Queerbaiting and Fan Futures

If I’ll remember 2016 for anything, it will be the year of the queerbait. This year I’ve seen a rise in subtle homoeroticisim in games and other media that leave it up to the player to connect the dots for a queer subtext. Queerbaiting is usually used as a critical/pejorative term, where it is clear that the creators signal the possibility of characters being queer but never fully close the deal. We’ll see characters flirt, make dirty jokes, or even intimately touch each other, but no relationship or sex will emerge to ground the characters as definitively queer.

This year in anime brought us Tanaka-kun is Always Listless and Yuri!!! on Ice, which skirt the border on queerbaiting and being outright gay. In Tanaka-kun we have two friends bonding over the main character’s unnatural amount of lethargy to the point where the title character often implies he wants them to spend the rest of their lives together because he wants someone to take care of him. It is clear that they have been good friends for a while and nothing overtly romantic ever happens, but Tanaka consistently implies he and Ohta should get married or at the very least live together forever. As the show develops we see more of their relationship and there is a stronger display of a heterosexual love interest, if Tanaka has the energy to be interested in anyone romantically, we see some story pressure for our main characters to conform to traditional roles but the show ends without much resolution as to whether they get together or even actually have any romantic interest. Yuri!!! On Ice is more explicit yet still ambiguous. The title character admires a world champion ice skater (Victor) who decides to coach him to win the last circuit of his career. Victor is constantly revealing himself in front of Yuri, flirting with him, touching his face, proposing to be his boyfriend, yet it somehow is still unclear whether either of them are sexually attracted to one another. It’s also unclear if Yuri has a crush on Victor or if it’s just professional admiration, especially with the introduction of a girl from the past seemingly being an old flame.

Long before 2016 have fans read queerness into their media whenever the opportunity presents itself, no matter how vague or twisted the logic has to be. I’ve always been fascinated by this function of fandom to populate this alternate universe of queer stories since so few exist in canon material. Over time, creators, particularly of works aimed at women, began to respond to these tendencies by including queer subtexts between characters that generated more fanfiction and art, but rarely if ever confirm that characters were actually queer in any way canonically. This became known as queerbaiting and it holds a precarious role in media and fan cultures. In an time where diversity and representation are increasingly prominent values, queerbaiting appears to be a cake-eating tactic by creators that want to appear progressive but won’t commit to outwardly queer characters. Many queer people wish to see themselves represented in media following a Harvey Milk-like model of being out and to imagine future landscapes where everyone can be themselves and love whomever they love. Queerbaiting in this light is insufficient for queer people to see themselves, and is a discouraged practice.

I’ve come around to want to at least partially defend queerbaiting. I definitely believe there should be more out and open queer representation just for more diverse characters and stories, but I also like how queerbaiting resists tokenization and exploitation in the way of primarily straight creators attempting to canonize queerness they find respectable. A large part of queerness is always being on the outside, or non-normative, pushed into secret spaces and hidden communities.  At least, this is the queerness I resonate the most with. In a way, fully representing queerness is more a fantasy-fulfillment than it is actual representation; it is only recently that there are a sizable amount of queer people who are able to live fully out lives in relative safety and have a more typical high school and college romance life. Being trans I still don’t know whether someone would be cool with me flirting with them or if they are flirting with me whether or not they know I’m not cisgender. Queerness to me has always been subtle, tense, a guessing game. Though it is unintentional, queerbaiting best ‘represents’ queerness to me, because it doesn’t exist without an oppressive normative force constantly on the lookout for deviation.

Would it be nice to see a game where a trans woman is perceived as normal and gets to date all the cuties without having to worry about a potentially violent backlash? Sure, but that is definitely wish-fulfillment, not representing me or my life in any real way. I have to say that I am also generally skeptical of asking non-queer creators to make queer characters, and that we have to wait for queer artists to rise the ranks of popular media in order to have proper representation. I think this is actually a critical opportunity for fan communities, to further reimagine the canon with a queer lens to better understand the complexities of queerness that mainstream media won’t touch. There’s something beautiful about creators using a show to mostly create subtext for fans to run off with and make their own works. In a way, that’s the most ideal form of art, something that motivates underserved people to create their own worlds, their own futures, with the body parts of the old hegemony.

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