Why advertising inclusivity isn’t always a good thing
For someone who is part of a minority group like LGBT, seeing themselves being represented in big movie franchises, popular TV series or even music is a great thing. However, often enough we see trailers with hints to queer couples or storylines, just to be disappointed when finally watching the thing. Take the latest Star Wars movie for example. There have been teasers to a same-sex couple in the movie and hints on a possible relationship between main characters Finn and Poe by Director JJ Abrams himself. All of that turned out as a kiss in the background, between two resistance fighters, which nearly everyone missed.
For some, this might seem like a minor issue, we all get our hopes up with storylines or character developments sometimes, don’t we? But this is about capitalizing on representation without actually representing. And there is a term for that: Queerbaiting.
The practise has been criticized by queer outlets, bloggers and LGBT representatives alike. PinkNews explains that by adding homoerotic subtext or tension between characters, writers and producers lead LGBT audiences in. They will obviously be disappointed as there was never any intention to pursue the relationship that was hinted at. So, while this advertising aims to appeal to queer folk, producers avoid risking anything with their main audience – who presumably wouldn’t relate to a queer character.
So now, why exactly is this a problem? Well, queer characters and identities are not widely represented in popular media. If you are part of the community yourself, this might not need an example, but for everyone else, imagine this: Everything you liked about a character and their storyline is resolved in the first five minutes of the series. Or not mentioned at all over three seasons.
Now, you could argue that having hints to an LGBT character or relationship in big franchises like Star Wars, is actually a good thing. Some representation is better than none, right? In an interview with the BBC, Professor of media and women and gender studies at Ohio University, Eve Ng, claims that only due to higher representation today, people accuse producers of queerbaiting and falsely leading people on. She explains that a decade ago, many would have celebrated every queer hint.
Series like Xena pointed strongly at a same-sex relationship between the main character and Gabrielle and the show was celebrated in the community. However, this was queercoding rather than queerbaiting. At the time, there was no way a series could take the risk and go all out. The characters of Neptune and Uranus in the popular Japanese Anime Sailor Moon are another example of queercoding.
Queerbaiting is a safe way to make more money without offending an already existing audience. Again, this is about capitalising on representation, not actually representing. A popular example would be the relationship between the two female leads in the crime series Rizzoli and Isles. Angie Harmon, the actress playing Rizzoli actually admitted years ago in a TV Guide interview to playing up the lesbian subtext between the characters.
So how would actual representation look like? The Netflix series Orange Is The New Black managed to give a great look at queer characters, treating the love stories as what they are: just love stories. A particularly interesting example would be the new She-Ra, which is a children’s cartoon and does a great job at normalizing queer identities.
There is one big “but” that has to be mentioned in the context of this topic: Fandoms queerbaiting themselves. One of the fun things of really getting into a series or movie franchise is finding out about popular fan theories people come up with. And those theories sometimes interpret something into a piece of dialogue or a close on-screen friendship that was never actually a thing in the series itself. And still, some then get annoyed with writers and producers and accuse them of capitalizing on the representation.
We do not need an LGBT character in every movie, music video or series, but representation is critical for all minorities. And while we’re at it: Being gay does not need to be a plot twist and making all villains queer is not great representation either. If you want the full story of queercoding and queerbaiting, have a look at this amazing YouTube video by Rowan Ellis.
Note: Queer in this context is used as a term that many individuals within the LGBTQ community relate to, as it is not specific to any orientation or identity. We are aware the term was and is used by some in a demeaning manner. The term is being “reclaimed” by the community in the past years.