Many of us have experienced the tantalising build-up of characters on tv falling in love. The build from friendship to flirting to shipping is familiar to us. We live for that shit. However, many of us have also experienced the immense letdown when those characters end up being just friends. This storytelling device is used so often to make viewers believe that characters will end up in a queer relationship, it has its own term. Queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting effectively lures queer people in with the promise of representation and leaves them disappointed. It’s a way of getting queer people to engage with media that might not otherwise interest them. It can be overt: for example, when JK Rowling claimed that Albus Dumbledore from the famous Harry Potter series was gay, it was believed that the follow-up franchise Fantastic Beasts would explore this, but it did not. Or it can be more covert, like the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson in the show Sherlock. It can also be used, similarly to rainbow washing, as a marketing technique by companies who want queer customers, but do not offer queer support.
The term queerbaiting has been around since the 1950s when Americans hoping to identify queer colleagues would ‘bait’ them into revealing themselves by posing as allies (until 1962 all US states criminalised homosexuality). Nowadays, the term is used to communicate the harmful effects of empty promises. Queer people are desperate for true, honest representation, and when that yearning is exploited, it makes us question how far society has really changed.
There is a stark gender difference between the way queerbaiting is done on screen. Where men characters more often have an emotional, conversational relationship, women characters can go as far as kissing each other without either of them being queer. This could be because the male gaze dominates over media, with almost 80% of directors identifying as men. The eroticism and fetishisation of women-identifying queer persons is as popular in Hollywood as it is in the porn industry.
Queerbaiting is harmful both because it takes away an opportunity for good queer representation, and because it alienates queer people who don’t get the chance to see themselves on the silver screen. Even when queer people are represented, it is often in a biased and stereotyped way, where gay men are represented as hyper-feminine, lesbians as hyper-masculine, and bisexuals as uncommitted. The other colours of the rainbow remain woefully left out.
Representation of all kinds is crucial for people to feel seen and heard. Here are some good queer-focused shows for you to check out here.