Queerbaiting: an explanation of
how a straight female almost
bought a fabulous bed

review by Christina H. Hodel

Queerbaiting and Fandom: Teasing Fans Over Homoerotic Possibilities, edited by Joseph Brennan (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2019), $50.

During an online search for the perfect bed, I was surprised and intrigued when my computer screen suddenly gleamed images of gay men advertising Walmart’s new furniture line: “The Queer Eye Collection.” In just a few clicks, cleverly worded product descriptions had me considering a Queer Eye bed for it claimed it is “fierce” and “radiates unadulterated modern class.” Just what I need. But wait, is this bed meant for straight, cis-gendered females like myself or a “gawd” or “gawdess” as the description reads? In the homophobic society in which we still live, why use “queer” as a theme to sell furniture in the first place? But also, why not? To answer these questions, I turned to the beautifully crafted and expertly researched book Queerbaiting and Fandom: Teasing Fans Over Homoerotic Possibilities, edited by Joseph Brennan. In analyzing the book, I am using an autoethnographic approach here and employ the Netflix series Queer Eye and its spinoff furniture line as a lens into queer televisual representation. Brennan’s volume is not only enlightening and educational, but entertaining and thought-provoking. The book is an important intervention in queer studies and media. It elucidates on why content creators and fans should work to continue negotiating for more authentic representations and identity politics for doing so is a pragmatic effort towards equality. Hopefully, my textual analysis allows for understanding Brennan’s manuscript to reveal that, indeed, it accomplishes its goal of assessing and expanding the very nuanced, fan-created term: queerbaiting.

The 256-page volume likens queerbaiting to “lip service” in that it is, “an avowal of advocacy, adherence, or allegiance expressed in words but not backed by deeds.” It is characterized by

“a strategy designed to capture queer followings by suggesting a queer relationship between two characters, and then empathetically denying and laughing off the possibility” (Fathalla 491). [open references in new window]

Such covert marketing wherein the creator hints of gayness—thus enticing homosexual consumers—but fails to act on any intentions, is prominent in film and television. For example, a television series suggests a character’s homosexuality via touching on camp/kitsch and coded references to gay culture, but the narrative ultimately does not explicitly address their sexuality. For example, Brennan opens with an anecdote about the television series Supernatural (2005-) in which Castiel (Misha Collins) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) appear to be more than friends. However, the storyline does not progress to reveal any form of romantic relationship. Brennan views this as taking, “the form of pledging an allegiance to issues of queer visibility without actually delivering on such an allegiance in any tangible way” (1), and he posits that these actions have dire consequences.

While enticing gay viewers with potentially gay content and not following through with it seems harmless, and well within the kind of fantasy that marketing usually offers, there are far-reaching negative implications: queerbaiting is an exploitative marketing tactic used on a marginalized group (Brennan 2). Emma Nordin, one of the contributors, explains,

“It is described as benefitting producers at the expense of actively denying full queer representation, meaning producers benefit from what is perceived as hinting and teasing, but will not allow overt queer representation” (58).

Viewers are tuning in each week anticipating the promise of queer representation, but their desires are unmet all while creators (writers, producers, directors, actors, advertisers) profit from the viewers’ passive labor. According to Samantha Knowles of TheShorthorn.com, the implication is that queer people are more useful to get views rather than being used to share stories (N.P.). When heterosexuals queerbait, they are invalidating the experiences of coming out:

“‘You affirm the heteronormative nature of media, and you make people feel foolish for thinking they could trust you’” explains Beckii Cruel (Lander-Boyce N.P.). Typical of marketing is capturing specific audience demographics. However, claiming to be an ally by appearing to present gay-themed material and not doing so is potentially problematic. “…when [creators] decide to get on board ‘a purpose’ and align with an aspect of society, they must be careful not to do it tokenistically. There has to be a reason for them to align that makes sense; otherwise, they risk alienating people as it will ring false” (Abraham N.P.).

Challenging the unethical and apolitical mode of marketing is Brennan’s impetus for the book, which spans 21 informative essays divided into three sections:

The openly gay cast members of the Netflix series Queer Eye are the cover boys for Walmart’s furniture collection. The reality program revolves around “the fab 5” as they give dramatic makeovers to dowdy—and usually straight—men in need of an upgrade in all things ranging from personal appearance to throw pillows. The marketing of the line is not overtly queerbaiting since all the designers are openly queer. Nonetheless, the references to male figure skating or removing one’s wig after a long day—typical gay men tropes—entice customers into purchasing items. It is thus unclear if the line is marketed to the queer community, heterosexuals who find being gay to be in vogue, or another demographic entirely. Prior to streaming on Netflix, Queer Eye premiered on Bravo in 2003 as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy but has since broadened its title. Rachel Charlene Lewis of BitchMedia.com says the series caters towards mostly straight, white men or even gay men, but not lesbians—especially not lesbians of color. According to Mark Gallagher, “the ‘queer eye’ is for the straight guy” and is, “a tool for his use in self-improvement” (Gallagher 225), especially in terms of aiding straight men in heterosexual relationships.

Despite the series seeming to lack a gay audience, it indeed has a gay following. Many viewers identifying as queer watch Queer Eye for comfort, acceptance, and a sense of community, even indicating the series helped them come out to friends and family, thus giving them a confidence boost (Vary & Fuchs 120). The furniture line loosely acknowledges this indicating,

“Our goal is always to help people be the best version of themselves. This line brings the same notion home, with pieces that speak to who you are and how you feel” (Walmart.com).

Regardless of whom the line is tailored to, the queer community, a marginalized group, is being recognized in Walmart’s Queer Eye Collection—but by their ability to pay, a presumed characteristic of gay men. This tactic is typical of queerbaiting (Arthurs 84). Such a pitch opens up issues of segregation and overshadows civil rights issues by the marketers’ relying on certain viewers’ financial strength or aspirations for upscale taste. According to Walmart.com, end tables average about $43 while end tables from the Queer Eye Collection average about $79. The gay domestics that Walmart may be marketing to are epitomized, for example, as

“affluent and middle class, and that his stylishness and trendiness is predicated on access to cultural capital and the ability to consume an array of products and services” (Gorman-Murray 435-436).

Queer Eye fans like “Ohemgeeskittles” on Reddit suggest the quintet probably had little agency in deciding which store carried their line, for it is likely Netflix agreed to a contract on their behalf (Ohemgeeskittles, N.P.). These are logical conclusions since Bobby Berk, the interior designer of the fab 5, is the type to defiantly exclaim, “Well, not on our watch, boys and girls,” when being marketing to for his “pink dollars” or being queerbaited. In fact, queerbaiting discourse represents a crucial moment in fan activism. The term itself is a neologism emerging from fan forums and discussion. When it occurs on sites like Reddit, what results is fan activism leading to policing media content. Fans consume media and then,

“debate and negotiate their meaning and interpretations and compare them to the assumed producers’ meaning and intentions” (Nordin 16).

Fan communities call out content if they find it teasing audiences. Queerbaiting creates, “an imbalance of power and authority that, in an effort to criticize the intentional exploitation of audience’s desire to see same-sex affection on-screen, places all control over the meaning of the text firmly in the hands and minds of ‘the powers that be [content creators]’” (McDermott 139). Such occurrences indicate fans have gone from being passive consumers to queer activists.

The introduction of Queerbaiting offers a fascinating history of queerbaiting by Brennan himself, as he describes the fan activism surrounding tricky advertising and narrative tactics. Fans calling out queerbaiting indicates their refusal to follow through on suggestions and utilizes various forms of regulating media content—here, for example, via mockery (Brennan 22). Such activism implies that the gay hints and innuendo in media are being picked up on mostly by homosexual viewers—and are unwelcome. LGBTQ representations in media have improved since the Hays Code, with broadcasters allowing for more overt representations. However, according to Elizabeth Bridges, “its punishing legacy can still be felt amid a media culture that reflects the Code’s earliest aims,” (116) hence the scriptwriters’ reliance on coded references. Queer activists fighting these couched representations argue, in response, that queerbaiting makes LGBTQ characters nearly invisible by relegating their sexuality in particular to subtext (Bridges 116). Insulting as it may be to queer communities, film and television have often used gestures, jewelry, or other covert visual or verbal cues to identify one another in a world still not tolerant of them (Robb 146, 151). Queerbaiting could be viewed as just another one of these nods.

According to Brennan and the book’s contributors, straight consumers are not supposed to notice these insinuations of gayness. Still, they do notice and interpret these cues and are either not affected by them or, if anti-gay, are angered by them (Borgerson 960, UM 465, 461). E. J. Nielsen covers this dual possibility in depth in the chapter “The Gay Elephant Meta in the Room: Sherlock and the Johnlock Conspiracy.” Heterosexual viewers of the British crime television series Sherlock (2010-2017) may see Detective Sherlock and his doctor partner, Watson, as friends or co-workers. Queers may pick up the cues seen in the script—and even the wallpaper—that indicate the duo are more than friends (Nielsen in Brennan 84), making pinpointing instances of queerbaiting a problematic task due to the flexibility of how viewers, and thus future consumers, read imagery.

While some fans insist queerbaiting is clearly in use, often producers deny engaging in such a practice and thus they anger those fans convinced of its existence. In the above instance, for example, Sherlock’s producers vehemently denied queerbaiting or that the protagonists were gay (Nielsen in Brennan, 84-85). According to Brennan in this regard, it may never be evident if a producer is intentionally queerbaiting since homosexuality regularly is associated with certain narrative elements. The western and buddy genres of film are two examples Brennan provides. In addition, movies centered on stereotypical male-centric subjects like competitive sports and war invite interpretations of homosexuality. Also, plots often have “situational homosexuality,” a term which describes “temporary and often isolated homosexual behaviors, rather than constituted identities, and long-term practices” (Brennan 6). Such occurrences may often be found in narratives relating to “prison, barracks, naval vessels, and boarding schools” (Escoffier 531).

Returning to Nielsen’s Sherlock analysis, the story is based on male-dominated law enforcement, hence providing moments for inviting interpretations of homosexuality. Across the show’s narrative trajectory, despite one episode in which John Watson claims he nor Sherlock are gay, and in which Sherlock claims he is married to his work, fans have insisted that the absence of women in most of the series is a hint toward queerness (Nielsen in Brennan 85). To complicate matters, as Monique Franklin in Chapter 2, “Queerbaiting, Queer Readings, and Heteronormative Viewing Practices” indicates, queer identity itself is fluid and permeable. Perhaps in what some consider queerbaiting, the creators, overtly or subconsciously, merely were trying to represent the “troubled binary distinctions of identity boundaries” (Franklin in Brennan 45). Actively finding examples of authentic queerbaiting presents challenges, and this is a topic which takes up a good part of the book.

In addition to the scenarios mentioned above, critics/screenwriters/directors may use a concept of naturalization, a belief that genuine homoeroticism exists in certain circumstances and is merely natural. Brennan acknowledges these various scenarios with an example from Merlin (2008-2012). The show’s producer, Johnny Capps explains how a scene of two men fighting with swords, for instance, automatically conjures phallic images and homoeroticism (6). Careful consideration should be taken before endorsing texts as reliably portraying either homosexuality or queerbaiting as these texts are polysemic and undergo substantial mediation from their creation to their reception. While certain situations may produce a good condition for a queer reading, one must not forget yet another scenario may be occurring: heterobaiting.

In my Walmart shopping expedition, as a straight woman considering putting the “sleek and bold” Queer Eye bed in my home to “upgrade [my] bedroom ‘lewk,’”— I could not help but wonder if I’m being-baited. Heterobaiting is the opposite of queerbaiting: one thinks they are viewing media featuring heterosexuals, only to be made aware the characters are homosexuals (Carcus in Brennan 60). In such instances, straight audiences tune in to what later morphs into gay content. To those unaware of the Queer Eye series or the term queer, they may not pick up on the sexuality of the collection’s designers. Walmart does not portray the men in same-sex relationships, use queer signifiers such as rainbows, or put words like “gay,” “homosexual,” “same-sex,” and “pride,” in their advertising. Again, to the uninitiated, the furniture collection may not render any hints of queerness. Should the line depict, for example, the Fab 5’s Tan France with his husband, Rob France, Walmart’s straight viewers might be surprised by the coupling.