Queerbaiting: The Art of Manipulation in TV


Queerbaiting, it’s a thing. A very complex and a rather rampant thing with many meanings. Have you seen a trailer for a show or movie or even a snippet of an upcoming music video that showed instances of same-sex intimacy then when it’s time for that part of the production, it’s equivalent to a glimmer of hope? This bait-and-switch tactic is carried out through plots, characters, imagery, lyrics, social media posts, and interview answers, where a director, author, writer, or producer will lure in LGBT+ audiences with the promise that there’d be positive queer representation (the bait), but then that representation is never fulfilled (the switch). With the sole purpose of engaging or attracting an LGBT+ audience or otherwise generating interest without ever actually depicting such relationships or sexual interactions, it’s an effective technique. Some won’t be bothered much by the deceit as they see it as water off of a duck’s back, but to a large number of people, it’s an intense annoyance. Think of it like this, you’re into season three of a show and you’d bet on your life that the main characters are going to be together. You wait and hope, and wait and hope some more, you’re basically the poster child of patience. Then, one season later the series ends and you’re confused because what you saw as a sure romance between the leading ladies, turned into a platonic relationship.  


It’s no secret that Hollywood plays host to the wildest of ideas in a bid to keep the industry going. The hotly debated tactic that is Queerbaiting was a decision made to woo queer fans without any chance of staying true to what was clearly implied. With the lack of representation of the LGBT+ camp in movies and TV shows, those aware of the LGBT’s desire to be seen on the big screen exploited this. Mapping Contemporary Cinema X-Men: First Class (2011) is an example of such a bait and switch. Charles (James McAvoy) spends the film convincing Erik (Michael Fassbender) of humanity’s goodness. They share intimate moments, as when Charles unlocks a memory of Erik’s that brings him to tears. The pair stare into each other’s eyes while Charles says “There’s so much more to you than you know”. Yet Erik engages in a romantic relationship with Raven and Charles with Moira, confirming their heterosexuality. Here the creators are aware of the potential for queer readings of their characters and play with this to attract a queer audience without any intention to confirm the characters as homosexual. At its core, queerbaiting is a commercial, opportunistic tactic to exploit a certain audience.


When it comes to Queerbaiting, Disney has a number of fingers angrily pointing at them. Over the years, Disney Studios have been praising their level of inclusivity where sexual preference is concerned. Examples of such being the first-ever gay character in the live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, the hinted-at lesbian couple in Pixar’s Finding Dory, and the short-lived moment in Avengers: Endgame in which director Joe Russo cameos as someone who lost his same-sex partner during the Snap or the kiss between two women at the end of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Interestingly enough, in the 2021 Disney movie, Raya and the Last Dragon, the lead actress Kelly Marie Tran, who voiced Raya, has been very open about believing her character was gay. “I felt the relationship between her and the other lead woman had that potential and there was just a lot of chemistry,” says Kate about the movie. “If that other character had been a man, it would have been an enemies-to-lovers kind of storyline. That’s another way that queerbaiting crops up for me, when it feels like if I were to compare this to a cishet depiction of characters, they would go a different way.” 


When Bridgerton came out in 2020, it too nodded toward same-sex potential. During the trailer they include Benedict stumbling upon Henry having sex with another guy, and the look on Benedict’s face seems intrigued, not disgusted. Because of the inclusion of the scene, a lot of people were really looking forward to Benedict being gay or bisexual.   Instead in the show, the only gay character is Henry whom he walked in on with another man in a 5-second gay sex scene. As the Henry sex scene is not a huge part of the show’s storyline, it seems like the only reason they gave it a prominent place in the trailer was so that people would be intrigued by a queer sex scene and want more.  In the cases of Supergirl and The 100, fans were left incredibly disappointed as the characters of both shows didn’t end up with who they were carefully projected to be with throughout each show.  In Supergirl, Supercorp, the romantic pairing of Kara Danvers and Lena Luthor didn’t happen. In The 100, Lexa who was being shipped with main character Clarke was killed off. 


In the years 2015-2016 there was a crazy influx of Bury Your Gays in shows on the CW network.  Across their board, LGBT+ characters were killed off in six shows: The Vampire Diaries:Luke dies in a ritual in Season 6, Rose and Mary Louise commit suicide in Season 7; The 100: Lexa is murdered; Arrow: Sara “White Canary” Lance, a bisexual superhero formerly involved with recurring character Nyssa, is murdered (but resurrected for spin-off Legends of Tomorrow by fan demand); Jane the Virgin: Lesbian drug lord is murdered in Season 2 and in The Originals: Gay werewolf Aiden is murdered. 


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. With that being said, it is very much the belief of queer Mexican activist Leo Herrera that the media “play[s] with our lack of representation and desires to get us in the theaters or get us to watch.”


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