“Queerbaiting” is the practice of some television shows and movies to attract queer fans by hinting at potential queer relationships or actually promising them (but not delivering). There is some debate even amongst fans about whether queerbaiting is actually a thing. Outside of fandom, many believe queer fans are reading too much into on-screen interactions.
However, writers, producers, and executives nowadays do recognize the existence of a queer fan base, and they want to appeal to that demographic, because it’s large enough to make a real difference to their viewership numbers. Some movies and shows do include queer relationships or queer characters, but even if they do, they might not give those characters or relationship arcs the screen time they deserve. Not to mention that many studios and networks don’t want to include queer characters to start with. Therefore, the film and television world has concocted a “cunning plan” to attract queer viewers: subtext, subtext, and more subtext.
Angie Harmon from Rizzoli & Isles has admitted that they insert tension and lingering touches specifically to appeal to the lesbian demographic. “Sometimes we’ll do a take for that demo,” Harmon says to TV Guide. “I’ll brush by [Maura’s] blouse or maybe linger for a moment.”
So the fans aren’t making it up, queer subtext in film and television is very deliberate—and also very common.
Of course gay subtext is far from novel. It has always been around. Often it was inserted by queer content creators, trying to get as much past the censors or the network as they could get away with. Not even a decade ago, fans were largely content with gay subtext in the media since they didn’t expect queer relationships to be portrayed in most movies or shows they watched. The subtext made them feel like the creators would have loved to portray the characters as queer—if not for the evil studio and movie execs. Writers and producers would therefore be lauded for secretly inserting queer characters into canon. Livejournal was full of discussions and debates on why a certain pairing was actually canon, based on the subtext.
But times have changed. Now there are a number of successful shows and movies with openly queer characters—but not nearly enough to balance the books and in many television and movie franchises, queer relationships are still treated as absolutely taboo. However, the increasing number of on-screen queer romances sends the clear message that we can and should expect more.
Sub-text is no longer enough for today’s queer community—how can it be, when we could be enjoying the real deal instead? And because some shows have given us queer romances, subtext is also viewed in a new light: it’s viewed as a promise.
In the BBC’s Sherlock series, it’s a recurring joke that everyone mistakes John for Sherlock’s boyfriend. Without additional subtext and context, it looks like the very idea of these two men being in a relationship is being treated as a joke—but there is context of course. Mark Gatiss, one of the co-producers of the show, is openly gay and in 2012 he had this to say to the Gay Times on the subject of introducing a gay couple in a television show:
“One of my favorite stories is [the episode] ‘Gridlock’: there’s an elderly couple of ladies who are together, and it just sort of passes by, and that’s the way–softly, softly. That’s how the revolution happens, as it were: you just become aware that people are incidentally gay. I think when the day comes that you have a big detective show where the first half hour was this man at work, and he’s a maverick, and all the usual things… and then we went home and his boyfriend says, ‘Are you alright?’, [and] it was just a thing… then something would have genuinely changed.”
The sheer amount of gay subtext in Sherlock can in no way be an accident and is almost certainly due to Mark Gatiss (his co-producer, Steven Moffat, routinely responds with bafflement when confronted with the John/Sherlock ship).
Before BBC shows like Torchwood (a sci-fi show with a pansexual main character) or In the Flesh (a zombie show with a bisexual main character), I believe queer fans might have been more than happy to declare John/Sherlock actually canon. Now our expectations are higher. By not following through on all the hints and build-up to John/Sherlock, the show has managed to alienate and lose a large portion of their queer fan base, because these fans truly believed their favored pairing would become canon.
Queer fans have also started to abandon Teen Wolf for similar reasons: subtext between two main characters was inserted into the show, but there was no follow-through.
Fandom is currently at a crossroads on how to react to queer subtext. On the one hand, all these lingering touches and heartfelt lines are turned into gifs and form the basis of tens of thousands of fanfics—we all prove that queerbaiting works. On the other hand, fandom has started to become vocal about its dislike for such tactics, because it feels like a slap in the face to purposefully raise hopes only to dash them later down the line when it’s revealed that we’ll get to see yet more heterosexual romances on screen instead.
Giving up hope is leading an increasing number of fans back into the mid noughties mindset of “I don’t expect it to be canon—I’m not delusional!“, while others continue to trust creators to make good on their “promises.” But both play directly into the hands of queerbaiters.
By being aware that the subtext is intentional and that the aim is to lure us in without giving us back anything concrete, I believe fandom can react more constructively. We can be more wary of queerbaiting and discuss it openly in fandom without descending into arguments about whether it is intentional or not (because it almost always is). It is perfectly possible for creators to claim that they believe the relationship between two characters to be strictly “friendly,” while also purposefully shooting scenes to lure in queer viewers. We should be critical of the tactics used and confront showrunners on their use of subtext to gain our viewership. After all, we have nothing to be ashamed of and everything to gain by expecting and demanding more representation.