BETA

On queerbaiting

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

              –Anton Chekhov

Valentine’s Day snuck up on me in Durfee’s. I walked in, innocently seeking chicken tenders, and there it was—a table covered in candy that had been temporarily rebranded into heart shapes. For the first time in years, I will be be in a relationship come Valentine’s Day. This hadn’t occurred to me before, because Valentine’s Day has always struck me as an over-hyped, commercialized, vaguely Christian mess. Yet there sat love, stamped with cutesy phrases and packaged in plastic, ready to be gifted. And suddenly I wondered whether I was supposed to buy something.

I decided the best way to say “I love you” wasn’t on a chalky candy heart. Instead, I started considering potential elements for a romantic Valentine’s Day evening. My relationship is long distance, and Valentine’s Day is a Tuesday. So it would have to be a virtual romantic evening. We’d probably end up simulstreaming a romantic movie. The question was, which movie?

It’s at this point, I’m afraid, that I can’t continue any further without telling you that my relationship is with another woman. Because the decision of what to watch is fundamentally different for queer people, and not just on Valentine’s Day. It’s not that there’s absolutely nothing queer to watch [1]. It’s that sometimes you can’t tell which stories are truly written for queer people and which are just packaged to look like it.

***

To explain, let me tell you a few stories. The first one is my girlfriend’s.

She grew up watching reruns of Xena: Warrior Princess. The show premiered in 1995, two years before Ellen DeGeneres came out and four years before Thirtysomething faced a major ratings drop for showing a gay couple laying in bed together. It centers on the journey of Xena, a warrior princess (unsurprisingly), and Gabrielle, a bard and Xena’s closest friend. To a girl who played soccer on her older brother’s team and brought home more broken bones than dolls, Xena was captivating. Seeing Xena’s brute physicality, uncrushable determination, and epic heroism was like putting on a new pair of hiking boots that somehow already fit. But she was even more compelled by Xena’s companionship with Gabrielle—one characterized by generosity, affection, and unfailing loyalty. She wouldn’t realize until years later why their connection resonated with her.

In 2015, Xena and Gabrielle would get a reboot that officially called them what they were—in love. But back in the 90’s, their love could only be unofficially understood.  A little girl with dirty cleats held onto their truth for them, even if she didn’t quite recognize it yet.

***

When you’re telling a story, you have to make compromises. Every creative choice you make closes you off from an infinite set of alternate stories. You must pick a protagonist, or choose to tell a story without one. You must pick a central focus, or maybe two or three. And the most constricting choice is the ending, because you only get one. From a purely creative standpoint, storytelling is a paradox of infinite possibility and staggering limitations. And that’s the easy part. The harder part is dealing with the listener.

From 1930 to 1968, Hollywood writers’ creative obligation to their audience was enforced by a strict production code, called the Hays Code. Because movies have such power over American morality, the Hays Code decreed, screenwriters have a responsibility to only tell stories that promote good behavior. Any writer who made the choice to tell a story promoting “immorality” wouldn’t get the Production Code Administration’s approval to release the film.

“Immorality” was often (though certainly not exclusively) a euphemism for homosexuality. The Hays Code forbid any portrayal of “sex perversion.” But there was a loophole: homosexuality could be portrayed as long as it was not “made to seem right and permissible…. [or] detailed in method and manner.” So if you wanted to write a gay character, you had three options: veil your gay character enough that there would be reasonable doubt, punish your gay character so no one would think her actions permissible [2], or simply don’t write her story at all. Infinite possibility, meet staggering limitations.

In 1968, the Hays Code was revoked in favor of a rating system. Now no formal censorship keeps queer characters out of American movies. Instead, “inappropriate” films are less accessible to a younger audience. This protects children from so-called “corrupting influences” and parents from having to speak to their children about anything uncomfortable. So now movies are full of queer characters, right? Alas, suppression of queer stories is not easily beaten. In 21st century America, movies, books, and TV shows face a more informal censorship. Writers have to create art that’s marketable. That’s where it really gets messy.

***

I don’t just seek out queer stories, I hoard them like a crazy cat lady. In many parts of my life, I like to think I have discerning taste. But this is my open-secret weakness: I’ll read or watch anything that’s queer, regardless of quality. I’ve devoured countless queer books, from sophisticated literature like The Color Purple to beach books like the Raven Cycle series. In pursuit of queer characters, I’ve binged shows of all kinds, from The 100 (about post-apocalyptic teen angst) to Yuri On Ice (about competitive figure skating). If it’s queer, either I’ve seen it or it’s on my list.

Why am I so hungry for queer narratives? Because for so long I was starved. And stories aren’t trivial. They’re fundamental to becoming a human being. When I read J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye at 14, I was able to put a name to the discomfort of being trapped between childhood and adulthood.  When I read Audre Lorde’s Zami at 16, I knew the way I felt about other girls was more than platonic. When I started to understand Songbird by Fleetwood Mac at 17, I knew I was in love. We need stories to give us context for our individuality within larger humanity. Otherwise all we have is the enigma of our own mind.

Or maybe I’m just self-centered. Can I help that I want to engage with stories that reflect me? Can I help that I see myself everywhere I look? Because that’s the other part of my not so secret obsession—I read queerness into stories where it isn’t intended by the writer. Yes, I’m one of those people who think Sam and Frodo stare into each other’s eyes just a little too long. And I acknowledge that I sometimes read a little too far beyond what is written. But then again, all the writer does is tell the story. I’m the one listening. I’m the one with the power of interpretation. So who does the story really belong to?

***

In the early 2000s, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss decided to adapt Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books into a television series. Immediately they were faced with a creative choice. How should they deal with the prevalent queer interpretation of their source material? Should they make Holmes and Watson romantically entangled? Should they ignore the queer reading of the story entirely? Should they leave it up to the viewer?

Moffat and Gatiss decided to establish their Holmes and Watson as firmly straight, but sprinkle queer references throughout the show. Characters frequently joke that John and Sherlock [3] are dating because they have such a charged, dynamic connection. And the evolution of that connection is a central focus of the show. But they never get an official queer ending. In the series finale, Sherlock even tells a woman that he loves her.

Moffat and Gatiss made the intelligent marketing choice. The serial nature of a television show allows writers to delay solidifying the ending. The sexual orientations of the characters remain ambiguous until the very last moment—Schrodinger’s gay cat, if you will. This allows a show to ensnare a queer viewership without risking a ratings hit [4]. And it works, not just for the widely popular Sherlock, but for countless other shows as well. The Sherlock writers’ choice is part of a larger phenomenon called “queerbaiting.” Queerbaiting is the creative choice to code a character or pair of characters as queer, but never explicitly define them as such [5] .

Queerbaiting has been pointed out and criticized in recent years, mostly by the queer people it affects (the ones who, like me, obsess over queer stories). But why do the angry gay liberals hate it so much? After all, queerbaiting is a type of queer storytelling (though a suboptimal one). In the end, we don’t hate it for any deep, logical reason. We don’t hate it because storytelling that neglects the more compelling, groundbreaking creative choice is disappointing. I’ve watched and read much less cleverly-written stories and enjoyed them. We don’t even hate it because writers who queerbait are choosing monetary gain over social progress. This is, of course, despicable. But the central issue isn’t greed [6].

We hate queerbaiting because of how it feels. I’ve found the fishing metaphor the term “queerbaiting” inevitably evokes to be the best way to describe its effects. Is it a bit over dramatic to say that when I watched the Sherlock series finale it was like biting into a cold, barbed hook in place of a long-awaited meal? Is it over dramatic to say I felt hauled out of the sea and eaten for dinner, in return for my trust and devotion? Certainly. But still, it sucks to be the fish.

And that’s probably an unfair way to judge stories. But it’s the most immediate metric I can find.

***

For those still doubting whether representation matters, let me tell you about Bill Clinton. In the 1992 election, Bill Clinton was the first major presidential candidate to openly “court the gay vote.” He promised to reform the military’s policy on homosexuality and to support anti-discrimination legislation. But the specifics aren’t important. He was the first presidential candidate to acknowledge the humanity of gay people. So they voted for him.

Once in office, his actions didn’t match his promises. Facing conservative backlash, he was forced to compromise on his campaign promises. He signed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, allowing the gay people who were secretly serving in the military to continue secretly serving in the military. He signed the Defense of Marriage Act, excluding same-sex couples from federal marriage benefits and essentially making the heterosexuality of marriage an official federal policy.

No one faults Bill Clinton for this. Sure, it’s possible he was playing both sides. It’s possible he only made those campaign promises to get elected, and only compromised on them to get re-elected. But it’s more likely that he had genuine respect for the humanity of gay people and was simply elected a decade too early to enact his good intentions.

Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter what his intentions were. It’s not about the storyteller; it’s about the listener. For whatever reason, he made queer voters into a targetable market. He offered us a seat at the political table, even if he wasn’t able to feed us yet. He made us impossible to ignore.

***

This much is obvious: stories aren’t abstract. They are formed by real people in the real world and they form us in turn. What’s more interesting is how stories get packaged, and what is lost or gained in making something marketable.  Take this article, for instance. Maybe you think it was too political. Maybe you think I shouldn’t have started by declaring my gayness, or by putting the word “queer” in the title. Maybe you were hoping a socially conservative reader might get halfway through the piece before realizing what it was about, and thus get tricked into reading queer theory. But I probably wasn’t going to reach him anyways. This story is for you.


[1] My recommendation to the ladies out there who want to watch something romantic with your special lady: Imagine Me and You. It’s a romantic comedy about two women that requires zero emotional work (no one dies or contends with intense homophobia and it has a happy ending!). Plus it’s not unbearably poorly written. Though, of course, to the truly desperate, this doesn’t matter (as any queer woman knows).

[2] This was often done by killing off gay characters. And it still is. Notably, queer women alone account for 10% of all deaths on TV, and 26 queer female characters were killed off in the 2015-2016 TV season alone. This is a trope unaffectionately referred to as “Burying your Gays.” It’s not just killing; it’s burying, so that hopefully no one will remember she was ever there.

[3] In this incarnation, Holmes and Watson are on a first name basis. It took them 130 years, but it’s a step in the right direction.

[4] The 100, in 2016, after an episode in which two women lay in bed together, had a 13% ratings drop.

[5] Other recent tv shows, book series, and film series accused of queerbaiting include: Supernatural, Rizzoli & Isles, James Bond (yes, because of the scene where he says “Who says this is my first time”), the Harry Potter books (looking at you, Dumbledore), Merlin, House, Xena: Warrior Princess, etc.

[6] In fact, though it may curdle the blood of some of my queer liberal peers to say so, I’m not sure capitalism is always evil. The goal of being able to market queer material to a larger audience is not one that can be rejected out of hand. If the goal is getting queer stories into conservative homes, I’m all for a little sleight of hand.

9 Responses

  1. Donna says:

    Thank you so much for this piece. I am actually Het, but a Sherlock fan & see the Queer subtext. The oddest thing is that I think the show actually GOT casual viewers there; to a point of acceptance, then…nothing. What they did hurt and confused a lot of people. I hope a good lesson comes from this.

  2. Chips says:

    I hate queerbaiting for all the other reasons as well.

  3. Elise says:

    Thank you for this! I’ve been a fan of Sherlock for ages, ans as a lesbian, having that disappointment phrased so eloquently is incredibly helpful. Thanks for getting the word out there.

  4. MyrtleMartha says:

    Sherlock provides us with an alt-right vision of the world as it should be. Nearly all white, with the few POC either villainous or unimportant. Women who depend on men to save them and/or give their lives meaning (yes, including Mrs. Hudson whose financial assets came from enduring an abusive husband until he died. A number of queer characters, all despicable to one degree or another, with all the more admirable characters straight. And the idea that two decent men could fall in love with each other a running joke. And, oh yes, lots of sneaky dangerous foreigners– When Mary seems to be a villain, she’s said to be from some other country but when she declares being a wife is all that matters, she’s identified as that English lady. The world according to sexist anti-gay white nationalists!

  5. Kimber says:

    An excellent article that hit a lot of good points and put things better than I have been able to do.

    I’m Bisexual, so I can more often find things to relate to, but I am one of those soft, fluffy people who want everyone to have their story end happily – especially those who don’t usually get to have that, like most of the queer community.

    I’m so glad you wrote this article. Thank you.

  6. Stephen says:

    Excellent, really exceptional article, Lulu. We should have dinner or just have a conversation about this sometime. I’d love to expand on it.

  7. Alex says:

    A great article on a very rich subject.

    I’m a literature student so your last note about a little sleight of hand sometimes being needed to sneak alternative ideas in conservative places resonates a lot with me. Some of the greatest literary works in History wouldn’t exist as we know them if their writers hadn’t had to work around the censorship mechanisms of their time. I’m thinking in particular of Don Quixote and other major Spanish Golden Age works; having to had their novels and plays approved by the Inquisition resulted in ingenious (and brave) writers who always found a way to get their controversial ideas across despite the heavy scrutiny.

    Certainly, one doesn’t have to be queer to find queerbating despicable and sad, but it is a fact that marketability is as harsh a censor as the Spanish Inquisition. We can only hope someday we’ll look back at this time when queerbaiting is so widespread with the same disgust and disbelief that someone ever considered it necessary.

    In the meantime, there’s not much else we can do but write articles like this and collectively decode the queer subtext on our favorite shows. At least we have fun doing it, I guess.

  8. Bub says:

    Thanks Lulu —-

    XXXXXX

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