How queerbaiting came to be

By: Annika Getz

Many people in the LGBTQ+ community are familiar with the term “queerbating”, but most that I’ve spoken to aren’t aware of the history behind it.

For readers who don’t know, queerbaiting is the practice of implying certain characters in movies or television programs to be LGBTQ+ through subtext, without ever outright saying it. This is often meant to appeal to queer audiences without off-putting straight ones.

Studios try to draw in queer audiences through the promise of representation, without ever confirming it, lest they upset their homophobic audiences. This is a common practice, which has been going on since the beginning of LGBTQ+ representation.

Some popular examples of queerbaiting include: ‘Voltron’ (2016-2018), ‘Supernatural’ (2005-2020), ‘Sherlock’ (2010-present), ‘Merlin’, (2008-2012), ‘Star Wars’ 7, 8, and 9, ‘Teen Wolf’ (2011-2017), ‘Supergirl’ (2015-2020), and many many more. And while I have not seen all of these shows, the general consensus is that they each hint at queer characters/relationships, without any follow through.

But where did this practice come from? Who first had the idea to trick queer viewers into
watching purely heterosexual programs?

The answer is an entirely different, and much less harmful practice called queercoding. Queercoding is very similar to queerbaiting, the main – and most important – difference between the two, is intent and reasoning.

Queercoding began back in the mid 1900’s, and is, much like queerbaiting, the act of hinting at characters being LGBTQ+, without confirming it. The difference however, is that when characters were queercoded, it was because prohibitions of the day stopped them from being openly queer. There are, of course, no rules, present day, stopping companies from adding gay characters.

The beginning of queer representation was in the early 1900’s. Gay characters were used for comedic affect in silent films. Men dressed in more feminine outfits were used for quick, cheap jokes. Some examples of this type of portrayal include ‘Algie the Miner’ (1914) and ‘The Soiler’ (1923). This evolved into what we now call the Sissy stereotype. Gay men are portrayed as feminine, weak. This was, and is, used to enforce straight men’s masculinities.

I think Quentin Crisp, English writer and actor, said it best “There’s no sin like being a woman. When a man dresses as a woman, the audience laughs. When a woman dresses as a man, nobody laughs.” This type of portrayal was but a preview of what was to come though.

One detail which will become relevant involves the 1915 Supreme Court case of Mutual Film Corporation vs. the Industrial Commission of Ohio. It was there that it was decided that free speech did not apply to film. They said that “Because film can be used for evil, we cannot regard censorship as beyond the power of the government.”

In 1922, Hollywood was reeling over movies recently released, portraying, sex, violence, orgies, and other indecencies (there had also been some real-life scandals with many popular stars at the time). It was then that studio heads hired William H. Hays, former postmaster general, to rehabilitate the film industry.

In 1924, Hays released “The Formula”, a list of recommendations for studios to follow regarding what should and shouldn’t be their films.

In 1927, Hays suggested that studio heads get together to discuss censorship. Both MGM and Fox agreed to meet. It was from this meeting that the Hays Code (released in 1930) was born. The Hays Code was a list of do’s and don’ts that studios had to follow, in order for their movies to be screened. This list included things such as profanity, nudity, drugs, white slavery (though unsurprisingly, black slavery was left out), miscegenation, childbirth, sex perversion etc. The Code essentially put a ban on gay characters. Some groups, mainly the Federation of Women’s club, wanted theaters to be raided by the police if they screened films which did not adhere to the Code.

Films were to go through the Code Office before release, and if they should have any indecent material, the script, characters, camera angles or anything necessary would be changed before its release, examples include ‘The Lost Weekend’ (1945) which was originally about an alcoholic coming to terms with his sexuality, that was altered to be about an alcoholic struggling with writer’s block. And ‘Crossfire’ (1947) originally about homophobia, but rewritten to be about anti-semitism instead.

Many studio heads, some of them gay themselves, were upset by the censorship, which had stopped progress of gay representation in its tracks. It was from their desire to portray gay characters on screen, and their inability to do so, that queercoding was born. Screenwriters knew that LGBTQ+ audiences would be able to recognize a coded gay character, while they flew under the radar of straight ones.

Some good examples of queercoding include, ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941), ‘Young Man With a Horn’ (1950), ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ (1955), ‘Ben Hur’ (1959), and ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ (1959). I could continue listing films, but I fear this article would be too long for anyone to read, so we’ll move on.

The only other way for gay characters to be portrayed in more obvious ways, was through villains, or death.

The villain trope is shown well through the popular 50’s and 60’s cliché that was lesbian prison movies, which portrayed lesbians as big and scary antagonists, who were often authority figures amongst the inmates (though never guards of course). This made many young lesbians fear their queerness, and often try to deny it, lest they end up in prison. It also made straight people afraid of lesbians, and was overall just pretty harmful.

Joel Cario, from ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941) is another good example of a queer coded antagonist. Like many male antagonists of the time, he was more feminine, and fit the sissy stereotype as much as a villain can. He was even confirmed to be gay in the book on which the movie was based.

This is a trope which has wormed its way into the modern day. Many antagonists, particularly in children’s movies, are coded to be either queer or genderqueer (or just defy gender norms).

This subconsciously instills a distrust of LGBTQ+ people in the youth. Some examples include Scar from ‘The Lion King’, Governor Ratcliffe from ‘Pocahontas’, Hades from ‘Hercules’, and Ursula from ‘The Little Mermaid’. This coding is even more obvious when you compare the villains to their hero counterparts. The male protagonists are usually hyper-masculine, and the female ones are incredibly feminine.

Another popular trope of the time which has made its way into film today, is the trope known as “Bury your gays” which is just what it sounds like. Gay characters being killed off while their straight counterparts get to live.

In the 50’s and 60’s, whenever characters were a bit too obviously queer, too at risk of being picked up on by straight audiences, the screenwriters killed them off, so the movie could pass the code, and be released.

One good example of this is the 1955 film, ‘Rebel Without a Cause’. Both boys in this movie are pretty heavily coded to be queer, though the one who’s more obviously gay of the two (the one without a female love interest), Plato, dies at the end of the film.

After around 30 years, the code was beginning to weaken, and characters were becoming a bit more obvious with their queerness. Movies like ‘Ben Hur’, and ‘Suddenly Last Summer’, which were both more heavily coded (both were written in 1959, and by Gore Vidal, who would later confirm certain characters to be gay), were being released, and put real strain on the code.

‘Some Like it Hot’ (1959) is considered by many to be the final nail in the coffin, though the code would technically stay in effect until 1968. The film was about two men dressing in drag as a disguise, to escape the mafia bosses trying to kill them. It plays with the idea of gender identity and norms, without fitting the sissy stereotype. It’s more than the one off joke of “man dresses up as woman and it’s the funniest thing to ever happen,” trope from the 10’s and 20’s.

In 1961, the film ‘The Children’s Hour’ was released. In the film, two women, Martha and Karen, run a school for girls. One of these girls, angry after being punished for misbehaving, falsely accuses the women of being lovers. After the accusation, a string of unfortunate events ensues, including a lawsuit. Martha then admits her romantic love for the unambiguously straight Karen, who obviously, does not reciprocate Martha’s feelings. The film ends with Martha committing suicide. The message was that yes, queer people existed, but they were immoral, filthy, and not something discussed or tolerated by decent folk.

However, also in 1961, the movie ‘Victim’ was released, depicting the first gay protagonist. While it was banned from U.S. cinemas, and given an X rating in the UK (it was later given a rating of PG-13), it was still major progress.

In 1968, the code was finally taken out of effect, and two years later, the first real LGBTQ+ movie was released: ‘The Boys in The Band’. No one dies, and everyone’s out. This sadly wasn’t the end of homophobia in cinema though.

‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005), though wildly popular, faced serious criticism from a baptist church upon its release. The film was picketed, and when one of the actors, Heath Ledger, passed away, a religious hate group even protested his funeral. They claimed he had died for his portrayal of a gay character onscreen.

It’s this type of protest that scared studios into queerbaiting, and while their concern is understandable, it’s also incredibly harmful. Queer people have a hard enough time finding representation without being tricked into watching shows and movies without it.

There’s also something worth saying about the possible profit off of actual LGBTQ+ films. The movie ‘Love, Simon’ (2018), grossed 66.3 million dollars worldwide (40.8 million in the U.S. and Canada) against a $10-17 million production budget, making it one of the most domestically successful teen movies to be released recently. Many moviegoers even saw it several times in one day, according to social media posts made shortly after the film’s release.

To summarize: queercoding was one thing, but what it’s turned into is a complete – much more harmful – other. While much progress has been made with queer representation in the media, there’s still a long ways to go. And if I ever had a chance to talk to a major studio head, I’d ask them which side of LGBTQ+ history they’d like to be on, one which benefits the community, or continues to marginalize it?

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