If you’re a cisgender heterosexual person, you don’t have to look far to see your own relationship portrayed in the media. Straight couples are quite literally everywhere. If you’re queer, representation is harder to come by.
So, imagine you’re a young queer person. You’re not out to your friends or family—or even yourself, really. Now imagine your favorite TV show suggests that two queer characters are more than friends. Finally! Someone who looks like you! But wait—not so fast: The relationship never materializes, and you’re left bummed and confused.
That’s what they call queerbaiting, y’all. Urban Dictionary defines queerbaiting as, “A marketing technique used to attract queer viewers that involves creating romantic or sexual tension between two same-sex characters but never making it canon or evolving on it.”
“But isn’t that just drumming up interest in the show?” you might ask. That’s where it gets tricky. Because of the relative scarcity of queer relationships onscreen, the bait and switch can be especially harmful. Seeing queer representation on TV can be incredibly affirming to queer viewers. When that representation ends up being just for show, it can make you feel like your story isn’t important enough to be told—or even that it doesn’t exist. It’s also a way for media to appeal to potential queer consumers without alienating the parts of their audience that might be uncomfortable with queerness. (Which, what? It’s 2020—get over yourself.)
Where might you have seen queerbaiting? One of the most glaring examples is Rizzoli & Isles, the “gayest non-gay show on television,” as BuzzFeed writer Sarah Karlan described it. The crime drama, which aired from 2010 to 2016, starred Angie Harmon as a police detective and Sasha Alexander as a medical examiner. The two’s sexual tension and chemistry was through the roof, though a relationship never happened. But here’s the kicker: The show’s cast and writers went so far as to admit to TV Guide that they exaggerated the lesbian subtext for viewership reasons.
A trickier but often cited example is the relationship between Eve (Sandra Oh) and Villanelle (Jodie Comer) on Killing Eve. Villanelle is an openly queer character (who happens to be a sociopathic assassin—we never said the representation had to be positive), but the relentless suggestion of a relationship between Villanelle and the supposedly straight Eve is what’s raised fan’s eyebrows. But when Oh and Comer did an interview with Gay Times, Oh dismissed the idea of a relationship, saying, “You guys are tricky because you want to make it into something… but it just isn’t.” Here’s the thing: Assuming that Eve and Villanelle would eventually be together is not just in queer viewers’ heads. Billboards for the show’s second season literally said, “Have you seen my girlfriend,” and for its star to make queer viewers feel like they imagined some homoerotic subtext feels very gaslight-y.
Queerbaiting also occurs outside of movies and TV shows. Taylor Swift, for example, has been accused of it at different points of her career. Pockets of the internet are dedicated to #Gaylor theories, which analyze every single lyric ("Betty" should be queer canon!), Instagram like or outfit choice. Swift, for her part, seems to play into it. Back in the spring of 2019, people were convinced Swift was going to come out as queer when she teased a major announcement on Lesbian Visibility Day. The announcement was actually for a new song, "Me," and music video, which Swift described to Robin Roberts as, "a song about embracing your individuality and really celebrating it and owning it." Considering how meticulously crafted her entire image is, it seemed like she had to have known was she was doing.
Luckily, though queerbaiting continues, there are plenty of shows and movies that depict queer relationships (and, more broadly, queer people). In fact, in GLAAD’s 2019-2020 Where We Are on TV report, which analyzes the overall diversity of primetime scripted series regulars on broadcast networks and looks at the number of LGBTQ characters on cable networks and streaming services, the organization found the highest number of LGBTQ characters on broadcast television in the 24 years GLAAD has been tracking the information.
Representation matter, folks.