Hollywood has long been known to try to cater to the widest possible audience. Richard Maltby argues “the industry’s notion of its audience has had to remain very generalized, because of the size of a movie’s market” (28) and also a fear of alienating certain groups. However, this can create conflicts of interest. How do you satisfy audiences with different moral standpoints and lived experiences? One such solution, designed to appease the increasingly vocal queer audience, is queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting is a hotly debated term, attributed to social media sites of the 2010s. Fanlore, a website dedicated to compiling terms often used by fans, defines queerbaiting as “the perceived attempt by creators (typically of television shows) to woo queer fans […] but with no intention of actually showing a gay relationship being consummated on screen”. X-Men: First Class (2011) is an example of such a bait and switch. Charles (James McAvoy) spends the film convincing Erik (Michael Fassbender) of humanity’s goodness. They share intimate moments, as when Charles unlocks a memory of Erik’s that brings him to tears. The pair stare into each other eyes while Charles says “There’s so much more to you than you know”. Yet Erik engages in a romantic relationship with Raven and Charles with Moira, confirming their heterosexuality. Here the creators are aware of the potential for queer readings of their characters and play with this to attract a queer audience without any intention to confirm the characters as homosexual. At its core, queerbaiting is a commercial, opportunistic tactic to exploit a certain audience.
The reason creators can exploit queer audiences is due to a lack of representation of LGB (Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual) characters more widely. The Annenberg Report, which charts diversity in film and television, found that “only 2% of all speaking characters across the 414 movies, television shows, and digital series evaluated were coded LGB” from September 2014 to August 2015 with “over half of the portrayals (58%) in movies […] accounted for by two films: Pride and Love is Strange” (Smith, Choueiti and Pieper). There is currently little LGB representation and where there is LGB characters play “less interesting and complex roles than their straight counterparts” (Scout). This explains a LGB audience’s desire for fuller representation. Rather than provide this but ensuring LGB viewers are not alienated, straight characters are given LGB signifiers.
The majority of examples of queerbaiting are from television. This is likely due to television shows’ length which allows queerbaiting to be drawn out in order to keep LGB audiences interested over multiple seasons. However, this too is changing with the increase in franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, allowing character development over multiple films. A film example of queerbaiting are Holmes and Watson from Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows (2011). The marketing for this film revolved heavily around the actors’ relationships and in turn how it affected the characters’ relationship. Jude Law who played Watson emphasised the “domestic life” of the pair on The Graham Norton Show prompting another guest to comment that Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr., who plays Holmes, are like “an old married couple”. Combined with Law telling Downey Jr. “you are beautiful” and the pair sighing at each other. The marketing both recognises the existence of a queer audience but at the same time dismisses them through the laughter and lightness in which they talk of possible homoeroticism thereby easing the fears of a more conservative audience. The example of Holmes and Watson points to a longer history of queerbaiting in films that show men with close bonds adapted from well-known novels. For example, Sherlock and Watson: Behind Closed Doors (2013) is a play that imagines what is left out of the original novels and which depicts Holmes and Watson in a romantic relationship.
This blurring of the boundary between the homoerotic and homosocial, with one unable to exist without the other, is explored by Joseph Brennan who writes “homoeroticism (like ambiguous sexuality) exists somewhere in the middle of the continuum, with a near equal number of homosocial and homosexual cues”. For opportunist creators this becomes an optimal zone, whereby the homoerotic is ambiguous enough to be read as queer while never being overtly queer, thus satisfying LGB viewers but not alienating conservative viewers.
Of course “connotative homosexuality”, as Harry Benshoff and Sean Griffin name it, has always existed in film in the form of “subtle signs that suggested gender inversion [was] added to characters in order to imply they were not heterosexual” (316). When the Production Code banned any overt mention of homosexuality it was the only way to get around the censors. This was the case in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), where the character of Plato, named after the Greek philosopher known for his love of men, was played by Sal Mineo who would later come out as bisexual. Plato fits what Benshoff and Griffin see as “visual gender codes to construct male homosexuals as effeminate (and thus ‘failed’) men” (312). According to Les Fabian Brathwaite “the Motion Picture Production Code office made sure to send a memo to Warner Bros. head Jack Warner, warning him against ‘inference of a questionable or homosexual relationship between Plato and Jim’”. Yet, as Rose Bridges points out in her piece on queerbaiting “the times where subtext is as far as one could go are long past”. There is little stopping creators from directly depicting LGB characters now beyond a fear of backlash from conservative audiences.
However, connotative homosexuality has been argued to have its own importance. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw argues in the case of the television show Hannibal (2013-2015), “subtext helps to illustrate the cat-and-mouse relationship between the two characters [Will and Hannibal], and uses familiar romantic filming techniques to emphasise the intensity of their obsession with each other”. This intentional design is articulated by the show’s creator Bryan Fuller who says, “we really want to explore the intimacy of these two men in an unexpected way without sexualizing them, but including a perception of sexuality that the cinema is actually portraying to the audience more than the characters are” (Halterman). Instead of framing it as queerbaiting, Fuller claims the show avoids applying sexuality to the bodies on screen and instead allows the shots to do that. In this way the producers are absolved of obligation to actually make Will or Hannibal gay. In this formluation the LGB audience have the “cinema” and the straight audience have what the “characters are”.
Queerbaiting is then beholden to conventional use of stereotypes and subtext found in earlier films, despite the industry having little reason to follow these tropes beyond fear of isolating a percentage of the audience. Baker-Whitelaw’s description of Will and Hannibal’s form of connotative sexuality notes that they are dangerous and defined by “obsession”. Fuller attributes Hannibal’s sexual ambiguity to his “fallen angel” (Halterman) status while Will is “definitely heterosexual” (Halterman) feeding into what Steven Paul Davies sees as the negative “image of the homosexual […] as victimiser rather than victim, the shadowy psychopath, cold-hearted villain or perverted killer” (19). This makes Hannibal’s homoeroticism part of his evilness. Here queerbaiting has the quality of business as usual, with LGB audiences asked to relate to prejudicial representations of queer characters.
What all the above examples lead back to is the sanctity of the homosocial. Straight male friendships are prioritised over gay male relationships. And when 98% of characters on screen are straight, and when queer characters are often coded negatively, it is no surprise that there is a continued demand for more, and more sympathetic, LGB characters and relationships. When the hashtag on twitter #GiveElsaAGirlfriend started trending, a backlash #GiveElsaABoyfriend hashtag was quick to appear. Elsa’s story in Frozen (2014) is often read as an allegory for coming out and though Caroline Siede notes “like most allegories, it’s an imperfect one” she still emphasises its importance. This is a contemporary example of connotative homosexuality, and the hashtag illustrates the difference to past forms. There is no Production Code stopping the subtext from becoming text. Yet if Disney was to add to the subtext or hint at in marketing without ever making it text, then it would become more clearly queerbaiting. The creators may hint this as a possibility but never confirm it, safe in the knowledge they have both the queer and the straight audience’s money.
The stakes are high, representation matters. At MIT, “[Dr Edward] Schiappa and his colleagues rounded up 175 college students and assessed their attitudes toward the LGBTQ community. Then, the researchers had all the students watch a season of Six Feet Under over the course of five weeks. When the researchers surveyed the students afterward, the students felt more positive toward gay men” (Singh). Clearly then the ability to see LGB characters on screen allows the audience to begin to accept them in life. While queerbaiting contains all the hallmarks of LGB characters, it proceeds to mock or denies them the full label. This reinforces a form of compulsory heterosexuality where all deviancy from straight is either corrected or punished, as Bridges remarks it is an “unchecked assumption that heterosexuality is the norm and anything else is the Other”. Creators who queerbait will eventually conform back to normative heterosexuality with their male characters. Watson in Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows has Mary as proof of his heterosexuality no matter his attachment to Sherlock and Sherlock and Irene share romantic chemistry.
There are multiple reasons for male relationships being queerbaited more. First of all, “female characters fill only 28.7% of all speaking roles in film” (Smith, Choueiti and Pieper). When male characters are making up the other percentage and 32% of the 50 top box office releases of 2016 fail the Bechdel Test (in which two female characters must talk to each other about something other than a man) it is much more likely to find male characters engaged in meaningful relationships. Stella Bruzzi notes this “’intense’ bonding activity […] possesses a suppressed erotic component” (60) that may be lacking in female relationships on screen which are constricted not just by homophobia but sexism too. As female characters often exist for the male gaze any erotic interactions between them can be construed as also for the straight male audience’s pleasure. Consider the infamous kiss between Sarah Michele Gellar’s and Selma Blair’s characters in Cruel Intentions (1999), dismissed as just practice. Perhaps female relationships in all forms are just not taken as seriously as male ones, and they then lack depth for LGB audiences who are seeking to escape the shallow nature of their own LGB representation in search of more complex relationships on screen.
When creators do go as far as to have a queer character, they are acutely aware this will alienate parts of their audience. The solution is often to kill the character. Prolific enough to be given the nickname “Bury Your Gays”, this is an important part of the conversation surrounding queerbaiting. When every queer character is dying or alone, and every suggested queer character becomes straight in the end, the message to a queer audience is an overwhelmingly negative one. Set against the fact that “gay and bisexual teens are four times more likely to try to kill themselves than straight teens” (Siede) queerbaiting is irresponsible and outright dangerous.
Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia. “No, ‘Hannibal’ isn’t queerbaiting—that’s just gay subtext”. DailyDot. 8 May 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
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Brathwaite, Les Fabian. “Hays’d: Decoding the Classics — ‘Rebel Without a Cause’”. Indiewire. 27 Feb. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Brennan, Joseph. “Queerbaiting: The ‘Playful’ Possibilities of Homoeroticism”. International Journal of Cultural Studies. 10 Feb. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Bridges, Rose. “How Do We Solve A Problem Like ‘Queerbaiting’?: On TV’s Not-So-Subtle Gay Subtext”. Autostraddle. 26 Jun. 2013. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Bruzzi, Stella. Men’s Cinema: Masculinity and Mise-en-scene in Hollywood. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013. Print.
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Halterman, Jim. “Bryan Fuller Breaks Down Homoerotic Charge of ‘Hannibal’”. NewNowNext. 22 Apr. 2014. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Maltby, Richard. Hollywood Cinema. 2nd edn. Malden: Blackwell, 2003. Print.
Scout, Emmett. “Please Do Not Bait the Queers”. The Next. 19 Jun. 2013. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.
Siede, Caroline. “Why Disney Needs a Gay Princess”. A.V. Club. 12 May 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Singh, Maanvi. “How Shows Like ‘Will & Grace’ And ‘Black-ish’ Can Change Your Brain”. NPR. 31 Aug. 2015. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Smith, Stacy, Choueiti, Marc, and Pieper, Katherine. “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment”. USC Annenberg. 22 Feb. 2016. Web. 20 Mar. 2017.
Written by Isabella MacLeod (2017); Queen Mary, University of London
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