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Queerbaiting and Misrepresentation of Queerness in the Media



        For most marginalized groups in the United States, the process of normalization and the road to acceptance are marked by the uncomfortable gates of exploitation and improper depictions. From Blacksploitation films to Kung Fu movies, these forms of characterization of marginal groups can be traced through history and seen time and time again. In the West, individuals at the top of the ladder of access to power and privilege still misconstrue and stereotype wide groups of people. According to many white Americans, Indigenous peoples are all mystical seers and all Arabs are terrorists. This is obviously incorrect but serves as an example to demonstrate the ways in which privileged individuals hold bias towards "subordinate" identities.

        This concept has been applied to those with LGBTQIA+ identities in recent years. One of the most apparent and ugly ways in which this exploitation occurs is through “Queerbaiting”. This is a tactic used by producers of media to create the promise of a queer relationship without ever actually acting upon it within the canonic events of the piece of media. Queerbaiting and improper representation of queer peoples is ultimately a negative aspect of media towards the queer community because it leads queer viewers on and misrepresents wide demographics of people. However, this does show a shifting climate towards queer individuals and that media providers are paying attention to queer people as a revenue source.

         Before we delve too deep into this concept, let’s look at a scholarly definition of queerbaiting. “‘Queerbaiting’ is a fan-conceived term that describes a tactic whereby media producers suggest homoerotic subtext between characters in popular television that is never intended to be actualized [sic] on screen” (Brennan, 2018). Sherlock, Merlin, and The 100 are just a few instances of shows that use this tactic. These shows often utilize two men that are good friends that may even live together, suggesting more going on between them. Despite the subtext being that of a gay relationship, the two characters never become intimate and likely will engage in romance with other characters on the show. This is a surprisingly subtle way of leading queer viewers on due to the fact that they can always claim that the characters are not in fact gay or in a romantic relationship.

          Harmful in every way, queerbaiting makes homosexual or queer individuals feel like their relationships are less than a heterosexual one. When heterosexual relationships are preferentially chosen again and again to be depicted on the small screen, homosexual relationships are devalued in the public’s eyes. They seem like rare, strange partnerships that can never be equivalent to heteronormative partnerships. The preferential choosing of one relationship over another is indicative of a form of censorship not dissimilar to the compulsory censorship found in America throughout much of the 20th century (e.g.: Hay’s Code). This concept has been entitled compulsory heterosexuality and it is “...the idea that popular culture has a significant tendency towards making heterosexual relationships seem inevitable while making queer or homosexual ones seem nonexistent" (Raymond, pp. 103-104).

          Interestingly, queerbaiting demonstrates that producers and media providers actually understand that many individuals are queer; unfortunately, they are making a concerted attempt to exploit them as a demographic without losing the average heteronormative viewer. Compulsory heterosexuality arises from the capitalist system that all our media is birthed from. With such high production costs for a single show, a company needs to create a show that reaches the widest possible demographic without alienating too many people. Historically, this has been accomplished by pandering to the heteronormative, dominant culture in the Western world. As queer humans come out of the proverbial closet, this tactic to scrape in as many viewers as possible no longer works as well. Thus, companies began suggesting queer relationships so that queer individuals had something to relate to while keeping everything strictly heterosexual for those that act discriminatorily towards queer peoples. This is evident in the tactic itself, but more interesting is the fan response. Fanfiction and alternate tellings of stories have always been a staple of fan culture. Recently, the queerification of more mainstream narratives has become far more common.

           Paratext has been a useful tool for queer people that cannot get their narratives and beliefs into the mainstream media as it is almost always self-published and often open source (like what you're reading now!!!). This allows those that may feel alone in their identity to recognize that there are others out there who enjoy the same kind of stories that they do. Queerification of media has been seen as subordinate due to it rarely being part of the canon of a piece of media. However, Doty (1993) rejected a hierarchical ordering of readings, arguing against considering queer interpretations as simply “sub-textual, sub-cultural, alternative readings, or pathetic and delusional attempts to see something that isn't there” (xii). Instead, he maintained, they should be seen as always present elements of putatively "straight" narratives of popular culture. Because of this, Doty's work is part of queer studies’ pointing to how the queer is constitutive of, rather than simply marginal to, the heteronormative (Butler 1990, 1993), (Ng, 2017).

           Paratext is actually one of the main measures for how we know if a show is queerbaiting its audience. Shows that queerbait have significantly higher rates of queerification in their paratext due to the accessibility and believability of the suggested homosexual relationship being actualized. That is, of course, not to demean or devalue the queerification of media that is not so accessible initially, as any piece of media can (and perhaps should) be all queered up!

          Queerbaiting and misrepresentation force queer viewers to create their own narratives to express how they wish media looked and acted through paratext. However, queerbaiting by itself rarely explicitly devalues homosexual/queer relationships as it is used to attract viewers that identify and relate to these relationships.

          Heteroflexibility is a more problematic, though less subtle method of devaluing queer identities that is thankfully on the decline in recent years. Heteroflexibility is another media tactic that uses queer relationships as a part of a heterosexual fantasy. Lesbianism is used most prominently for this purpose (Diamond, 2005). Many shows used to feature a few episodes in which a female character would “experiment” with another woman. The event would always be structured as a “phase” that the woman would move through before inevitably recognizing that they belong with the male romantic interest. This occurs quite obviously in Seinfeld and Friends where women temporarily became lesbians, only to return to the heterosexual world a few episodes down the line. This factors into the heterosexual male fantasy of domination of a woman’s sexuality. Believing that a man (through attraction/charm alone) could change the sexuality of a lesbian is an unfortunately regular sight in media. This tactic also serves the purpose of leaving either lesbians or heterosexual men interested in the (let’s just say it) bisexual woman portrayed in the show. Once more, this increases audience retention in a problematic way. The tactic also devalues and makes invisible the identity of bisexual or pansexual individuals. Identities are encapsulated in a spectrum that cannot be boiled down into a binary system. Shows that engage in heteroflexibility are inherently supporting a binary reading of sexuality that only allows for straight or gay, ignoring the myriad of identities within and beyond these believed bounds.

        With glad hands, I type that queerbaiting and heteroflexible tactics are becoming less common as representation and normalization of queer people increases in media. However, a very new phenomena may be just starting concerning celebrity use of these tactics. Ariana Grande, a currently popular singer/musician, wrote a lyric that suggested she was bisexual. Though she has historically been an ally to the LGBTQIA+ community, she has never come out as being bisexual. Within a few days of the song being released, many queer individuals called her behavior out on social media platforms. She has yet to respond to questions about her use of this tactic and her own identity. This is difficult territory to navigate, as we cannot assume her identity as either bisexual or heterosexual if she has not explicitly told us what it is.

         However, an individual should never hint at an identity for the sole purpose of drawing more viewership and listeners. This limits queer representation and normalization of queer life. People who are queer and in the public sphere should come out; not because it's easy, but because they have more freedom to do so. Queer celebrities currently in the closet have the social power to swiftly make normal the concept of queerness and to give those that have no voice a way out. Suggesting or hinting at an identity is a tactic that should be over now. In response to Grande’s use of bisexual verbiage a professor voiced this opinion, “'Our identities have been used over and over again in popular culture to establish an edgy identity’, says Professor Himberg. ‘It's offensive when someone seems to be playing with it’, she adds. ‘There's this sense of - don't tease us, don't use us... It can easily feel like a cheap marketing tool.’” (Honderich, 2019).

         So, how do we discern in real life when a person is queerbaiting or simply has a repressed identity? There is no simple answer, and more research and discussion should be had upon this topic before any system is put in place. Still, I will put in my two cents because I believe that any opinions on this subject are important. My belief is that coming out to the whole world does more for normalization of homosexual/queer culture than simply hinting at an identity. That is not to say that subtlety should be fully abandoned in media. Let’s set up a short hypothetical that demonstrates a good use of subtlety: a woman in Oklahoma is a lesbian, still lives with her parents, and has never come out to them. She enjoys writing music and poetry to express herself. Within her lyrics, she suggests (in a potentially refutable way) that she may be gay. In this case, queerbaiting is not being used despite the same objective strategies being implemented. This is because the intentionality of this woman is to escape potential persecution and discrimination whereas Ariana Grande has nothing to lose by coming out. She is veritably protected by her fame and fortune which so many queer people lack. I challenge Ariana Grande to speak out about these issues and to address the allegations of real-life queerbaiting being raised against her, as she has the platform to make these issues more prominent and understood in the mainstream public sphere.

      Ultimately, queerification and knowledge concerning queerbaiting and misrepresentation is relatively niche. Queer theorists and post-structuralists call for tearing down the way that media is created at the most basal layer, but these academic discourses rarely reach the sphere of average society.                    Queerification needs to be taking place in the large corporations that govern what media so many individuals consume. Unfortunately, these large corporations are not built off of empathy towards their fellow humans but rather the capitalist need to constantly increase viewership and how much money their company makes. This is completed via the exploitation of marginal groups and the placing of heteronormative values on a pedestal. This appeals to the widest demographics and limits backlash from conservative groups. We, as citizens, need to hold these media companies accountable for the effect they have on society as a whole. Modern media needs to show accurate depictions of queer relationships and, *gasp*, SEX in order to normalize and dispel fear surrounding gay and queer people (Ridder, 2011).

       Some current and recent media has made some steps in the right direction in the portrayal of queerness. Orange is the New Black is one of the best examples of this due to its suite of intersectional identities that collocate within the prison illustrated in the show. We need more media like this that shines a light where most media producers are uncomfortable to go.

       In conclusion, queerbaiting and misrepresentation are not going to disappear overnight. It will be a difficult uphill battle to fully normalize queerness and to stop compulsory heterosexuality in media. The average populace moves like a slug when it comes to change in social issues, so this process will surely not be over in even a few decades. Misrepresentation has infinite facets, so we as citizens must be ever-vigilant when queerness is being devalued in any piece of art. Furthermore, corporations and creators should respect the paratext created by fans, as it is still art in and of itself, not subordinate in any way to what is considered canonical. This could be accomplished in official online forums that collate all the paratext surrounding one topic and the sectioning of it into distinct categories (e.g.: alternate endings, erotica, queerified readings, etc.). Media companies and celebrities each have the privilege and access to avenues for wide-reaching change yet refuse to take them because of capitalist greed. Stereotyping and misrepresentation will never truly leave our lives, but we can voice our issues with them. Capitalism will keep on influencing producers and companies to entrench themselves in the status quo without reproach for all those suffering in the wings of this theatre of life.

         However, misrepresentation is a step towards proper representation. Without incorrect interpretations of what queerness is, we may never see correct ones. This also comes down to the lack of queer people in positions of power due to their low place on the ladder of access to power and privilege. We sit on the precipice of change; I simply argue that any active citizens must be calling for proper representation and normalization of queerness, otherwise they do their human brethren a disservice. We need compassion and empathy at this critical time, not stony-faced executives refusing queer themes in favor of pleasing the largest number of people. 





Works Cited


Brennan, J. (2016). Queerbaiting: The ‘playful’ possibilities of homoeroticism. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 21(2).

            Ng, E. (2017). Between text, paratext, and context: Queerbaiting and the contemporary media landscape. Transformative Works & Cultures, 24, 1.

            Raymond, D. (2013). Popular Culture and Queer Representation: A Critical Perspective. Reading Queer 10, 98-110.

            Diamond, L.M. (2005). ‘I’m Straight, but I Kissed a Girl’: The Trouble with American Media Representations of Female–Female Sexuality. Feminism & Psychology 15(1), 104-110.

            Ridder, S.D., Dhaenens, F., and Bauwel, S.V. (2011). Queer theory and change. Towards a pragmatic approach to resistance and subversion in media research on gay and lesbian identities. Observatorio Journal 5(2), 197-215.

            Honderich, H. (2019).Queerbaiting – exploitation or a sign of progress? BBC News. Retrieved from:

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