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Why is queerbaiting often a misunderstood term?

From Noah Schnapp to Madonna, accusations of ‘queerbaiting’ have been the source of controversy and debate across social media, but the term has often been misunderstood and misused.

Just last week, Heartstopper star Kit Connor deleted Twitter after accusations that he had been ‘queerbaiting’ by playing a bisexual character in the popular Netflix show.

Pictures of Connor holding hands with his co-star in the upcoming film, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea and Tomorrow, Maia Reficco led to Twitter users suggesting the 18-year-old had deliberately misled his LGBTQ fans.

Such a wave of criticism on social media encapsulates the danger of the misuse of such a loaded term.

Understanding the term ‘queerbaiting’

Queerbaiting is a marketing ploy when a character or relationship is implied to be queer, but never explicitly labelled as such.

This allows tv shows and films, and even celebrities themselves, to appeal to a queer audience without openly representing them, thus maintaining their conservative audiences.

Popular BBC show Sherlock was a famous target of these accusations. Despite creator Mark Gatiss firmly stating that they had “explicitly said this is not going to happen,” fans pointed to the shows’ insistent references to a potential romantic relationship between the main characters, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

Irene Adler, one of the seemingly potential love interests of Holmes accuses Watson of being ‘jealous’ of her flirting with him, whilst Watson’s girlfriend Jeanette refers to him as being a ‘very good boyfriend’ to the detective.

These allusions to a relationship between the two men attracted a large queer following to the show, sharing theories on when ‘Johnlock’ would finally be confirmed on the show.

In 2020, TikTok became the site of an April Fool’s prank in which famous TikTokers seemed to come out as bisexual to’s “Boys & Girls”, before later admitting they were actually straight.

This ‘prank’ of pretending to come out was unsurprisingly met with disappointment and criticism of fans who accused them of faking their sexuality in order to gain views and likes from a young queer audience.

Seeing someone you admire come out publicly provides a hugely important life raft for young people struggling with their own journey; to exploit this often difficult and painful process epitomises the damage that queerbaiting can cause.

What is not queerbaiting?

Queerbaiting is unequivocally harmful to the queer community; those who exploit an audience with false representation deserve to be shamed. However, like many internet neologisms, the term has become a buzzword to be thrown around without fully understanding its implications.

Not only does this undermine the impact of genuine accusations, but it can also create an uncomfortable expectation that “queerbaiting” actors owe the wider world an explanation for their sexuality.

In the case of Kit Connor, for example, the term has been weaponised against an 18-year-old, declaring that he had deceived queer fans. To suggest that a man cannot be queer because he could be in a relationship with a woman is blatant bi erasure, a pertinent issue within the LGBTQ community itself.

However, beyond this, to accuse Connor of queerbaiting is to make unfounded assumptions about his sexuality. Celebrity culture often leads us to believe that stars owe us the same intimate details that we see them portray on screen, in their real lives.

Connor is only 18 years old; he does not owe anyone an explanation for his sexuality. One Twitter user was quick to point out the hypocrisy of declaring that “anything short of screaming your sexuality from the rooftops is tantamount to queer baiting” whilst also shunning Connor from the community.

Surely TV shows don’t need to label sexualities either?

Well, yes and no. Characters such as Todd from BoJack Horseman and Eve from Killing Eve experience a journey with their sexuality, discovering it in the shows.

However, these characters are also undoubtedly queer; Todd comes out as asexual, but not aromantic and Eve engages in a passionate relationship with assassin Villanelle (Sorry for spoilers).

Queerbaiting becomes a problem when shows repeatedly indicate that characters might be LGBTQ, but refuse to address their sexuality.

Whilst his character, Will Byers, has now been confirmed as a gay character, Noah Schnapp ignited accusations of this in a recent interview.

“I feel like they never really address it or blatantly say how Will is…I think that’s the beauty of it, that it’s just up to the audience’s interpretation.”

Millie Bobby Brown added, “Can I just say, it’s 2022 and we don’t have to label things.”

Queer people, especially trans and non-binary individuals, have always challenged socially imposed labels of gender and sexuality, often facing rejection and exclusion as a result. Key trailblazers of the gay rights movement such as Marsha P. Johnson and Slyvia Riveria rejected other people’s expectations of them and refused to conform to simple labels.

Its 2022 and queer people do not need to label themselves, nor conform to the labels of others. However, when companies and tv shows utilise these ideas to market themselves, they further appropriate queer identities, whilst continuing to deny them representation.

Queerbaiting is the deliberate teasing and deception of an audience that had repeatedly seen itself erased and their identities belittled for cheap punchlines, in order to profit off of their joy.

Whilst this phenomenon remains an unwelcome trope in mainstream media, we can still reclaim our queer joy in true representation; artists such as Lil Nas X, and shows like Its A Sin and First Kill are poignant celebrations of a culture that refuses to be hidden.