Queerbaiting and Fandom
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Queerbaiting and Fandom

Teasing Fans through Homoerotic Possibilities

Joseph Brennan

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Queerbaiting and Fandom

Teasing Fans through Homoerotic Possibilities

Joseph Brennan

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In this first-ever comprehensive examination of queerbaiting, fan studies scholar Joseph Brennan and his contributors examine cases that shed light on the sometimes exploitative industry practice of teasing homoerotic possibilities that, while hinted at, never materialize in the program narratives. Through a nuanced approach that accounts for both the history of queer representation and older fan traditions, these essayists examine the phenomenon of queerbaiting across popular TV, video games, children's programs, and more.

Contributors: Evangeline Aguas, Christoffer Bagger, Bridget Blodgett, Cassie Brummitt, Leyre Carcas, Jessica Carniel, Jennifer Duggan, Monique Franklin, Divya Garg, Danielle S. Girard, Mary Ingram-Waters, Hannah McCann, Michael McDermott, E. J. Nielsen, Emma Nordin, Holly Eva Katherine Randell-Moon, Emily E. Roach, Anastasia Salter, Elisabeth Schneider, Kieran Sellars, Isabela Silva, Guillaume Sirois, Clare Southerton

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Année
2019
ISBN
9781609386726
PART 1
THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVES
1
QUEERBAITING 2.0 FROM DENYING YOUR QUEERS TO PRETENDING YOU HAVE THEM
EMMA NORDIN
In film and TV studies, audience reception studies form only a small part, to which any extensive attention has been paid only during the last twenty-five years. Queerbaiting is only a fraction of these audience reception studies, yet it is making its way from the hidden corners of fan forums to mainstream media’s reporting on some of the most anticipated films of the last couple of years, such as Beauty and the Beast (2017) and Wonder Woman (2017). When I explored the use of the term “queerbaiting” on internet forums in 2015, few scholars had given the phenomenon extensive attention.1 Not many people, outside the fan forums that coined and used it, were familiar with the term; but since then, more and more scholars have taken an interest in it. As Joseph Brennan expresses it, queerbaiting is making “its inevitable permeation into academic work.”2 Today, the discussion on queerbaiting is an aspect of mainstream fan culture. The term is used by fans, as well as critics and journalists, and is being used more often and in different contexts. The term is in constant development, and it needs to be explored further. This chapter will focus on the history of queerbaiting, its roots in the practice of queer reading, the concept of HoYay, and how the queerbaiting debate has changed in the last couple of years to now concern a new type of queerbaiting. It will be a journey exploring the recent history of potentially queer content and where we stand today. I especially focus on a different kind of queerbaiting, the more and more common practice of telling your audience there will be a queer character but then not delivering, as well as the problems that arise with an international audience in mind. It will also become evident that, within the debate on queerbaiting, focus has shifted from producers’ intentions to how producers encourage their audiences.
A Queer History Queerbaiting and Its Roots in Queer Reading
Historically, the word “queerbaiting” has had several meanings. In 1981, it was used as a description of verbal abuse and the homophobic and discriminating rhetoric in US courts.3 As recently as 2009, the word was used to describe the attempt to “expose” and purge homosexual individuals in the US during the 1950s and ’60s.4 Since then, the term’s meaning and use have changed significantly. Now, it is much more often used in fan forums to refer to when producers intentionally try to lure an audience to watch something under the false pretense that it will have queer content. (The term “producer” is used to refer to anyone who has the power to affect content.) Judith Fathallah, one of few scholars who has analyzed queerbaiting and its newer meaning, defines it as:
a strategy by which writers and networks attempt to gain the attention of queer viewers via hints, jokes, gestures, and symbolism suggesting a queer relationship between two characters, and then emphatically denying and laughing off the possibility.5
In 2015, using queerbaiting the way Fathallah does was a fairly new phenomenon to the academic world, but the discussion concerning the practice had been going on for years in fan forums, with editing wars on Wikipedia and heated debates on Tumblr and other fan forums over definitions and which TV shows are queerbaiting.6 Queerbaiting, in the sense that producers are teasing queer content to lure an audience without making it overt, is often considered to have originated in the microblogging sphere of Tumblr.7 Fans discussing and defining queerbaiting on Tumblr and other fan forums are often aware of the history of queer content and the limitations producers historically have had to work with. This is clear when fans take the history of queer content in media into consideration when they discuss queerbaiting. The argument is that, in the 1990s, censorship rules (legal and social) made it hard for producers to create overtly queer content. Instead, they used subtext and thus managed to avoid being censored or canceled. An example often used is Xena: Warrior Princess (1995–2001), which remained on air with its lesbian subtext, in contrast with Ellen (1994–1998), which was canceled soon after the title character came out as lesbian.8 Xena’s subtext is therefore rarely described as queerbaiting. The legal and social circumstances made the practice described by Fathallah the only way to have any kind of queer content.
Alexander Doty’s 1993 Making Things Perfectly Queer is now a modern academic classic when it comes to queer reading. He argues that interpreting characters as queer and making a queer reading is not to make an alternative reading but is just one interpretation among many equally valid interpretations.9 John Fiske also argues for polysemic texts with different, equally valid interpretations and asserts that audiences find ways to interpret TV shows in such a way that they are made pleasurable for the audiences.10
I argue that the queer reading that Doty discusses in 1993 can very well have been a way for an audience to create a pleasurable reading (in line with Fiske). However, because of legal and social censorship, queer reading was also a necessity for people who wanted queer content in mainstream media. Today, fans accusing producers of queerbaiting refuse to accept that such necessity would be reason enough not to have overt homosexual characters. Even if including overt homosexual characters is cause for criticism from certain parts of the audience, or leads to boycotts in certain areas, these are not considered reasons not to include these characters in the text. I argue that the hints that had worked earlier as subtext to convey what could not be said out loud now work as signifiers for what producers refuse to say out loud, suggesting social constrictions rather than legal ones.
People accusing TV shows and films of queerbaiting are not unaware of the practice of queer reading. However, they lack confidence that it would affect the product and achieve a better representation of queer people. Several academics agree; for example, Mark Andrejevic warns us that even though a show serves as raw material for fan production, and even if it inspires subversive and critical reading, the reading is still serving the producers, since it keeps fans tuning in.11 Participation, such as making alternative readings, does not necessarily equal activism or have a subversive effect.12 Cassandra M. Collier arrives at a similar conclusion regarding fans’ queer readings and queering of texts, stating that these can be anything from “subversive queer transformations” to “homonormative affirmations.”13 Examples of the former are “BDSM themes, incorporation of asexuality, and exploration of neuro-atypical character identities,” while the latter mainly consist of following accepted norms and expectations.14
When I presented my thesis, several scholars raised the issue of the perceived limitations of queerbaiting and use of the “queer” part of the word. The word “queer” has a long history, often referring to norm criticism regarding identity, sexuality, and essentialism.15 Queerbaiting has then been considered too limited in its scope, since it appears only to look for potential traditional representations of same-sex couples. That is, “queer” is here used to describe an identity rather than the more theoretical use of the word strongly connected to anti-essentialism.16 This usage excludes other things that queer can entail, such as trans, nonbinary, alternative gender expressions, etc. Some of these more queer (if it can be conjugated) practices are mentioned by Collier as queer themes in fan fictions but are seldom referred to in discussions on queerbaiting in fan forums. Even if queerbaiting seems to be limited in its use of the word “queer,” that is not to say that there are not fans who are making more use of its potential. As has already been made evident, queerbaiting as a term and as a practice is very much debated.
A Heterogeneous Audience Queerbaiting, HoYay, and Accountability
During my time researching fan discussions of queerbaiting in fan forums, the diversity in definitions was clear. Fans make lists of typical queerbaiting story arcs, behaviors, and responses from producers, often referring to versions of Fathallah’s definition of hinted but never realized queer content.17 There are discussions about the differences between subtext, queerbaiting, heterosexism, and poor representation. A small part of the debate regards whether these characters, if confirmed as queer, would even be desirable as queer representation. For example, some would prefer that an evil character stays unconfirmed rather than fulfill an evil queer stereotype. It is about not only representation but also what that representation looks like. This is similar to discussions within slash scholarship, with some fans criticizing other fans for not doing queer identities justice.18
What most of the definitions have in common is that they are considering the assumed intention of the producers and holding them accountable for the queerbaiting content. This led to confusion among a few of my fellow scholars at Stockholm University when I presented my thesis in 2015. Queerbaiting, such as I described it, could not exist because meaning and interpretation was something taking place between reader and text, and not something being conveyed by the author through the text to the reader. These scholars referred to the poststructural idea of “the death of the author,” meaning that the author and the author’s intended meaning does not matter, only the relationship between the text and the reader.19 The author was dead, but fans had now revived the author, an author they held responsible for intentionally hinting at and alluding to queerness without ever delivering on this promise.
Many scholars stress the audience’s power over the text. For example, Roxanne Samer and William Whittington refer to Doty, saying “queer readings aren’t ‘alternative’ readings,” but also point out that academics need to question “why we get the representations we do.”20 In Spreadable Media, Henry Jenkins et al. analyze how fans collaborate to create pleasurable meanings for themselves and like-minded fans.21 Queering could in these cases be a strategy to make TV shows more interesting. This enhancement of value can be conducted independently of producers, but the TV show still provides the raw material that is being interpreted to the audience’s satisfaction. This is closely related to another fan-coined term, HoYay.
HoYay (short for “Homoeroticism, Yay!”) was coined in 2001 to describe homoerotic tension between ostensibly straight characters in TV shows such as Angel (1999–2004) and Smallville (2001–2011). Allison McCracken mentions HoYay in passing while discussing the queer potential in Angel,22 while Melanie E. S. Kohnen explores the HoYay fan forum discussion on Smallville.23 HoYay can then be considered an older term in fan forum discussions than queerbaiting and closer related to queer reading. Kohnen refers to Doty and how the queer moments of HoYay arise within the relationship between viewers and text. According to Brennan, hints that some fans call queerbaiting can be considered to be the same as providing more material for a queer viewing, contributing to a positive HoYay experience.24 HoYay is here much more closely related to Fiske’s pleasurable readings than to the queerbaiting discussion’s concern with representation politics.
However, Kohnen warns not to take the positive tone of HoYay at face value. She explains how some fans in the HoYay discussion forums criticized producers for being inconsistent. The fans pointed out how long looks and lingering touches did not get the same recognition or conclusion when they occurred between two characters of the same gender as they did when they occurred between a male and a female character.25 As a result, within the celebratory spirit of HoYay, there are still voices of criticism for the way that the producers do not live up to their hints, which are not unlike the fans accusing producers of queerbaiting. This could be considered an early accusation of queerbaiting, though the fans were not using that word. (Of course, it is hard to accuse someone of queerbaiting before you have the terminology for it, and it is still common for fans, journalists, and scholars who do use the term to start by defining it, to let readers retroactively identify cases of queerbaiting.)26
There have been discussions in the academic world and in fan forums about who can make a queer reading and whom queerbaiting is targeting: Is it only a queer audience, or is it anyone interested in queer content? Several people writing about queerbaiting say that it is done with the intention to target a queer audience.27 That said, it is obvious that some of the fans who accuse shows of queerbaiting identify as heterosexual. Traditionally, there is a strong sense of identity politics ...

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