The Bare Minimum: Why Do Shows Keep Getting Away With Queerbaiting?
© Chuck Zlotnick via Marvel Studios
When will streaming services stop their use of queerbaiting as a replacement for actual LGBT+ representation?
BBC’s Sherlock, the Captain America movies, even the 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast; many shows, movies, and other forms of media have been accused of ‘queerbaiting’ - i.e. where creators hint at but do not actually depict LGBT+ relationships in fictional media. In some ways it could be seen as a positive: creators queerbait because it causes a stir because it draws in LGBT+ audiences who are starved for representation - and we’ve come a long way for queerness to be seen as something that draws people in rather than pushes them away. However, the fact remains that for entertainment being made in the 21st century, subtext and ‘subtle hints’ can rarely be counted as satisfactory representation.
Many TV shows nowadays are becoming more concerned with LGBT+ representation, and this seems especially to be the case with the exclusive shows that streaming services create. Streaming services aim to make progressive shows - (or, at the very least, shows that appear progressive) - that feature themes surrounding social justice, and many of these shows end up on trending pages as they spark discussions about various causes.
At first glance, this form of on-demand entertainment that is found on streaming services may seem to have plenty of LGBT+ representation, but on closer inspection, are these shows really as progressive as they seem?
Loki has been a long-time fan favourite - both for fans of Marvel comics and fans of the movies - so the Disney+ exclusive show named after the beloved antihero was highly anticipated and became ‘the most in-demand series in the world’ (Insider). Despite the show’s popularity, however, many LGBT+ fans were left disappointed with its attempts at representation. As the titular character’s sexuality is ambiguous in the comics, many believed Loki would be Marvel’s opportunity to step up and finally have a canon LGBT+ protagonist in one of their shows. Instead, what they received was a brief, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusion to Loki being genderfluid (in a shot of his files where his sex is listed as ‘fluid’), and a one-liner in episode three confirming him to be bisexual that is never mentioned again. Some fans were satisfied by this and saw it as a step in the right direction (small as that step may be), but many felt that in 2021, this isn’t the progressive and ground-breaking representation Marvel seems to think it is.
Making a brief allusion to a character’s sexuality but not exploring it any further means that although many LGBT+ fans were disappointed, many of these fans are likely to stick around for a second season in the hopes that the character’s sexuality will be explored later on: especially when, in the instance of Loki, the titular character spends the first season building a strong friendship with Mobius (played by Owen Wilson) - a relationship many fans have interpreted as romantic. These scraps of representation are enough to hook queer viewers in whilst allowing the studio to avoid having to put much time and effort into actually representing the LGBT+ community in a good way.
Loki isn’t the only example of streaming services being accused of queerbaiting in their shows - the Amazon Prime show Good Omens faced similar controversy, as there are multiple references to the two main characters being romantically involved despite not actually being a couple. Neil Gaiman, writer for the show and co-author of the 1990 book it was adapted, responded to these allegations on Twitter and claimed that he never described the characters - Aziraphale and Crowley - as ‘not Queer’, but ‘canonically not gay, because they are not male’.
Whether Good Omens is an example of queerbaiting remains up for debate, but it has given way to interesting discussions about how regardless of whether this is queerbaiting or not, is it enough? When being deliberately vague about the sexualities of your characters, are you doing fans a favour by allowing them to have their own interpretations? Or are you simply failing to solidly represent the LGBT+ community?
Queer viewers are drawn into shows by the possibility of queer relationships, only to find a lot of the time these queer relationships are only implied or ‘open to interpretation, meaning that this representation can be easily skipped over or ignored when not relevant to the plot or character’s development. But shows with queerbaiting are still popular, even amongst LGBT+ audiences who spot it, so what incentive is there for creators to stop?
Queer audiences flock to shows like Loki because even although we’ve come far in the way of representation, there is still a long way to go, so a lot of LGBT+ individuals are hungry for any queer representation they can find - no matter how small this representation is. However, in 2021, do we really need to settle for the bare minimum? There are many shows out there that do a wonderful job in portraying LGBT+ relationships and don’t shy away from confirming the sexualities of characters out loud - the Netflix original Schitt’s Creek, for example, features a main character - David (played by Daniel Levy) - who is pansexual and ends up marrying another man; David’s sexuality is relevant to his character and to the story, isn’t brushed aside, but also is not the sole focus of the show. His sexuality isn’t a point of trauma or contention, or even played off for laughs, but simply just part of who his character is.
Shows like Schitt’s Creek are ones that we should be supporting and hyping up - there are shows out there with great LGBT+ representation, that don’t use queerbaiting to draw in LGBT+ audiences. I don’t believe that we have to settle for the bare minimum when it comes to representation anymore, not when there are many alternatives to shows that queerbait.
Ultimately, showrunners will continue to queerbait for as long as we accept it and watch their content. A solution lies in us supporting shows with good representation and refusing to engage with shows that shamelessly queerbait, but with the unwavering popularity of shows that do queerbait, it appears that LGBT+ audiences are not quite ready to abandon the familiarity of the scraps that these shows throw at us.
Our favourite Queer TV shows….
Schitt’s Creek (Netflix) - a wealthy family suddenly finds themselves broke and living in their last remaining asset, a town they bought as a joke. Dan Levy, a gay man, plays the pansexual character David Rose. Hilarious and heart-warming!
Feel Good (Netflix) - a semi-autobiographical rom-com created by and starring non-binary comedian Mae Martin. The show follows the relationship between Martin’s character and their love interest, George (played by Charlotte Ritchie).
She-Ra and the Princesses of Power (Netflix) - the colourful, animated, magical princess show everyone needs in their life. Noelle Stevenson (the show's creator) is queer and nonbinary, and her own desire for queer representation is clear throughout the show.