Queer-baiting has become the lazy writer’s way of incorporating queer characters without doing the work of actually representing the queer community. It’s enough to drag queer viewers and readers along, hoping that someday these characters might actually announce their queerness to the audience, and allow us to see ourselves in these narratives. It’s an exploitative strategy that usually mocks queer culture (intentionally or not) and undermines progress in genuine representation. Because it’s “not really queer,” it avoids potential l backlash from the mainstream who might deem queer content somehow inappropriate.
Will someone please think of the children?
I don’t have to tell you that queer characters are few and far between in the mainstream media. According to GLAAD, in the 2017–2018 TV season, there were 901 main characters on broadcast scripted primetime programming, and 58 (6.4 percent) were identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and/or queer. So it makes sense that we cling to a character or a show that hints at the idea of a queer character and story arc. And writers take full advantage of it. There are several ways that authors, writers, and showrunners bait us for our queer cash.
Sometimes show creators use their queer base to promote the show, and then act confused when there’s backlash against killing a queer character. The 100 featured Lexa, an openly queer character, and queer audiences rejoiced (and promoted the show on social media). These efforts helped make the show popular enough to be renewed. The show’s social media, including the writer Jason Rothenburg’s Twitter, touted how progressive the show was, which fueled queer viewership. Until they killed Lexa almost immediately after she got together with the also-female Clarke Griffin. Audiences felt used, and for good reason. It’s always terrible when a queer character is killed, but it felt especially frustrating on a show that used queer people to essentially do their marketing for free.
It’s hard to talk about queer baiting without mentioning the BBC’s Sherlock. Steven Moffat’s creation is full of “will they, won’t they” moments. In an interview published in 2011, Moffat explicitly says the series is “…most certainly a love story.” Watson asks about Sherlock’s sexuality in the first episode, and it goes downhill from there. Every episode is filled with intense staring and palpable tension. Nonetheless, actors and showrunners alike have denied that there is anything about the series or that would indicate that Sherlock or Watson are gay. When asked about the Johnlock ship, Martin poetically states that “Me and Ben, we have literally never, never played a moment like lovers. We ain’t fing lovers.”
This isn’t just about appeasing Tumblr fangirls. Thousands of queer fans have seen the queerness of this series. It’s beyond frustrating that hinting at queer characters is cute and funny until queer viewers start to take the baiting seriously. Moffat had no problem dragging queer fans along, but now wrings his hands at the passionate response of the fandom. It gets to the point that even if they didn’t intend on queer baiting (they did), their interaction with queer fans makes it crystal clear that they have no problem with making the show as gay as possible, and then scoff at any questioning of its queerness.
Another way creators like to queer-bait is to make characters gay after the fact, without treating any hint within the canonical seriously. This way, queer fans can write endless amounts of fanfiction, but the creators themselves are safe from any scrutiny. J.K. Rowling is probably the most notorious offender here. Nothing in the Harry Potter book series gives any indication of any kind of queerness. But after the last book was published, Rowling revealed that Dumbledore is in fact gay. That’s all well and good, but it in no way makes the series inclusive. Fast forward to the Fantastic Beast series, and fans are still getting baited. In these movies, we see young Dumbledore, so it would make sense to have some indication of his sexuality and crush on Grindlewald. But we’ve been told by director David Yates that [there won’t be any overt reference to Dumbledore’s sexuality in the second installment. Nothing says “denial of queer inclusion” like having a character’s canonical queerness completely erased from the narrative, especially when it was barely there in the first place.
And while we’re on the subject of Harry Potter, let’s talk about The Cursed Child. It’s hard not to see the parallels between this and the lack of gay context for Dumbledore. When reading the play, it’s not a large stretch to read Albus and Scorpius’s friendship with a queer inflection. They even compare their relationship to Lily Potter and Severus Snape. LGBTQ campaigner James Ortiz told the Guardian:
“It’s queer-baiting 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, choosing instead, like so many others, to set up the gay romance, hint at it constantly, make it believable and deep and perfect, and then force it out of the story.”
It’s one thing to not have a character’s sexuality explicitly defined. It’s another thing to know that queer fans are desperate for any glimmer of representation, and use that desperation to manipulate them into increasing your sales. If authors and showrunners have no intention on making their characters queer, they should turn the car around and go write cis het characters only. These queer-bait characters are not real representation, and can be more harmful that not including any queer representation at all.
The more we take charge of our own narratives, the more we get to set the standards. Here’s some advice: If you are a cis het creator and you’re going to include queer subtext in your work, make it queer, you cowards. And if you do manage to include us, make sure these stories are as rich and diverse as the community itself. Also, don’t kill us off for lazy shocker plot lines. Instead of lifting us up as a community, you are pushing us down, making us feel like a joke for even asking for a little representation.