Queerbaiting – LGBT+ Characters in Media (Part 2)

Apr 29, 2016

Written by: Lewis Rees

(Click here for Part 1)

There exists a term called “Queerbaiting”– that is, constant subtext and unresolved sexual tension between two characters of the same sex, without the eventual payoff. You’ve seen it a thousand times, even if you don’t know it; Emma and Regina from Once Upon a Time, Derek and Stiles in Teen Wolf, Dean and Castiel from Supernatural. We’re given two complex characters with just enough unresolved sexual tension to put the wind in our sails, only for our ships to sink when one- or both- asserts their heterosexuality. It’s all well and good for Mischa Barton and Jensen Ackles to have sexual tension- they’re both sexy, typically handsome guys who work well together- but the media does more than sell stories- it sells fantasies.

The thing is, many actors are reluctant to come out of the closet, and only do so once their careers have already been established. Many actors are cagey about their private lives, especially when portraying homosexual characters. Justin Bieber’s career is built on his good looks and the fact that many girls can imagine he’s singing to them- would the same hold true if they knew he, for example, was gay?

These girls would be crying for another reason.

These girls would be crying for another reason.

It’s a sad double standard that LGBT+ romances are held to a different standard than heterosexual ones; a same-sex kiss is rare before the watershed, and enough to instantly upgrade a film’s rating, while the “film” Breaking Dawn: Part One had a sex scene with actual thrusting and remained a 12 (The British equivalent of PG-13). As such, many of the powers-that-be prefer to avoid the topic altogether; queerbaiting lets the creators have their cake and eat it too. It lets them taunt us with the idea that two people will get together to court the LGBT+ crowd, while keeping the censors and advertisers happy by not going crazy with it.

Perhaps one of the most enraging examples of queerbaiting is the relationship between Sasuke and Naruto, of Naruto. Although rivals, they’re also best friends. They kiss in the third episode and, although it was an accident- it’s repeatedly shown among their best memories. They make it clear, time and time again, that there’s nobody that each cares for more than the other, each is willing to sacrifice their dreams- and even lives- for the other, and near seven hundred chapters develops their bond to the point where it’s barely subtext.

However, the fallout among the fandom at the ending- where each is married, Sasuke to a woman he made clear not ten chapters previously that he had never loved, Naruto to a girl who had a crush on him for the entire series but never explicitly reciprocated.

I could forgive this. I could dismiss it as wishful thinking- after all, the best we so-called SNS shippers could conceivably hope for was an open ending with no canonical relationships. What elevates it to queerbaiting, though, is the fact that the creator said “In the past, parting from Naruto had been as painful as ripping off half of his own body.” In reference to Sasuke. That a mock Q and A with Sasuke went like this.

Q. Naruto-kun sees you as a rival but what about you?
A. Naruto eh…? At first I thought he was just a moron who gets in the way but frankly he’s been impressing me lately, just a little bit.
Q. What did the kiss with Naruto taste like? Lemon?
A. Hmmm … Like Miso I guess …I mean… like I remember! Damn Naruto, why would he do that?!

There was supplemental material hinting at a romance between the two of them, in addition to a vast amount of canon hints.

Recently, the voice-actors of Sasuke and Naruto collaborated on a drama CD- an audio novel, of sorts. The story is (as far as I can tell) based on a SasuNaru fanfiction and, while it doesn’t feature Sasuke and Naruto, and hasn’t been officially sanctioned by the creators of Naruto, the unique aspect of Sasuke and Naruto’s characters (In loose terms the two are reincarnated throughout history on opposite sides of a conflict until they reach a lifetime where their love for each other is strong enough to lead to a reconciliation) leaves open the possibility that the characters- Aki and Haru, who bear more than a passing resemblance to Sasuke and Naruto, respectively- being the reincarnations of the characters. This, along with the fact that the CD was released on March 7th (Observed within the fandom as SasuNaruSasu day) has led to many people within the fandom accepting it as part of the canon; a happy ending we never got to a relationship we grew to root for and, tragically, a better ending than most shippers in similar situations ever get.

Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki Naruto, seen here being totally, 100% heterosexual.

Uchiha Sasuke and Uzumaki Naruto, seen here being totally, 100% heterosexual.

Of course, queerbaiting is a tricky thing in that everyone from homophobes to people who ship other couples together will insist that we’re reading too much into it. Too often people will completely ignore the subtext between two characters in the name of justifying their own ship; queer coupling- especially among leads- is a long shot, after all, and it’s so much easier to pass a relationship of any specific depth off as friendship than it is to admit that your ship has competition.

It’s 2016; how about some diversity? Why does a show need to be described as “brave” or “daring” or “edgy” for having LGBT+ characters, and then be accused of shoving it down straight/cis people’s throats?

This is Part 2 (of 3) of an essay sent to us by Lewis Rees. Check back next week for Part 3! Let Lewis know what you think on Twitter @LewisBrite!