Why We Should Be Conscious About Queerbaiting



If you watched episode after episode of your TV series, anticipating the moment when your favorite same-sex characters would disclose their attraction to each other, only to see them ending up either tragically or in a heterosexual relationship, you know what it is to be a victim of queerbaiting. But what about real people? Can they queerbait?


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Around 10-15 years ago, many people were ready to watch an entire TV show if it had a queer subtext. Remember this subplot with the characters exchanging meaningful glances and touches appearing on the screen for a few minutes but long enough to make you watch more and more. And then nothing happens. Sounds annoying? So it was for thousands of LGBTQ+ people who then felt unrepresented and confused, doubting if they were the only ones who had false hopes. This is how the term “queerbaiting” emerged, from the discussions of disappointed fans on Tumblr and other social media in the early 2010s. Simply put, queerbaiting started as a way of describing a story where character’s queerness was alluded to but ultimately not shown.  



Despite the fact that the concept of queerbaiting is relatively new, the practice of subtly portraying queerness while plausibly denying it has a longer history. By looking at the cinema industry, we will see that queerbaiting is the modern flipside to queercoding. It wasn’t so uncommon to see homosexuality depicted in early film, but it changed with the introduction of the Hays Code, a set of rules and guidelines for self-censorship in Hollywood films that were made to follow between the early 1930s and late 1960s. The Hays Code prohibited the depiction of “sex perversion” and barred homosexuality from the screen. 

Nevertheless, filmmakers found ways to bring queer characters on the screen, but, in order to be featured in the cinema, LGBTQ+ characters had to be queercoded. This was done by  endowing the characters with traits sufficient to be associated with any other sexual orientation other than heterosexual, but at the same time leaving them vague so that the filmmakers could technically meet the standards of the Code.

Even after the code was replaced in 1968, the legacy of the Hays Code was still present and queer interactions were widely taboo. Ellen DeGeneres’s sitcom is an unfortunate proof. After Ellen and her character both came out in 1997, the star received death threats and couldn’t get work. So, practically, a lot of U.S.content makers resorted to queercoding out of necessity and fear until the 2010s, when the U.S. public started to enjoy more societal acceptance.

Queerbaiting appeared in response to the rising profitability of diverse narratives and changing social norms, meaning that content creators living in a place and time where and when queer representation is possible deny using this possibility. Queercoding and queerbaiting might be confused, however these terms have crucial differences that can be put as follows. Queercoding appears under the circumstances that don’t allow queer representation meaning that filmmakers use homosexual subtext to include queer personas in the story and still have heterosexual audience (and their money), while queerbaiting, not alienating straight audiences, draws attention of LGBTQ+ audiences (and their money) by using never-actualized homosexual subtext.

One of the first academic scholars to address queerbaiting was Judith Fathallah. In her journal article, Judith Fathallah defined queerbaiting as “a strategy by which writers and networks attempt to gain the attention of queer viewers via hints, jokes, gestures, and symbolism suggesting a queer relationship between two characters, and then emphatically denying and laughing off the possibility”. Nowadays, it is generally accepted to refer to queerbaiting as a marketing strategy of content creators to attract LGBTQ+ audiences and make a profit from these viewers by implying same-sex relationships or characters’ queerness when there aren’t any. 



The most infamous examples of queerbaiting include interactions between Dean and Castiel in Supernatural (2005-2020), Sherlock and Watson in Sherlock (2010-2017), Rizzoli and Isles in Rizzoli & Isles (2010-2016), and Beca and Chloe in Pitch Perfect (franchise 2012, 2015, 2017).

In the cases of queerbaiting, not only do queer audiences not receive representation, but they often feel used and ridiculed. Since sometimes even the content creators and the cast refuse to acknowledge that their characters share romantic interest, queer audiences are left unsure in their own understanding of what is happening around them  (is it real or is it in my head?). 

While some people might not understand the problem, queerbaiting has a harmful impact on the mental health of LGBTQ+ audiences, increasing the levels of anxiety and depression. Queerbaiting promotes isolation and perpetuates the stigma surrounding queer communities, as it prevents society from seeing LGBTQ+ people as normal people who can live happy and healthy lives. 

Slowly, storytellers are coming to the recognition of detrimental effects of erasing queer characters. Over the past decade, we can see some positive changes in terms of queer representation. More and more often, TV shows and films delight us with queer leading characters such as Eric in Sex Education (2019-2023), Villanelle in Killing Eve (2018-2022), Jules in Euphoria (2019-...). Even Disney has finally presented the first out gay teen hero, Ethan Clade, in Strange World (2022).



The terms should be used but not abused. Queerbaiting, once applied to different media and used as a cry for accountability for manipulations, has become so overused that today it’s being used to refer to real people, mostly celebrities, who look or act queer without explicitly saying or coming out as queer.

A star of Heartstopper (2022-...), Kit Connor, was accused of queerbaiting after he was photographed hand in hand with actress Maia Reficco. Forced by the fans, Kit Connor broke his own retreat from social media to come out to his many followers. In his Twitter post, he wrote: “i’m bi. congrats for forcing an 18-year-old to out himself. i think some of you missed the point of the show. bye”.

Harry Styles has been accused of capitalizing on queer culture throughout his solo career for dressing up not in accordance with heteronormative ideas about men’s fashion and refusing to clarify his sexuality. In 2021, after Billie Eilish’s music video Lost Cause that included a small queer kiss was out, some viewers accused Billie Eilish of making supposedly queer content or implying she herself might be queer without actually coming out. Ariana Grande has also been accused of queerbaiting for her song Monopoly and the Break up with your Girlfriend music video.

In a lot of cases, people have been called queerbaiters simply because they haven’t explicitly defined their sexuality for the public. The demand for everyone to be “out” is problematic. In fact, no public figure owes us their sexuality. Sexuality, like gender, is deeply personal and complex. We should be conscious about questioning somebody’s sexuality, since then we are questioning someone’s understanding of themselves. Placing expectations on somebody in a way designed to force a person to come out or accusing a person for not coming out is abusive.

If we want to normalize anything other than a straight-cis experience, we need to allow people the freedom to explore themselves, personally and artistically, without immediately expecting them to define themselves. This kind of judgment, like in the case with queerbaiting, is becoming a new form of repression that might discourage individuals from trying to express themselves.

Ultimately, the best route to overcoming queerbaiting is for mainstream media to include widespread queer representation. We already can see the development in this sphere. If we will be conscious about all sides of queerbaiting, it will no longer work and be relegated to history, where it belongs.


Highlight Image: © daniel james via Unsplash

+ Words:
Kseniia Gavrilova
Luxiders Magazine