Nothing brings strangers on the Internet together like arguing over the sexual orientation of fictional characters. Since queer relationships are severely underrepresented, they’re a selling point for many potential viewers. Maybe the audience is queer themselves, maybe they’re enthusiastic allies, maybe they just want to see two chicks make out. For whatever reason, queer relationships certainly help with ratings. So what if a writer wants to capitalize on those ratings, but doesn’t want to alienate the less progressive sector of their audience? That’s where queerbaiting comes in.
Queerbaiting is a phenomenon in which writers deliberately play up homoerotic tension, with no intention of resolving it. Although plenty of movies queerbait too, it’s more prominent in television since there’s more time to delve into the nitty-gritty of a relationship. Many fandoms are well-known for reading gay subtext into every nook and cranny, so where do you draw the line between a misread pairing and a worm on a hook? It’s hard to say for certain, since most creators would never admit it, but one glaring sign is the long-term use of homoeroticism as comedy.
If we use fanfiction as a benchmark for the popularity of a given relationship (“ship” for short), then Sherlock Holmes and John Watson (courtesy of BBC’s Sherlock) are the alpha couple. According to a census taken last year, “Johnlock” makes up a comfortable majority of fics on Archive of Our Own (AO3). Despite the massive fanbase, Sherlock and John are not a canonical couple. Tens of thousands of people may say otherwise, but the fact of the matter is that showrunner Steven Moffat insists that his leads are straight. Why then, do he and co-writer Mark Gatiss constantly pepper their scripts with digs at their sexual orientation?
In Sherlock‘s very first episode, both the landlady and a waiter mistake Sherlock and John for a couple. Pair that with subsequent lines like “You ripping my clothes off in a darkened swimming pool? People might talk,” and John labeled as Sherlock’s damsel in distress.Then there’s the oft-cited scene where Irene Adler accuses John of being in love with Sherlock.
John: We’re not a couple!
Irene: Yes, you are.
John: Wh-who the hell knows about Sherlock Holmes? But, for the record, if anyone out there still cares, I’m not actually gay.
Irene: Well, I am. Look at us both.
Sherlock and John never explicitly express any attraction, but the show has a field day hinting that they might, before dashing down the hallway and shouting “NO HOMO!” at the top of its lungs. Surely they’re not trying to spite their queer viewers, given that Mark Gatiss himself has a lovely husband. Nor can they just be pandering to the fanbase, since the gay jokes have been flying strong since day one. There isn’t a clear answer, but I’d wager that the team behind Sherlock knows exactly how a rabid shipping base can boost a show’s numbers, and they plan to work that to their advantage without sacrificing their narrative ideals or offending conservative viewers.
Rizzoli and Isles is a rarer example of female queerbaiting. Police officer Jane Rizzoli and medical examiner Maura Isles solve crimes together and look fabulous all the while. Their relationship is so chock-full of lesbian subtext that AfterEllen, a website devoted to the representation of queer women in the media, features a rolling play-by-play of all the most “romantic” moments. In one episode, Jane and Maura lie in bed together and debate whether or not they’d be each other’s “type” if they were lesbians. Then there’s the episode where Jane explicitly asks if Maura wants to sleep with her (the answer is no). TNT even aired a promo where Jane and Maura go speed-dating, only to ditch the men and go out for drinks together while the announcer declares them “a perfect match”.
So are these partners really partners? Nope. Angie Harmon and Sasha Alexander, who play Rizzoli and Isles respectively, say that they’re straighter than arrows. However, Harmon does admit familiarity with all the shippers in their fanbase: “Sometimes we’ll do a take for that demo…I’ll brush by [Maura’s] blouse or maybe linger for a moment.” It would be one thing if all the homoeroticism was unintentional, but fans deserve better than a slew of coy winks.
Supernatural is infamous for the particularly tense atmosphere between its creators and its shippers. Demon hunter Dean Winchester and the angel Castiel, a couple portmanteau’d as “Destiel”, get surprising mileage on the show for not being canon. Characters speaking to Dean refer to Castiel as “the angel who’s in love with you.” The charged intensity in the way Castiel often stares at Dean is categorized as bedroom eyes. Dean hypothesizes that maybe his relationship with Castiel is “sick, messed-up, kinky, erotic, clamps-and-feathers kinda love.” Just do a YouTube search for “Destiel moments” and breathe it all in. Sure it’s mostly gags or overreacting, but there’s enough fodder that you can’t really blame the fans for being interested. Even so, here homosexuality is a punchline.
In the infamous “trench coat scene”, Dean confronts a previously-AWOL Castiel and begs him to rejoin their team. The scene poignantly shows two men getting over a rough patch, but it doesn’t give off vibes that two lovers have been reunited. It feels like friends making up. Normally I’d chalk this up as just another case of fans overreacting, but then came the convention panel where Dean and Castiel’s actors, Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins, were asked about the scene.
In the video, Jensen paraphrases an anecdote where Misha declared, “This is the most unmanly scene the show has ever filmed.” After a nudge from an offscreen fan, Jensen admits that Misha actually called it the “gayest” scene, but Jensen self-censored to keep things “PC”. Here we receive two damning bombshells: A) the actors are aware of the homoeroticism, and B) at least one of them equates homosexuality with being unmanly. I can’t put words in the creators’ mouths, but with the one-two punch of acknowledging the gay factor but also disparaging it, the queerbaiting is strong with this one.
Why are these relationships so vehemently interpreted as canon? Simply put, it’s the “will-they-won’t-they” hook that so many long-running shows hinge upon. Look at Friends. Or Gilmore Girls. Or The Office. Tension is what keeps any good story chugging along. With queerbaiting, there will never be any relief, and you’ll take that precious tension to your grave. Or to the bank, if you’re steering the show.
I don’t fault any show which queerbaits; they’re using shady tactics, but they have every right to vie for higher ratings. Nevertheless, viewers deserve more shows with honest-to-god LGBTQ representation. A lot of the shows that do have representation are also damn good stories on their own merits, and deserve more recognition. Go watch some Orange is the New Black, Shameless, Modern Family, or Orphan Black. If you like cartoons, go watch some Adventure Time, or Legend of Korra, or Steven Universe. Bathe in the knowledge that kids’ shows have showed or canonically implied queer relationships before most major networks.
Queerbaiting isn’t inherently harmful but it plays into the toxic mentality that queer relationships are jokes, cashgrabs, or Easter eggs for a minority audience. Either include a queer relationship or don’t. The world could still use far more queer representation than it currently has, but we’ve got some huge milestones out there, and we don’t have to settle for a wink and a hand-wave.