Gaslighting the queer audience
‘Queerbaiting’ is a term used by fans to criticize homosexual suggestiveness in television shows and film when this suggestiveness is not eventually actualized in the narrative of the cultural text in question. This term originates in the global subculture of media fans known as fandom which is characterized by intense feelings of camaraderie among its members, their taking an interest in even the tiniest details of the objects of their fandom, and their spending a lot of time and energy on a series of activities and social networking on the basis of their enthusiasm. However, in the last decade, the term ‘queerbaiting’ has gained popularity and entered the everyday vocabulary following the societal changes regarding homosexuality, that is the growing levels of acceptance and visibility of LGBTIQA+ persons, especially in the countries where the entertainment industry is based and most of the cultural representations of such persons are produced reaching every corner of the world via global infrastructures of distribution such as cinema, television, social networks, and streaming services. Furthermore, the semantic field of this term has been significantly expanded over the years beyond its initial use referring solely to TV shows and movies. In this blog article, we are going to discuss the phenomenon of queerbaiting by breaking down its inner workings with the help of specific paradigms from pop culture. Finally, we are going to bring this issue home by commenting on a very specific marketing strategy deployed by the vast majority of queer underwear brands.
Let’s start at the beginning! What is queerbaiting exactly? How does queerbaiting work? Queer studies to the rescue! We believe we should approach queerbaiting as a cultural phenomenon like any other, that is a socially and historically situated one. As such, queerbaiting mirrors and at the same time troubles the grounds that gave birth to it, namely the implicit and taken-for-granted assumptions society holds regarding the nature and the social status of homosexuality and by extension of heterosexuality. Also, since queerbaiting is a marketing strategy that permeates cultural products, such as movies, TV shows, songs, music videos, etc., it is always up to the audience whether a particular story or visual depiction is guilty of queerbaiting. This means that it takes interpretative labor to decide if a TV character or a celebrity is set as bait for queer viewers or fans. And since our understanding of who is gay or which practice counts as homosexual changes over time and always depends on the specific gender and sexual economy of each society, we should be careful not to rush to any conclusions before we take a good look at our partial and situated perspective. To put it differently, what might count as queerbaiting today in North America and Europe, might not register as such in Iran or Japan or Ethiopia, or even in the USA thirty years ago. Reading something as queerbaiting might even say more about the one who casts such a judgment rather than about the intentions of the creator(s) of the cultural text in question. Let’s not also forget that in the golden era of content that we live in, any media event can be read as a cultural text, for example, a live performance by a singer. And of course, any cultural text is inevitably a cultural product, a product created by a multimillion entertainment industry in the context of a neoliberal economy that obeys faithfully the law of supply and demand.
According to the scholar Judith Fathallah (2015: 491), queerbaiting is ‘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.’ Far from lending an innocent modicum of visibility to the ‘queer issue’, ‘denial and mockery reinstate a heteronormative narrative that poses no danger of offending mainstream viewers at the expense of queer eyes.’ For Emma Nordin (2015: 63), queerbaiting ‘is defined as teasing and denying, robbing people of representation and space, an expression of homophobia and exploitation, and reproduction of heterosexism…in a time and place where queer representation is possible yet constantly denied.’ Nordin also tries to trace the origins of this exploitative practice far before chat rooms, fan forums, and blogs back to the pre-internet era when it denoted homophobic practices in legal and McCarthy-era political contexts. Next to this nascent research on the topic by queer and media studies scholars, queerbaiting has received the attention of major media testifying to the dominance of fan-driven cultural products and the growing awareness about LGBTIQA+ representation.
I offer two quite telling examples. The first one refers to the 2016 opinion piece by The Guardian on the release of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play where the creators of the Harry Potter world are accused of using ‘injections of homoeroticism and romance to draw an audience seeking LGBTQ representation, while not alienating a wider audience who may not want to see a gay relationship depicted.’ The second one comes from a 2019 article on gay icon singer Ariana Grande by The Independent. Here, on the occasion of the lyrics of a couple of songs that ‘purposely teasing the possibility of (Grande) being queer’, the author sides with those who firmly believe that queerbaiting is harmful since it ‘refrains from embracing the minority while using queerness as a way to get more viewers and money.’ Other notable examples of queerbaiting include singers such as Katy Perry, Harris Style, and Rita Ora, many Marvel movies such as Black Panther and Captain America, and TV series such as Stranger Things, Sherlock, and Teen Wolf.
Unfortunately, queerbaiting is as pervasive as queerphobia itself and it could be in fact a far more insidious form of queerphobia than -let’s say- explicit hate speech. It works in a way that crawls under viewers' skin and makes them question their own reading of the film despite the carefully planted cues all over the narrative. In a way, queerbaiting follows the logic of gaslighting, a form of emotional abuse and manipulation when someone makes you question your own beliefs and perception of reality and which leaves you with a deep sense of frustration. In the case of queerbaiting, this invalidation of own’s sexual identity is many times part and parcel of queer capitalism itself. Here, the difference that the sexual or gender identity is gets gentrified as another formal fungible difference that lacks content. The multiple axes of oppression such as race and able-bodiedness among others are treated like boxes on a checklist in order to make sure that the final cultural product is ‘diverse’ enough to attract a wider audience base. When it comes to the market part of which Ecce Homo as a queer non-binary, body-positive, and slow-fashion underwear brand is, the vast majority of gay male underwear brands are deploying queerbaiting as their main marketing strategy. On their e-shops, any word or depiction that would signify queerness, and gayness in specific, is effaced, and instead, the catalog photographs are queer coded resorting to hyper-masculinist tropes in order to be perceived by the gay male consumer as queer yet in a very limited sense. As a result, oversexualized and hegemonic visual representations of masculinity are used as bait for queer consumers while at the same time attempting to avoid alienating heterosexual ones.
- Fathallah J (2015) Moriarty’s ghost: or the queer disruption of the BBC’s Sherlock
- Nordin E (2015) From Queer Reading to Queerbaiting: The Battle over the Polysemic Text and the Power of Hermeneutics