The term ‘queerbaiting’ has gained traction in fan-led discourse in recent times. Creators are challenged on social media platforms about ‘baiting’ their queer fans by creating same-sex relationships with all the hallmarks of something romantic or sexual and yet never allowing that relationship to become canon. Queerbaiting is not a good thing. It’s a fairly gross way to encourage LGBTQ+ fannish investment in a franchise by dangling the carrot of queer possibility, without offering any meaningful representation. It’s often coupled with jokes at the expense of the queer community, with everyone from creators, actors and actresses and the characters themselves expressing astonishment that fans could read a relationship heavy with queer subtext as anything other than platonic. It reinforces heteronormative, heterosexist ideology. It sees accusations of delusion and “silly girl” syndrome levelled at largely female-gendered fan communities and it’s enormously frustrating for fans living in a world of progressive LGBTQ+ discourse, where the queer should no longer need to be coded and confined to the gaps between the stories.
Although there are multiple recent examples of female relationships being interrogated in this way (e.g. Rizzoli & Isles, Emma Swan and Regina Queen in Once Upon a Time) the focus of this post is on the way relationships between two men are portrayed in popular culture. Harmful and stereotypical notions of what it means to be a ‘man’ still abound and accordingly, breaking down socially imposed constructs of toxic masculinity outside of a sexual or romantic overlay is of real importance. However, there’s undoubtedly a tension between progressive representations of male intimacy and queerbaiting. In considering the way in which popular culture navigates these boundaries and blurred lines, I will be exploring the role of fan communities who have consistently held creators to account for plot holes, characterisation failings and a lack of diversity. I will be focusing on some of the fannish discourse around queerbaiting as it pertains to some of the internet’s most popular male/male (or ‘slash’) ships (fan parlance for relationships) and I’ll veer into the thorny world of real person slash (where the fanworks focus on real people as opposed to fictional characters) as part of the discussion.
Fans have a long history of taking creators to task in pursuit of greater diversity. When that dialogue becomes linked with the pursuit of a popular ship, it can feel less like helpful political discourse and more about upholding one particular pairing as the only viable option. Another factor which plays into this perspective is that a same-sex ship isn’t inherently progressive simply because it is same-sex. Although such topics are beyond the scope of this particular piece, slash ships have historically had their own issues with homonormativity – i.e. upholding the cis white gay male experience as the ideal and ignoring intersectionality and marginalised people in queer communities. As a result of these tensions, the line between positive discourse around diversity and fannish entitlement becomes blurred.
Flourish Klink and Elizabeth Minkel have explored Shipping and Activism in their Fansplaining Podcast at Episode 29 (podcast / transcript). One of their guests on the episode, Rukmini Panda notes: “I think shipping can be incredibly important to push for representation, but…both aspects of actual conversations about the importance of representation and what that means get mixed up in highly individual and subjective interactions.” This sentiment is echoed by Aja Romano, in her article for Vox - ‘Social justice, shipping and ideology’. Romano notes: “Fans of ships involving queer characters, characters of colour, disabled characters, and other drastically underserved identities often lobby creators to acknowledge and embrace the validity of their ships…The problem with explicitly linking shipping to this kind of political platforming and social justice activism is that these arguments are often self-serving — that is, they’re more about having a specific ship become canon than about achieving social progress.”
As the commentators above note, where shipping collides with dialogue with creators around diversity there’s an inherent tension between the (in some cases valid) concerns raised by fans and the seemingly subjective pursuit of a popular fan-driven ship. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss fannish frustration at popular same-sex ships never being realised in canon as entitlement. The reality is far more complex than that. Putting extreme examples of harassment, invasion of personal privacy and trolling to one side (never okay, folks), there is a valid point to some of the discourse which can’t be overlooked. There are still creators and celebrities who realise the monetary value large slash ships and growing online fandoms can generate and they will ‘play gay’ to those communities and shippers in a manner which begins to veer uncomfortably into queerbaiting territory.
Whether something is or isn’t queerbaiting can be quite a challenge to identify and when coupled with the pressing need for more male intimacy in popular culture, the debate is further complicated. The harmful propagation of gendered stereotypes such as ‘boys don’t cry’ and the side-waving apologist ‘boys will be boys’ leads to harmful notions of idealised masculinity and plays into rape culture. Creators must be able to write meaningful relationships with heart, soul and intimacy between two male characters without it being about sex (or sexuality) at all. The idea that heterosexual men shouldn’t be openly affectionate with or sensitive to the feelings of other men is deeply troublesome and perpetuates heterosexist toxic masculinity as an ideal to which all men must aspire. To define male friendship as beer swilling ‘just shagged a bird last night’ lad culture on the one hand and homoeroticism on the other is neither helpful or progressive. More nuanced male friendships are critical to popular narratives without stereotypical ideals of masculinity and femininity being used to define sexuality. The reticence to make a male friendship with some depth and nuance a romantic or sexual one cannot always be met with cries of homophobia, as it is counter intuitive and it can sometimes erase non-sexual male intimacy from popular narratives as well as marginalising grey and ace individuals. It runs the risk of fettering the depiction of emotions capable of existing in male interaction and stripping away the many complexities of friendship and deep, non-romantic, non-sexual bonds between men.
Supernatural is not alone. The BBC adaptation of Sherlock has attracted criticism for queerbaiting its fans with the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Dr John Watson (‘Johnlock’). There are examples of what many fans read as homoerotic or romantic subtext which run through the entire show. There are so many it would be impossible to cover them all here, but they begin in the first episode (e.g. Sherlock’s admission that girls are not his area during a candlelit supper for two) and continue to crop up well into the latest installment, which concludes with Sherlock describing himself as a man ahead of his time. It’s not just Sherlock whose sexuality seems deliberately ambiguous. Although he frequently insists he’s not gay, there’s a sense of the man doth protest too much with John. An example comes in Battersea Power Station where he insists (for the umpteenth time) “…if anyone still cares, I’m not actually gay.” Irene Adler responds with the following rebuttal: “No, but I am. Look at us both.” The implication here seems to be that despite their sexuality they both find themselves drawn to Sherlock in a way which wouldn’t be typical for either of them. John doesn’t respond to Adler’s comment, he simply looks into the distance and the silence fills the space between them. During John’s wedding, Janine (Sherlock’s former ‘fling’) has a moment with Sherlock where she observes, “I wish you weren’t…whatever you are.” Then there’s all that remains unspoken, the lingering stares, handcuffing the pair together and the fact everyone from Moriarty to Mrs Hudson seems to believe that John and Sherlock are romantically involved.
Johnlock is the largest ship in the Sherlock fandom and the show’s creators and writers are aware of the theories espoused by the fandom. Moffatt in particular is well-known for keeping abreast of fandom led discourse both in the context of Sherlock and Doctor Who. Gatiss and Moffatt even gave a nod to some of the more popular fan theories post-Reichenbach, featuring a group of ‘Sherlock lives’ fans theorising about how he might have survived the fall. A subsequent montage paid lip service to a couple of popular fan ships and featured everything from a nearly-there kiss with Moriarty to an actual kiss with Molly Hooper. The fact they know interest in Johnlock is driving activity in one of the internet’s largest fandoms has led some to denounce the creators of Sherlock (including Mark Gatiss, himself a gay man) of queerbaiting its audience. It seems unlikely that Gatiss, who uses social media and conventions to speak openly and progressively about diversity in television, would be supportive of queerbaiting an audience on such a massive scale. This, together with other factors, led to the rise of ‘TJLC’ (shorthand for The Johnlock Conspiracy) gaining traction in Sherlock fandom in 2014. Johnlock Conspiracy theorists believe that contrary to the show queerbaiting its audience, the homoerotic subtext is intentional and Johnlock is going to be endgame. This notion was refuted by Gattis and Moffatt at this year’s 2016 San Diego Comic-Con.
What is perhaps more frustrating with both Sherlock and Supernatural is when creators or stars of the show seem baffled by the fact a massive slash ship has garnered such interest in their respective fandoms. In both cases questions about the popular slash pairings have received a lukewarm reception at fan conventions, while the cast seem more willing to engage with discussions about possible heterosexual ships. Lestrade and Molly were briefly discussed and Benedict Cumberbatch touched on the relationship between Irene and Sherlock at ‘Sherlocked’ a convention held last year in London, whilst Johnlock questions were discouraged. Jensen Ackles (who plays Dean in Supernatural) famously side-stepped a question from a teenage bisexual fan about Dean’s sexuality telling her not to “spoil it for everyone” at a convention in New Jersey in 2013.
If a show takes pains to create a deep, satisfying and intimate bond between two male characters, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that in 2016 people might view the relationship as queer coded or find homoerotic subtext within the relationship. Viewers are typically asked to buy into heterosexual relationships with far less build up and chemistry in popular narratives. Perhaps the most pressing discussion is why fans are still finding themselves dismissed as ridiculous for taking that spark, intimacy, lingering looks and in-jokes which creators themselves have taken pains to develop and questioning whether a romantic relationship is a possibility. At a time when the ‘fourth wall’ between fans and creators is disintegrating and there is more direct dialogue than ever before, perhaps the creators and stars of these shows need to work out how to approach questions about large slash ships with more grace and less ridicule and scoffing, irrespective of whether or not the relationship is likely to be realised in canon.
Styles, who has been known to offer his support to feminist and LGBT causes, often keeps his responses to what he looks for in a girl focused on a gender neutral “someone” and has been known to change “she” to “he” on occasion during live performances of One Direction songs. For the most part he’s kept silent on the question of his sexuality. Some view this as a deliberate choice – not because Styles is bisexual or gay – but because his sexuality should be a non-issue and he doesn’t particularly care if people assume he’s not straight. In a recent interview with Fader, Zayn Malik described the theories of a secret relationship as "not funny" and noted the focus on Larry Stylinson came to have an impact on the way Styles and Tomlinson behaved with one another in public. Although this is likely because the speculation began to impact on the boys' relationships, such an unqualified statement unfortunately does tend to imply that if a man is considered to be non-hetero, the assumption is unpalatable enough to lead him to change the way he behaves. Furthermore, the fans were never trying to be funny. There are fanvids which painstakingly piece together ‘proofs’ from the early days of Larry Stylinson which proffer plenty of 'canon' material which gave the ship ammunition and which show Styles and Tomlinson themselves having fun with it. Of course, fans can go too far, but putting those extremes to one side, speculation around the nature of the relationship shouldn't, perhaps, have been met with such astonishment. When boy band members have been known to cover up their sexuality in the past and when speculation about hot new heterosexual celebrity couples dominate the mainstream media after the celebrities in question have barely set eyes on one another, such ridicule starts to look imbalanced. On the other side of the coin, the lack of non-sexual, non-romantic male intimacy in popular narratives has something to answer for, because intimacy and affection between boys and men shouldn't be such a revolutionary thing. There is a tendency to read male celebrities showing sensitivity and open affection to one another as gay, yet queer women in the limelight face the opposite issue. Because platonic, non-sexual intimacy between women is more commonplace, queer female celebrities have been known to find themselves confined to the dreaded 'gal pal' status until they openly confirm a same-sex relationship or discuss their sexuality in the media (Cara Delevingne and Kristen Stewart being recent examples of that).
With The Cursed Child the intimacy and friendship between Scorpius and Albus is fresh and vitally important when ideals of toxic masculinity perpetuate in popular culture. Both characters are somewhat marginalised and queer coded and their developing friendship is affectionate, charming and satisfying. I’m not frustrated that the text doesn’t explicitly pair Scorbus romantically. What is perhaps more frustrating is that the possibility of something beyond friendship could have been left more open – more ambiguous – at the play’s conclusion.
The question of queerbaiting is a difficult one and it becomes more complex at a time when decent popular narratives showcasing non-romantic, non-sexual male intimacy are few and far between. Whatever you think about the examples above, one thing is clear. Fans now have unprecedented access to creators and celebrities through social media. Whilst fans should continue to challenge mainstream popular culture for a lack of diversity, accusations of homophobia and queerbaiting should be carefully thought through and cannot be the automatic default when relationships between two men are portrayed onscreen without becoming romantic. Continued discussions around the problems of homonormativity, misogyny, intersectionality and protecting (or negotiating) the fourth wall in respect of fannish/creator interaction are all timely and relevant discussions for fan communities to be having. On the converse, creators and celebrities should consider whether dismissing fans for investing in large same-sex ships is in any way progressive. Fans will continue to speak out, just as they always have done and perhaps now is the time creators really take the time to listen and invest a little time in properly understanding those communities which generate enormous monetary value and support. There should be no discomfort in 2016 with addressing thoughtful and respectful questions around sexuality and homoerotic subtext, or engaging with fannish discourse around possible same-sex relationships. Fan spaces are in and of themselves inherently queer and many people invested in fannish endeavours are LGBTQ+ people themselves. They are quite right to seek representation and in reality, shutting down questions about large slash ships or ridiculing fans for reading between the lines and finding such possibilities only serves to fuel conspiracy theories and leave people feeling more frustrated and increasingly marginalised by popular narratives.
It's a tricky balance but one which I'm hopeful fans and creators can navigate more seamlessly in the age of increased media visibility for fan communities and more accessible creators and celebrities.