May 27

Some Thoughts on the Queerbaiting Question

I have a number of problems with the entire concept of queerbaiting and the way it has become the issue of queer media activism. And no, I don’t mean the supposed practice; I mean labeling every representation of queerness (queerness broadly defined) as ‘queerbaiting’ and wrong unless it meets an ever-narrowing standard of identity-representation. (Given that I’ve now seen canonically-identified-as-queer characters being queer with each other called “queerbaiting’–in “Fan Fiction”–I’m not sure if there is any standard anymore except “what I want.”) Because there is so much more that matters in how queerness (and gender/sexuality) is represented in media than just identity. That matters, don’t get me wrong. But it isn’t the only thing that matters.

The problem with the queerbaiting argument is that it isn’t just focusing on identity to the exclusion of all else; it’s declaring everything else to be not only unimportant but damaging. Which is destructive to all forms of representation of queerness that fall into the ever-broadening category of queerbaiting. Things that are vital to the work of changing societal attitudes towards queerness and queer people–and gender and sexuality–on a fundamental, systemic level. And if you are arguing “queerbaiting”–you are arguing for the reinforcement of those attitudes. There is a great deal of gender and sexuality essentializing underlying the idea of queerbaiting. In fact, most queerbaiting arguments are based on it. That’s a problem. That’s a serious problem.

Not to mention the way “queerbaiting” accusations silence queer people and queer arguments. Alternate interpretations or opinions are often preemptively dismissed as ignorance or self-hating, despite being just as valid and knowledgeable and experiential as the dominant “this is queerbaiting” arguments. I find a lot of things that get labelled “queerbaiting” to be good; to work–however unintentionally–at breaking down those previously-mentioned societal attitudes. Declaring those not-necessarily-intentional attempts “queerbaiting” is not only not helping–it’s taking steps backward.

That’s not to say I find all of it good; not at all. Media portrayal of gender and sexuality (including queerness) is not at all what it should be. I don’t think any reasonably thoughtful person could disagree with that. Constantine, for example–much as I like the show–is a textbook example of unqueering media. (I don’t want to call it “queerbaiting”, because I don’t like the term.) For the record, I don’t believe that the show’s intention was ever to portray John as straight, nor do I believe he was actively “straightwashed” on the show–but nevertheless the combination of poor PR and hesitance to make any kind of definitive in-show statement regarding his sexuality resulted in the unqueering of a canonically bisexual character. That is harmful.

On the other hand, we have Supernatural, which is often accused of “queerbaiting” for two things: the possibly-sometimes-ambiguous sexuality/attractions of Dean Winchester, and the relationship between Dean and Castiel. Unlike Constantine, we have no canon background for either Dean’s sexuality or the nature of Dean and Cass’s love for each other, and therefore SPN by definition is not unqueering media in the same harmful way as that show. All indications are that authorial intent–and I’m including all aspects of show production in “authorial intent” here, not just the writing–is that Dean is straight and his relationship with Cass entirely platonic. Interpretation otherwise is therefore based entirely on fan inference–and is a fine example of fandom queering media.

The problem is not in this interpretation–which is as valid as any other–but rather the way in which fandom defends this interpretation as the only acceptable one. Gender expression and (a very culturally biased view of) masculinity is essentialized; liminality in sexuality is erased; a very myopic and narrow idea of masculine relationships is promoted and enforced. These arguments embrace the very concepts they should be seeking to take down, and are profoundly antiqueer at their core.

Personally, as a queer person and a queer activist, I find the whole idea of queerbaiting–again, I mean the practice of labeling things as such; I don’t know what to call it–“the anti-queerbaiting movement”?–fundamentally flawed. In fact, I find much of it–particularly as applied to SPN or similar situations–to be based in arguments that are extremely harmful and destructive.

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