“Aren’t they the same thing?” You ask moments before I smack you upside the head.
That’s because I’m assuming the best of you. When you bring up the topic of queerbaiting, there’s usually two counterarguments. The one I assume you didn’t make because I trust you is, “Geez, why does everything gotta be queer these days? Just be grateful for Steven Universe and Brokeback Mountain and stop trying to read queer into everything! There’s plenty of queer stuff already!”
So let’s leave that argument behind and go with one that isn’t based in pure ignorance.
A lot of queer people are pushing for more overt, explicit, unable-to-be-written-off queer representation. So am I. The Hays Code is no longer in practice. There’s really no need to hide queer characters in innuendo or suggestion or symbolism for fear of criminal consequences in the US anymore. The only reasons to do it anymore are “OMG think of the children!!!” (some of whom are going to be queer regardless of what media they consume) or “But we’ll lose viewership!!!” (which in fact isn’t the neutral statement many seem to think it is, but rather is saying they value their homophobic audience more than their queer audience). I’m all for pushing queerness out of the shadow of metaphor and into the light of casual lines of dialogue.
Many of these same frustrated people will look at non-villain characters who are coded queer but not explicitly said as such, and cry queerbaiting. Take the Steven Universe example above. Aside from being worried about each other, that gif above was the extent of what we got about their relationship, initially. Because of this, and because of the fact that many people were able to write it off as, “Look at those gals bein’ pals!”, many queer fans were upset. Even when they went out of their way in later episodes to make it way more obvious —
There were people who were upset they hadn’t done it earlier. This despite the fact that even that first gif almost made Cartoon Network axe the show entirely, and the only reason they didn’t was because it was their highest rated show. Don’t worry, they made up for it by refusing to give the show regularly scheduled premieres (Steven Bombs, anyone?) and filling the rest of their schedule with nothing but Teen Titans Go!.
We’re not really talking about Steven Universe (today), but I bring it up as an example of how “subtle” queer coding can be a strategic push towards explicit representation, even today. I made fun of “losing viewership” earlier, but combined with “think of the children”, it really is a legitimate concern for people creating children’s media. Homophobic or just ignorant parents will get up in arms about their children being exposed to The Gay Lifestyle, and that could mean the end of your show, and possibly your career. By waiting to reveal that one of the characters was actually the embodiment of an incredibly healthy queer relationship, the team behind Steven Universe assured they had a strong fanbase that would be upset if the show were suddenly canceled. It wasn’t ideal, but it’s kept the show chugging along despite Cartoon Network putting up obstacles everywhere it can afford to. At worst, it’s a bit annoying, but that’s hardly the fault of the creators.
But there really is no excuse these days for content aimed at older audiences.
So my friends, it is time, once again, to talk about Sherlock.
I have written two separate pieces explicitly about this show, and a few more where I subtweeted it while talking about something else, and if you think this is going to be the last time I mention it, that’s hilarious. I will never stop being bitter about this godforsaken show. Also I just realized that’s not even the first time I’ve called it “this godforsaken show” on this website. Ugh.
BBC’s Sherlock is probably one of the biggest and most obvious examples of queerbaiting out there, and there were a few factors that played into this.
First and foremost was the writers themselves. Moffat in particular came in with a bit of a history, having directed not only several critically acclaimed episodes of Doctor Who, but also a parody episode where the Doctor regenerated into a woman. These two facts together convinced many if not most people that he was a good writer who cared about representation and stuff, so when Sherlock was announced, and his co-writer was revealed to be Mark Gatiss, an openly gay man, it wasn’t hard to get hopes up. Unfair though it may have been, the nature of who was making the show already set up expectations.
But those expectations might have been quietly set aside if it weren’t for the actual writing of the show. See, Moffat has this habit of making his main characters the coolest, awesomest, badassest, amazingest guys ever in the history of ever, with their only flaw being that people get mad when they talk even though they’re Just Being Honest, Man.
It doesn’t matter, though, because everyone loves them anyway, because they can’t help it. He’s just SO COOL.
This is obviously shallow wish-fulfillment writing, but so is a lot of things. That’s not really the problem, or at least, not the problem I’m talking about today. No, the problem is that Moffat is so insistent that everyone sees Sherlock Holmes as some level of irresistable, and doesn’t realize what that implies when it concerns his male best friend.
The thing is, he must have realized it, to an extent, or someone else did. In the original, unaired (and better) pilot, there was this infamous scene. It’s pretty quick, do yourself a favor and take a look.
That scene doesn’t exist in any form in the final pilot. Someone must have looked at that scene and went, “…Okay, that’s a bit silly. And gay. We should cut that.” And they didn’t just cut the romantic soft lighting on John’s starstruck face, or the wind blowing through Sherlock’s hair while bathed in moonlight, or the pseudo-porn-music version of the main theme in the background. The whole premise of John staring up at Sherlock like that was cut, most likely because it was Too Gay. I’m also just now realizing how nicely it could have set up the Fall in season 2 if we had this scene to contrast it with. How am I still finding wasted potential in this show?!
Moffat wanted a cool character that everyone loved, but gave him few to no lovable traits. This works fine enough for characters like Lestrade, who don’t interact with Sherlock too often, or Mrs. Hudson, who would offer a rabid tiger a bit of tea. And we’ve already set up that the only reason Molly puts up with all the abuse is because she has a crush on him. But when John puts up with the same, if not worse, we’re not supposed to draw the same conclusion?
Moffat never intended to make Sherlock gay, I’m almost positive of that. So when everyone started insisting it was the only possible explanation, he couldn’t just admit it was bad writing. Instead, he tried everything he could to disprove the theories, but it didn’t work, partly because giving either of them a permanent love interest meant writing a well-rounded female character, which Steve struggles with, and partly because he’d built up such a legacy of being Secretive and A Big Liar when it came to his stories that no one would believe him anyway.
There was also the fact that the biggest fans of the show, the people who kept the hype going during those years-long hiatuses and gave it the ratings to be a huge success, were mostly the people watching it to see if this was the episode John and Sherlock finally got together. The people who stayed for the plot had left long ago, after all. They probably didn’t want to know how many fans they really had left when those fans left, so they decided to string them along instead.
And this isn’t a wild guess, either. You can see this explicitly.
And of course, there’s this:
Let’s break that last bit down. The story has gone out of its way several times to tell us that John and Sherlock are each other’s best friends.
And it wouldn’t even be the first time these two said they loved each other in a “no homo” sense.
So you can see why cutting those two bits together makes an Implication. Sherlock’s “very best friend” is clearly John, and it’s implied in the trailer that his “darkest secret” is that he loves him, and not in the platonic way he’s already mentioned. Doesn’t take a deductive genius to draw the lines, does it?
And of course, that’s not it. Turns out he’s saying it to Molly, but only because his secret sister said she was going to blow up her flat if he didn’t get her to say it to him, and he also couldn’t tell her that her flat was going to blow up, and afterwards Secret Sister admits that her flat wasn’t even rigged, so it really was just to fuck with him, even though she also wants to reconnect with him and —
And we’re going to take some deep breaths.
I’m back. The point I’m trying to make here, is that this is only a handful of examples of the kind of thing that’s way too explicit to be an accident or reading too far into it. The fact is, the creators deliberately put in queer subtext, knowing full well that they weren’t going to follow through with it, in order to keep their audience. That, dear reader, is queerbaiting.
That begs the question, then: Does all queerness have to be 100% explicit in order to be good, or even considered queer representation? Does it not count unless the two characters make out at the end? Can hinting but never being explicit still be considered ethical, enjoyable queer representation?
Well, given that I now get to talk about a piece of British media I actually enjoy, you tell me.
Hot Fuzz is a 2007 action comedy movie that you should drop everything and watch right now if you haven’t already. The writing’s phenomenal, the editing’s next level, and it has James Bond in it.
This movie is the second in a trilogy of sorts, called the “Cornetto Trilogy”, with the first being Shaun of the Dead and the third being The World’s End. All three are directed by Edgar Wright, written by Wright and Simon Pegg, and starring Pegg and Nick Frost. Their common themes are loving parodies of genre films (zombie, action, and alien movies, respectively) and man-children trying to grow the hell up with varying degrees of success.
Of the three, Hot Fuzz is definitely my favorite. I consider it the tightest of the three, and that’s saying something considering how well these stories are written. Not a single shot, character, or line of dialogue is wasted in Hot Fuzz, and that was clearly due to the care that Pegg and Wright took with the script.
But it didn’t become this tight through sheer force of will, obviously. Many elements from the first draft didn’t make it into the second. For those who didn’t follow my instruction to go see it (YOU SHOULD, IT’S ON NETFLIX), quick sum-up of the premise: Nicholas Angel is the best police officer in the Met, which is why his superiors are booting him out before he takes their jobs. He ends up in the small town of Sandford, and has to make do there. Originally, there were two characters he really bonded with in Sandford: Danny, his new partner who seems more interested in police work in action movies than police work in real life, and Victoria, a love interest to replace the ex he left behind in London. The ex, by the way, says this just before he leaves.
“You just can’t switch off, Nicholas! And until you find a person you care more about than your job, you never will.”
This is a big theme for Nicholas throughout the film. He’s so focused on doing his job well that he doesn’t focus on or prioritize his relationships with other people. The movie is just as much about getting Nick to open up as it is about the mystery he’s trying to solve.
However, during the writing process, they decided to cut Victoria, probably because her only function in the story would be as a Sexy Lamp, and just stick with developing the friendship with Danny. That posed another problem, though — a lot of Nick’s character development happened in the scenes they’d written for him and Victoria, and would come across as a bit…romantic if given to Danny.
They now had two options: keep the Sexy Lamp in at the risk of the audience hating her for being pointless, or keep Nick’s emotional story consistent at the risk of things looking more than a little gay.
We’ll never know which option they chose.
Since they lifted lines and moments directly from a romantic storyline, you can’t argue this wasn’t deliberate. Even if that wasn’t enough, Pegg and Wright have been more than happy to endorse the gay reading.
So yeah, not only is it deliberate, but it’s also celebrated by the creators in a way that doesn’t discredit the idea as being ridiculous.
There’s also no discrediting it in the movie itself. There’s no, “I’m not gay” or “We’re not a couple” moments in Hot Fuzz. Any time insinuations are made, they’re either affirmed (perhaps a bit naively, but still) or just met with confusion over pedantics. The peace lily bit above is a good example of the former, and for the latter…
If the creators don’t deny it, and the characters don’t deny it, then it’s not queerbaiting, it’s queer coding. There was probably some fear about making it explicit that went into why it wasn’t, well, explicit (remember, this was made for mega-fans of action movies, who usually cater to young straight dude audiences), but it still works from a couple of story standpoints.
As a parody/pastiche of action movies, especially buddy cop movies, it serves as a lens for how easy it is to turn the premise gay. Two people who are complete opposites and spend a lot of the movie fighting end up realizing the value in each other and becoming lifelong partners. Did I just describe a buddy cop movie or a romcom? Hot Fuzz says, why not both?
And just from a straightforward story perspective, big declarations of love or a kiss scene wouldn’t have changed much. Most of the third act is just them taking turns protecting each other at their own risk, and there’s quite a few moments where they open up to each other emotionally. Nick buys him flowers for his birthday and wins him a stuffed monkey at a carnival. They even cuddle on the couch, for God’s sake.
In terms of showing how much Danny means to Nicholas, and vice versa, we get plenty of that throughout the movie. It would have been nice for representation purposes, but for story purposes, it’s everything we need. There’s no doubt by the end that these two are going to be partners for life, whether that involves a ring or not.
I hope it’s obvious by now what the difference between queerbaiting and queer coding is. One is a finger trap, meant to leave you more trapped the harder you struggle, and the other is a Rubik’s cube, literally begging to be solved. Representation really shouldn’t be either of those things, but at the same time, you wouldn’t call a Rubik’s cube a trick or a prank.
So to queerbaiters, I say:
And to queer coders, I say: I appreciate what you’re doing, but this isn’t the 1950’s anymore. There’s easier ways to do what you’re doing, and I promise, your audience will follow.
…Alright alright, you can have gifs too.