Gender Identity and expression isn’t black and white, we know that much. There are many layers and notions that are misunderstood, especially because certain issues are often misrepresented, particularly in the media. In line with this, there is one particular concept I would like to cover: Queerbaiting.
According to Pink News, the term refers to “authors, writers, or showrunners (etc) attempting to attract an LGBT audience by hinting at same-sex relationships between characters, though they’re never actually consummated… By adding homoerotic subtext or erotic tension between two characters, usually leads, LGBTQ audiences are enticed to tune in, unaware that there was never an intention to elevate the subtext to an actual relationship.” Metro.co.uk further explains that it uses sexual ambiguity to tease an audience. “Queerbaiting is like flirting with a queer person for personal gain but not following through with it.”
As mentioned above, it’s quite prolific in mainstream media. Let’s look at some examples. Last April, Ariana Grande went under fire for her song “Monopoly.” A line from the track goes, “I swerve both ways, dichotomy / I like women and men.” The song, a collaboration with her friend Victoria Monét, claimed the number one spot on the iTunes chart 24 hours after its release. While some fans lauded it, others accused her of “manipulating LGBTQ fans by letting them believe she is queer.” Her music video for “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” where she kissed a girl also spurred bisexual and queerbaiting discussions.
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On TV, shows such as House, The OC, Sherlock, and Riverdale have also been accused of queer-baiting. When it comes to the big screen, the live-action Beauty and the Beast had also received criticisms. Pink News wrote, it “gave the LGBTQ community hope by announcing Lefou as the ‘first openly gay Disney character,’ with an ‘exclusively gay moment,’” while not exactly living up to expectations.
In literature, JK Rowling has famously been slammed for claiming that Albus Dumbledore is gay, despite no evidence in the books. This was also reportedly exploited by the writers of the Cursed Child, who “intentionally included this fan theory to draw us in, but decided to change it just enough so that they wouldn’t have to admit that they made two 11-year-olds gay,” LGBT campaigner Jameson Ortiz told The Guardian. “It’s queerbaiting because they knew exactly who they were reeling in and why, but still decided to leave out the main attraction for all the fans they hooked….Instead [they], like so many others, set up the gay romance, hint at it constantly, make it believable and deep and perfect, and then force it out of the story.”
Here, we already see why it’s considered problematic. Queerbaiting is a marketing tool which uses the marginalized gender, without really embracing it, merely to draw in the LGBT community without offending its main audience. “So, via Queerbaiting, writers and/or creators are able to appeal to the LGBTQ market, while avoiding any backlash from the strange homophobic market,” Pink News noted. “It’s just enough to keep LGBT people interested, without having to really represent us.”
Speaking with Metro.co.uk, Dr Michele Aaron, a reader in Film and Television Studies from Warwick University, further explains, “The queer community’s interest is courted for commercial purposes. You gain some rights, you start having some social and financial security, you become a market to be tapped,” she said.
Julia Himberg, professor of film and media studies at Arizona State University and author of the book The New Gay for Pay: The Sexual Politics of American Television Production, meanwhile told BBC, “Our identities have been used over and over again in popular culture to establish an edgy identity.” Bottomline, she points out it’s a ruse to grab attention but has no substance.
However, it’s important to note there are those who argue it’s actually a sign of progress. “It’s only because LGBTQ representation has improved that people would accuse producers of queerbaiting,” says Eve Ng, professor of media and women and gender studies at Ohio University. “Ten to fifteen years ago, the majority of female fans would have been super psyched if an artist like Grande or someone of her stature said something like that.” Prof Ng added that queerbaiting is contextual. That said, she believes there is a “mismatch” between viewers’ expectations in gay and lesbian representation, and what we see in pop culture—which explains the root of frustration. “Now that people are getting used to increased representation, they want more respectful and meaningful depictions,” BBC noted.
There are also those who believe the notion queerbaiting shouldn’t be an issue. “We can’t demand that anyone express their sexual orientation or gender identity in any particular way”, says Sarah McBride, national spokeswoman for the Human Rights Committee. This was particularly highlighted when singer Rita Ora was forced to come out as bisexual after she was accused of queerbaiting due to her song, “Girls.” A similar case to Ariana, who, on the other hand responded differently. After the public demanding she label her sexual identity, she said, “I haven’t before and still don’t feel the need to now.” Again, we are faced with a contradiction. While most agree labels are something we should do without, “In some ways that can feel like an erasure of LGBTQ identities,” says Professor Ng. “People fought for the right to call themselves lesbian and gay.”
Regardless, we can say that the conversation and ongoing arguments on queerbaiting highlights the simple fact that representation of LGBT identities on mainstream media remains lacking or distorted. “The baseline is that representation is critical,” says Sarah. “For a young queer person… seeing themselves reflected on stage or in music or in movies, that can be not just life changing but also life saving.” Pink News adds, “Some feel that a lack of real representation suggests that LGBTQ characters are second-rate and less worthy of decent stories… Others argue that queerbaiting implies that queer relationships are less valuable, and more, well… farcical.” Without a doubt, this gross notion is something we need to overcome.