Queerbaiting in Film

Lea Efran

To many people, queerbaiting might not seem like an important or prevalent issue. Some might not even know what the word means at all. But to others, queerbaiting is a topic ladden with injustice and the suppression of queer voices. Dictionary.com defines queerbating as “the practice of implying non-heterosexual relationships or attraction… to engage or attract an LGBTQ audience or otherwise generate interest without ever actually depicting such relationships or sexual interactions.” While many straight people might not see the harm in such a practice, members of the LGBTQ+ community know just how hurtful this practice can be. 


Throughout history, the queer community has been among one of the most, if not the most underrepresented minorities in film. While it was never illegal to portray a character of color on screen for a very long time, it was illegal to portray a gay character on screen. In the early days of film, gay characters were not that uncommon however, often played as comic relief, being depicted as incompetent and feminine. This is where the “sissy” stereotype originated from as a way to make men feel better about their own masculinity. In recent years however, the media has begun to portray feminine men in a much more positive light, as opposed to the blatantly offensive representation of past years. Early movies contained lots of sex and violence and eventually, audiences got fed up with it. Studioheads appointed former US Postmaster General, William H. Hays to reform Hollywood’s image. In 1924, Hays introduced a set of recommendations for studioheads to follow when making films dubbed “the formula.” At first, no one paid the “formula” any mind yet in 1927, Hays suggested that studios form a committee to discuss film censorship. The studios complied and as such, the Hays code was born. The Hays code prohibited movies from portraying profanity, nudity, the illegal trafficking of drugs, white slavery (but not black slavery), interracial relationships, sex hygiene, childbirth, ridicule of the clergy, and sex perversion, meaning homosexuality. In 1930, the Hays code was officially put into effect, essentially making the depiction of homosexuality on screen illegal. Many Hollywood directors, many of whom were queer themselves, were rightfully frustrated by this, so they chose to fight back against censors and portray queerness in anyway they could. Thus came the phenomenon known as “Queercoding.” 


Queercoding and queerbaiting, while similar, are fundamentally different. Queerbaiting is when a show or movie has the option to portray a queer character or relationship, but chooses not to for fear of losing straight audiences. Queercoding on the other hand is when a show or movie is unable to protray a queer character or relationship and instead alludes to it through the use of subtext. Directors decided to create characters who would be obviously gay to any queer person watching, but would go unnoticed by the censors and most straight audiences. One way that directors were able to get around censors was by coding villians as gay, such as Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca or Joel Cairo in John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon


At the time, censors were slightly more lax in the portrayal of lesbians on screen, but only in certain circumstances. In the 1940’s and 50s, a popular trope was the lesbian prison movie, in which the lesbians in question were large, intimidating women who had been in prision for the longest and as such were in a more powerful position that the other characters. The censors allowed this because it served two purposes, to frighten young girls into following the law lest they end up in prison with all the big scary lesbians, and to convince young lesbians to “go straight” by portraying queerness as a path that could only end in imprisonment.


The pattern of gay characters having tragic endings is very apparant throughout film history. In the late 60s, the Hays code began to lose its grip on Hollywood. Directors began showing explicitly gay characters and relationships on screen, however, it is not what one could call positive representation. These films for the most part, only portrayed queerness in the context of shame and self-loathing, usually ending in death and oftentimes suicide. This is where the “bury your gays” trope of queer characters in movies and TV shows being killed off originates from. This was meant to subconciously hammer home the idea that that kind of lifestyle can only lead to pain and suffering and that a queer person could never wind up happy. 


As the 60’s ended however, movies began to contain out gay characters who don’t die in the end. This kind of representation was groundbreaking, although it did come with drawbacks. Where there was once queercoding, queer stereotypes began to take its place. Common stereotypes such as feminine gay men, butch lesbians, and sneaky bisexuals and transgender people, became apparant throughout film, stereotypes that are still prevenlent today. Additionally, the LGBTQ+ representation in films led to advertiser boycotts and audiences picketing movie theaters. Studios obviously didn’t want to drive away straight, conservative audiences, but they didn’t want to lose queer audiences either. Then, with the release of Harry Potter, they were given an idea. 


Anyone who has access to the internet knows that Drarry, or Draco x Harry, is one of the most popular ships in the Harry Potter fandom. In fact, it is one of the most popular pairings on Ao3. However, when one takes a look at the actual source material, they will see that there are little positive interactions between the two boys, much less any romantic ones. There are merely a few crumbs scattered throughout the story, which queer fans picked up on. From this, directors realized something: the LGBTQ+ community is so accustomed to picking up on hidden subtext in media that all they have to do is leave a few crumbs and some blank spaces, and the queer communtiy will do the rest. All the while, they can keep the guise of heterosexuality so as not to drive away straight and conservative audience. And as such, the age of queerbaiting in modern film and television begins. 


One of the most classic examples of queerbaiting in TV is Sherlock and John from BBC’s Sherlock, a modern adaptation of the classic story Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle. Throughout the franchise’s centuries of popularity, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson have been a popular pairing, but no other film adaptation of the franchise portrays their relationship in as iconic, or as queer, of a way as BBC’s Sherlock does. In the first episode of the show, John and Sherlock are staked out in a restaurant, where John asks if Sherlock has a girlfriend. Sherlock replies by saying, “Girlfriend? No, not really my area.” After being taken aback for a moment, John asks if Sherlock has a boyfriend, which Sherlock quickly denies as well. To this, John replies with a sort of chuckle, even licking his lips. Sherlock goes on to shut John down, stating that he is married to his work. It is a well known fact that Sherlock has the uncanny ability to read people, a skill he calls “deductions.” Sherlock’s deductions border on a psychic ability as he is able to tell almost everything about a person from only one glance. And as such, if Sherlock’s impression of this scenario was that John was coming onto him, then the only explanation is that he was. It’s as simple as that. 

Throughout the show, John is established by side characters, villains, and Sherlock himself, as the person Sherlock loves and cares for most in the world. Many times John has been taken hostage by villains attempting to get to or control Sherlock. Over the course of the series, John dates a string of women whom he always prioritizes Sherlock over, a fact that is continually noticed and that often causes friction in John’s romantic relationships. In season 2, episode 1, John confronts Irene Adler, a dominatrix who has an intense fascination with Sherlock. In this encounter, John states, “If anyone out there still cares, I’m not actually gay,” to which Adler responds, “Well I am. Look at us both.” Adler is referring to the fact that while they are both primarily attracted to women, they both still love Sherlock. Time and time again throughout the series, John and Sherlock’s relationship is portrayed in an obviously romantic light. So much so that many fans legitimately held out hope that they would be confirmed by the end of the show. However, by the time the show ends, John and Sherlock remain just friends and the queer community is left without the representation we so desire. 


People belonging to groups who are commonly represented on screen often take for granted just how lucky they are. No one thinks twice about whether or not a straight character will be shown on screen, because it’s simply a given. No one thinks twice about whether a white character, or a male character will be positively portrayed in a show or movie, because 95% of the time, they will be. Someone who’s never had to search for representation before and has simply had it handed to them cannot understand what it’s like to never see a positive portrayal of yourself. So next time you roll your eyes at someone for freaking out over an LGBTQ+ character or relationship in their favorite show, stop and think about why they’re so excited over it.