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What Is Queerbaiting, And What Isn’t?

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at MSU chapter.

Queerbaiting seems to be the internet’s new favorite buzzword, but it’s become apparent that people do not understand what exactly it is. The misuse of the word has caused more harm than good to the people who are just trying to live their lives. Queerbaiting accusations get thrown around so flippantly that individuals, especially actors, get the worst of it instead of the actual networks at fault. 

Queerbaiting, by definition, is a media practice in which creators will incorporate seemingly queer characters and hint at same-sex relationships in movies, TV shows, and other media in order to appeal to queer audiences without outright depicting them. They do this to maintain their conservative audiences while simultaneously trying to attract LGBTQ+ viewers. By “baiting” queerness, the popularity of a movie or TV show will increase without delivering on the promise of representation. Many popular movies and shows are guilty of this practice, and the more you know about it, the more you notice it. A very popular example of this is in the “Pitch Perfect” franchise. The Barden Bellas already have their token queer member Cynthia Rose, who was often the butt of the joke and depicted as a stereotypical butch lesbian who objectified the other women in the group. But the “Pitch Perfect” franchise has been capitalizing off of the not-so-platonic friendship between Beca Mitchell and Chloe Beale for years. From that community shower scene in the first movie, it feels like the series is setting up a romantic relationship between the two that only grows. Prior to the release of “Pitch Perfect 3,” Universal Studios began hinting at a romance for Beca and Chloe, even posting a compilation of the two on Twitter with the caption “Will Bechloe Ever Happen?” While the answer, unfortunately, was no, it didn’t stop Universal Studios from attempting to drum up excitement for the final installment and draw in tons of young, queer fans hoping for some good lesbian representation only to disappoint them.

Queerbaiting often gets confused with another common practice known as queer coding. Queer coding is slightly different, as it is the intention of the creators to imply the queerness because they can not outright say it. For a very long time, it was illegal to depict homosexual content in the media in any capacity, which forced people to rely on subtext and coding so that they could still tell queer stories. The Hays Code, a set of censorship guidelines for motion pictures in place from 1934 to 1968, prevented positive depictions of queerness on screen. It did, however, allow for characters that could be perceived as homosexuals to portray antagonists, which is why practically every Disney villain is depicted to have stereotypically queer characteristics. 

Nowadays, it’s still common for creators to use queer coding to get around TV ratings and keep shows “family friendly.” One that comes to my mind is BBC’s “Merlin.” The family show took inspiration from Arthurian legend and ran from 2008-2012. Having watched the show just two years ago, it was apparent to me from the first episode that Merlin’s magic was used as a metaphor for queerness; a metaphor that continued to grow as the show progressed. The Tumblr community has been shipping Merlin and Arthur ever since the show aired, and I don’t disagree that there was more to their friendship than BBC was willing to confirm. While “Merlin” was never explicitly queer, the jokes, dialogue, and overall chemistry between the characters makes the queer coding obvious. Any fan of the show would tell you that if “Merlin”was made today, and with a TV-14 or higher rating, Merlin and Arthur would have 100% been soulmates and Morgana would have been the hot lesbian witch in the woods.

If you’ve seen queerbaiting accusations towards celebrities online and don’t understand why it’s problematic, let me make one thing clear: real people can not queerbait. Sexuality is a very personal thing, and people, including celebrities, do not owe anyone an explanation on their expression. People on the internet practically cyberbullied “Heartstopper” star Kit Connor with queerbaiting allegations. Eventually, in 2022 Connor posted  on Twitter, “i’m bi. congrats on forcing an 18 year old to out himself. i think some of you missed the point of the show.” As a queer person myself, this was devastating to see. Forcing someone to out themselves and taking away their agency in a deeply personal matter is antithetical to the whole point of coming out of the closet; especially to someone as young as Connor. This may feel like an extreme example of how the term “queerbaiting” harms celebrities trying to explore their sexuality and expression in the public eye, but it regularly happens in the media. The 2023 thriller “Saltburn” starring Jacob Elordi and Barry Keoghan is filled with queer subtext. Both Elordi and Keoghan have only ever been romantically linked to women, but chronically online people have been launching queerbaiting accusations at the actors for playfully flirting with each other while promoting the film. If it’s just for laughs, it’s clear Keoghan and Elordi are comfortable with their own sexualities and have no problem being affectionate with each other. And if they’re actually flirting, who are we to stop them? I know tons of people who flirt with their friends without it being an issue, so why is it a problem when celebrities do it?

The queerbaiting discourse online has polarized a lot of people, failing to see the bigger issue at play. Many will argue that straight actors shouldn’t be allowed to play queer characters on screen, which I personally disagree with. Some of my favorite representations of queer characters and relationships have been portrayed by straight actors. The problem arises when a straight actor plays the character as an offensive stereotype instead of a well-rounded individual (think James Corden in “The Prom”). And many times, the release of popular TV shows have people clamoring for LGBTQ+ representation. When they get it, it often feels performative and forced instead of natural the way queerness is. We are very lucky to be living in a time where there are such excellent queer movies and shows in mainstream media. We have to keep in mind that there is no such thing as perfect representation, and we can’t criticize a show or its actors for not portraying a story exactly how we’ve experienced it ourselves. 

Risa Bhutani is a junior at Michigan State University studying accounting. She is also the events director for Her Campus at Michigan State and enjoys creating core memories for people in the chapter through events. She is a fan of reality TV, true crime, reading, and hiking in her spare time.