In the past several years, “queerbaiting” has become a controversial term used by fans to accuse popular TV shows of falsely misleading LGBT audiences. What is queerbaiting, you ask?
Queerbaiting is the practice to hint at, but then to not actually depict, a same-sex romantic relationship between characters in a work of fiction, mainly in film or television. The potential romance may be ignored, explicitly rejected or made fun of. — Wikipedia
Queerbaiting, in my opinion, is a concept that’s hard to grasp without giving a real-world example of it. So, before we even ask ourselves whether or not it’s real, let’s first take look at a TV show that has been widely criticized for it: Supernatural.
If you’re unfamiliar with the series, Supernatural has been around for a loooong time and features two brothers, Sam and Dean (played by Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles), who like to hunt monsters. In season four, the angel, Castiel (played by Misha Collins) is introduced. Originally, Collins was only supposed to guest star, but his popularity with fans and sizzling chemistry with the cast eventually made him a regular for many seasons to come.
Almost immediately, fans of the show couldn’t help but notice the interesting dynamic between Dean and Castiel. Not only does Castiel rescue Dean from the depths of hell, but time and time again, he sacrifices himself to help Dean. Slowly, Castiel transitions from an emotionless soldier of heaven to a real person capable of friendship and empathy — all thanks to Dean. It’s easy to understand why this relationship has been interpreted as romantic, and even the creators of Supernatural are aware of the popularity of “Destiel”. Dean and Castiel seem to continually fall into situations that force them to react the way a romantic partner might, but they never actually take the next step.
Having one of the main characters (Dean), who is typically portrayed as a masculine alpha male, enter into a same-sex relationship might cause controversy. It might get backlash. It might cause them to lose a few ratings.
It also presents the perfect opportunity for a “will they/won’t they” dynamic. By implying that there is a possibility Dean and Castiel could be more than friends, the creators can ensure that fans keep tuning in to see what happens. Maybe the next episode will be the one where they finally get together — much like Sam and Diane from Cheers or Jim and Pam from The Office (U.S.).
I say all this about Supernatural to establish what the definition of queerbaiting really looks like: when shows intentionally portray intimacy between same-sex characters (usually main characters) to reel in LGBTQ+ audiences, but will never actually show a romantic relationship in fear of backlash or losing viewers.
Although maybe the most famous example, Supernatural isn’t the only TV show accused of queerbaiting. In the pilot episode of Riverdale, two of the main characters, Betty and Veronica, share a performative kiss during cheerleading tryouts. In the context of the show, the kiss is a spontaneous, bold move meant to earn the girls a spot on the team. It’s not supposed to insinuate a possible romance between the characters — who will later go on to date the same guy.
However, if the scene is as innocent as the Riverdale creators want us to believe, why was it featured in the trailers? Why was it apart of the show’s promos? Surely not to tease LGBTQ+ viewers with the chance to see a same-sex relationship between two main characters, right?
Of course, since the idea of queerbaiting relies on the implication of romance rather than explicit expression, it begs the question: when does friendship become “queer-baiting”? At one point do characters go from good pals to potential love interests?
Those that argue against the existence of queerbaiting will often assert that audiences read too much into the friendships between characters. Perhaps, viewers are so starved for LGBTQ+ representation that they’ll begin looking for it anywhere and everywhere they can. Intimacy does not necessarily equal romance, and not everything is so cut and dry.
After all, real-life friendships are complex: how many times have you shown physical affection a friend? How many times have you told a friend ‘I love you’ and meant it platonically? How many times have you sacrificed your time and energy to make a friend happy?
If someone were to observe these instances as they do with TV shows, they might claim a hidden attraction — even if there isn’t one. Is it possible that TV shows and movies accused of queerbaiting are really just trying to capture the emotional connection and rapport seen in real-life friendships?
In other words, does queerbaiting actually exist, or is it a fictional concept created by audiences desperate for more on-screen LGBTQ+ representation?
I think it’s both.
In some circumstances, I do believe fans may misread the closeness and complexity of friendships as romantic intent. (I hate to break it to you, but sometimes same-sex characters are just pals.) However, we can’t ignore that maybe some of these accusations are coming from fans who are tired of being bombarded with purely heterosexual relationships. LGBTQ+ relationships on-screen tend to be far and few between and typically designated to unimportant, background characters.
That being said, I also believe queerbaiting is legitimate in some cases — shows like Supernatural and Riverdale are proof that writers will falsely advertise same-sex relationships without actually being brave enough to portray them.
Or, if there is a same-sex relationship, the series will heavily promote it in trailers and sneak-peeks, but give the relationship very little actual on-screen time. (Did anyone say Supergirl?)
I can’t help but notice that many shows guilty of queerbaiting tactics tend to be dramas aimed at a younger, millennial audience. Not a lot of people would accuse The Wire or The Sopranos of queerbaiting.
Why is this? Maybe it’s just me, but it’s not like Supernatural and Riverdale are cinematic masterpieces. The acting and writing aren’t top-notch…which means these programs need some way to keep viewers tuning in every week when the actual show isn’t up to par (even if that means cruelly teasing their queer audience).
As bleak as this might sound, there is hope on the horizon. TV shows like Orange is the New Black, Grey’s Anatomy and Shameless (U.S.) all give in-depth representations of LGBTQ+ characters without making you feel like you’re being cheated.
And, with the changing social climate, I have faith that future shows will follow in the footsteps of OITNB rather than Supernatural or Riverdale.