Two characters meet each other's gaze. The camera cuts between their full, telling eyes. It's clear they're having a moment.
It's intimate, it looks like love, but it's a trick of the light. When television studios respond to the public push for diversity and inclusive representation, sometimes, rather than creating equal opportunity romances, a TV show plays fast and loose, hinting at a same-sex relationship without ever actualizing it on screen. Teasing the possibility of two fan favorites falling in love with each other is an old, easy trick to boost viewership, but leading on an audience that's looking for valid LGBTQ representation is queer-baiting.
By hinting at a same-sex attraction but never legitimizing the relationship, TV shows, books, and films imply that queer relationships are unsuitable for mainstream media. With the politics of queer identity already burdened with a history of criminalization, persecutory violence, and erasure from culture, trivializing queerness as bait for higher ratings is adding insult to injury. Why not just depict a non-heterosexual romance? Well, doing so risks alienating conservative audiences who won't support franchises with progressive politics. So instead, queer-baiting balances implied same-sex attraction with frank mockery of gayness.
The CW's Supernatural is one of the longest-running scripted U.S. primetime series and enjoys one of the most active fandoms in pop culture. In fact, Supernatural fans were named the Best Fandom of 2018 by TV Guide. As a show that's centered on the bond between two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki), its 14 seasons have a unique emphasis on the intimacy of male bonds (so much so that a faction of fans support the brothers developing an incestuous relationship).
But for the past 10 years, a driving force of the fandom is the unrequited attraction between Dean and his "best friend" Castiel (Misha Collins). After the latter's introduction in season 4, fans raved about Dean and Castiel's chemistry on screen. In response, the writers leaned into fans' love of "Destiel" slash fiction and injected plenty of playful banter with homoerotic subtext into their dynamic. This was funny until it wasn't, with Dean's casual brush offs of "no chick-flick moments" taking on unsettling anti-gay undertones as the show became more blatant in its queer subtext, to the point that the characters developed a meta-awareness of their fans' desire for a "Destiel" coupling. In season 10's episode "Slash Fiction," a young Supernatural fan confronts Dean, "You can't have subtext without S-E-X" (yes, seriously).
Castiel (Misha Collins) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles)CW
Jensen Ackles and Misha CollinsSpoiler TV
On the flip side, there's J.K. Rowling's style of queerbaiting, which is more transparent. In attempts to appeal to a wider fanbase, she's prone to spontaneously re-interpreting Harry Potter canon to suggest there's diverse LGBTQ and POC representation—despite no real attention to experiences of queerness or people of color. Following the last Harry Potter film, Rowling's pot-stirring takes have included: Albus Dumbledore is gay, Voldemort's pet snake Nagini is actually a female Asian slave under a curse, and, most recently, Dumbledore and Grindelwald shared a "love relationship."
Obviously, there are other real-world blights on the LGBTQ community that have more urgency than unseemly television. But the media's representation of queerness seeps into public consciousness in a real way too, and those portrayals are still fraught with problems. The push for more inclusive representation is only undermined by queer-baiting, as if "Queer-baiting In Hollywood Is the New 'I Have a Black Friend'" trope. Creators like J.K. Rowling can't shoehorn queerness into their art as an afterthought and call it diversity. Supernatural can't dabble with same-sex attraction and at the same time treat it as a joke. Even if it isn't cruelly intended, it's careless, dismissive, and demeaning.
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