Why Queerbaiting in Marketing and Media is Harmful and How You Can Help Stop It

It's a classic bait-and-switch marketing technique.

For the last few seasons of your favorite TV show, it seems like two of the lead female characters are bound to fall in love. They constantly swap flirtatious quips and share meaningful glances. The social media team even devises a hashtag of a portmanteau of the characters' names (also known as a "ship name") to promote their TV show. So, you anxiously wait for the relationship to happen. And then you wait some more. And some more. Eventually, the TV show arrives at its series finale, and… nothing.

What you thought would turn into a romantic relationship between two women turned out to be another platonic relationship between two straight friends. In other words, it's a classic example of queerbaiting.

So, why do creators capitalize on the emotions of LGBTQ+ people to promote their content? Here's what you should know about queerbaiting, and why the bait-and-switch tactic is harmful.

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Getty Images / AdobeStock / Jo Imperio

What Is Queerbaiting?

Queerbaiting is a marketing tactic that nods at queerness but never actually delivers queerness, Ricky Hill, PhD, a research assistant professor at the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told Health.

Most notably, the practice happens in TV shows. But queerbaiting also happens in movies, music, books, and any other form of media. Through plots, characters, imagery, lyrics, social media posts, and interview answers, a director, author, writer, or producer will draw in LGBTQ+ people with the promise that there's going to be positive queer representation (the bait), but then they never fulfill that representation (the switch).

"So the viewers—especially queer people—are drawn in with the hope of seeing possibilities of themselves reflected back to them on the screen or hearing that in the music and are always left sort of waiting for it to actually happen," Kim Hackford-Peer, PhD, the associate chair and an associate professor in the Division of Gender Studies at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, told Health.

However, it is important to note that queerbaiting is not synonymous with imperfect representation.

"If there's a very poor representation of a queer character, people are like, 'We were queerbaited.' No, there's an actual queer person there. Unfortunately, it's not good [representation]," Raina Deerwater, entertainment research and analysis manager for the GLAAD Media Institute, told Health.

While queerbaiting is most commonly thought of as a media and entertainment tactic, Dr. Hackford-Peer explained that the practice may be evident in other spheres, as well. For example, a politician running for office may employ queerbaiting to garner support or campaign involvement. But however people use queerbaiting, there's always an unfulfilled promise of LGBTQ+ inclusivity.

History of Queerbaiting in the United States

Our current understanding of queerbaiting is quite different than what it used to be, the term evolving over time.

During the 1950s, the United States was in the midst of what became known as the Lavender Scare. Per the National Archives, the Lavender Scare defines a time when others marked queer people who worked in governmental positions as untrustworthy, which put them at risk of losing their jobs. As a result, LGBTQ+ people anxiously hid their sexualities.

To identify those who were queer, people would queerbait—or falsely pose as allies and members of the LGBTQ+ community—and pledge to provide a safe space. They harnessed that trust to turn in the names of those who came out as queer to them, explained Dr. Hackford-Peer. While the reason for queerbaiting has shifted over time, it has always been defined by empty promises and harm to the LGBTQ+ community.

Why Does Queerbaiting Happen?

Queerbaiting brings in not only the attention of the LGBTQ+ community but also that audience's money.

"It comes back to capitalism—[content creators] want the money of the queer consumers, but [they] will not represent them," said Deerwater.

Queerbaiting was especially popular during the early- to mid-2010s, according to Deerwater, a time during which the general public considered queer representation in media to be taboo.

"It was still seen as a 'risk' to include queer characters and queer couples on popular shows," explained Deerwater. "And so it was essentially these shows not portraying and not giving representation to the LGBTQ community, but teasing it so they would still get higher numbers and they would still maintain a fan base. So it's kind of like having your cake and eating it too."

However, with popular TV shows like "Sex Education," "Pose," and "Dickinson" prominently featuring queer characters, that risk seemingly no longer exists in the same way.

"We can actually have these stories—and these narratives—and these expressions be focal," said Dr. Hill.

How Does Queerbaiting Harm the LGBTQ+ Community?

Dr. Hill recalled watching the TV show "Xena: Warrior Princess" as an adolescent during the 1990s, waiting for Xena and her best friend Gabrielle to become an official couple, as the TV show consistently alluded toward. Dr. Hill discussed the experience of being queerbaited as "invalidating."

"I just kept watching that show for a very long time in the hopes of getting to see what 13-year-old me really needed to see and just never got," said Dr. Hill. "It really just pulls the rug out from underneath you."

While some people might not comprehend the importance of representing different queer relationships in the media, Dr. Hill argued that there's a lot of value in visibility. Queerbaiting can take a toll on the viewer's mental health, which is worth acknowledging.

"When we're talking about communities that maybe don't see themselves reflected back a whole lot, these relationships mean something," said Dr. Hill. "And they are not simply characters. They are possibility models. So, when you have those possibility models taken away from you, it is a loss."

That type of bait-and-switch tactic compounds mental health issues—including depression and anxiety. And according to the American Psychiatry Association, LGBTQ+ people are two times more likely to face mental health struggles than heterosexual individuals.

"To never see yourself reflected just is another form of social isolation," noted Dr. Hill. "We know that social isolation just increases depression, increases anxiety, and those have very real biological implications."

Queerbaiting can also influence and perpetuate the stigma surrounding the LGBTQ+ community, as it prevents society as a whole from seeing "LGBTQ people as just normal, everyday folks operating in a culture where they can live happy, healthy, normal lives out in the open," explained Dr. Hill.

In baiting but never fully showing queerness, media creators "imply that there's something not worthy thereof being fulfilled, that there is something not valid about these expressions and these identities," Dr. Hill continued.

Queerbaiting is another form of queer folks being "erased, dismissed, or told we don't matter in the world," recognized Dr. Hackford-Peer.

So, How Can We Stop Queerbaiting?

The onus falls on media companies and creators to cease queerbaiting in their content. Every year, GLAAD puts together its Studio Responsibility Index and Where We Are in TV reports, which are comprehensive analyses of queer representation in film and TV, respectively. In 2020, the Studio Responsibility Index found that 10 of 44 theatrically-released films included LGBTQ+ characters. For that same year, the TV report found that there were 360 LGBTQ+ characters in streaming, cable, and broadcast shows.

So, TV shows are moving faster than film when it comes to including queer representation. Deerwater expressed hope that content creators will see the success of TV shows that openly feature queer representation and start including LGBTQ+ characters and storylines.

Though it's up to the content creators to put an end to queerbaiting, audiences can also take steps to help stop the practice. First, familiarize yourself with the concept of queerbaiting, start looking out for it, and call it out when you see it. Deerwater also suggested chatting with your friends about it.

"If someone doesn't understand why queerbaiting is a problem, or why lack of representation is a problem, you can just have a nice conversation with your friend," said Deerwater.

The Bottom Line on Queerbaiting

Ultimately, it's important to be a conscious media consumer.

"Question why queer people don't play queer characters. If there are no queer characters in your favorite shows, question that. Just really be a thoughtful media consumer," said Dr. Hill. "Think about who is actually creating what it is that you are engaging with, and follow the money."

One of the best things you can do to combat queerbaiting, explained Dr. Hill, is to consume art created by LGBTQ+ people.

"For queerbaiting, the marketing ploys are going to stop working. Because when you have [artists] like Lil Nas X controlling their narratives, we don't have to rely on pandering," said Dr. Hill. "And I think that that is a really exciting move."

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