Is Queerbaiting Real and does it Matter?
In the past ten years there has been an increase of queer characters on television shows. Queer characters are finally receiving stories lines besides the overused the “coming out” narrative or the gay best friend trope. Though despite the increase of queer representation, some television shows today are accused of “queerbaiting.” Queerbaiting is relatively new term that describes the practice of television shows adding homoerotic tension between two characters without any intention of having those characters enter a romantic relationship. There are many articles about queerbaiting and while some articles make queerbaiting out to be a phenomena created by unhappy fans, most television critics agree that show creators seeking more diverse viewers actively encourage it. Queerbaiting is a pretty ingenious marketing ploy since it attracts many LGBTQ+ viewers who seek representation on television while at the same time it avoids alienating homophobic viewers by not actually having queer characters in the show. Television shows that employ queerbaiting whether intentionally or unintentionally ultimately exploit LGBTQ+ viewers.
Some of the most notable examples of queerbaiting are in the television shows Supernatural, Sherlock, Teen Wolf, and Rizzoli & Isles. I chose to focus on the teaser trailer for season 5 of Rizzoli & Isles. In the trailer, the two protagonists, Jane Rizzoli and Maura Isles, walk out together while the voiceover says, “Behind every great woman, is another great woman.” Within the first ten second of the trailer there is already a lesbian inference. As easy as it would be to write off that statement as a message of “girl power,” it is difficult not to see the statement as an innuendo in the context of the video. The thirty-second trailer is comprised of lesbian jokes, lingering looks, and the two women even pretending to be a couple. These actions might not seem significant but they are considering this thirty-second trailer is how the creators of Rizzoli & Isles chose to represent their show. One could say that queerbaiting is simply fans overanalyzing scenes from the show but this example is different since it is trailer, not a scene where two same sex characters looked at each other for a second too long. Trailers in general are used for promotional purposes, so if the creators of Rizzoli & Isles are choosing to promote their show with unmistakable lesbian subtext between two canonically heterosexual characters then they are in fact queerbaiting.
In next part of the trailer, both women are in bed while Maura is on her laptop. She says, “All these women think you’re hot” and Jane responds, after looking at the laptop, “Wow. I’d flip for that.” So here we have a canonically heterosexual character say that she would “flip” or change sexualities for the woman she saw on the computer screen. While this is a seemingly harmless comment, the casual reference to “flipping” sexualities plays into the “no homo” trope. The snippets of dialogue throughout the whole trailer are also unrelated to the plot of the show, which is about the crime solving team of Rizzoli, the detective and Isles, the medical examiner yet all the trailer has shown are lesbian jokes and inferences. The voiceover tells the viewer that “Every Tuesday is ladies night” while Maura and Jane sit at a restaurant and Maura deters a man interested in Jane by saying, “She’s a lesbian.” The focus on the women’s relationship and how they are perceived as a lesbian couple builds up that tension that the fans of the show are pointing out. The back-to-back lesbian references cannot possibly be labeled as fans reading too much into things. The show creators are deliberately making a statement with this trailer, however the statement is not a positive one for LGBTQ+ representation. The trailer turns the lesbian identity into a joke and an act considering the creators have gone to great lengths to assure the protagonists heterosexuality. Treating the idea of being a lesbian as a joke diminishes the struggles that many queer people have faced to live openly.
Another important part of the trailer is when Jane and Maura actually pretend to be a couple. They cuddle up to one another and Jane says, “Yes, we are still together,” which implies that this is an act that they’ve done before. The speculation that Maura and Jane are lesbians is ultimately used for laughs.
Television shows thrive on the “will they/won’t they” tension between romantically inclined characters but shows like Rizzoli & Isles continue to emphasize the “will they” tension with no hope of resolution, “baiting” viewers into becoming invested in the pairing. If one of the main characters were a man the audience would immediately assume that the man and the woman were romantically interested in each other and in fandom terms “endgame.” Imagine the trailer with Seeley Booth and Temperance Brennan from Bones instead. Booth and Brennan doing the same actions that Rizzoli and Isles did in the trailer would be considered romantic. Due to the still prevalent “compulsory heterosexuality” in our society the mind set of most people is that a person is straight until proven gay. In 1980 Adrienne Rich wrote, “heterosexuality is presumed as a sexual preference of most women, either implicitly or explicitly” in her article, which sought to underline the factors that make heterosexuality the norm and bring forth more scholarship on the lesbian experience. Even though Rich was writing thirty years ago her article is still relevant today. There is trope on many television shows to have the two protagonists as romantic interests (Bones, Castle, The Mentalist, etc.) but once these protagonists are same sex, then romance is simply off the table.
While queerbaiting might seem like a small problem in the scope of queer representation in the media, it is significant since so much of 21st century culture depends on what people are posting on social media. The debate of queerbaiting began on social media sites like Tumblr and Twitter and has developed into an acknowledged problem in the television industry. Queerbaiting makes queer identities out as the punch line of a very unfunny and tired joke. How the media portrays queer identities is very important in the current discourse of sexuality studies considering the overwhelming impact television, movies, and social media have on the shaping of one’s identity. If television shows continue to build romantic/sexual tensions between same sex characters only to ultimately say “no homo,” then they mock queer identities and the inherent dangers that come with being queer even in today’s society.
Rich, Adrienne. “Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence.” Signs5.4 (1980): 631-660.
Hochman, David. “Rizzoli & Isles: True Womance.” TVGuide.com.
Langfelder, Natasia. “Let’s End Queerbaiting in 2016 – AfterEllen.” AfterEllen Lets End Queerbaiting in 2016 Comments.
Ladies Night I Rizzoli & Isles Season 5 I TNT. YouTube. YouTube.