Beca from Pitch Perfect. Dean and Castiel from Supernatural. Betty and Veronica from Riverdale. All of these characters are straight, so why write about them on an LGBT+ magazine? They all exhibit a very obvious—and harmful—phenomenon known as queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting is when a straight character is presented in a way that makes viewers or readers think they are LGBTQIA+ while the writer has no intention of making them turn out that way. This is often used by people in the media who want more liberal minded or queer attention while not making the character open so that they can still attract people who might not be accepting of queer characters. They know that queer representation is so lacking, so LGBTQIA+ people will cling on to the smallest glimmer of hope that it might show up and will end up watching seasons of a show or read an entire series of books hoping for a relationship that represents them. It tends to make viewers like you and I feel invalid and like our existence is a joke to be laughed at.
The way in which the characters are very obviously written as having sexual or romantic tension with other characters that are of the same sex can make it seem as though queer people have to censor their relationships and as if they aren’t suitable to be seen in the media. It also presents non-heterosexual relationships as atypical or too out of the norm to be public, which is incredibly frustrating for LGBTQIA+ fans. This often pushes fandoms to “ship” characters that are not together in the show or book, creating entire alternate chapters, episodes, scenes, and endings around these fictional couples. In these versions, they usually end up together or at least have an affirming queer moment or two.
When the creators or actors playing these characters are questioned about this, the most often responses are denial or silence. These tactics are seen time and time again on twitter, at conventions, and during live streams. They either flat out ignore or refuse to answer questions about the “couple” that fans are pushing or they make a blanket statement about not having control over the character or not wanting to limit what the character can be in fans’ minds. This reaction of simultaneously acknowledging and then blatantly ignoring the negative impacts of queerbaiting can be incredibly hurtful to fans who really thought that these characters might end up being a couple. Another tactic used to keep fans engaged is to subtly hint that something may happen between the characters in the next season or book when absolutely nothing of the sort is planned.
It tricks consumers into staying with the story in false hopes of something happening with the characters.
The three examples included at the top of this article actually depict the three most common forms of queerbaiting. Let’s take the first example.
Pitch Perfect 2
Beca is consistently seen as being flustered around the female lead of the German singing group, Das Sound Machine. She is depicted as not being able to think or speak around her, supposedly because of attraction. And yet, they never outright discuss this attraction, not develop the plot around it at all. The whole time you watch the movie, it seems as though Beca is going to make a move on her or at the very least mention it to one of her friends, but this never happens. As well, throughout the movie, she is seen as having a boyfriend even though he’s almost entirely unnecessary to the plot and hardly shows on screen at all.
This is a common tool used by creators in order to create homoerotic tension between characters and then being able to deny it saying that since they are in a heterosexual couple they can’t possibly be gay. Of course, this isn’t true considering the multitude of multisexual identities under the LGBTQIA+ umbrella. In this case, it seems as though they use queerbaiting as something to laugh at, making queer identities seem like a joke which is an incredibly harmful message.
The next example of queerbaiting is, arguably, the most common form.
Dean and Castiel from Supernatural
This is when it occurs repeatedly, over many episodes of a show or many books in a series, the two main characters of the same gender seem like they might cross the line from platonic to romantic. These characters, in particular, are often seen engaging in what one might call flirtatious conversation. They also often touch each other’s shoulders in a romantic way and look at each other in a way that suggests they may be more than friends. They share emotional moments and give up everything for each other. In this kind of situation, it’s obvious that if one of them had been female they would have gotten together within the first season because of the tangible chemistry between them. However, because they are gay the relationship remains strictly platonic for the entire show.
The final example I’ve included is a strange case of queerbaiting that sounds like quite the opposite.
Betty and Veronica from Riverdale
In the first episode of the show Riverdale, the characters of Betty and Veronica share a—seemingly non-platonic—kiss. However, as the show progresses, they don’t develop a romantic or sexual relationship with each other and are just seen as friends. Usually, in the typical form of queerbaiting we discussed before, there is a lot of tension but no action, but here we see that they actually do kiss but don’t end up together or even with homoerotic tension.
Queerbaiting is prevalent all over the media. It is incredibly harmful to LGBTQIA+ youth, making them seem unsuitable to be represented or just a way to get more views. This is a very hard issue to combat because we, as consumers, don’t have a say or even entirely know who’s calling the shots on these decisions. One idea I will suggest is to call this out publicly if you see it happen. Shoot the creator a tweet or write an article about it. You never know, if enough of us talk about it maybe we could actually shift the narrative to a more healthy and open way of depicting LGBTQIA+ characters in the media.