Graphic by Kaden/OutWrite
Content warning: homophobia
**This article contains spoilers for Good Omens, Season 2 on Amazon Prime.**
2023 has truly been a great year for LGBTQ+ representation in media. From movies like “Bottoms” to TV shows like “Heartstopper” and “Good Omens,” we are living in the very recent development of what Them calls “a golden era for LGBTQ+ representation.”
Early 21st-century mainstream entertainment largely avoided the topic of queerness, with the only exception being the occasional “trendy” homophobic joke. This is not to say there were no queer characters at all. According to a University of Tennessee study, they made up between 1% and 4% of recurring roles in television shows from 2000 to 2010. Shows targeting older audiences, like “The Simpsons,” aired multiple episodes featuring queer characters. However, these shows would rely on stereotypes when building their characters’ narratives and backstories, doing little for the advancement of true queer representation.
One of the most notable exceptions to this theme is “Will & Grace,” a sitcom that ran from 1998 to 2020. The show is about Will — a gay lawyer — and Grace — a straight interior designer — living together in an apartment in New York and navigating life’s challenges. Its positive representation of queer characters increased public opinion about homosexuality in 60% of its viewers in 2002 and marked a major step forward for the queer community.
Alongside casual displays of homophobia, some early 2000s and 2010s television series employed a tactic known as “queerbaiting.” This term has been thrown around on so many different social media platforms that its meaning has been lost to larger audiences. The dictionary definition of queerbaiting is “the practice of implying non-heterosexual relationships or attraction (in a TV show, for example) to engage or attract an LGBTQ audience or otherwise generate interest without ever actually depicting such relationships or sexual interactions.”
A modern trope that has evolved from queerbaiting is when two characters who are explicitly queer fail to enter a relationship for plot-related reasons. An example of this is found in the television show “Good Omens,” which recently released a second season. The show follows an angel named Aziraphale and a demon named Crowley on Earth as they repeatedly attempt to postpone the end of the world and a war between Heaven and Hell. At the end of the second season, Crowely asks Aziraphale to run away with him and professes his devotion to him. Crowley ends his confession with a kiss, but Aziraphale does not reciprocate his feelings because he had already chosen to return to Heaven.
Some fans called out the show for queerbaiting because the two characters did not end up in a relationship. While it is unfortunate that Crowley and Aziraphale weren’t granted a perfect ending, this is not queerbaiting because the writers explicitly developed a queer storyline for these characters.
Queerbaiting cannot apply to real people, and it is important to remember that people do not owe the world their sexual orientation. A prime example of this is what happened to Kit Connor, who plays Nick Nelson in the Netflix original “Heartstopper.” Connor, who had just turned 18, was continuously harassed by alleged fans of the show because he was seen holding hands with a girl in public while playing a queer character on TV. Many put pressure on him to make an official statement on his sexuality, which led to Connor’s Twitter account deletion and him coming out as bisexual. Despite the suspicion that celebrities are touting queerness for sensationalism, no one is owed knowledge of anyone’s sexuality or gender identity. They simply may not be ready to come out. Accusing them of queerbaiting does more harm in the long run for the LGBTQ+ community by setting a precedent of forcing people to come out. Again, queerbaiting refers to the false implication of queer relationships or characters in different forms of media, not real people’s lives.
Looking back at examples of queerbaiting in the early 2000s and 2010s, shows would add tension between two characters — usually male — to imply but never commit to their potentially queer relationship. One of the most prominent examples of this is BBC’s “Sherlock.” Most fans of the show felt as though the writing alluded to a possible relationship between Sherlock and Watson, but nothing romantic ever occurred between the two characters.
Another example of this is the television series “Supernatural” that ended in 2020. In the final episode of the show, Castiel — a central character — admits his feelings for Dean — the protagonist — only to die immediately afterwards. While Castiel is confirmed to be queer, cutting this plotline short is still queerbaiting. In fact, according to Them, the ending was actually “so wildly homophobic” that it seemed to “mock the fans” of the show.
But why does it matter that these shows queerbaited?
Queerbaiting is an exploitation of queer individuals. It takes advantage of the promise of representation to attract a queer audience and solely generate revenue and publicity for the show. These shows profit off of their queer audiences but either never follow through on the implied representation or only include a minor token of queerness.
Representation is important. As shown in a 2022 survey conducted by The Trevor Project, “89% of LGBTQ youth reported that seeing LGBTQ representation in TV/movies made them feel good about being LGBTQ.” Seeing queer characters on screen is important to the journey of self-acceptance. It can help queer individuals feel less alone because they can relate to these characters and see themselves in them. To restate the harmful effects of queerbaiting, it not only makes queer individuals feel used but also reinforces the conservative belief that queerness should be kept off-screen.
While the portrayal of queerness in media is progressing, queerbaiting is not a thing of the past. As queerness evolves, so do different forms of queerbaiting. Disney, for example, has at least five different characters that are supposedly their first queer character ever, but none of those characters have more than a couple sentences or seconds alluding to their queerness. This is still queerbaiting, as these characters are advertised as revolutionary but end up shoehorned into tokenized roles especially compared to recent movies and TV shows with good representation. Disney is one of the biggest producers of children’s entertainment; if it proudly represented a well-written, explicitly queer character and marketed to its global audience, this would be a large step towards the normalization of queerness in media.
On the bright side, good LGBTQ+ representation does exist. Various forms of media have not only begun to follow through with the initial promise of queer characters, but are also celebrating them. This ranges from feel-good shows like “Heartstopper,“ where the main focus is two queer teen boys as they fall in love and navigate highschool, to shows with dynamic plots where queer characters are successfully and flawlessly woven in, like “Good Omens” and “Our Flag Means Death.” Shows like this follow through with the promise of queer characters and explicitly market them as such, encouraging fans not to settle for the crumbs of queer representation in others.
Over time, queerness has not only become more prominent in media but is also being celebrated through shows, books, movies, and more. As LGBTQ+ representation continues to be normalized, there is hope for a more accepting, welcoming, and queer future.
Author: Melissa Vera (She/They)
Artist: Kaden (He/Him)
Copy Editors: Gracie Bitting (She/Her), Emma Blakely (They/She/He)