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Why do shows 'queerbait'? Hinting LGBTQ+ characters can either be helpful or harmful

Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh might have chemistry and kisses under their belt on "Killing Eve", but the representation the show offers must be questioned.  – Photo by Killing Eve / Twitter

As worldwide acceptance for the LGBTQIA+ community continues to broaden, so does its subsequent integration into our daily lives — more specifically, our daily media intake.

The assimilation of queer characters in television and movies is a largely positive movement, something that shows the modern queer community that they have representation, and thus acknowledgment.

Despite this increase being positive, this broadening comes with complexity. Like any controversial topic, there are layers to which LGBTQIA+ individuals are accepted in many people's lives.

Issues like bisexual discrimination or invalidation, the fetishization of lesbian or bisexual women, the discrediting masculinity of bisexual men and the usage of the intrigue of queer characters to gain popularity are all issues with representation in media.

This overarching concept of queer popularity is a prominent topic within today’s media culture, and the term “queerbaiting” has been coined to label the controversial actions of many media outlets today.

Many members of the LGBTQ+ community have criticized TV shows and movies for hinting or teasing fans with queerness between characters to allure more viewers.

Take the BBC’s immensely popular 2010 show “Sherlock,” which follows a modern-day Sherlock Holmes and his partner John H. Watson. Although the show never explicitly states or shows Holmes and Watson were interested in a romantic relationship, the show has been criticized for framing many of the characters' actions or conversations in an intimate sense.

This left many fans of the show to come to their own conclusions, and a massive fandom was born devoted to analyzing and breaking down the two characters' relationship in hopes of uncovering a possible homosexual attraction.

This increased the show's views and popularity, even though by its ending, neither character expressed any romantic feelings, thus discrediting any fan-related theories. 

This hidden queer agenda has also been seen from a lesbian perspective through the BBC’s 2018 drama “Killing Eve,” where a female spy and a female assassin, Eve Polastri and Villanelle, face off in an obsessed game of cat-and-mouse.

Once again, despite neither character ever expressing explicit romantic attraction toward one another, fans of the show devolved into analyzing and examining the women’s interactions.

Although the characters kissed and by the end of the show, both characters had a level of care and even possibly love for each other, there was not much explicit evidence that the two characters were either queer, questioning or desired a relationship with one another.

This underlying conspiracy rose the popularity of "Killing Eve" and made the show an attraction for many viewers that wanted to uncover the characters' romantic intentions. The show on its own is enjoyable and well-produced television, but its talents are less focused on by fans — now the show's more prominent reputation is the “secret love-attraction” between two opposing female characters.

Despite these media examples that showcase LGBTQ+ characters as fodder for popularity rather than representation, there have been positive examples of using queer relationships for both viewer attraction and education or representation.

Take for example the 2009 Fox network released “Glee,” which centered around a high school Spanish teacher revamping the school’s Glee club and recruiting students from all walks of life to join it and sing.

In recent years, the show's content has been criticized for a multitude of reasons. Even though scandals have been revealed of actor conflicts and personal incidents and discretions during and after the show, "Glee" was one of the first prominent media examples of open-queerness.

The world for the LGBTQ+ community was immensely different over a decade ago and good representation was hard to find, let alone widely accepted. But Chris Colfer’s character Kurt Hummel was one of television's first openly, accepted gay characters whose storyline, from its origin, was never centered around negative tropes like closetedness or fetishization.

Although the character of Kurt faced a lot of backlash and bullying within the show, Kurt's openness was a fresh take on gayness as a young adult and drew many viewers who simply enjoyed being able to see themselves represented in a positive manner.

Later on in the show, two characters (Santana Lopez and Brittany Pierce), broke even more barriers by showcasing their development into a romantic relationship, which highlighted some of the familial struggles that Kurt's plotline did not encompass due to his accepting father.

Santana's rejection from her highly religious grandmother showcased the troubles and conflicts that can come with openly stating your sexuality, and it took almost three seasons for Santana's grandmother to accept her character.

Unlike Kurt, Santana and Brittany's storyline was complicated, and each character explored other options to truly understand their own sexuality aside from one another.

Brittany explored many relationships with other male classmates despite disdain from Sanatana and suspicion from others, and Sanatana maneuvered her way around gaining acceptance among judgment from her classmates and community.

One large factor that differed between the women’s sexuality journey and Kurt’s was the fetishization they received from being two women in love. One episode in particular shows members of the school’s hockey team approaching Santana and telling her that they liked “girl-on-girl” action and wanted to join her.

This prompted Santana and her friends to retaliate against the players and the gross attitude toward lesbian relationships. This highlights a massive stereotype with how people treat lesbian and bisexual women, and "Glee" was able to successfully touch upon the double standard against women and the sexualization they face.

Despite any controversies that have surfaced since "Glee"'s end, the show's positive LGBTQ+ representation is a way the show not only gained popularity but also educated society on the realities of many questioning teens. 

The topic of “queerbaiting” is a result of an ever-growing showcase of LGBTQ+ individuals and their journeys within society. While the term itself is inherently negative, claims of it are not always accurate, and it shouldn't always be used as a criticism before a show or movie ends. Sometimes, using queer involvement is a way to gain popularity and views, which then allows for further education and awareness.

The inclusion of queer storylines is an essential element for media, as is gender, race, religion and any other element that highlights the differences of people of the world.

Queerbaiting is only negative when it's actually baiting — when it's used to garner attention without the creators' intention to ever include a queer storyline.

Although fandoms and communities will always search and look between the lines of the media to find whatever it is they wish to seek, it's unfair for creators to use this popular trope or storyline for simply attention, especially if they never plan on representing and acknowledging the community.

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