Television is “telling more LGBTQ stories than ever,” as noted by GLAAD in its “Where We Are On TV Report 2018,” issued in October.
While this is technically accurate, the question becomes: What stories are being told and are they stories that elevate the queer community, or just stories that drop in LGBTQ characters to meet some unstated diversity quota and lure gay viewers?
In recent weeks, there have been numerous complaints on social media about “Riverdale,” the CW’s drama derived from the old Archie comics series. That issue is the queerbaiting of viewers with promos suggesting sexcapades between Archie and Joaquin with a steamy kiss.
Joaquin is gay. Archie is not. But those promos! For regular viewers, questions — and eyebrows — were raised. Was Archie bi and just coming out? Had he been in the closet all this time (“Riverdale” is in its third season) and had Joaquin’s kiss finally drawn him out?
Not only did the episode itself reveal that Archie is still straight, but also the kiss was non-consensual, with Joaquin forcing himself on Archie.
What a way to use your queer characters and abuse your queer viewers.
“Riverdale” is just the most recent offender, but it’s more unnecessary than in other series because the show has five queer characters. Five. Three gay men, a lesbian and a bisexual woman.
Plus, “Riverdale” has done this before, in the first season with Betty and Veronica, who also aren’t gay. Yes, everyone likes to see girls kissing. No, series don’t need to play to straight male audiences by having the straight girls play-lesbian kissing. Katy Perry, sit down.
Where are the lesbian storylines on “Riverdale” for characters Cheryl Blossom and Toni Topaz? They are both in the main cast. Why not focus on their lesbian life together instead of queerbaiting with Betty and Veronica, straight characters who, like Archie, have only ever been and will ever be straight?
More concerning is “Riverdale” having a gay character sexually assault a straight one, as Joaquin does with Archie, just to reel in viewers. This just reinforces negative stereotypes of gays as hypersexual beings who put their own desires above all else.
The temptation to queerbait is high, particularly among series with high sexual drama among the characters, which “Riverdale” has, and that are seeking out that all-important 18-30 demographic — which includes many LGBTQ people. But it’s a form of casual homophobia to put your central straight character in a non-consensual kiss with your second-tier gay character, rather than put that gay character in his own gay storyline.
This is why the GLAAD report doesn’t tell the whole story. There may be five LGBTQ characters on “Riverdale,” but are there five LGBTQ storylines? There most definitely are not.
“You,” the hot new psychological thriller on Lifetime which Stephen King has touted as spectacular, also used queerbaiting in its promos, repeatedly showing the central character of Beck in a clinch with her bestie, Peach. But viewers waiting for Beck to have an affair with Peach were disappointed. Although Peach was in love with Beck, no relationship beyond their friendship ever developed between them. That promo was an imagined scene, not one that ever transpired between the two women, despite every effort from Peach.
Lifetime was also using Peach – played by Shay Mitchell, who had previously starred as the lesbian character of Emily on “Pretty Little Liars” — for their queerbaiting. This was even more of a lure for viewers yearning to see Mitchell in another series. That promo kept coming with additional tidbits. Beck’s boyfriend Joe found dozens of photos on Peach’s computer of Beck nearly naked and asleep, among other stalkery images. Trailers kept giving us flashes of Peach and Beck kissing and those half-naked photos. Yet the context of the trailers versus and what actually happened on the show were vastly different.
So while Peach was a lesbian character counted among GLAAD’s statistics, she had no actual queer storyline.
Two more lesbian characters surfaced on TV just in the past couple of weeks, on ABC’s controversial sit-com “The Conners,” previously “Roseanne.”
The queerbaiting storyline had Becky (Lecy Goranson) offering her unborn baby to a lesbian couple, after she decided she was too poor and too strung-out to raise the child herself.
Bridgette (Ali Liebegott) and Maria (Gina Brillon) were old friends of Becky’s from school.
In a two-episode arc, Becky meets with them and they agree to an open adoption. But Becky changes her mind after a long talk with her sister, Darlene (Sara Gilbert), who says the family will find a way to help her raise her child.
In the episode’s final minutes, Becky delivers the news to Bridgette and Maria that she’s not giving them her baby. It’s a brisk conversation in which Becky seems oblivious to the anger on Bridgette’s face and the stunned hurt on Maria’s. Yet the show plays that scene for laughs, setting it in the restaurant where Becky is a waitress. She tells them they won’t get her baby at their table, then jumps up saying, “Don’t forget to tip!” to the sounds of the laugh track.
This gutting moment for two lesbians becomes a punch line. Neither Bridgette nor Maria is given a line to say – not of sorrow, outrage nor rebuke. They just sit there, riven, while the credits roll and gay viewers are left to wonder why they had invested in this couple that has now been dispensed with.
In the season finale of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” something even more egregious occurs. The episode opens with the murder of a young, Asian trans woman. But from the outset, the character is misgendered. Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) says of the young woman who we’ve seen give a reading at a bookstore from a book about being a sex worker, “He isn’t a she,” making a reference to genitalia, rather than presentation as female.
Olivia, the best-known detective on TV, knows better and so does “SVU,” which had done a myriad of trans stories over 20 years.
These misgendering references continue back at the station, where other detectives continue to refer to the character, who goes by the name Tammy but has been hired to play Bobby O’Rourke, a queer sex worker who has written a provocative memoir, “Blue Baracuda,” as “he.”
The murder is solved in the first 10 minutes of the show and is actually just the conduit for a larger story about the real author of the book, who is not Tammy, and that man’s experience of pedophile sexual abuse. The remainder of the episode is quite powerful and stars two powerhouse actors, Wallace Shawn and Judd Hirsch.
But the series — the longest running prime-time drama on TV— faced immediate backlash on social media for this casual transphobia, for which the producers apologized.
Yet why murder a young trans woman to get to that larger story? The murders of trans women of color who are sex workers are brutally common and they are their own story. The killer, a married suburban dad, commits the murder when he discovers that the person he knew as Tammy was assigned male at birth. “I’m not gay!” the killer screams at the detectives.
Using the murder of a young, Asian trans woman as a sensational lead-in to a very different story for the season finale – and then misgendering her and muddling the story with trans erasure — is indicative of the problem of queerbaiting.
Are these the storylines we’re searching for as we expand LGBTQ representation on TV, or are they just the same tropes that have kept LGBTQ characters stereotyped and static?
Queerbaiting takes different forms on TV, all of them harmful. What viewers still want, and must keep demanding, are fully formed characters that aren’t queer tokens in a straight landscape.