romantic gestures such as when Aziraphale tenderly covers Crowly with one of his white wings while the two stand on the wall of Eden, or the way the two bicker about shared responsibilities as they watch a terrible debut performance of Shakespeare’s Hamlet while standing in an Elizabethan Globe Theater. When the apocalypse happens, and Aziraphale and Crowly are on the run for trying to stop it (the forces of good and evil are very much team war), Crowly suggest the two run away together. It’s like the opening a gay bed and breakfast in Vermont meme, except, in this case, a nebula on the other side of the galaxy.
The most significant nod to the relationship involves a dinner invitation. Throughout the entire first season, Aziraphale tries to tempt the demon Crowly into eating human food, which is a taboo among celestial beings. When Crowly offers to do so sometime in the late 1900s, Aziraphale responds by saying: “You go too fast for me, Crowley.” That line could textually relate to Crowly’s demonic nature, but it sure feels like it was ripped from every RomCom that has ever existed.
Eventually, after the day is won, and the apocalypse averted, the two have their meal at the Ritz — a venue Aziraphale has suggested several times. We learn that this is a reference to the Vera Lynn song A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square, which is a song about a couple falling in love. If you are doubtful, here’s one of the choruses:
The streets of town were paved with stars
It was such a romantic affair
And as we kissed and said goodnight
A nightingale sang in Berkeley square
As the camera pans away from Aziraphale and Crowly, we see a final shot of an actual Nightingale. It seems strange that a show would spend its last moments linking two characters who are allegedly not in love with a metaphor of romantic love.
Of course, people think these Ineffable Husbands are involved in a queer romance. That expectation didn’t come out of the blue. It came from Star Wars, Grease, Dirty Dancing, and the fricking song A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square. If these two characters were a “traditional” male-female pairing, then there would be no argument over whether or not such a stereotypical RomCom dynamic is romantic.
It just would be.
This is what makes Neil Gaiman’s “angels don’t see gender” pivot frustrating. Queerbaiting hits close to home because unrequited fixations place an outsized role in many queer people’s romantic lives. When your identity is marginalized, indirect cues become your entire world out of necessity. Safety sometimes dictates the reading of the straight tea leaves, and thus, many queer people have been forced to learn and ponder the art of detecting romantic subtleties.
Is that guy flirting with me, or does he just like the Dixie Chicks?
Is she coming onto me by having her hand linger on my shoulder, or is she just affectionate to everyone?
Are they queer or just being nice?
Let’s spend a month analyzing this, shall we?
Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett are excellent writers who have demonstrated many progressive values in their prose. They most likely had no intention of creating a narrative that depicts some of the worst aspects of queerbaiting. It happened anyway, though.
The good news is that this is an entirely correctable mistake. Season two of Good Omens is in development, and nothing is stopping the show’s creators from making this frustrating subtext into actual text.
For heaven’s sake, let’s make it happen.
UPDATE (06/20/19): a previous version of this article suggested that Crowley was the one to cover Aziraphale with his wing on the walls of Eden.
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