'Killing Eve', 'Dead to Me', and The Confusing State of 'Queerbaiting' on TV

Jill Gutowitz
Photo credit: BBC America

From Cosmopolitan

As a woman who identifies as both Severely Online and a Lesbian Twitter Overlord, I feel like I witness weekly debates about “queerbaiting” on social media. Usually, the conversation is surrounding mainstream pop stars: Taylor Swift’s new music video “You Need to Calm Down” is currently being argued over by queer Swifties feeling some type of way about the singer’s aggressive ally-ship. Some feel like the singer, who took a suspicious amount of time to denounce her neo-Nazi fanbase, is just now turning to her LGBTQ+ followers for political points.

For those who don’t know, queerbaiting is defined by TV Tropes as an "attempt to lure an LGBT fan base with either false hints of representation or stereotyped, non-essential LGBT characters.” It happens IRL too. The same-sex kiss in Ariana Grande’s “Breakup with your girlfriend...I’m bored” music video was also dubbed as queerbaiting. Steamy make-outs aside, fans felt exploited by Grande, who publicly identifies as straight, for views.

Luckily, the queerbaiting debate on TV has died down considerably since the days of Rachel's girl-on-girl Friends kiss, but thanks to a few particularly buzzy shows with two female leads that blur the lines between friendship and something more, the debate has come back to life in full force.

Twitter has been in its feelings lately about Netflix’s new housewife murder drama Dead to Me, which many LGBTQ+ viewers felt had queer undertones, despite the two main characters identifying as hetero (for now). The same exact thing happened with Killing Eve's second season when fans started accusing the show of baiting its LGBTQ+ audiences, despite it being critically praised for centering queer women in the past.

But here’s the thing: The promotional images for season two positioned the two lead actresses (Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer) as a couple, and the show hit heavily on a shared romantic interest between them-yet, in a recent interview, Sandra Oh insisted there was nothing romantic happening between their characters. Nothing?

When Sandra Oh told Gay Times that there was zero romantic interest brewing between her titular character on Killing Eve and Villanelle (Jodie Comer), fans felt completely gaslighted. In the series, wild assassin Villanelle calls Eve her “girlfriend.” While listening to Villanelle through a wire, Eve had sex with a coworker while listening to the assassin masturbate. Villanelle repeatedly expressed jealousy over Eve’s husband, creepily watching them through a window as they hook up, and she stews. That’s not subtext-it’s text.

In the case of Dead to Me, many queer fans expressed frustration over a photo shoot with Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini that (according to the stans) perpetuates the sensual vibes between the Jen and Judy in the show.

Except in this case, the creator, Liz Feldman, is an out lesbian. She told Playboy, “I’m a gay woman, and I wrote it, and it’s inspired by my relationships,” adding, “Everything I do is queer because it's part of my DNA, and I'm part of the DNA of the show.” So, here’s where it gets murky or more nuanced: I understand the emotional impulse to feel betrayed, because I’ve been there-I’m there with Killing Eve-but if a queer creator made a piece of art that reflects her life and story and didn’t have any malicious intent to exploit fans, then I wouldn’t call that queerbaiting. Either way, who’s behind the camera matters.

My opinions on the subject are tangled at best, having personally felt the ramifications of queerbaiting on TV. I didn’t even know I was gay until I was 23. I lost a decade of my life thinking I needed to be straight, because I didn’t have any visible examples of queer people in my life-not in the shows or movies or music I consumed and not in real life-I didn’t know queerness was an option.

The original queerbaiting controversy sparked in the late aughts and 2010s, when shows like Rizzoli & Isles and Supernatural were accused of hinting at a same-sex relationships between their lead characters-enough to string us along-but remaining purposefully vague. The writers and cast of Rizzoli & Isles have even admitted to playing it up for their lesbian fans without actually intending to include a queer storyline on the show.

In the past couple decades, shows that featured queer protagonists came few and far between-like Ellen in the 90s, The L Word in the 2000s, Glee in the late aughts, or Orange Is the New Black a few years later. These shows speckled the TV landscape but were mostly stand-alone acts, gay buoys in a heterosexual sea. Queer fans weren’t just hungry for more relatable content-they were starved, nearly invisible onscreen.

Media invisibility has real, harmful repercussions. To be blunt, if I had seen Piper and Alex fingerbang on Orange Is the New Black when I was 15, maybe I could’ve lived a normal teenage life, experienced first loves, hormonal crushes, sexual awakenings. Instead, I repressed it. I felt alone, like there was something wrong with me. I had no one to talk to about it and was lodged in a pop-culture landscape that echoed that sentiment: You are different. Your story is off-putting. And until the last few years, there wasn’t much evidence to prove those sentiments wrong. In 2015, when I was just grappling with coming out, my favorite show was The 100, which depicted a lesbian romance between two lead characters, Clarke (Eliza Taylor) and Lexa (Alicia Debnam-Carey)-until Lexa was brutally and abruptly killed off the moment after she and Clarke finally got together. Years later, fans still won’t let that go (as they shouldn’t!!)

But a lot has changed since then, and according to GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV’s report (which tracks queer stories and characters on television every year), there are more LGBTQ+ characters on TV than ever before. These days, queerness is significantly more normalized, both onscreen and IRL.

Right now, there are numerous positive and realistic portrayals of queer people and their relationships on TV. There’s Gentleman Jack (basically lesbian period drama porn), The Bold Type (a rom-com TV dream that features a queer protagonist and her romantic and professional endeavors), and Vida, which may include the “best queer sex scenes on television.” There are even shows that are about specific queer movements, like Netflix’s Tales of the City, which follows the LGBTQ+ scene in the hub of San Francisco, or FX’s Pose, based on ball culture in the '80s. These shows don’t just make me feel included, they make me feel important, like my story matters-even if my story is just dyke drama set to a Little Mix song (shout-out The Bold Type, we stan forever).

Photo credit: Giphy

All that said, as TV progresses and LGBTQ+ stories are pushed to the forefront, our conversations on queerbaiting in today’s pop culture landscape must evolve too. It’s not as simple as Supernatural making googly eyes between demon hunter Dean (Jensen Ackles) and his guardian angel Castiel (Misha Collins) for ten seasons with no follow-through-especially now that queer stories are taking over.

Queerbaiting hasn't been "solved," but things are certainly looking up for LGBTQ+ fans...finally. Currently, there aren’t many simple, inarguable examples of queerbaiting on TV, which is-as a queer TV fan who endured years of disservice-almost unfathomable. Even Killing Eve, as frustrating as the show can be, shouldn’t act as fan service by making Eve and Villanelle fall hopelessly and endlessly in love-Villanelle is a ruthless killer, after all. They just need to watch how they market themselves and stay true to the characters. Still, nothing will stop me from shipping Villaneve, sorry not sorry.

('You Might Also Like',)