Ellen
Ellen
May 2, 2017 · 13 min read

Language is ever-changing. The continual development of nuance and specificity of terms is part of the fabric of linguistics. Terms change in meaning and this evolution is challenging. People cling to language; adjustments in terminology are challenging. We like words that are static because it is human nature to dislike uncertainty.

Queerbaiting one such word undergoing evolution. The introduction of layered variance into a once-simply defined practice has brought about confusion and infighting. The repercussions of this debate are felt both internally within the queer community and externally, in the larger narrative on queer representation in popular media. The shift in definition does little to help the cause it was created to serve; instead obscuring the definition to the point where the term is essentially meaningless.

Historically, queerbaiting has carried two meanings: the first is an act of aggressive heterosexuality to shut down queer subtext on screen while still teasing and catering to the queer audience in advertising, public relations, and fan engagement strategies; the second is an existing homoerotic tension between two characters played up on screen while met with derision by the professionals behind the scenes. The most serial offenders of this practice oftentimes included much needed representation. However, it was not the canonly queer characters that prompted the act of queerbaiting, but rather the subtextual relationship between purportedly straight, often more central characters to the narrative.

Before the release of season two of Rizzoli and Isles, Sasha Alexander and Angie Harmon did a photoshoot for the cover of TV Guide was set up to resemble a lesbian couple’s engagement photoshoot. The clear focus on the relationship between Jane and Maura as the core dynamic that made the show work, and the way in which the actresses posed in the photos is in direct opposition to the man-of-the-week C-plot tacked on to every moment of intimacy shared by Harmon and Alexander’s characters on screen. The insertion of compulsory heterosexuality into moments where there is no need to remind the audience that these characters are ostensibly straight is the definition of queerbaiting. It perpetuates the idea that women cannot converse with each other without speaking of a man, and effectively quashes any doubts that the straight audience has about the subtext that existed between the two main characters. This is in direct contradiction to the theme of the promotional materials, which sold an intimate, almost romantic, relationship between two women. These promotional materials were meant to draw the attention of queer women knowing full-well that the romantic intimacy of the photoshoot was just an act to attract queer viewers.

This act of queerbaiting and the innumerable others like it started a conversation; and further acts ignited a discussion that trickled out of Live Journal and other fandom spaces into the public eye. Fandom creativity has always been somewhat of a taboo subject historically, the sort of thing that one did not discuss with members of the professional community. Actors, and then writers and showrunners, started to actively embrace the cultish fan culture that had developed around their shows.

This is not an entirely new phenomena, XenaCon has been around for year; Star Trek and Star Wars have always had a large following and active fanbase embraced by the professionals involved. But these relationships between professionals and fans were always considered somewhat fringe, the exceptions, rather than the rule of fan engagement. Science fiction and fantasy professionals have always embraced fan culture far more than the mainstream. It comes from a shared history and understanding; geeks and nerds have a strong sense of solidary that even professional success does little to change.

Even in these open spaces for dialogue, the queerness of the fandom was considered ineffable. With the exception of Xena, which was always a queer show censored by being ahead of its time, it has always been one of the unspoken rules of fan culture: you don’t talk about the gay. Despite the heavy subtext, the relationship between Seven of Nine and Captain Janeway of Star Trek: Voyager was a non-starter at conventions; Kirk and Spock, the original slash pairing for innumerable fans, was not discussed publically. The self-censorship was a practice to protect the small bones thrown to the community by writers who were undoubtedly aware of their queer fanbase but were uninterested in providing any sort of meaningful representation to them.

And then a watershed moment occurred in the Supernatural fandom: Misha Collins, one half of one of the most notoriously queerbaited dynamics in modern memory, started actively embracing the queer fandom and shipping community. All of sudden, it wasn’t as unacceptable to share fan works with actors and writers. It wasn’t as unacceptable to want to see the ideas of those works — the representation of queer storylines as equal to those of their straight counterparts — realized on screen.

Queer representation in the current age of “peak TV” has diversified exponentially from the humble beginnings of the subtext-laden yet never-canon roots of the pre-aught era. The conversations started on message boards and social media reached the ears of Hollywood executives. Queer characters started to appear more frequently, and with them came queer relationships. The practice of queerbaiting persists on some shows: Supernatural, a show that has come to define the practice, continues on this path with Dean and Castiel’s characters despite the presence of canon queer characters in the story; Rizzoli and Isles ended without ever having realized the potential relationship between Jane and Maura[1]; and Once Upon a Time continues to demonstrate the central, co-parenting relationship of Regina and Emma as strictly platonic through pairing the women off with abusive men. Despite the continued practice of queerbaiting in some established shows, many others embraced queer representation and did it in such a way that the conversation had to shift.

With the canonization of relationships like Kurt and Blaine or Brittany and Santana from Glee, fans and creators alike started to have conversations about what it meant to show queer lives on television. Glee was unique in that it didn’t shy away from the ugliness of what it meant to be queer in high school. It had a large enough cast of queer characters that it could show multiple ways to be queer, and multiple queer experiences. While the practice was met with derision by the queer community at times due to the worry about depicting queer characters as constantly suffering for their queerness, Glee gave some of the best queer youth representation. It allowed young queer folks to see that they, too, could have a happy ending — as Glee remains one of the only shows on major network television to ever depict a lesbian wedding.

Before Glee, one of the best and most iconic early canon depictions of a relationship between two women on television ended in tragedy on Buffy: the Vampire Slayer[2]. Glee continued to fuel the narrative of queerness being equated with suffering despite the good work it did in terms of normalizing the experiences of queer folks. These two shows, along with Degrassi, South of Normal and Modern Family queer characters could be central characters and their relationships and lives could drive a narrative for a straight audience just as easily as a straight character’s could. As Glee ended, fans began to debate if it was enough to simply have the characters be queer, or if their queerness had to be realized through other means to be true “good” representation.

The debate narrowed to relationships; and the question was asked: was simply being there enough, or was there some sort of additional special treatment needed? The majority of fans eschew the debate all together, simply happy to see queer characters and relationships represented on television; however there is a vocal minority that does not think that just being depicted on television is good enough representation to be considered worthy of praise. They are an audience starved for any sort of positive representation, and the burden falls to television writers, often who are not members of the community they are trying to represent, to create narratives that do this ask justice.

Shows popular with large, young audiences seem to garner the most attention in these debates. The high school demographic seems to accurately predict where the discourse will next appear. Shows like The 100, Pretty Little Liars, Orphan Black, Shadowhunters and Supergirl recently have become ground zero for such conversations. Each of these shows depicts an on-screen relationship between two men or women, and each of these shows has been criticized for queerbaiting.

By the definition understood, none of these shows come close to queerbaiting. There are developed queer characters, actively embraced by the network, showrunners, critics and actors; the relationships are realized on screen and depicted with care; and there is narrative focus placed on the queer relationships. Unlike Will and Grace or South of Nowhere where queerness is measured in how little demonstrable queerness these ostensibly queer characters can show on screen while still remaining queer; these relationships are well developed and realized on screen in the only way an audience can be sure to understand them — through kissing and depictions of sex. It is here the debate turns from a discussion of representation to the changing definition of queerbaiting as a practice.

Queerbaiting has come to mean “bad representation” and “teasing existing queer characters” on top of the continued application to the practice of actively attempting to attract a queer audience for the so-called “gay bump” and actively dismissing that same audience’s want for better representation. This is confusing; one practice is far more insidious than the other, yet the term is applied to both practices interchangeably.

There are cases where the on-screen story does not depict the practice of queerbaiting in a way that behind the scenes action certainly does. The best example of this in recent memory is The 100. The showrunners spent two seasons developing the lesbian character Lexa into a fully realized individual and building her relationship with Clarke, the bisexual lead. While the writers played into the bury your gays trope with Lexa’s death, there was nothing inherently queerbaiting about the way Clark and Lexa’s relationship developed on screen. However, the way that the relationship was handed by the showrunners and writers off screen clearly exemplifies the practice.

Prior to the release of the 3rd season of The 100, showrunner Jason Rothenberg gave numerous interviews discussing the possibility of a relationship developing between Clarke and Lexa. The inclusion of a queer storyline and the bisexuality of the lead character won the show and Rothenberg himself a great deal of attention. While shooting the 3rd season, Rothenberg tweeted behind the scenes photographs from the season finale featuring Lexa and Clarke together; as well as open invitations to the fans to come and watch them shoot the finale. Writer Shawna Benson posted as an “insider” on a popular lesbian forum regularly during the build up to the 3rd season to control and monitor rumors. Following Alycia Debnam-Carey thanking Rothenberg for the opportunity and saying goodbye in a signed poster, Benson jumped at the opportunity to reassure the fans that this was nothing but a rumor and that she was there to “help them sleep better at night.”[3] Both Benson and Rothenberg’s actions were a deliberate attempt to misconstrue the fact from The 100’s largely queer fanbase that Lexa dies at the midpoint of the season. While not a traditional understanding of the practice of queerbaiting, their actions clearly were meant to draw the attention of the queer fanbase and ensure that it was held for the entire season.

What happened on screen between Clarke and Lexa was not queerbaiting. A fully realized queer relationship between equals can never be queerbaiting as it is traditionally understood. Lexa’s death started to change the definition. Benson and Rothenberg’s actions compounding the issue as their professional actions were not the typical model of queerbaiting from industry professionals prior to this point. They deliberately sought out a vulnerable sub-group of their audience and through false reassurance, ensured their continued engagement despite Rothenberg’s creative choices regarding the queer representation in The 100. In doing this, they poisoned the well of goodwill they’d generated through a two season long development of a canon queer relationship. In the process, this act redefined the practice queerbaiting.

During the backlash over Lexa’s death, queerbaiting began to be used to describe any representation of queer characters that was not considered by the majority as “good.” Because The 100 (and numerous others[4]) played into the bury your gays[5] trope, it was considered “bad” queer representation. The term queerbaiting was applied to this “bad” representation label because of a clumsy understanding of what the term and practice actually entailed. Lexa was a well-developed queer character. There was nothing “bad” about the queerness she embodied on screen.[6] She represented a lesbian worth aspiring to be, a hero and a warrior, a leader of her people. There was nothing about her character or the development of the romance with Clarke that baited her queerness.

Media does not exist in a vacuum. To discuss queerbaiting, we must discuss the actions behind the scenes. These are as much a part of the practice as on-screen action. If Lexa had not died in the way she had, in a shot-for-shot parallel to fellow lesbian Tara’s death in Buffy: the Vampire Slayer, this analysis would be unnecessary. In playing into the bury your gays trope, while actively embracing the queer fandom, the staff of The 100 changed the definition of queerbaiting. Queerbaiting is now defined as a practice of giving the queer fans the “good” representation they wanted, right up until the point where the representation became “bad.”

This shift in definition is troubling for older fans. The historical definition of queerbaiting describes a practice that harkens a time when there was no queer representation in popular media. To see the term created to describe this practice change in meaning is challenging for many. The the shift in definition ignores the pain of having your identity be the subject of derision and dismissal by critics, show staff, and actors alike. Older fans feel an emotional response to the practice of queerbaiting. The new definition is confusing to them; it doesn’t go far enough to describe how hurtful queerbaiting is to a vulnerable queer community as it is more often applied to established queer characters and relationships than subtextual relationships within the popular narrative.

Applying queerbaiting to existing queer characters implies that there is a standard of representation beyond merely existing on screen. This is a positive development in the term, and in the overall understanding of on screen queer representation. However, the root of the term in a practice that is both dismissive and exploitive of queer existence, cannot be divorced from the evolution. It implies a negativity in all forms of queer on screen representation and does not allow for variance within queer stories told on screen.

With the evolution, it is no longer enough for a character to be a hero, for her story to be told lovingly, and her romance beautiful. There is a thirst for something more, some perfection that cannot be defined as it is not understood by the community. The struggle for identity creeps into the conversation. The power of identity and what it means to be seen, to be acknowledged by the repressive majority, continues to press at the edges of discourse. Is it enough merely to be seen or is it the reflection of ourselves as shown back to us that forces us to bristle? Is our dissatisfaction from not so much being seen, but disliking how we are seen?

To the straight viewer, any representation is good representation. Their opinion is not nuanced by decades of self-censorship and societal representation. Their opinion does not reflect the pain of seeing yourself represented poorly on screen. There aren’t enough queer creatives in Hollywood to change this narrative overnight; and the pressure to do so only furthers to confound the issue. When we see queer characters on screen and we do not like how they are portrayed, it is not queerbaiting. It is something else, a tremor in the collective consciousness of the queer community. A siren: something isn’t right. We don’t like it, we need to find words to call it wrong. Bad. Poor representation of us.

So we call it queerbaiting.

But that isn’t what it is, is it?

The original practice persists and continues to be far more hurtful to the community. We don’t have words to describe what it is that so bothers us about this new practice. It is confusing to those outside of the community and those who do not possess the historical knowledge of the practice. Attempting to parse out the meaning behind the emotion as well as to understand what the practice speaks to in a broader sense is next to impossible as things stand now. Simplicity begets understanding. The changing definition of what queerbaiting truly means becomes hard to pinpoint as it is applied to more and more situations where it does not quite fit. The language around the queer community’s ability to be seen is evolving rapidly, yanking along terms that aren’t quite ready to evolve. Until the original practice of queerbaiting is gone from popular media, the term cannot progress; and we shouldn’t force it to.


Citations and End Notes:

[1] However this lack of realization of the relationship can also be attributed to the extremely negative reaction of Angie Harmon, a conservative Christian, upon the discovery of the queer fanbase’s investment in the relationship between Jane and Maura. Sasha Alexander and the show runner (of the first few seasons), Janet Tamaro, both indicated that they would be interested in adding that queer element to Rizzoli and Isles.

[2] I cannot in good conscious reference Xena here. The relationship between Xena and Gabrielle was censored by the network and while it was undoubtedly canon, it persists in the popular narrative as a ‘subtext’ show.

[3] We Deserved Better. (2016, 9 3). We Deserved Better. Retrieved from wedeservedbetter: http://wedeservedbetter.com/post/141388433803/your-friendly-neighborhood-lurker. Accessed 4/25/17

[4] Bernard, Marie Lyn, writing as Riese. (2016, 3 11). All 175 Dead Lesbian and Bisexual Characters on TV, And How They Died. Retrieved from Autostraddle: https://www.autostraddle.com/all-65-dead-lesbian-and-bisexual-characters-on-tv-and-how-they-died-312315/. Accessed 4/25/2017.

[5] Anonymous, Multiple Contributors. (2010, 8 2 — earliest edit documented). Bury Your Gays. Retrieved from TV Tropes: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BuryYourGays. Accessed 4/25/2017.

[6] There are conversations that should be had around the appropriative nature of her character as a played by a white woman in brown face, who wears a bindi, but as I am white, I do not wish to speak over the queer POC who have already spoken out, at length, regarding the treatment of POC on The 100.

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