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.
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.