As society begins to understand how important representation in the media is, characters with marginalized identities begin to crop up in our movies, TV shows, books, and even our music. Some of these characters are loud and proud, stating their identity quickly and using that identity as a major plot point for their character (think Mitchell and Cam from Modern Family). Others are subtler, or their identity is more of a subplot for their character (think Rosa from Brooklyn 99).
However, just like their real-life counterparts, queer characters have always existed, even if their identity was kept underground (think Dumbledore from Harry Potter). Because queer people haven’t always been safe enough to be Out and Proud, communication within the queer community has typically been subtle, sometimes silent, and usually something that you know when you see it. For example, if you were trying to ask someone if they were queer in the 1950s, you couldn’t necessarily come right out and ask without jeopardizing your safety. So queer people communicated through their dress, or through coded language, sometimes even just eye contact and trusting your gut.
Queer characters have behaved in that same way for a long time, but instead of communicating with a potential partner or friend, they were communicating with the audience. Whether through their dress, their behavior, their language, or other subtle forms of implication, queer characters were written or designed to communicate their unstated queerness to those who were searching for representation. Whether or not their sexuality or gender was ever explicitly stated, characters like Shego from Kim Possible, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, HIM from Power Puff Girls, and James from Pokémon became icons for the queer community – an example of someone just like them, living as a queer person in a straight world (even if it was a secret).
This is queer coding, when a character is given traits or behaviors that suggest their queerness without any outright confirmation. Queerbaiting is similar but slightly different. Queerbaiting is typically referring to the relationship between two characters; this relationship hints at a queer romance, but never actually depicts it, “baiting” a queer audience to consume their media in the hopes of representation, without ever actually receiving it. Kind of like making a deal with someone, only to learn they’re not going to follow through with their part of the bargain. Examples of queerbaiting include Sherlock and Watson in Sherlock, Castiel and Dean in Supernatural, and pretty much every coupling in Riverdale.
However, queerbaiting (and queer coding) are very subjective labels. There are plenty of advocates for every character mentioned in this article who will argue that they are queer coded characters and that any relationship they have isn’t queerbaiting, but is simply further implying their identity, and vice versa. One could argue that any character whose sexuality isn’t outright stated is an example of queerbaiting. I feel the easiest way to tell is this – if you consume media and feel excited by the way a character presents themselves, if you feel represented by that character (particularly in kids shows or if their sexuality isn’t an integral part of their story), to me, that’s queer coding. However, if you’re sitting at the edge of your seat, practically screaming for two people to kiss or to confess their love to each other, and you find yourself in this exact same situation with these exact characters night after night, it’s probably queerbaiting.
The reason queerbaiting is a problem is that it inherently implies that the relationship that is implied is shameful, or needs to be kept secret. In the same way they pan away from two people as they begin to have sex, the creators pan the story away from any queer relationship, because obviously it’s ~dirty~ for two girls to kiss, or hold hands, or go on a date. Associating queerness with sex is just one of the thousands of ways to continue to marginalize people with LGBT identities. And queer people deserve better! We deserve representation that makes us feel good, not like our identities and who we are is something to feel ashamed of and keep under wraps or never fully explore. We need more Marceline and Bubblegum from Adventure Time or Ruby and Sapphire from Steven Universe, and I think with examples like these, we’re getting there.