The “will-they-won’t-they” dynamic is classic in our media, as slow burns tend to be extremely effective, keeping viewers hooked in hopes that the relationship will be realized. However, when it comes to LGBTQ+ couples, producers often leave out a key aspect of this trope: getting the characters together. Media will often dangle a queer relationship in our faces, only to leave the audience confused and disappointed when the relationship is never materialized. This, in a nutshell, is queerbaiting.
Many shows have been accused of queerbaiting, and it’s clear that the tactic is effective. It keeps the audience around, waiting for these romances to be confirmed. Notably, a majority of queerbaits involve “men loving men” (MLM) relationships. What is the cause of this discrepancy?
MLM relationships get more attention in the media than other queer relationships due to fetishization, largely by women. This is particularly seen in fanfiction. A 2020 report showed 68 percent of the most popular relationships (“ships”) on Archive of Our Own (AO3), a female-dominated fanfiction site, to be MLM. There is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying MLM story lines, but it comes to a point where this preference becomes obsessive, crossing into the territory of fetishization. Unfortunately, this fetishization has been normalized, as can be seen in the hypersexualization of ships between real people. Creators of shows and movies have become aware of an audience demand for these types of relationships, and often, queer relationships become a marketing tool for producers, helping gain viewers without needing to commit to an actual LGBTQ+ relationship. Queerbaiting can be extremely harmful to the community, tricking queer viewers into feeling represented by characters, only to be disappointed when the characters are said to be heterosexual all along. This, however, cannot be equated to queer coding.
Queer coding is the implication that a character is queer through media subtext and may not be explicitly confirmed. It is implied enough that a widespread audience can pick up on it. Queer coding can be harmful in the form of perpetuating LGBTQ+ stereotypes, but differs from queerbaiting as it is not exclusively a predatory marketing tool.
Because the media is so saturated with fans overanalyzing, it’s hard to tell when a pairing crosses this vague line between “ship” and friendship. Fortunately, we have seen an increase in confirmed LGBTQ+ relationships in entertainment. With time, we may get to see these ambiguous slow burns finally strike a flame.