Gay TV (Part I): Queerbaiting

This is Part I of II. Part II will list the most genuinely LGBT-friendly TV shows that I know.

Have you guys heard the term “queerbaiting” before? I had not, until a few years ago, though I’ve seen it on television for most of my life.

Basically, at some point, people (writers and producers) behind various entertainment media, including television, realized that they could drive up sales and ratings in serial dramas (yeah, I’m basically talking about TV, here) by appealing to gay and bisexual viewers and other viewers who are straight but might like to see gay storylines.

Awesome, right? It’s always good when people whose job is to make money notice that your demographic exists.

Unfortunately, for a long time, gay storylines were extremely controversial. Willow and Tara, on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, did not have an on-screen kiss for a very long time after their relationship began. Will And Grace, a show in which two of the protagonists were gay men, did not have an on-screen gay kiss for a long time.

As in, I think that the Dan Schneider Nickelodeon comedy Drake And Josh had a male-on-male on-screen kiss with less of a kerfuffle than those shows.

I always thought that there was an L after the first F in “kerfuffle,” but apparently not. The more you know.

Now, Drake And Josh does not count as a cutting-edge LGBT show because, well, that was not an actual romantic or sexual kiss and was, like everything else on that show, a joke. And it was, well, on a kids show (though one that I watched pretty reliably in high school for reasons totally unrelated to Drake Bell’s appearance).

Anyway, as I mentioned, gay storylines have been pretty controversial on television for a long time. In the past, it could lead to a show being heavily censored and boycotted (in a meaningful way), and that’s if the network allowed it. Now, if you have a gay storyline for the sake of having a gay storyline, you come across as preachy (like on Glee, in which being preachy about every possible social ill seems to supersede plot). It can also cost ratings—on certain shows.

We’ve all probably heard that there will be same-sex parents on the Disney Channel show, Good Luck Charlie. Because it’s a kids show on Disney, this has ruffled more feathers than it would have in a different context.

I, for one, was really surprised to hear that Good Luck Charlie was still on the air. Good for them, I guess?

So, to get around the potential controversy or a simple lack of desire to tell a gay storyline, some television shows will play up sexual tension between two characters of the same sex, even if they both seem to be heterosexual. Sometimes, this is in response to fans of a show overwhelmingly shipping (supporting the relationSHIP between) certain character pairings. Fan enthusiasm can be increased by, well, making the show appealing to people who want to see ambiguous interpersonal escalation on screen.

And it works really well. People will analyze every look and word exchanged between two characters. They’ll do fanart and write endless fanfiction.

The added bonus being that you can have the fans hooked, in a “will-they-or-won’t-they” sort of way, without actually portraying the characters in question as being gay or bisexual.

A well-known example is Xena: Warrior Princess. And that was in the 1990s. The showrunners realized that the show was really popular among lesbians, and they catered to that without actually catering to that. An advantage of queerbaiting with female characters? Straight men love it, too.

More recently, an advantage of queerbaiting with male characters has clearly been that straight women love it, too.

Supernatural and Once Upon A Time are both shows that I watch that have a lot of queerbaiting. Supernatural is much more overt about it, but they both do it. The casts and writers are well-aware that the fans are more or less overwhelming in terms of shipping same-sex pairings (specifically, Dean and Castiel as Destiel on SPN and Emma Swan and Queen Regina as Swan Queen on OUAT).

Now, a lot of people watch these shows with a will-they-or-won’t-they perspective. Others are absolutely convinced that these characters will run off into the sunset.

Guys, they won’t. Supernatural will begin it’s ninth season this fall. Ninth. I watched the pilot when I was a freshman in college (I’m so ancient). Do people who seem to be completely gay or straight sometimes, in real life, suddenly hook up with a member of the same sex? Absolutely. That does not mean that this is going to happen on the show. Though Once Upon A Time is only about to enter its third season, the same is probably pretty true for Swan Queen. They’ll be friends, they’ll look at each other dramatically, and they’ll do magic together.

The thing is that fans who watch the show primarily for the queerbaiting will be satisfied by that. It’s why Supernatural has been on for nearly a decade.

I don’t think that queerbaiting hurts anyone, but I do think that it is a bit wasteful and outdated. Most of the time.

However, queerbaiting does have its place: television for younger viewers.

At the moment, some TV that targets (if not exclusively) younger audiences contains gay characters. But they are never stated as such, or shown to be gay—but they are also never shown to be not gay. This basically comes down to networks or studios saying: “No, you may not identify anyone as gay.”

Probably the best example of this is Blue Beetle and Impulse on Young Justice. While the show’s writer, Greg Weisman (a major writing idol of mine), has stated that he believes that there are LGBT characters on the show, he asked and was told that he would not be allowed to identify them on-screen.

Queerbaiting is totally appropriate for shows where the writers are all but required to show male protagonists have a female love interest. There was a lot of queerbaiting on Generator Rex (a lot; this set of images barely begins to cover it), which was a surprisingly good show (not the strongest first few episodes).

And then there’s Transformers Prime, a recent (still on the air) show on Hub that is infinitely better than the Michael Bay Transformers films (as in, this show actually has a plot and I understand what is happening at all times). Among other things, the show has a Decepticon named Knockout who is very clearly gay. He conforms to a few too many stereotypes to win a GLAAD award, and, since Cybertronians do not officially have sexes, labels like “gay” or “straight” are meaningless, he does whistle at Optimus Prime and compliment his appearance (along with that of several other transformers) on the show.

There’s also queerbaiting in the pilot of Sam And Cat, a spin-off of both iCarly and Victorious. I haven’t seen past the pilot but I hope that they keep that up.

Queerbaiting in these instances is fine. Good, even. It’s something that will go over the heads of younger viewers but be appreciated by older ones (honestly, if you’re an adult and you automatically dismiss all cartoons because they happen to be cartoons, you need to look at your life and look at your choices). And it’s something that viewers can see or ignore as they choose. I look forward to living in a world where an action cartoon that targets a ten-year-old audience can have official, canon gay characters. A gay protagonist, even.

Sadly, we are not yet there.

 

PS: I did not mention that the BBC series Merlin had a lot of queerbaiting. That show somehow managed to do it really tastefully.

I also did not mention the queerbaiting on Avatar: The Last Airbender. Totally acceptable, as that may have been the greatest show to ever air on television, but it was allegedly a kids show.

I was going to put in another screencap that I took, but it may have been too inappropriate.



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Don’t Dumb Down Science Fiction For Women (Surprise! Women Are Smart)

Sometimes a television show or film will take an unorthodox narrative style. That’s standard. Sometimes the setting is surprising for the story or genre being depicted—an easily recognizable example would be Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which seems to largely shy away from admitting that it’s set in a version of the DC Universe. But a lot of people enjoyed that, so okay. That’s a stylistic choice.

But sometimes, a science fiction show is written more as a drama, focusing on “the human story,” not because of a genuine stylistic preference but because of, well, sexism. Courting a wider audience. Which translates to: “Courting a female audience.”

I will be honest: I have a vested interest in this topic, as I write fantasy (a broad umbrella term that includes science fiction). I would love to have some books made into television series. I would really love to micro-manage those shows (I’m a control-freak; it’s not an uncommon quality in writers).

But I’m also a viewer. I grew up watching a lot of science fiction (even when I was young enough that I would go and make LEGO reproductions of what I had seen). Stargate, Babylon 5, Farscape, and even Star Trek and Andromeda.

Sorry, Delenn from Babylon 5 can’t hear your preconceived misogynistic notions over the sound of what a terrifying badass female protagonist she is.

There is a lot less science fiction on television right now (especially now that Clone Wars has come to an end after five magnificent seasons). What little there is tends to be these sorts of terrestrial dramas. Campy science fiction like Eureka or Warehouse 13 combined with Battlestar Galactica to, well, kind of destroy science fiction. Wacky adventures with a relatively low-budget or gripping dramas that mostly capitalize on being upsetting aren’t what I want out of any television show. But people are letting networks get away with it.

And to networks? Well, shows that “tell stories about people” (most shows do; I only worry when they repeat that line again and again when advertising a new show) are really saying: “We don’t think that women will watch more traditional science fiction. Research says that women dominate certain markets of television viewership. We want to attract women. Women don’t like science. They like romance.

Which is, um, incredibly insulting to women.

I’ll admit that any Star Trek series can be weird and episodic and so hit-and-miss that it’s usually easier to watch select episodes that are particularly good or deal with certain story-arcs than it is to watch the Overly Didactic Episodes (TM). But Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis? They told excellent stories with a small group of really interesting characters.

And Babylon 5? Guys, if Game of Thrones were set in space and dealt with alien races instead of human noble houses, it would just be called Babylon 5. Same kinds of excellent story-arcs. Same kinds of characters.

If you want people to watch your show or your films, make a good story. Make a great one. Give it a wonderful setting and execute it properly. Hire the right actors and make sure that your writing is airtight.

Don’t change your story angle because you think that if you use smaller words, girls, who like romantic comedies and princesses, will come flocking to watch your show. They’ll probably see it for being garbage and stop watching and be just as disappointed as your male viewers.

And then girls will actually have a thing against science fiction.

 

PS: Yes, this means you, SeeFee (“SyFy”) Channel. A few years ago, you suddenly forgot that your name was spelled “SciFi” and your programming turned into garbage. I mean, it’s great if you want to watch ghosthunters or professional wrestling. But, as it stands, the SeeFee Channel is an insult to everything that it used to be. Kind of like how Stargate Universe was a big, stupid slap in the face to the previous two Stargate series.



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The Bible Miniseries

Were any of you able to watch the History Channel’s miniseries, The Bible, all of the way through?

I’ll be honest—I started to watch. I did not make it very far. I did not even make it to what people are calling the “ninja angels” in Sodom. I mostly just saw Noah telling the story of Genesis in a thick Scottish brogue while the ark comically rocks back and forth.

Yes, that’s really how it began.

I did not grow up in a household of an Abrahamic faith, so, aside from reading a passage from the Old Testament in my high school World Literature class (we were comparing Noah’s Ark and a couple of other snippets with The Epic Of Gilgamesh), I had no direct exposure to the Bible until college, when I bought a copy of the Bible for a class (Old Testament Literature, a very interesting class) and read through the Old Testament.

So I was able to get through reading it, but not very far in the miniseries. At some point, I may try again, but goodness it was a little odd.

The main things that I read and heard about from the series were the ninja angels (killing the people of Sodom), Noah’s Scottish brogue (which I had already seen), and Jesus, who was apparently “super hot.” (Thus, the picture at the top of this post)

I’m not much for beards, but yeah, he’s hot. And, for some reason, white? White with a tan is still white.

A lot of people have strong opinions about religion and its portrayal on television. I mean, you have shows like The CW’s Supernatural, which, if you take it too seriously, is all but guaranteed to offend you on religious grounds no matter what beliefs you have. I happen to like Supernatural, but I also know to not take it seriously. Then The History Channel has Ancient Aliens, which is offensive to anyone with a sense of reason, but which also essentially reduces all religious belief to a bunch of confused humans misinterpreting contact with extraterrestrials.

I would like to just dismiss Ancient Aliens by assuming that we live in a reasonable world and that no one takes it seriously. But we live in a world where people believe in vast Illuminati conspiracies and actually take Glenn Beck seriously. Sadly, people will take just about anything seriously.

Personally, I think that putting religious material on television makes sense. If you can write it down, you can put it on television, whether it’s from a holy book (pretty specific to the Abrahamic faiths) or from other religious writings, storytelling, and, especially, history.

The Bible miniseries got a lot of viewers. I have to wonder how many of those were just “the Sunday crowd.” By which I mean, how many people watched it purely because of what it was—because they felt some level of religious obligation to watch it? Kind of like how I really like a few members of the cast of the See-Fee (SyFy) Channel’s new series, Defiance, so I tried to watch it even though it can’t really hold my interest in the long run and some of the makeup is positively cringe-worthy.

(Seriously, I love a couple of those cast members to pieces, but I didn’t make it to the third episode of Defiance and I doubt that I’ll go back to it, even though I want more actual science fiction on television and I love the concept of a television series that is tied to an MMO)

When you make a religious broadcast (or statement), you are bound to offend someone. This miniseries on The Bible followed the Bible’s narratives of events, rather than what archeology and history suggest actually happened. That’s pretty much expected. I’m not offended by The History Channel telling that story. I don’t believe in it—it would be weird if I did, considering that I’m not Jewish or Christian or Muslim.

So, I’m glad that The History Channel did this. It’s certainly better than their Fake History shows like Ancient Aliens and their ridiculous reality shows (stuff about truckers and pawn shops, maybe?).

Speaking of History Channel programming, have you guys seen any of Vikings? I saw the beginning and I really enjoyed it. I haven’t caught up yet, but I love it. And not just because some of my ancestors were vikings. But, yes, also because of that.



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Elementary Does It Correctly

 

First of all, it’s May 4th. Star Wars Day. May The Fourth Be With You.

Guys, do you watch Elementary? I know that some of the people who watch BBC’s Sherlock (of which there have been only six episodes because you can get away with that in the UK, apparently) are diehard loyalists. Personally, I’m kind of tired of looking at Bennysnoot Cummerbund* and I don’t even watch the show (his face is just unavoidable on Tumblr), so Sherlock will probably never catch my interest. That said, I am a huge supporter of liking both—do not think of different Sherlock shows as mutually exclusive.

Anyway, I love Elementary. Jonny Lee Miller plays Sherlock Holmes. The beautiful, talented, and flawless Lucy Liu plays Joan Watson. I absolutely love the show—most of the first season has aired. It’s not as good as NBC’s brand new show Hannibal, but then, Hannibal is the best live-action show on the air right now (and definitely my favorite new show of 2013).

Right, so. Elementary. It’s fun. Some people find Jonny Lee Miller very attractive—I don’t. I appreciate his character’s competence, though. I love genderbending of Dr. Watson’s character into a woman (a former surgeon). And, seriously, Lucy Liu is amazing and perfect and if you do not believe me then you have obviously not seen Kill Bill and/or anything else that features Lucy Liu.

The character of “Mrs. Hudson” is not as much of a staple of the Sherlock Holmes universe as the titular character or Professor Moriarty (whom we have yet to see directly), but she is a character in the original stories and in many subsequent adaptations. She is often Sherlock’s landlord and something of a fussbudget about tidiness.

Elementary only introduced their Mrs. Hudson recently. She is an associate (what Sherlock calls his friends) of Sherlock’s. She is a self-taught intellectual who finds herself acting as a “muse” (a mistress) to various men who may be married (in her first episode, she comes to Sherlock for a place to sleep during a break-up with her lover, who is clearly besotted with her and is promising to leave his wife but we all know that story, right?). She is a tall, beautiful woman. She likes things tidy—at one point, she cleans the front room of Sherlock’s brownstone (which Watson is always wanting for him to clean). Mrs. Hudson also rearranges Sherlocks books. He asks how she arranged them. Mrs. Hudson replies:

“By subject matter, then by author. You start with hard sciences on the north wall, then you move clockwise around the room in descending order of academic rigor. That way, Physics by Aristotle is as far away from You Can Learn Telepathy by Morton Zuckerman as possible.”

That was the line with which I really fell in love with her.

And oh, by the way, she’s transgender. Played by a transgender actress.

I think that sometimes people include members of various minorities for the wrong reasons, or in the wrong way. Not every gay character should be a fashion expert (like in real life—I might have perfect hair and always be clean and smell good, but I dress in a t-shirt and shorts as often as possible because I value my comfort). A lot of what happens nowadays with gay characters or certain religious minorities is a step in the right direction but still missing the we’re-all-people point (and kind of reminds me of blackspoitation).

Elementary does it correctly. No one fumbles, accidentally calling Mrs. Hudson a “he” or “it.” Her story is not about the fact that she’s transgender. Her boyfriend isn’t breaking up with her because she’s transgender. She is not being discriminated against or targeted and coming to Sherlock for help because she’s transgender. She’s just a woman in a rocky relationship and she needs a place to stay for a couple of nights. While she’s there, she does some tidying, and ends up being hired by Sherlock to come in periodically to clean.

I want to see more television like this. Transgender characters are not a punchline, and they’re also not all about being transgender. Being born with an anatomical sex that does not match your gender is not the be-all and end-all of a person, and that should be reflected in fictional characters.

Well done, Elementary. I love it. And I love Mrs. Hudson.

 

*Okay, so his name is Benedict Cumberbatch, but that is ridiculous and changing his name every time that you say or write it helps lift you back from the fatigue of constantly seeing his face on Tumblr (because the Sherlock fandom is one of the “big three” of Tumblr, along with Supernatural and Doctor Who. I only watch one of those but I see plenty of the other two anyway). Blanderwort Cumberland will also be the primary antagonist in the new Star Trek film, Into Darkness. So you can expect that I will see the film but also spend much of the time glowering for various reasons.



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