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Are we being queerbaited by television showrunners?

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For as long as there has been entertainment, there has been ‘shipping’: the desire of fans wanting certain characters to be together romantically, who may or may not be a couple in the canon plot.

Especially on websites like Tumblr, terms like ‘I ship them’ and ‘this ship has sailed’ are common, and of course this extends to the LGBT+ community.

There really isn’t a lot of media with LGBT+ representation, and the shows that have it are specifically aimed at LGBT+ people. It’s incredibly rare to see a show where there just happens to be a gay relationship that everyone accepts as normal, a bisexual girl who isn’t portrayed as promiscuous or a transgender person just living their life normally without the focus being on their transition.

Often if a character is LGBT+ then it’s added in later by the creators, almost as an afterthought, like when J.K. Rowling revealed that Albus Dumbledore was gay. If that was the case, it would have been mentioned at least once in the books and films rather than being brought up later.

The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) researched television from 2012-13 and found that 4.4% of shows had regular LGBT+ characters in them, slightly higher than 2.9% in 2011 and 1.1% in 2007. Media always fails to fully represent the LGBT+ community and often if there is an attempt by showrunners, it’s widely viewed as queerbaiting, which is when there’s romantic tension between two characters in order to appeal to queer viewers, without the intention of ever putting those characters together.

It means creators can hint at queer people being the heroes, the main characters, but in reality the potential relationship is played out as a joke and the assumptions are quashed (via interviews etc.) while the characters still seem to be involved with each other, or one of the characters is suddenly in a heterosexual relationship.

LGBT+ are a minority group (estimates in the US range from 4-6%), so it can be assumed that the majority of viewers will not be queer. Queerbaiting means creators can appeal to queer viewers while avoiding angering those who don’t support LGBT+ people. However, this also means pandering to discriminatory behaviour and not making any progress with regards to how LGBT+ people are seen in society.

Some may say it’s better than nothing, but is it? All too often it turns out to be a joke, to the point where it’s now basically a trope. So does this mean queer people are being laughed at, or are they meant to be in on it? All queerbaiting does is show a potential queer relationship and then take it away, making the viewer seem like they shouldn’t have read into an onscreen relationship in that way. It makes queer relationships seem not only less valid, but less valuable and not as necessary in the media as heterosexual ones.

This isn’t the case of just one or two small shows queerbaiting either, it’s a massive deal. The never ending CW series Supernatural has shown sexual tensions between Dean Winchester and Castiel, with fans thinking the romance is deliberate for season on end. Despite this, the creators have shown no plans to follow through with it, and to add to the confusion, the actors for both characters have sent mixed signals on the shows’ intentions. 

In Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson live together; other characters always think and joke that they’re together; John is always defending his sexuality, and though everyone involved with Sherlock has denied any romance between the two, all you have to do is search for #TJLS (The Johnlock Conspiracy) to see endless ‘evidence’ found by fans, such as Sherlock putting John’s face on the Vitruvian Man, a man with the perfect proportions.

Merlin and House follow in the same suit, with Merlin’s creators describing Arthur Pendragon and Merlin’s relationship as "a love story between two men" and commenting on how magic is a metaphor for homosexuality. Yet the portrayal we see is entirely subversive. In House, Gregory House and James Wilson are in heterosexual relationships throughout the show but make sexual jokes to and about each other. Again, nothing is ever developed beyond the jokes.

These ships can be incredibly damaging, especially in cases like Sherlock where characters like Moriarty and Eurus, who are heavily hinted at as being queer, are villains, because it further encourages the idea that LGBT+ people are bad people. Not only that but it has been said that one of the creators, Mark Gatiss, has blocked Twitter users who talk about the possibility of Sherlock queerbaiting viewers, and has stayed silent on the topic since the end of series four.

For queer relationships to only be included as a token or for them to not be normalised is further perpetuating the idea that queer people aren’t normal in society, and the media needs to make more of an effort for there to be proper LGBT+ representation.

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