What is Queerbaiting?

Good television shows, movies, or any type of media that has the promise of LGBTQ+ representation are some of the ones mostly sought out by me. I start watchig a television show or movie and see two characters that have amazing chemistry, they care so deeply for each other, they express feelings that are so alike to the ones LGBTQ+ people feel and then… nothing. I have been incredibly disappointed to find out that everything was a lie and that the characters who were implied of being LGBTQ+ were actually straight. The term for this practice is “queerbaiting”. If you’ve never heard of it, queerbaiting is defined as the practice of hinting that characters may be non-heterosexual without any intention of ever confirming it and/or making them openly LGBTQ+ and in a relationship. It can be described as a marketing ploy to seem more diverse and to pull in LGBTQ+ readers or viewers, without ‘offending’ or ‘alienating’ others who might not be so accepting.

To visualize this here are two examples of queerbaiting (Warning: there will be spoilers!):

1. Albus Dumbledore from Harry Potter

During a 2007 interview, Harry Potter author J.K Rowling revealed that Albus Dumbledore was gay. As groundbreaking as this was, it was never mentioned in the books and by the time Rowling revealed it, the last book of the series had been released and Dumbledore had been dead for ages. Director David Yates revealed that in the upcoming movie: The Crimes of Grindelwald, part of the Fantastic Beasts’ franchise and both of which Rowling has written the script for, Dumbledore’s sexual orientation will not be referenced directly. This sounds odd given that Dumbledore was in love with Grindelwald who just so happens to be the title character in this movie. As expected, fans were upset because they had hoped to see Dumbledore finally be able to embrace his sexuality, or at least acknowledge it, but, once again, they had been queerbaited. It seems that Rowling said Dumbledore was gay because of the criticism to the lack of LGBTQ+ characters in the Harry Potter franchise. This can be described as a letdown, as there are barely any LGBTQ+ characters in children’s books and Rowling had the perfect opportunity, instead she chose to continue queerbaiting (this was done again the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play, where Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy’s friendship was a little too friendly; only to end in disappointment).

2. Betty and Veronica from Riverdale

Now I’ll be honest, I never got past the first episode of Riverdale (don’t kill me, Riverdale fans) precisely because I knew they were trying to bait me and other LGBTQ+ viewers to continue watching. In the first episode of season one, main characters Betty and Veronica shared a kiss and many viewers thought that they were going to have a relationship develop during some point of the season. Well, prepare to be disappointed because nothing happened after this. Absolutely nothing, wasn’t even referenced except for when Lili Reinhart spoke about it on twitter:

Guess what? Nothing happened in season two either.       

There so many more examples of queerbaiting like the main characters of Rizzoli & Isles, Supergirl, Sherlock and John from Sherlock, Dean and Castiel from Supernatural, etc. Characters whose relationships are being developed on screen, with strong subtext that suggests a romantic and/or sexual relationship but with no intention of ever making anything official. Ask most producers, writers, or anybody involved with a show or movie and they likely won’t deny anything; choosing instead to give vague answers (like ‘the characters are so special and they can mean to you what you want them to’, better known as ‘audience interpretation’). Not all choose this route though, Sherlock writers have vehemently denied that Sherlock or John are gay, yet the subtext is still there for everyone to clearly see. They are constantly asked if they are a couple, they are confused by some as a couple, the series four trailer had Sherlock saying, ‘I love you’ to someone, I could go on. Yet the writers have no intention for Sherlock and John to be in a relationship; if Sherlock is asexual and John is straight, then why all the queer subtext in the show? And this was even after John got married to a woman. Let’s not even get into the time most of the Supergirl cast openly dismissed and mocked shippers of Kara and Lena Luthor during Comin Con in 2017. I’ll say this though, just because a relationship between two characters is not official, it does not mean someone can go around mocking those who wish it to be; those who want more representation.

Speaking of representation, for years LGBTQ+ characters were either tragic, evil, or a joke. So why is it that, after we see small changes and more great and complex LGBTQ+ characters in some media, queerbaiting is still being done? Financial reasons might be a reason; it’s like TV and movie execs see the LGBTQ+ community as profitable, but not profitable enough for them to give us proper representation. Choosing instead to put it all in the subtext. Another one might be that while acceptance is higher than it has ever been, homophobia and transphobia are still rampant in most societies; making it even harder for executives to want to write and include in LGBTQ+ characters (like how there are barely any openly LGBTQ+ characters in superhero movies because the Chinese market would never buy into the movie, among other reasons).

Queerbaiting can be harmful to people, especially those who become emotionally invested in these characters and wish for themselves to be represented. This means to not be portrayed as joke and pushed aside; so many struggle with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity and media can help them, but it chooses not to at times. However, it all goes back to the fact that queerbaiting is a marketing ploy and as long as execs see that people will still tune in and buy into the content they are providing, they will continue to utilize and write in the subtext. I’m clearly not telling anybody to stop watching or shipping any of the characters who are intentionally being written to draw in LGBTQ+ audiences; all I’m pointing out is how frustrating and disappointing it can be having to sit season through season for nothing at all when the subtext and development was clearly there, but then erased as if nothing had been there in the first place.