The Queerbaiting Trap (And How To Avoid It)
By Maggie Kurnyta
We’ve all fallen prey to the nefarious queerbaiting scheme, designed to lull us into a sense of complacency and heteronormativity. You know what I’m talking about...that instant spark (most often on TV shows) between two noticeably queer characters that makes your insides gush with romance and giddiness all to be vehemently shut down just episodes later with the big “ha-ha” moment. Oh, you thought they were queer? It’s the notable gaslighting question used by executives, producers, and even the actors themselves.
When discussing queer identity, I will focus on the interplay between queer sexuality and televised representation of it. While there are many facets of queer identity that will not be touched upon (simply for lack of television shows that represent them), queerness has no definitive meaning and in this article, will be used as a reclamatory fist against the hetero-patriarchy.
Now, I would be remiss in discussing the classic queerbaiting scheme without first touching on the even more controversial “Bury the Gays” trope. It is the endless disillusion and perpetuated societal belief that a queer relationship cannot possibly thrive; one character must face a violent death to serve as a lesson for the audience. Heteronormativity is the mandate, and any deviance is punished and silenced. Most often, queer characters that are involved in the “Bury the Gays” trope are viciously murdered either in front of their loved ones or in a revenge plot used to strengthen the hegemonic, heterosexual hold on the world.
The queerbaiting trick is much less violent; some would certainly call it elusive. Take the dramatic CW network show, Riverdale. (Spoiler alert!) Within its first episode, it managed to simultaneously sexually exploit and dramatically deny any kind of physical relationship between its two female leads, Veronica Lodge and Betty Cooper. It is certainly valuable to perform multiple close up shots of the duo locking lips as part of their cheerleading routine, but anything that isn’t used to satisfy the male gaze must be quickly rejected. Flash forward to the most recent episodes that focus on each woman’s complicated albeit satisfying relationship with a man. In fact, one of the leading men, Jughead, whose sexual relationship with Betty Cooper is further exploited for dramatic television, is canonically asexual in the comic books.
Other shows that are prone to classic queerbaiting stereotypes include Supernatural, Supergirl, Rizzoli and Isles, The 100, and much more. While some may claim that these homoerotic instances are simply coincidental, I say, “Stop patronizing us.” If Mulder and Scully & Castle and Beckett can successfully introduce playful banter and sexual chemistry into a non-professional relationship, why not Castiel and Dean or Lena Luthor and Kara Danvers?
The audience is there--many queer viewers support their favorite shows just to have their hopes shattered by the typical, hetero-assimilationist mindset. Television is all about performativity, and if you’re performing too “queerly,” then it gives viewers the wrong idea (cue the sarcasm). Now, I’m not arguing to have every mainstream television character be a queer one, although that would definitely provide some interesting conversation and enlightening entertainment. Television networks and executives: do better. One token queer couple will not suffice. I’m not interested in you checking off your social justice boxes, eager to prove to your audiences that you really are as diverse and intersectional as you claim to be.
As a viewer, these tropes are dangerous and damaging, and I’m not sure if they will ever truly end. As long as heterosexuality is the dominant hegemonic norm, queer identity will always take a backseat, no matter how many viewers or dollars it brings in. It is the most covert form of gaslighting I have witnessed in my years because it convinces you that your desires are wrong. Most recently, I fell madly and deeply in love with a show on Freeform, known as The Bold Type. I was terrified and anxious, sitting on the edge of my seat just to wonder if my risen hopes were for naught. I won’t spoil anything, but let’s just say, I was pleasantly surprised with the discussions of sexuality on the show.
Television shows are used to reflect our society--its flaws, its hindrances, and its overall biases. We have responsibilities as consumers and viewers to discuss and vocalize these harmful stereotypes and tropes. I won’t simply accept the perpetuated hegemonic belief that all queer relationships are destined to end with violence and death. It isn’t true. I want to see messy queer relationships, complicated queer characters, and authentic narratives. I want to feel the sweet bliss of watching a queer relationship blossom before my eyes, untethered to the violent implications and historical ramifications of queerness. If I need to take off my rose-colored glasses in order to see queerly, then I will throw them at the nearest television executive who even thinks about uttering the dreaded question: “Oh, you thought they were queer?”