The list of queer characters and same sex couples in film and on television has been expanding rapidly in the past few years.
Shows like Glee, Pretty Little Liars, Modern Family, and How to Get Away with Murder are just a few shows that have gained notoriety for their portrayal of homosexual relationships as a part of major storylines. However, now that it’s known that a television show can feature same sex couples and still have a large, successful following, it brings into question why other shows don’t feel the same need to appeal to an LGBTQIA audience.
Unfortunately, many queer viewers do feel like the networks are trying to catch their attention, but in a more subtle way, which doesn’t exactly fit their needs. “Queer baiting” refers to subtext between gay or bisexual characters in TV shows, books, or movies that becomes more and more intense but never comes to any kind of realization. This means that some shows will build up the tension between two same-sex characters, but will never have them actually escalate into a romantic relationship. People in the queer community who get trapped into media that queer baits are often accused of reading too far into things or imagining things that aren’t there, however writers, filmmakers, and actors often don’t dispel inquiries about queer relationships between characters as they don’t want to alienate either side of the audience.
One show that is notorious for its history of queer baiting is the BBC’S Sherlock. Despite the deep and complicated relationship that exists between the show’s two main characters, it consistently points out how straight both Sherlock and Watson are. The show even pokes fun at the idea that either would ever be queer by having people often mistake them for a gay couple and showing Watson as horrified at this prospect. Though the “mistaken for a couple” trope is one that’s been around for decades, it still signals to the queer audiences watching that the notion that these characters could be anything other than straight is absurd and laughable.
One of the biggest issues with queer baiting is that queer people are told to appreciate what they have been given, and that one gay character on every other channel should be more than enough to satisfy their need for representation. Many of those who are involved in these shows become defensive when asked about queer baiting, stating that they are not homophobic and don’t desire to harm the LGBTQIA community in any way. In most cases, these people are probably telling the truth. Though their problematic approach to interacting with their queer audiences may not be born out of hate, fear, or homophobia, it does point to a bigger and more complicated issue — heteronormativity and heterosexism.
Heteronormativity and heterosexism describe the beliefs that most people are straight and therefore being queer is abnormal or lesser than. Heteronormativity and heterosexism are so ingrained within the popular culture that it’s sometimes hard to catch when it happens. Although same-sex, platonic relationships are important, representation for queer people is so few and far between that some audiences are rightfully desperate to be able to claim a character for their own community. Queer baiting is a strong example of heterosexism in the general media, as it supports the notion that queer characters and homosexual romances would never suffice for a general audience, only for a gay one.
Queer baiting not only alienates queer audiences from shows that they would otherwise love, but it also tells future queer writers that their lives and experiences are not as valid because they are queer. Representation is vital in supporting upcoming generations of audiences who look to the media for entertainment, information, and sometimes even guidance. The way that television shows treat their queer characters and subsequently their queer audiences can make or break what that audience thinks about not just the show or queer people, but also about themselves.
Queer audiences have a right to be represented and respected, especially if television shows are seeking out their viewership. Queer baiting is belittling to those who want nothing more than to be acknowledged, and at the end of the day, having a queer character determines nothing about them other than who they do or don’t sleep with.