Change always brings complications. The advancement of LGBTQI media representations in the last three decades has been tremendously encouraging, but not without its side effects. Criticism is never far from TV shows or films with queer characters.
At first, Glee was a revelation, but its glow soon dimmed once it became clear that the show took a quantity over quality approach to queer visibility. Will & Grace was a landmark in terms of featuring gay lead characters, but by its nature is, in many ways, severely dated, if still entertaining. The valve on LGBTQI social progress has been released, and media industries have struggled to keep up.
There’s a kind of shadow zone that exists between the series that were willing to take these steps towards inclusiveness and those which have done so more tentatively. It’s these latter shows which have caused consternation to some viewers in recent years. If you’ve ever watched a TV show and wondered why two ostensibly straight characters of the same gender have more chemistry with each other than their opposite-sex love interests, you might already be familiar with the meaning of the term ‘queerbaiting’.
For those who aren’t, queerbaiting is when a piece of entertainment purportedly teases the possibility of non-heterosexual relationships between characters without the intention of ever developing it into an actual element in the story. Accusations of queerbaiting tend to come from shows with highly devoted fandoms; think Directioners, but for Supernatural.
In 2014, TV Guide declared that ‘Supernatural Has a Queerbaiting Problem That Needs to Stop’. It all sounds a bit overthought from the outside, but the piece’s argument is sound. Despite the show’s inclusion of text that is far more dom than sub, its writers and stars have routinely shot down fan speculation. The piece argues that the “Supernatural producers have undoubtedly profited from the Destiel ship and encouraging ambiguity in Dean's sexuality”.
This is where things get tricky, because as you wade into the mire of ‘fandom’ and ‘shipping’ (which is when fans root for a certain relationship to develop between any two or more given characters) complex questions about authorship and intent start to crop up. And in many cases, fans create their own narratives through fan and slash fiction to explore these relationships anyway.
But the reasons for Supernatural – and other shows which have been called out, such as Teen Wolf, Sherlock and Rizzoli and Isles – not to emphasise its LGBTQI content are more than likely to be commercial ones. These shows tend to have broad, syndicated international reach, and the reality of the industry is that depicting queer relationships may be an impediment to the shows’ broadcasts in certain parts of the world. This is hardly an acceptable standard, but it’s the most likely explanation for such reticence.
It’s not just TV shows that have become targets for queerbaiting accusations. Nick Jonas, who performed at Sydney’s Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras last year, has routinely come under fire for his deliberate overtures towards gay fans, prompting rumours about his sexuality and critiques of his transparent play for the pink dollar. In a recent interview with Complex, he defended himself, calling it “a positive effort toward change”. While there’s no doubting Jonas’ heart is in the right plus, it would be a categorical statement to say that his interest in his gay fans is at least partially market-driven.
The reality is that the so-called ‘pink dollar’ is highly sought after in the world of pop, and Jonas’ concerted efforts towards establishing a gay fanbase – it’s not entirely clear how big of one really existed before he started getting photographed in tighty whities – is savvy, if nothing else. Lady Gaga has practically laid the foundation of her career on it.
At its core, queerbaiting is a matter of perspective. At its worst, it’s not dissimilar to the “no homo!” style of gay joke popular in bro-comedies like This is the End, in which queerness is present solely as a lazy punchline, like when characters accidentally say something that might insinuate that they’re not strictly heterosexual and they descend into panic mode trying to reaffirm their straightness. This stands in stark contrast to, for example, the warm inclusiveness of this Bob’s Burgers scene, in which Bob Belcher lets slip that he’s not quite a zero on the Kinsey scale:
In truth, it feels slightly crazy that it’s 2016 and, despite all the representational and political progress that has occurred, people still have to go searching for an LGBTQI presence in the entertainment they consume. Even Star Wars: The Force Awakens has stirred these discussions, thanks primarily to a devastatingly well-deployed lip-bite by Oscar Isaac. This doesn’t just happen for big shows and film franchises either; I myself have argued for the homosexuality of an Oscar Isaac character in the Coen brothers’ masterful Inside Llewyn Davis.
Queerbaiting can likely be chalked up to teething pains as much as anything. Since Supernatural started airing in 2005, the entire television landscape has shifted, and it’s fair to assume that the trend of inclusiveness in television will soon wash the sour taste of it away. LGBTQI audiences have reached a point where we don’t need to be baited. We’re just waiting for the rest of the world to catch up.