You’re watching a show, and for the first couple seasons, it seems like two female characters are about to get together. You wait for it to happen. And then you wait some more. And some more. Eventually, the series ends, and what you thought was going to turn into romance for the two women turned out to be just a platonic relationship between two straight friends—in other words, another classic example of queerbaiting.
But what exactly is queerbaiting? And why is it even done? Here’s what you should know about the bait-and-switch tactic.
What is queerbaiting?
Queerbaiting is “a marketing ploy” that nods at queerness but never actually delivers queerness, Ricky Hill, PhD, a research assistant professor at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a faculty member of the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing, tells Health.
Most notably, the practice happens in television shows. But it can also happen in movies, music, books, and just about any other form of media. Through plots, characters, imagery, lyrics, social media posts, and interview answers, a director, author, writer, or producer will draw in LGBTQ+ audiences with the promise that there’s going to be positive queer representation (the bait), but then that representation is never fulfilled.
“So the viewers—especially queer people—are drawn in with the hope of seeing possibilities of themselves reflected back to them on the screen or hearing that in the music and are always left sort of waiting for it to actually happen,” Kim Hackford-Peer, PhD, the associate chair in the University of Utah’s Division of Gender Studies, tells Health.
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Here’s a popular queerbaiting example in literature and film: Harry Potter. These were books that “drew lots of queer people in because they were different, and interesting, and imaginative,” Hackford-Peer says. After the series was out, author J.K. Rowling announced that Dumbledore was in fact a gay character. There was the implication that her later works would explore that aspect of his character, but ultimately it wasn’t mentioned.
And an important note: queerbaiting is not synonymous with bad representation. “If there’s a very poor representation of a queer character, people are like, ‘We were queerbaited.’ No, there’s an actual queer person there. Unfortunately, it’s not good [representation],” Raina Deerwater, GLAAD’s entertainment research and analysis manager, tells Health.
While queerbaiting is most commonly thought of as a media and entertainment tactic, Hackford-Peer says that the practice can be done in other spheres as well. Queerbaiting might be employed by someone running for a political position to garner more support or campaign involvement. Queerbaiting could also be used by a community or school system to get people to move to a certain location and send their kids to a certain school. However queerbaiting is used, there’s a promise that LGBTQ+ inclusivity is and will be cared about—but then that promise fizzles out once the target audience has already been drawn in.
Our modern-day understanding of queerbaiting is different from what it used to be, as the term has evolved over time. In the 1950s, the US was in the midst of what became known as the Lavender Scare—when queer US citizens who worked in government positions were thought to be untrustworthy and at risk of being fired. As a result, LGBTQ+ people had to hide their sexuality. To identify those who were queer, people would queerbait—aka, pose as allies and members of the LGBTQ+ community and promise to provide a safe space, only to turn in the names of those who had come out to them, Hackford-Peer says. While the reason for queerbaiting has changed, it has always been steeped in empty promises.
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Why does queerbaiting happen?
Queerbaiting brings in not only the LGBTQ+ audience, but also that audience’s money. “It comes back to capitalism—we want the money of the queer consumers, but we will not represent them,” Deerwater says.
The practice was especially big in the early to mid 2010s, according to Deerwater. “It was still seen as a ‘risk’ to include queer characters and queer couples on popular shows,” she explains. “And so it was essentially these shows not portraying and not giving representation to the LGBTQ community, but teasing it so they would still get higher numbers and they would still maintain a fan base. So it’s kind of like having your cake and eating it too.”
But it’s 2021, and including LGBTQ+ characters in media is no longer the “risk” it used to be. “We can actually have these stories, and these narratives, and these expressions be focal,” Hill says.
Is queerbaiting harmful?
Yes. Hill recalls watching the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess as a young teen in the 90s, waiting for Xena and her “best friend,” Gabrielle, to become an official couple, as the show alluded to. “I just kept watching that show for a very long time in the hopes of getting to see what 13-year-old me really needed to see and just never got.” Hill calls that experience of being queerbaited “invalidating.” “It really just pulls the rug out from underneath you,” they say.
While some might write off the importance of showing different relationships in the media, Hill argues that there’s a lot of value in visibility, and that queerbaiting can harm the psyche for sure—a harm that’s worth acknowledging. “When we’re talking about communities that maybe don’t see themselves reflected back a whole lot, these relationships mean something,” Hill says. “And they are not simply characters, they are possibility models. And so when you have those possibility models taken away from you, it is a loss.”
These types of bait-and-switch tactics compound mental health issues, like depression and anxiety, that queer folks are already more likely to face. “To never see yourself reflected just is another form of social isolation,” Hill explains. “We know that social isolation just increases depression, increases anxiety, and those have very real biological implications.”
Queerbaiting can also continue the stigmatization of the LGBTQ+ community, as it prevents society as a whole from seeing “LGBTQ people as just normal, everyday folks operating in a culture where they can live happy, healthy, normal lives out in the open,” Hill says. In baiting but never fully showing queerness, media creators “imply that there’s something not worthy there of being fulfilled, that there is something not valid about these expressions and these identities.”
Queerbaiting is another form of queer folks being “erased, dismissed, or told we don’t matter in the world,” Hackford-Peer points out.
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How can queerbaiting be stopped?
The onus falls on media companies and creators to not queerbait. Each year, GLAAD puts together its Studio Responsibility Index and Where We Are in TV reports, which are comprehensive analyses of queer representation in film and TV, respectively. The film report found that 10 of the 44 films with theatrical releases in 2020 had LGBTQ+ characters. The TV report found that there were 360 LGBTQ+ characters in streaming, cable, and broadcast shows. So TV is moving faster than film when it comes to including queer representation. Deerwater hopes creators will see how successful the shows that do openly include queer representation are and start including queer characters and storylines.
Though it’s up to the creators to put an end to queerbaiting, people who are not in charge of putting out content can take steps to help stop it. First, familiarize yourself with what queerbaiting is, start looking out for it, and call it out when you see it. While you can call it out on social media, Deerwater also suggests chatting with your friends about it. “If someone doesn’t understand why queerbaiting is a problem, or why lack of representation is a problem, you can just have a nice conversation with your friend,” she says.
Be a conscious media consumer. “Question why queer people don’t play queer characters. If there are not queer characters in your favorite shows, question that. Just really be a thoughtful media consumer,” Hill says. “Think about who is actually creating what it is that you are engaging with, and follow the money.”
One of the best things you can do to combat queerbaiting, according to Hill: Consume art created by actual queer people. “We live in a time where we have people like Lil Nas X who is, to me, one of the most in-your-face, blatant queer artists who is out there creating some of the most beautiful queer art that there’s no question it’s queerness.”
Artists like him can help push queerbaiting into extinction. “For queerbaiting, the marketing ploys are going to stop working. Because when you have people like Lil Nas X controlling their narratives, we don’t have to rely on pandering,” Hill says. “And I think that that is a really exciting move.”
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