If you were to look up a definition of the term “queer-baiting” online, you would get a seemingly straight-forward answer. “Queer-baiting”, according to most online dictionaries, refers to the incorporation of non-heterosexual characters or relationships in media and entertainment industries without the clarity of these relationships ever being established. Therefore, queer-baiting utilizes homosexual relationships, not to provide much needed LGBT representation on screen, but instead to use the very idea of LGBT representation as a marketing strategy to increase the popularity of a product.
To further explore this concept, I would like to analyze a relationship found within a 2014 Captain America film that is commonly cited as an instance of “queer-baiting”. Within “Captain America: the Winter Soldier”, the story of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes is at the heart of the film. The two best friends meet in the future, finally reunited after being separated during the battles of World War II. Yet, as a result of significant trauma, Bucky does not remember his past– leading Steve to vow to save his best friend and re-establish their close bond. As a result of this story’s focus, this relationship between the two men has caught the attention of many fans online. Some have claimed there is a distinct romantic undertone to this relationship that is insinuated throughout the film, a romantic subplot that even the actors themselves have alluded to during press tours. Yet, the film does nothing to actually explore this romance- and executive producers have yet to admit their intentions behind these insinuations.
This relationship is interesting for many reasons; the primary reason I wish to discuss involves a more recent adaptation of the same storyline from the original 2014 film. Within the animated series “What If”, stories from Marvel are reimagined using different characters in similar situations and plotlines. Within season 2 episode 5, the story of the Winter Soldier is reimagined. This time, instead of the story following the love of two men, it follows the relationship between Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter. Peggy, acting as the new Captain America, undergoes a mission to restore Steve’s memories and reunite with the man she loves. Further, as this story is now between a man and a woman, the romantic aspect of the relationship is allowed to be at the forefront of the episode. This is important because, other than the change in characters, there were no other storyline changes made to this “What If” scenario. This insinuates one of two things: one, the relationship between Steve and Bucky was in fact romantic. Perhaps the executives at the time simply did not want to make a homosexual relationship explicit in 2014. Or, the second option, the executives did want to make their queer relationship explicit, but weren’t able to for some reason– leading to allusions of romance instead of explicit romantic tensions.
In either case, the Marvel executives used the same story, the same premise of heartbreak, reunion, and love, to capitalize on young audiences hoping to see representation within their favorite comic book franchise. The fact that Marvel had created this “What If” scenario with a man and woman, allowing this love to be explicitly romantic, while actively denying the same love between two men is almost heartbreaking in my opinion. Instead of Steve fighting to be with his best friend “til the end of the line”, now in 2023 Captain Carter is able to explicitly say she is fighting for “the man she loved”. Despite the breakthroughs we have made since 2014 in terms of LGBT representation on screen, I keep returning to this story when I think about the concept of “queer-baiting”. Either way I look at this example, Marvel was not comfortable with an explicit homosexual relationship, but was more than happy to create the same story again with a man and a woman to make that relationship explicitly romantic.
The motivations behind establishing such a relationship have to do with profit- at the end of the day, Marvel is a business. In order to have a successful business, they cater to their “target audience”. For a comic book franchise with this level of popularity, they have to appeal more to the fans that have been reading the source material for years. While I think it’s the newer fans hoping to see queer representation on the movie screen that led to the franchise’s popularity, it makes sense for the corporation to stick more closely to the source material these movies are based on in order to avoid disappointing long term comic book fans. Even so, this source material was created decades ago- and shouldn’t be a reason to deny fans of the movies from speculating on a relationship that was made inherently more romantic with the movie’s writing.
Now, you might be wondering, why did she just go on an obnoxiously long rant about the refusal of Marvel executives to acknowledge the romance- or rather, potential romance- between two men? Well, maybe I have some repressed anger from 2014 that I wanted to express somewhere. Or maybe, the example of Steve and Bucky allows us to analyze how “queer-baiting” was supposed to be used. This instance of queer-baiting, while personally interesting, is ultimately up for debate. Film and works of art are up to interpretation; after all, its fiction. Some might see the 2014 film as a story of two close friends with no romantic tension, and/or claim that the animated adaptation in 2023 was meant to be taken as an entirely new story. But that’s sort of the point: the term was meant to call out the potential use of LGBT representation and queer relationships solely for gaining popularity without actually providing any representation. It was meant to call into question the intentions of the media and marketing strategies in regards to promises of queer representation. It was not intended to pressure real people to clarify their sexual identities or reaffirm stereotypes that “prove” someone is valid under a certain label.
That leads me to the main argument of this paper. Despite the term “queer-baiting” originating as a way for young fans to urge change or to urge more explicit representation of their community, the term has become co-opted online. Now, the term has been extended to include real life celebrities and couples within the public eye.
For instance, after the success of the show “Heartstopper” in 2022, actor Kit Connor received scrutiny from fans who assumed the actor had taken away an opportunity from queer actors. In the show, Kit Connor plays Nick- a high school jock who is coming to terms with his own bisexuality. Before the show's release, Connor had never made his own sexuality clear online- leading to this wave of criticism from fans who assumed this actor was “queer-baiting”. However, after a long social media hiatus, Kit Connor addressed these accusations saying “Back for a minute. I’m bi. Congrats for forcing an 18 year old to out himself. I think some of you missed the point of the show. Bye”. As a result of intense scrutiny for accepting a queer role, this actor was essentially forced to come out in order to “save” his career. This is especially tragic, as the show “Heartstopper” is all about accepting everyone and their sexuality, regardless of where they are in terms of finding their own voices in the community.
In effect, the term “queer-baiting” has become more isolating than the very thing it sought to change. Now, the term is being used to criticize celebrities for acting a certain way, for not acting a certain way, for not making an official statement on their sexuality, for being too open with their relationships, and more. There are many more examples of this in recent pop culture, including but not limited to: Dan & Phil, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, and Billie Eilish. It seems as though no one in the public perception can win.
While some might view this co-optation as nothing more than “cancel culture” or an inconvenience at best, the reality is much more serious. The fact of this co-optation is that now people are in danger. People are being pressured into coming out, into clarifying their identities when this shouldn’t be the case. Do not get me wrong, I still believe that the profiting off of the LGBT community, especially without having any experience within it or providing any representation for it, is wrong. There is not a valid reason to exploit the plight or experiences of the queer community for personal gain, notably within works of fiction such as films or television shows. Yet, I do not believe that this is exactly transferable to real life situations.
As a bisexual woman, the idea of constantly having to make an official statement or forcing myself to act a certain way that “proves” my identity sounds exhausting, and almost impossible. I don't think that there should be this intense pressure for people within the public eye to clarify their own identity, and this is for many reasons. First, identity is fluid and is subject to a lot of change. Second, not everyone knows their identity yet, or is quite sure of what label is most comfortable for them. However, the most important reason to highlight is that not everyone has the privilege to come out safely. Even within celebrity circles, even with certain types of privilege, not everyone has the luxury of being open and proud of a queer identity. So, the thought of being constantly scrutinized for not being explicit enough about sexual identity is extremely harmful in my opinion.
Not only does this intense online scrutiny have the potential to cause danger to those still figuring out their identity, I think it's also important to acknowledge more explicitly the very hypocritical nature of using this term to exclude individuals from a community that is usually promoting acceptance. By ostracizing or accusing someone of “queer-baiting”, simply for not making an official “coming out” statement or for acting a certain way, the term is only doing what it originally was fighting against. Instead of fighting for inclusivity and representation, the term has now become a vehicle for exclusion.
Finally, I want to emphasize that everyone should be welcome in our community. Whether you know exactly which label you identity with, if you are still questioning, if you identity one way then change your mind later, it’s all welcome here. We should be focusing more on inclusivity, not pushing people away simply because they don’t have all the “right” answers yet. We as a community should not become so involved with other people’s sexuality as a form of validity. Instead of focusing so much on what real people are doing, we should be fighting for more authentic representation in our favorite media genres. These two areas of life should not be treated as the same; real people are not the same as fictional characters and we need to stop treating them as such. Consequently, I hope this exploration into queer baiting has inspired some conversation about the representation of queer relationships in media, as well as its contrast to the real life situations of celebrities.