How would you react if a straight friend faked an attraction to a gay/bi/queer friend for a few months or years just to get something they wanted — and then ghosted once they had it?
That’s the personification of queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting is when creators and studios over-promise inclusion or flirt with queer subtext to hint at relationships they don’t intend to define or depict onscreen. It’s a way of luring an LGBTQ+ audience and benefitting from their investment, without offering meaningful representation in return.
When Ewan McGregor and Chris Messina tease their Birds of Prey characters are “more than likely” gay, that’s queerbaiting. When J.K. Rowling outs Dumbledore long after he’s dead in the books then re-closets him in the prequels, that’s queerbaiting too.
Growing up gay is a prolonged emotional trauma for many young people. Were it not for identifying PTSD in my early ‘40s, I could not have conceived of internalized homophobia, or believed how influenced I was by what I saw and didn’t see of myself on TV and in movies.
LGBTQ+ young people usually reconcile their identity in secret without anyone to mirror their experience. Seeing meaningful representations of themselves in the media during this formative time may be their only opportunity to develop a strong sense of self.
Queerbaiting cons them out of that opportunity.
I was 9 when I kissed Ricky Schroder (in a dream), and 14 by the time I ever saw two guys kiss. When a boy feels that he wants to kiss boys but only sees boys kissing girls, he has no proof of concept to assure him that he isn’t alone and what he feels is okay. I needed that assurance and scanned everything I watched to find it. If Supernatural had been on the air back then, I wouldn’t have had a prayer of quitting this show.
It’s been 7 years since Supernatural boosted ratings 36% by teasing queer subtext and “no homo” humor to imply Jensen Ackles’ character was bisexual. The dynamics of queerbaiting are set up so while the characters and creators are feeding the queer fans false hope, they’re also reminding the straight audience that what they’re seeing is a joke or perversion.
Worse, protests of mistreatment are sometimes met with denials or admonishments by creators, and accusations of overreaching and partisan identity politics by the majority of viewers who’re blind to queer subtext. This creates drama, and erodes acceptance of queer people, and 2019 data from GLAAD shows that.
This is what happened when a bisexual teenage Supernatural fan asked Ackles a question about his character based on the queer subtext she was meant to see.
I set out originally to write about Disney and my doozy of a queerbaiting hangover from Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Straight friends and Star Wars fam couldn’t immediately empathize — although they tried, and I felt ashamed and embarrassed trying to explain why something they couldn’t see was hurting me. I’ve since had my eyes opened to a systemic queerbaiting problem industry-wide. I wanted to bring it to your attention because it’s causing real harm under the radar.
Queer young people are being conned and mistreated by creators playing fast and loose with their representation — while LGBTQ acceptance has declined by 18% since 2016 among U.S. adults 18–34.
I don’t think these things are mutually exclusive, and it scares me to think I’ve seen this movie once before.
Fear and Self-Loathing in the ’80s
By the time I identified as gay, I was already homophobic. Not anti-gay, but self-prejudiced. In 1985, I was 11-years-old coming to terms with being gay during the AIDS epidemic in a defensively homophobic media culture.
The gay men I saw on TV were portrayed as flamboyant caricatures, deceitful cross-dressers, pedophiles, or dying from AIDS. Homophobic slurs were common in PG-rated movies.
When people see themselves represented in the media, it can affirm their identity. I internalized the lessons of the 80s and the stereotypes of who is gay and what that meant. I saw myself through the lens of a media that feared me, and a child can’t just turn that off.
Star Wars was the center of my emotional world back then. It was the fantasy into which I escaped. It was consistent and available, and non-judgmental, like a surrogate parent. And it was a good friend.
I saw every film in the saga in theaters on opening day from the time I was 3-years-old. When the end credits rolled on The Rise of Skywalker, I felt like the story that’d spanned my lifetime had just ended without me.
Star Wars: A False Hope
Getting to experience a new Star Wars trilogy as an adult presented an opportunity for me to heal some old wounds, by introducing a character I could identify with — Poe Dameron, a guy into guys played by Oscar Isaac.
I saw Isaac lay the foundation for Poe’s sexuality and romance with John Boyega’s Finn onscreen and in interviews throughout the press tour for The Force Awakens — part one of Disney’s Star Wars sequel trilogy. I may not have seen the “romance” had I not been encouraged to look for it, but I believed it when I saw it — if only in subtext.
“There was romance — at least I was playing romance. In the cockpit, there was a very deep romance happening.”— Oscar Isaac in 2015
Over the next four years, there were hundreds of headlines and interviews with Lucasfilm executives, the creators, and cast fueling speculation and encouraging support for Finn and Poe becoming Star Wars’ first-ever canonically queer onscreen couple. Legions of fans who’d felt seen by the characters were inspired by the mere suggestion of a Finn-Poe-mance to create thousands of pieces of fan art and fan fiction.
Isaac and Boyega doubled down on their chemistry heading into The Rise of Skywalker’s release. They held hands during the Skywalker panel at Star Wars Celebration and continued feeding false hope to fans longing to see their romantic relationship acknowledged onscreen in the final installment.
It wasn’t until the Skywalker press junket in an interview with Variety, that writer-director, J.J. Abrams denied there had been any romance between Finn and Poe, and rejected the concept, saying:
“That relationship to me is a far deeper one than a romantic one. It is a deep bond that these two [men] have, because of their willingness to be as intimate as they are, as afraid and unsure as they are, and still be bold, and still be daring and brave.” — J.J. Abrams
Cool story, bro. Afraid, unsure, daring, and brave — that’s the spectrum of feels most gay couples experience just holding hands in public.
Comments like J.J.’s are a good example of what Hollywood needs less of: casual heterosexism implying “gay men aren’t real men” and “intimacy between men is already gay enough.” This is how gay/bi/queer men learn to devalue themselves and romantic relationships with each other as less deep, less valuable, less masculine, less pure — even inferior to casual intimacy between platonic straight men.
“In the case of the LGBTQ community, it was important to me that people who go to see this movie feel that they’re being represented in the film. I will say I’m giving away nothing about what happens in the movie, but I did just say what I just said.” — J.J. Abrams
You did say what you just said — without mentioning those of us in the LGBTQ community who already believed we were being represented in the previous two films before learning — just now, that it wasn’t intentional. It’s unconscionable to ignore those people while professing you care about their representation — and then bait them again with more imminent queerness that turned out to be this:
Were it sincerely important that queer people feel represented in The Rise of Skywalker, it would’ve been easy enough for Abrams and Disney to do so, with minimal effort. Would it not have been easy, in a film overflowing with fan service, to have given sensical meaning to that meaningless kiss by replacing two extras with Finn and Poe instead? After all, they’re both in that scene. It wouldn’t have mattered if their kiss had been cut in Malaysia. We still would’ve had a defined love story told over 3 films.
Would it not have been easy to leave Poe’s sexuality ambiguous and to introduce Zorii Bliss as anything but his ex-girlfriend in the final frames of the last movie? She’s onscreen for 10 minutes and wears a helmet to cover her face. She couldn’t have been an ex-crewmate or co-pilot? Why throw a Hail Mary ‘No Homo’ in the 4th quarter if not to heteronormalize him?
Oscar Isaac came forward shortly after Skywalker opened to say that he’d pushed for the romantic subtext he and John Boyega were directed to play to come to fruition as an onscreen relationship and that “the Disney overlords” said “No.”
Disney’s Queerbait Mouse Trap
Abrams was the fourth writer-director in 3 years to tout a “historic” queer character during the press junket of an upcoming Disney blockbuster. It’s a strategy that allows Disney to own the news cycle with a pro-LGBTQ+ narrative it hasn’t earned without needing proof — Like that time during the Solo press tour, when screenwriter Jonathan Kasdan “confirmed” to HuffPo that Donald Glover’s Lando Calrissian was pansexual.
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Which seemed like news to Glover in this interview. In fairness, Lando’s sexuality isn’t mentioned once in the movie, so maybe he forgot. Still, if anyone identifying as pansexual felt seen by Lando calling Han “baby” once in passing, or his flirtatious banter with his female-voiced droid, lmk.
Once these films are released, the representation is revealed for what it is: A pandering micro-moment like Skywalker’s blink-and-you-missed-it kiss; 41-seconds of dialogue in Avengers: Endgame; and Beauty & the Beast’s “exclusively gay moment” — all easily cut for foreign markets with anti-gay laws and restrictions like China, Russia, and Singapore. Sometimes those micro-moments get cut pre-release — as was the case with Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther. Rinse, Repeat.
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I worked with Fortune 500 and entertainment companies for years in corporate communications, and I cannot remember seeing a media strategy so intent on alienating the broadest possible audience.
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It gives queer audiences false hope, riles up the conservative backlash, irks fans who’re more interested in spoilers, and makes Disney vulnerable to the queerbaiting accusations that inevitably follow— before the film has opened.
I got shanked with Bible scripture on Twitter for Retweeting an article touting “Disney’s first openly gay character” — who’s big moment of inclusion ended up fitting entirely in a GIF.
Nobody understands the importance of meaningful LGBTQ+ representation more than the people who suffer from the lack of it. By insisting upon taking these victory laps, Disney takes that conversation out of our hands.
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It also perpetuates the notion that minimal representation is sufficient (it isn’t), and conflates representation with identity politics (it isn’t). It lulls the majority into complacency and on top of disappointing us with pandering moments of inclusion, it also puts us in the position of defending them.
Please, Stop Queerbaiting
I work in the industry. I know how easy it is to not accidentally inject queer subtext into a script or an acting performance.
As someone who’s not part of fandom culture myself, it’s hard for me to find an on-ramp into every queerbaiting argument. I am gay though, and I appreciate how it feels to live in a country of 330 million people and 315 million of them are heterosexual. I don’t need to experience a single homophobic act to feel oppressed by heterosexism and heteronormativity.
I don’t need to “see the gay in everything,” and I’m glad there’s so much of it to see today. What I need is for studios and creators playing fast and loose with representation to stop doing it. Respect your influence, and respect queer people.
Call it as we see it, or don’t call us.