Art by Claudia Akole | @claudinsky
It starts with a longing stare and two pairs of flirtatious eyes. A double entendre here, and a hand on the lower back there.
It’s a simple formula that has lured in fans across Netflix specials and feature films. For directors and writers, queerbaiting is an easy way of appearing progressive and inclusive, while drawing in a crowd of LGBTQI+ youth, starved of representation.
For those unfamiliar with the term, queerbaiting is the practice in television, films, and writing in which two same-sex characters’ interactions are laden with romantic tension and the promise of a relationship. In an ideal world, these promises would come to fruition, paired with complex character arcs and a positive reflection of healthy queer relationships. But since we live in a world where the mere existence of LGBTQI+ relationships are still demonised — not only in television, but in everyday life — this is rarely the case.
The recently released series Riverdale features a kiss between two girls in the very first episode. Protagonists Betty and Veronica share a steamy make out session in front of a panel of cheerleading judges, with a crowd of boys watching in the background. The kiss eventuated to nothing more than a cheap marketing ploy by the writers. Both characters go on to date cisgender men, but not without fleeting moments of vague homoerotic subtext shared between the two. The same TV network, CW, is also responsible for The 100. In the post-apocalyptic series, Lexa and Clarke share a loving relationship until Lexa is suddenly killed off in the third season, just moments after the couple consummate their relationship.
Lexa’s death sparked outcry across the LGBTQI+ community. The show’s creator, Jason Rothenburg, was condemned for ending a healthy lesbian relationship so violently, with little consideration for its large queer audience. The backlash was reported worldwide across major news networks, bringing to light the trend of writers and directors to ‘bury your gays’ — a trope in which lesbian characters are killed for no reason other than to incite shock.
So why is queerbaiting so problematic?
For one, it ignores the existence of healthy queer relationships and people. Whether writers and filmmakers like it or not, television, movies, and books have social consequences. Historically, writers have chosen to adhere to a strict heteronormative framework with tokenistic references to gay and lesbian relationships in ways that are often stereotypical or derogatory. But as the entertainment industry inches towards being more progressive and inclusive, this means script writers have the responsibility to represent their queer characters in ways that resonate with reality. Queerbaiting has a gross tendency to abstract queer relationships as if they don’t exist in real life.
Queerbaiting is also inherently exploitative. It draws LGBTQI+ audiences in on the promise that they’ll receive healthy and accurate representation. Instead, by adding homoerotic subtext here and there, writers profit off LGBTQI+ viewership without delivering any substantial representation. It reinforces the power dynamics of a heteronormative society, and acts as a gross reminder that queer acceptance still has a long way to go.
Healthy queer relationships aren’t just a concept or a trend to be glossed over in the writers’ room. LGBTQI+ communities exist, in all their levels of intersectionality and vibrancy, and deserve honest representation. For closeted teenagers all over the globe, this could make a world of difference.