Queerbaiting and queer coding are often used interchangeably, but they have very different effects. Here’s why the distinction matters.
Queerness has been used in a variety of ways in fiction. Lately, there is much more outright representation of queerness in Western media, particularly literature, than even a decade or two ago. But that doesn’t mean queer coding and queerbaiting are obsolete.
These are two terms that are frequently used when discussing queer media but are not always used correctly. So, let’s take a look at what queer coding and queerbaiting are and what the differences are.
The concept of queer coding is straightforward. It’s when characters aren’t explicitly stated to be gay, but there’s enough subtext for an audience to interpret them as such. Instead of being explicitly queer, they are coded as such.
Queer coding is neither positive nor negative. When authors couldn’t simply write their characters as queer because queer identities were not accepted, coded queer characters were used in media. This is evident in the work of authors such as Carson McCullers, who explores her characters and themes in many of her works, including The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
It’s one way queer authors might write queerness into their work at a time when explicit queerness might not be acceptable. Queer coding is also becoming increasingly important in media, as many people and places face stigma or worse, persecution for incorporating queerness into their work.
The popular Chinese historical fantasy show The Untamed, based on the web novel Mo Dao Zu Shi, is a great example of this. While the characters of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are explicitly queer in the web novel, these same characters are coded as queer in the TV show due to Chinese media censorship.
There are numerous other examples of how characters have been queer-coded, and the concept of what is queer-coded can shift over time. For example, many female characters written as tomboys in books and other media have been read as queer, such as Harriet from Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy.
As a result, female characters who deviate from what is expected of their gender are frequently coded as queer. Male characters who identify with more “feminine” traits, on the other hand, have been read as queer-coded.
Queer coding, on the other hand, can be used negatively. Particularly when we see patterns of how queer coding has been used to harm queer people. Disney is a well-known example of queer coding in the media.
Many of Disney’s villains have historically been coded as gay. This is evident in the way these characters are drawn, from their “feminine” characteristics which are frequently highlighted in contrast to the main characters’ appropriately “masculine” characteristics to the fact that many of these male Disney villains wear very obvious eyeshadow. Jafar from Aladdin and Scar from The Lion King are two well-known examples of queer-coded Disney villains.
So, while queer coding is not inherently bad, it can be extremely harmful when used to portray villains more than heroes in a variety of media. When using this term to critique media, it is critical to consider the history and patterns of queer coding.
Queerbaiting occurs when a piece of media hints at the presence of queerness but does not include any queer representation. It is usually done to entice audiences, particularly queer audiences, to watch a piece of media, and it is ultimately very harmful.
There are numerous examples of queerbaiting in the media, and one of the most well-known occurred in Harry Potter after the books were already published. J.K. Rowling claimed in 2007 that Dumbledore was gay and expressed surprise that no one had read into his queerness in the book, despite the fact that she had not written him as explicitly queer and had not clearly coded him as queer.
J.K. Rowling later refused to address Dumbledore’s sexuality explicitly, despite numerous opportunities to do so as the Harry Potter franchise grew. In fact, when asked about Dumbledore’s sexuality and how it would be depicted in the Fantastic Beasts film, Rowling and David Yates, one of Harry Potter’s directors, said that fans should “watch this space.” It doesn’t get much queerbaitier than that.
Another well-known example of media queerbaiting is the show Supernatural and the characters Dean and Castiel (the ship is known as Destiel). For many years, the show has increasingly focused on the relationship between these two characters, while leaving their relationship status ambiguous. Is it a platonic or queer relationship? While fans of this particular ship grew, so did interest in the relationship.
However, no clarification on their dynamic was provided. In fact, many things in the show hint at Dean and Castiel’s queerness, such as explicit flirting between the characters and numerous references and jokes.
The show’s producers have even hinted at the queerness of the characters in interviews, implying that these characters have the potential to be queer. Nonetheless, Dean’s character is never explicitly queer, and they are never explicitly in a romantic relationship.
Queerbating vs Queer Coding
Queerbaiting and queer coding are frequently confused. There is a similarity: both queerbaiting and queer coding use subtext to hint at queerness, and both can be harmful. However, queer coding has historically been used to explore sexuality when it would otherwise be prohibited.
Queer coding exists in a neutral space where it can be used positively or negatively. Queerbaiting, on the other hand, is only used to draw queer audiences into a piece of media, with no intention of exploring queerness in depth. It always has a negative outcome.
It’s critical to understand the distinctions between these terms and their historical usage, especially when we’re using them to criticize media. Because, as we’ve seen, queer coding can often be useful to queer creators who want to express queerness in their work but are unable to do so due to censorship or their own safety as queer people.
However, queerbaiting continues to deprive queer creators of space and causes significant harm to the queer community.
The more we understand the differences between these terms, the better we will be able to engage in media criticism and, hopefully, work toward making more room for queer creators and queer works that do not bait audiences.