How Do We Solve A Problem Like “Queerbaiting”?: On TV’s Not-So-Subtle Gay Subtext

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Title: How Do We Solve A Problem Like “Queerbaiting”?: On TV’s Not-So-Subtle Gay Subtext
Creator: Rose at "Autostraddle"
Date(s): June 26, 2013
Medium: online
External Links: How Do We Solve A Problem Like “Queerbaiting”?: On TV’s Not-So-Subtle Gay Subtext, Archived version
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How Do We Solve A Problem Like “Queerbaiting”?: On TV’s Not-So-Subtle Gay Subtext is a 2013 essay by Rose.

The essay has 139 comments.

Some Topics Discussed in the Essay, and Comments

Excerpts from the Essay

We’re at an interesting moment in history for LGBTQ media representation. We’re long past the days when queer characters and romances were limited to gay-oriented shows buried in the premium channel listings; now, there are plenty of mainstream shows, even those aimed at teenagers, that represent people like us and our love and sex lives. And as our political equality goes further and further, and it’s clearer and clearer that the majority of Americans support marriage equality and other LGBTQ political issues, we’re likely to see even more of us on our screens, big and small, as writers cue into the notion that their audiences are not necessarily threatened by characters of different sexual orientations or gender identities.

Which, of course, means that fans demand more accountability from writers that get us wrong – or just don’t give us enough. Hence, the debate that’s been flaring across the queer and pro-queer Internet about the notion of “queerbaiting” – when they give us just enough to keep us interested, but not enough to satisfy us and make us truly represented.

Indeed, the idea behind “no homo” is both that homosexuality is little more than a gag, and also that it’s deviant and wrong some way – “of course we’re not gay, how could you even think that” is the underlying assumption behind the joke.

As for examples with women, “queerbaiting” for lesbians tends to run in different directions – mostly, in terms of actually giving the characters some physical girl-on-girl action, but making sure it never turns into anything long-term or meaningful or contradicts the characters’ previous heterosexuality. In other words, the Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss. We’ve seen this in so many places – teased with a lesbian kiss only to have the character go back to being 100% straight next week, or for it to be a dream sequence or some other weird context that makes it meaningless – that it would take forever to list. But there are still shows with women that follow the Sherlock model for queerbaiting; the most prominent these days is probably Rizzoli & Isles. That show’s actors recently admitted that at least some of that unresolved chemistry between the title characters was a deliberate play to their lesbian viewers...
It’s also important to understand subtext in the context of its past. Historically, gay or lesbian subtext has been seen as a positive for the LGBTQ community – a way to get around rigid censors or unfriendly audiences. A way to throw us a bone when we normally wouldn’t have anything, to acknowledge that we’re there in the audience when the powers that be would prefer to ignore us. A lot of older generations of LGBTQ people have fond memories of classic films with wink-wink-nudge-nudge bits of potential queerness designed to fly under the radar of the Hays Code.
And that comes to the real issue with queerbaiting. Indeed, it may not be homophobia per se – which, besides being a (necessarily) loaded term, implies fear or malice toward homosexuality. What it is is heterosexism, the unchecked assumption that heterosexuality is the norm and anything else is the Other. It’s this attitude that, for example, causes romance advice columns like the ones I’d read in magazines as a frustrated teenager to assume everyone is interested in the opposite sex – not out of hate for gay people, but out of a refusal to check their own privilege or acknowledge the experiences of those who are different from them. Likewise, the problem here is the idea that heterosexual romance is for a general audience, but having a same-sex romance is either specifically for a gay audience or for making a soapbox statement about homophobia.
As such, those using the broader definition of “queerbaiting” to dismiss any and all overt subtext should at least consider the concept’s progressive history; too often, the conversations in fan spaces about this seem to be ignoring this context when it comes to older works. As one Tumblr user put it: “The original Star Trek series didn’t queerbait. At the time, nobody knew that there was an audience for male/male romance stories, so any romantic tension between Kirk and Spock was accidental. But my God, there was loads of it.” However, the writers of today’s television shows may be too caught up in this history. Because, with the exception of certain genres, like children’s shows, the times where subtext is far as one could go are long past. The point is about expectation; if we are expecting nothing, the occasional nod our way is a pleasant surprise. But when we’re given reason to hope for real representation, having it never go beyond hints – hints that not every viewer is going to pick up on – is mostly just infuriating.

Excerpts from the Comments


Completely agree with how the subtext is really the only [somewhat] decent part of the show. I started watching because I’m really into crime shows, and I eventually lost interest, but I still watch because part of me is like “they might finally confess their love to each other in this episode!” Which obviously is never going to happen.

I’ve pretty much given up on this show, but at times it’s nice to just sit down, drink, and watch two attractive women flirt with each other
[HeatherN]: Yeah I started watching Rizzoli & Isles for the subtext. I stopped watching it because of everything else in the show. lol
[MJ]: Rizzoli & Isles is one of my favorite tv shows and I definitely second the idea that there’s some subtext going on. I remember there being a ton of subtext and queer baiting in Xena, too. From several of the Rizzoli fan bases, there are quite a few of them that would love to see Jane and Maura become a couple, and as a more recent queer baiting show, I hope that might have a chance of happening, but doubt it will until being gay stops being treated as a joke.
[SFGreek]: I think it’s hard to separate misogyny with queerbaiting for much of this, Sherlock being the prime example. I didn’t mind the subtext with Xena because they were always so close to actually being, and the whole thing was about as campy as it could get anyway. But Rizzoli & Isles I have much less patience for, because the subtext is treated humorously, with a wink. That just doesn’t cut it anymore. In real life, they’d at least have had a discussion about it, if not an actual intimate relationship. I’m not in the least bit interested in watching anymore of it than I already have. And Glee… ugh.

*sobbing eternally* Faberry

Thank you for this article. On one hand, it’s fun to partake in certain fandoms based around this, but when TV shows are blatantly aware of the subtext and insisting on kipping around the subject because their characters are still by default straight…it’s disheartening and maddening.

Wow, there’s an actual word for that background radiation.

“We totally want gay people to watch this show (because money!), but we’re totally freaked out that if we put too much gay stuff in it that straight people won’t watch it, so we’re just going to write in ridic amounts of subtext… cool? Cool.

And also you’re going to have to watch heterosexual people have so much sex it will make your head explode.”
[Emily Leticia]:

I guess that’s one thing that keeps me watching Rizzoli & Isles… None of the hetero relationships work (so far). The healthiest ‘relationship’ on the whole show is between Jane and Maura.

But I also feel like just because two women can get along and not fight over men doesn’t mean they’re gay…

…so conflicted.
[Lanie]: yeah I feel this feel. Like every time it fails or gets complicated with random guy and Maura and Jane spend half the episode giggling or looking for stressful reasons to hug each other…I’m like this! exactly this! but what does that say about me because I’m clearly ignoring the straight orientation for my own benefit.

“I remember my ex claiming that ‘just because two guys are good friends doesn’t mean they have to be gay!’ and went on a rant about that, which I countered with ‘okay, that’s fair, but it shouldn’t be OFFENSIVE to speculate on whether two guys are just friends who are looking after a “kid brother” or are co-foster-parents’ which really gets to me.”

I really hate this argument when applied to slash fans or others who speculate on characters having non-heterosexual orientations. Like close male-male friendships have some lack of representation in media and they need protecting from the horrible queers who want to interpret them as romantic! COME ON. They are EVERYWHERE and always has been; hell, “bromance” is basically a genre of bad movies these days.

And these are often the same people who will interpret every close relationship between a man and a woman in fiction as potentially romantic.
[Lanie]: I guess I have mixed emotions here, but mostly because I consider myself involved with Rizzoli and Isles at this point. In interviews both Sasha Alexander and Angie Harmon have expressed gratitude for the hearts of millions including my own wanting them to just hook up already. Is it crappy that they are mindful of presenting the illusion with no intention of making it happen? Maybe, but I guess I just don’t care. I don’t claim to be any authority on worthy television, but if something can keep my attention and provide intentional softcore homoerotic gifs for tumblr I’m down. Also the interaction in question, the deep emotional relationship between women isn’t so exploitative. Serena and Blair, Summer and Marissa, even Angela and Rayanne had “besties that could be lezzies” moments. I don’t know if writers have the obligation to engage in a national conversation, I quit watching Glee because it got unrealistically gay. What I mean is that Ryan Murphy isn’t doing it very well. I don’t think I want Rizzles to go the way of Brittana.
[Lora]: I’ve become really anti-“Rizzoli and Isles,” simply because I’ve been under the impression that any subtext is agreed to pretty begrudgingly by Angie Harmon, notorious Republican and “But I can’t be homophobic, I have gay friends!” touter. She just seems really prickly on the subject, and then it seemingly became something they can’t ignore and it’s obvious that this is what a huge chunk of their fanbase is there for, that’s when they decide to play it up. There’s almost an exact mirror of this situation on “Warehouse 13,” but that one doesn’t really piss me off like “Rizzoli and Isles” does. On “Warehouse 13,” it was basically a choice made by the actresses – and they stand completely by the choice in interviews – to play their characters as if they fell in love, because that’s what made sense to them, and seemingly not for ratings (although I know that queer fandom ladies are a huge part of their viewership now). I guess intent is the difference? Because both things are subtext – we’ve never seen either Rizzoli and Isles or Myka and H.G. make out or anything. But I also don’t see the people behind “Warehouse 13” trying adamantly to make everyone understand that these are straight characters (or in H.G.’s case, bisexual, another reason why the queerbaiting criticisms apply a little less to that show) and instead, their argument for not including it is that the show doesn’t focus on romantic relationships very much (which is infuriating, but at least pretty true and believable). On the other hand, “Rizzoli and Isles” always seemed to shuffle the ladies from one heterosexual relationship to another as if they were trying too hard to prove a point. I don’t know. It’s a really delicate, thin line to walk, and it’s even further complicated by the fact that male/male slash fans like in the “Supernatural” or “Sherlock” fandoms are straight women who just want to see two hot dudes make out, whereas “femslash” fans tend to be actually queer women, and a good chunk of their interest in said pairings is simply in seeing representation of themselves on their televisions.

This actually isn’t entirely true. When people have crunched the numbers on slash fans from what I’ve seen, most of them are some form of LGBTQ. In the fandoms I’ve seen where there’s a lot of slash (I don’t really follow Supernatural or Sherlock because neither of those shows interest me, but I follow a lot of anime fandoms that are like this) a lot of the slash fans are queer women who would probably ship femslash if there were more significant female characters with relationships with each other. In their minds, queer representation of any kind is better than none, and more relatable to them, so they’re invested in the male slash couples who have some sort of subtext behind them in the show.

Also I think it’s kind of dismissive to assume even straight slash fans “just want to see hot guys make out”? A lot of the slash fiction I’ve read is every bit as deep and heartfelt as any other good romance, even when it’s written by straight women; it’s as much about romance and feelings as it is about hot guys having sex/making out. Overall, slash has a long history that’s a lot more complicated than just straight women fetishizing gay men, though there’s still plenty of that (and I’ve heard the Sherlock fandom in particular is rife with that).
[Heather]: Oh, I know it is very very present. There are plenty of people who hate Meg because Cas was close to her or hate Lisa because she was with Dean for awhile etc. The same goes for Sherlock, and it’s ridiculous, but I think the vast majority of people in the fandoms are actually less extreme about it. It seems that those minority are just really vocal.

Yeah, I mean, it’s true there is a lot of misogyny in slash fandom, but honestly, I’ve seen just as much from heterosexual shippers directed at the woman who gets in the way of their preferred man/woman pairing. This could be partly because of my own experiences in fandom-y spaces like Tumblr, too; I’ve seen a lot of people try to say “but slash fans are misogynists!” and act like they’re “better feminists” for preferring het or whatever.

Basically my feeling is that the problematic aspects of slash fanfiction get excessive scrutiny for something that is mostly usually young girls (you’ll find a lot in slash that the older the writer, the less of the icky stuff there is) who are just hurting themselves with their internalized misogyny – it’s a horse of a different color from, like, the fetishization of queer women in the mass media created by people with actual power. But it still grosses me out whenever I see it; I can’t tell you how many otherwise-good slash fiction I had to stop reading because I was sick of the character assassinations of the guys’ female love interests. And if they’re keeping actual queer people from being able to participate in it, that’s something that should definitely be addressed, no matter what.

I am a gay lady who is pretty invested in shows like Supernatural, Sherlock, and Star Trek and I have adored both fem!slash and male!slash for ages. I just enjoy seeing non-traditional love. Yes there is fetishizing involved at times, but there is actually less of this than you would imagine.

Yes, I would read more fem!slash, but the truth is most of the characters in the shows I watch are male so I just have to read what’s out there.

Same here. One of the best things I’ve seen on Tumblr about queerbaiting was that it’s wrong to dismiss slash, particulary m/m, as just a “silly het girl” trend because it marginalises the Queer presence in the community and also shifts the blame for the baiting away from the writers, which is where it should go. As intensely irritating as queerbaiting is to put up with, I find I still get something out of participating in the fandoms. I don’t think I would go as far a boycott – I’m not overly wild about the Internet (my one truly safe space) becoming so politicised that I can’t derive any enjoyment from it.

Plus, a fanfic (or indeed, any work of fiction) can include sex without it deteriorating into fetishisation. It’s possible to write a character as a sexual being and still have them be a whole person too. I’m not saying that fetishisation doesn’t happen, just that it isn’t mutually inclusive with a sexual component to a narrative.

What’s particularly frustrating for me about Sherlock is that the BBC is probably the best candidate as a network that one could hope to find for turning subtext to text in a mainstream show: it doesn’t have any advertisers to fret over and it aims to serve the public interest, and representing minorities is part of that.
[Rey]: Oh how I wish this were true. (also where are these numbers, I would love to see statistical evidence!) In my anecdotal experience, femslash is marginalized heavily by the same people who extol the virtues of m/m slash. There are some very strange patriarchal elements going on in the background in a lot of these fandoms, up to the point sometimes where femslash is seen as a place of malegaze and patriarchy itself and m/m held up as a shining alternative. Like I say, strange and disheartening place.

Yeah, I remember someone in one of the fandoms I’m in on tumblr trying to lecture some queer slash fans that “just because you’re queer doesn’t excuse the fetishizing of gay men in your slash!”

First of all, none of these people wrote the kind of slash that engages in that stuff, and they call it out when other slash fans do. But even so I just wanted to be like, “girl, you’re not in a position where you have any right to tell queer people how to be queer.”

And plus I know I keep saying this OVER AND OVER AGAIN but really with the way lesbians are fetishized by the media at large, I feel very “cry me a river” about how gay men are supposedly hurt by slash fangirls who fetishize their sexuality. No one should have to deal with that crap, but at most you’re dealing with it a weekend or two a year at some anime convention from, like, a clique of 15-year-old girls. Lesbian and bi women have their sexuality dismissed and fetishized ALL THE TIME. Often from people with much more power to hurt us.

Also, a lot of the shows where slash is really popular are VERY male-centered. If people have the option of coming up with really contrived relationships between female characters or making up their own because the thing is so bad at woman-woman relationships that it barely passes the Bechdel Test across 50 episodes, OR working with the already-established bonds between men, of course they’re going to go with the latter. It’s yet another case where people really need to point the fingers at those who are truly to blame – the writers, for giving us so few significant relationships between women and making everything all about the dudes. You can’t be surprised that fans are only trying to make the best with what the writers gave them.
[boy]: When it comes to straights women slash shipping it’s far more complex. At first not everybody knows that for example yaoi was created by Japanese feminists in 60’s as a sort of subversive strategy against men domination on women. And it was mostly dedicated for straight girls which were abused by extremely patriarchal Japanese society during the time. Basically it was all about changing the subject and object in the narrative structure of the story, to finally get rid of dominant aspect of men presence, by literally “changing the roles”. [much snipped]

Batshit Supernatural Fan (TM), reporting for duty.

It’s headed into it’s ninth season, so it’s probably the most jaded fandom in existence. We are in fact so jaded that all the effort and craftsmanship, along with the more tortured efforts, in the last season (by a new showrunner) put into establishing the groundwork for Dean and Castiel to potentially actually get together was pretty much completely disregarded by the majority of fandom as queer-baiting. And this wasn’t anything like the actual queer-baiting of seasons past. There were, in fact, zero jokes about Dean and Cas’s relationship in the entire season. The work they put in last season was not only respectful text in which Dean started trying to speak to Cas about how he feels, but they dealt with it in my favorite ways, like parallels with the sideplots involving romances between humans and creatures (Dean and Cas being a human and an angel).

But the fandom has such low expectations of any actual representations that most not only deny the parallels even exist but came to despise the word parallel being brought up at all. (Because there were so many!)

The subtext is undeniably purposeful (and as Misha kind of put it, artful), the question is whether it’s going anywhere or whether it will stay where it would have if it was written thirty years ago. Either way, it’s a gorgeous love story, in my opinion.

AHHHH Supernatural fans!!! I only just saw this article, somehow, and got really excited because of the subject matter of queerbaiting, and then got REALLY excited when Supernatural got mentioned, and now I’m practically levitating from excitement at finding this pocket of SPN people on Autostraddle! Worlds colliding!!!

Also I completely agree that Dean’s bi, whether or not the writers ever make it explicit (I just feel like it’s pretty much already explicit, so whatever). And I’m a huge DeanCas shipper, of course. Also Dean has pretty much become my spirit animal since I started watching Supernatural (and marathoned it in a month) in spring of this year. God I love Dean. And I would definitely rather have him come to terms with his bisexuality on screen rather than have a Dean/Cas kiss or whatever. It would be such a wonderful thing for so many reasons, primarily of which is that Dean is such a well-rounded, complex character, and making him explicitly queer after such a long time would be a first in queer tv characters. It would make his queerness just another facet of who he is (and coming out one more step in his journey into his own), instead of a main focal point. Anyway, yes, I am very happy that this is being discussed here.

I do think that the fact that Glee has had actual “canon” gay romances with a major focus, though, means it’s not quite in the same boat as Sherlock. A lot of the problem is when there is a double standard that clearly communicates that heterosexuality is for actual, acknowledged, developed romance while homosexuality is just for subtext and/or gags. I mean, there are heterosexual pairings in TV that never get beyond subtext, so I have trouble seeing, say, Faberry, in the same light as the subtexty stuff on some of these shows that lack for actual queer characters, because I don’t think there’s a double standard based on gay vs. straight in Glee‘s case.

Glee‘s problem is, from my vantage point, more of a “women” problem than a “gay characters” problem. They’ve done a good job at least in a relative sense and in terms of being respectful, with their gay male characters and their relationships. (This is basically my roundabout way of saying that I think Glee is not a well-written show, but hey, at least the way the gay guys are treated isn’t, like, hateful or something.) Where they screwed up is with the queer female characters and their relationships, and to me, that’s part of a larger pattern of Glee writers having trouble writing their female characters well when they aren’t defined around a man.

I’m clearly in the minority here, but I actually love Sherlock/John and thought the subtext was well done and respectful. I’m familiar with Stephen Moffat’s work on Doctor Who, and I appreciate the way he adds lots of queer characters in casually, without making their sexuality a plot point (an example from Sherlock is that John’s sister is gay). To me, the humor is in the fact that so many people see a side to their relationship that they are unable, or unwilling, to recognize.

That said, the show is far from perfect. For example, I have mixed feelings about how he handled Irene Adler’s character. On the one hand, I feel like he was trying to make a point that sexuality is complicated. Irene tells John that he loves Sherlock, and that they truly are a couple. When he answers that he isn’t gay, she says that she is, suggesting that if she IDs as gay, yet fell for Sherlock, John may have done so as well. I love when shows explore non-monosexuality, especially in men (since it’s so rarely presented). However, the “lesbian who falls for a man” is a trope I’d really like to see die. Why couldn’t she have identified as bi/pan/queer?

In addition, I found the episode “The Blind Banker” somewhat racist, and it made me very uncomfortable. I always skip that one.
[ginapdx]: While I agree with you about the “queerbaiting” tactics used by certain tv shows, I truly dislike your use of LGBTQ in this post because trans person’s experiences on tv are nothing like non-trans GLB’s experiences. What’s being advertised on tv for this summer—a Showtime detective series with Liev Schreiber where the ad says “there’s a dead tranny in the bed with an adam’s apple the size of a fist.” So, yeah, I’m sorry you have to deal with queerbaiting but, honestly, in this day and age white cis queer people have no idea what it means to be marginalized, ridiculed and objectified in the media.
[Ruth]: The thing that really bugs me with queerbaiting is that it makes queer readers/fans look ‘weird’. For example, (while this isn’t queerbaiting and eventually became Word of God canon), I know I’m not the only one who saw the subtext with Dumbledore/Grindelwald in the last Harry Potter books, but pointing that out got a lot of “God, do you have to make -everything- gay? Like, people want to go back and say that Shakespeare was gay too. Like, just leave it out.” And yeah, you got a bit of in “in your FACE” moment when Dumbledore’s queerness became canon – but when they put in all this subtext and then go “OH LOOK AT THEIR TOTALLY HET SIGNIFICANT OTHER BECAUSE THEY’RE SO HET” then all the people going “God, stop reading so much into it” get supported. And that sucks. It may not be in and of itself homophobic, but it definitely gives tools to homophobes.
[Jennifer]: This is an interesting topic. As a lesbian, I don’t see anything wrong with two men being mistaken as gay but then denying it or two women sharing a kiss only later deciding it was a mistake. I find that to be pretty accurate. How many of us have had women pull that on us in our lives? That pretty much sums up my entire college experience as an out lesbian. People experiment and realize they can’t see themselves in a same sex relationship. I also commend Sherlock. If you think about it, the people around them appear to be incredibly accepting of their possible same sex romance. I also don’t agree that they are portraying homosexuality as a joke or as deviant. If that was the case, there would be a gay character incredibly stereotyped that everyone considers outlandish. Or, a gay villian with all kinds of psychological issues. Being gay isn’t taboo on these shows, the characters are simply straight. Let’s commend them for including questions of sexuality in modern day television, instead of being butthurt (giggity) because it reminds us of being rejected. I’ll tell you what show actually gay baited the hell out of me though, Xena: Warrior Princess. They could have at least come out in the finale!
[Clockstone69]: \ Friendly reminder that ‘Sherlock’ is not yet finished – there is still time for Johnlock to become canon! And if it does, that means all of this ‘queerbaiting’ was actually FORESHADOWING all along! Right?