Queerbaiting has been coming up a lot in therapy recently. In my counseling work with LGBTQ clients, a common theme is the feeling of being under represented, trivialized, and/or made to be the target of jokes by mainstream culture. The kind of sentiment that brings up these emotions is especially present in a lot of mainstream media. Many in the LGBTQ community have found ways to cope with and tolerate this exclusion in the media, but it can be difficult, and sometimes feel even worse when it seems as if there might be some LGBTQ inclusion and there turns out to be none.
Queerbaiting is a phenomenon seen a lot in TV shows, movies, and video games. It happens when creators release content with subtext that gives the impression that there might be a certain degree of LGBTQ inclusion without the intention of ever bringing it to fruition. Characters who seemed to be LGBTQ are confirmed not to be, hinted LGB relationships never happen, the focus on LGBTQ characters are minimized, and in some cases, there is inclusion, but the LGBTQ characters are made to be the brunt of jokes or exist mostly for comic effect. In TV shows this typically comes in the form of “will they, won’t they” relationships, where it seems like a couple might have an LGB relationship, but in the end they never do. All of this is done with the intention of drawing in liberal, LGBTQ audiences without alienating anyone who would reject such content. Essentially it is a really bad business practice that aims at drumming up the interest of as many people as possible, stringing them along, and then letting them down at the last minute when it would no longer damage sales.
I feel like queerbaiting is particularly insidious when it comes to video games and movies. Unlike TV shows, where viewers can wait in suspense throughout the series, all the while supporting the show, movies and video games are a one shot thing. Once people go to see a movie or buy a video game, the deed is done. Producers only have to get people to the theater or to buy that video game. There is a lot of hype, build up, and then let down. It has become increasingly common for producers to release commercials that feature apparent LGBTQ inclusion, only for them to turn out to be cases of queerbaiting. I have personally witnessed this 3 times in the last couple of months. People who are reading this who are familiar with queerbaiting will likely know of better examples, but these are the ones I have personally seen recently.
Remember when there was all the hubbub about Disney having their first “openly gay” character in the live action Beauty and the Beast movie? People were cautiously optimistic….aside from the telling fact that the first “openly gay” Disney character’s name is literally “the fool”. What we got was a character who’s gayness exists purely for comic relief. Before the release of the film, the director literally said that the acting of the gay character “has its payoff in the end” and that it would be a “nice, exclusively gay moment in a Disney movie.” There were many moments that, looking back and knowing he is gay, might seem gay, as stereotypically portrayed in the media, but they were all for comic relief. The “exclusively gay moment” touted by the creators was a brief bit in the very last moment of the movie where people are dancing and Lefou (the gay character) dances with another man for 2 seconds. I wish I could find a clip of this to show you, but the movie isn’t out on video yet, so I couldn’t find one on youtube. In the meantime, this video is a good talk about why Beauty and the Beast fell short in this way.
In another recent example, I was really excited a couple of months back when a trailer was released for the movie Alien Covenant that depicted a gay couple. The premise of the movie revolves around a spaceship full of colonists on a voyage to a distant planet. It really seemed like there was going to be some real inclusion. The following is the commercial I’m talking about. The gay couple is introduced right around a minute and 30 seconds into the video. This is a horror movie, but this commercial is tame aside from someone momentarily choking on some food. .
In the truest sense, this movie didn’t engage in queerbaiting because there was a gay couple and they didn’t exist for the sole purpose of comic effect. However, I considered this to be a case of queerbaiting because there was more recognition of these two characters’ gay relationship in the commercial I just showed you than in the actual movie itself. To me that’s a degree of queerbaiting because the commercial suggests far more inclusion than was actually the case. ****spoiler alert**** In the actual movie, I didn’t notice any mention of their being in a gay relationship until a scene when one of them dies and for a brief moment the other holds his hand (with a ring on one finger) and mumbles something in which he refers to the other man as “my love”. It really is one of those blink and you’ll miss it moments.
Lastly, I had been really looking forward to the release of a new installment in one of my favorite video game franchises this year. Mass Effect Andromeda had several issues that made it a bad case of queerbaiting.
Before the release of the game we were given this commercial:
The woman speaking is the founder of the initiative our player character is a member of. She is also voiced by a well known trans actress: Jamie Clayton. This received a good degree of media attention and was seen as potential inclusion in the game. Well! Several months later, when the game came out we discovered shortly into the story that this character died somewhere in the timeline before the game started. She’s in the game…kind of. There are a couple of holographic recordings of her explaining the initiative, but that’s it.
Possibly to still have some form of trans recognition, the creators gave us a random side character who they identified as trans. The dialogue assigned to this character caused a lot of backlash for the developers. After asking her what made her choose to leave earth she had this interesting thing to say:
So. the conversation basically goes like this: Main character: “hi, what brings you here?” Hainly Abrams: “I’m trans”. Not only that, she gives her deadname, which is what a person’s birth name is often referred to in the trans community. This is just something no one would do. Deadnames are called such partly because they are names that are no longer used, but also because they often represent past lives that were painful and full of struggle. To many this interaction felt forced and established a token trans character.
The other big issue that came up around Mass Effect Andromeda was its relative lack of male/male romance options. One of the hallmarks of Mass Effect games is the player’s ability to have romantic relationships with their crew mates. In this installment there were only 2 possible gay male partners. One was a relatively nondescript character who is completely unessential in the story line and is easy to miss. The other is a crew mate but is essentially confined to the very back of the ship and never ventures out into the world with the player, like most other crew mates.. This contrasts with the 5 options for the straight male player, 4 lesbian options, and the 3 options for straight female players. You’ll notice here that video games, like much of the media, are still tailored to play on the fantasies of straight males.
To add insult to injury, there is an achievement available in the game that is unlocked by the player having 3 romantic relationships….you can’t do that as a gay male player. ***spoilers*** Some people also took offense with the fact that the primary gay relationship option culminated in the two choosing to adopt a baby together at the behest of the love interest’s invasive straight female friend. For some this pushed a narrative that suggests that gay relationships are only valid within the heteronormative context of having children. Literally the only character that even mentions having children is the gay option.
Some might argue that some of these cases I’ve presented are reflective of companies’ attempts to be inclusive, and maybe they just did a bad job of it. At the very least these incidents show that either they were intentionally queerbaiting, or they were so entrenched in heteronormativity that they really believed they were making some kind of pioneering leap to include the LGBTQ community. Many people who are the targets of queerbaiting will talk about these broken promises and leading suggestions being worse than having a lack of inclusion. It really makes me think of Charlie Brown getting talked into trying to kick the football only to have Lucy pull it away from him again. It also makes me think of those common scenes in 80s movies when the new kid in town is told there’s going to be a cool get together, but when they show up nobody is there and the sprinklers turn on. It kind of feels like a form of bullying. When people tout cases like these as groundbreaking inclusions, it feels like a slap in the face for many. A solid representation of exactly how little those in the LGBTQ community are accepted and included.
Queerbaiting and heteronormaitivy can be crushing and weigh a person down. Sometimes this can contribute to depression and anxiety. It can also be re traumatizing for some, acting as a reminder of being marginalized. If you or someone you love is feeling this way, counseling could help. Give me a call sometime and we can talk about it.
***update*** After lots of backlash from the LGBTQIA gaming community, the creators of Mass Effect Andromeda modified the interaction with that trans character and just today (June 8, 2017) released a patch that added one more gay relationship option. So that’s a plus side. They made a mistake, but they listened to their fans.