Written by Kate McCabe


The state of LGBTQ-TV

Put the kettle on, Kate McCabe wants to talk about television. And also a cup of coffee.

Xena: Warrior Princess: just two gals having adventures together, nothing to see here, no.

Hi guys, it’s me, Kate McCabe, your lesbian pal and wacky next-door neighbour. It’s LGBT History Month, so I thought I’d pop around for a coffee and quick chat about the state of LGBTQ representation on television.

Specifically, I wanted to talk about Queerbaiting, Bury(ing) Your Gays, and Queer Coding. We in the LGBTQ community excel at labelling the tropes which seek to define us… what, you don’t have any coffee? It’s OK, I brought a bag with me.

With so much content out there nowadays, available across multiple viewing platforms, it can be hard to keep track of the recurring queer characters, let alone the trends accompanying the representation (like queerbaiting, for instance). Right now, there’s too many queer characters for a single gal to count. That’s a great problem to have. Luckily, GLAAD, an organisation which monitors LGBTQ representation in American media, has done it for us.

Overall, the state of play is very good. Out of 895 TV series regulars in 2016, GLAAD counted 43 identifying as LGBTQ. While 43/895 might not seem like much, at nearly 5 per cent, it’s more queer characters than we’ve ever had before. Where’s your coffee pot? You don’t have one? No problem, I have this cafetière in my backpack.

Even more good news, bisexual and trans representation is way up. This is excellent because these are the marginalised segments of an already marginalised community. Where do you keep your mugs?

Xena: Warrior Princess seemed to find its queer cult following almost by accident. Who could have guessed that a leggy sword-wielding badass in a leather skirt would have caught the attention of lesbians?”

It’s not all rainbows and cupcakes in the world of gay TV, however. In a statistic that was personally disappointing, lesbian representation, specifically, is down. Which leads me to think, cynically, that perhaps this is due to the normalisation of lesbian relationships.

A decade ago, the promise of some lady-on-lady-lovin’ used to be ratings-generating titillation. It’s not as scandalous as it once was. The viewing public is on to us. We’re just regular boring people. Gay male relationships, while also being normalised, have the advantage of attracting more of that pink pound which capitalism loves so much. Newsflash: men still make more money than women. Do you want a cup? No? Just me? OK.

And it’s not just the introduction of new lesbian characters that’s lacking; it’s that the ones which already exist are being disposed of, often in a disheartening fashion. And that brings us to the examination of our first trope: BURY YOUR GAYS.

Nine lesbian characters were killed off last year (I’m not naming names for spoiler-related reasons). They’re typically killed after positive life-changing events like a wedding or bravely coming out of the closet or a declaration of love, or right after taking a fresh tray of chocolate chip granola bars out of the oven.

You gay gals out there will feel a knowing pain, having had to deal with Well of Loneliness-style bummers for most of your lives. Why do we always have to meet sad ends? I almost hate to ask, but do you have any honey? I’m trying to have honey with my coffee nowadays instead of sugar. It’s supposed to be better for you. No? OK, well, I always have a B&B-sized tiny jar in my cargo pants.

Sherlock: Well, anything can happen once you’re in the public domain. Photo: BBC.

So, that’s bury your gays explained. The other one that everyone is talking about is queerbaiting – a conversation most recently reignited thanks to the last episode of Sherlock, a show, which though beloved by its fans, has been oft criticised for queerbaiting Sherlock and Watson. Johnlock… an effortless portmanteau if I ever did see one… Disclaimer: I’ve not watched SHERLOCK and it’s unlikely I ever will now most viewers are complaining the producers have shit the bed with the last series.

But, before we get into queerbaiting, let’s talk briefly about the now somewhat archaic practice of queer coding. What’s that? No it’s not shows about Alan Turing or Grindr, you silly heterosexual – though I AM impressed with the width and breadth of your gay computing knowledge. Well done. Have you been reading Autostraddle?

The main difference between ‘queer coding’ and ‘queerbaiting’ is that coding usually refers to characters in film and TV from days when the Hays Code may have still been in effect. It was illegal to depict LGBT characters for a period and a way to get around that was to avoid outright saying that the characters were gay. They could ‘code’ that into their mannerisms, anticipating that viewers would make the assumption.

In American films, that meant a female character might have short hair or carry a riding crop. A male character might mince or have a vaguely British accent. At other times, gay coding has been used for different reasons but the same motivations really… when a production doesn’t want to call a gay spade a gay spade for whatever reason. For modern examples, check out pretty much every Disney cartoon villain.

The documentary The Celluloid Closet goes into the history of coding and is a terrifically entertaining documentary anyway. You should all watch it. Or read it. It was a book first by Vito Russo.

Back to queerbaiting. A 2016 article on AfterEllen does an excellent job of defining queerbaiting:

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, queerbaiting is a tactic that TV shows and movies have used to draw in queer audiences by using subtext and hinting at a queer romance without any intentions to ever follow through on it.

If you want a great primer for what queerbaiting looks like, here’s a fan made compilation of Rizzoli & Isles being uber gay:

That video pretty much covers all the bases. The eye sex, the role play, the innuendo. Sure, it’s fun stuff and the fan who made this video seems to love the show, but it’s hollow.

Take, for example, a show I still adore until this day, Xena Warrior Princess. Xena was sort of a forebear of queerbaiting. It was baitin’ queers before baitin’ queers was cool. It seemed to find its queer cult following almost by accident (who could have guessed that a leggy sword-wielding badass in a leather skirt would have caught the attention of lesbians?) but once they knew they had us, absolutely took advantage of it.

If a frustrated woman gets blue eggs, we all had a robin’s nest full of sexual anxiety. Do you have any biscuits?

Other shows which have recently been accused of queerbaiting include Supernatural, Hannibal and Once Upon a Time. There can be counterarguments made for these shows. For one, ‘shipping’ is something that happens all the time in fandoms. Didn’t we all ship Murder and Scully on The X-Files? Sure, the difference is that there was at least potential there.

With queerbaiting, the production team teases a potential which they know isn’t there. Sometimes producers and stars will even keep the queerbaiting going off screen, teasing a ‘well, you never know, maaaaybe they will’ sort of answer about the characters’ relationships at press junkets and in interviews. Sorry about the crumbs.

Another argument. These queerbaiting shows, aren’t they simply showing evolved and modern representations of same-sex friendships. Isn’t that what we want? Shouldn’t men be able to hug each other? Shouldn’t women be able to wear trousers? Are same-sex characters allowed to be intimate friends without being accused of queerbaiting? Let’s be sensible and say YES! I, for one, applaud any Bechdel Test-passing relationship on film and TV.

“Nine lesbian characters were killed off last year. They’re typically killed after positive life-changing events like a wedding or bravely coming out of the closet or a declaration of love, or right after taking a fresh tray of chocolate chip granola bars out of the oven.”

So, where is the line? What I’d like to suggest is the YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING proclamation. There’s a difference between a series showing a male character in touch with his feminine traits and his emotional intelligence and playing a ‘no homo’ joke over and over again on its audience.

If you are watching a programme and can see the queer manipulation playing out with characters, grab your nearest throw cushion and scream YOU KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING into it. Then, stop watching the stupid ratings-grubbing show. How dare they leave that trail of bread crumbs leading to nowhere! Do you have a wet rag? I think I got some jam on your couch.

Huge strides have been made on television. We have shows with legit gay characters, legit content, and legit storytelling. We’ve got Orange is the New Black, Modern Family, ANYTHING SHONDA RHIMES DOES, and a whole network now (Logo).

We don’t need to cling to your lousy innuendos anymore. It’s 2017, we should expect better. And goddammit, when that Xena reboot comes around she better go whole hog with Gabby. Move in together, get a cat and all.

Anyway, I’ve got to dash. Thanks for the coffee. Having a party later, so knock on if you’re free. You’re not? Oh, OK. I… I… just thought we had a sort of connection. No? That’s cool.


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Written by Kate McCabe

Kate McCabe is an American comic living in Manchester. When not gigging as a standup, she improvises with ComedySportz Manchester, and contributes to local TV and radio including The Gay Agenda on Fab Radio.