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Queerness has been explored in fiction in a number of ways. Nowadays, in the Western media, and especially in literature, there is much more outright portrayal of homosexuality than there was barely a decade or two ago. But that doesn’t mean queer coding and queerbaiting are a thing of the past. These are two terms that are often used when we talk about queer media, but not always used precisely. So let’s take a look at what queer coding and queerbaiting really are, and what the differences are between them.
The idea of queer coding is pretty straightforward. This is when the characters may not be explicitly declared as queer, but there is enough subtext available for an audience to read them as queer. Instead of being explicitly queer, they are coded as queer.
Queer coding is not inherently negative or positive. Historically, queer encoded characters have been used in the media when writers couldn’t just write their characters as queer because queer identities weren’t accepted. We can see this with authors such as Carson McCullers, in his exploration of his characters and the themes of many of his works, including The heart is a lonely hunter. This is one of the ways queer authors would spell out queer in their work in an age when explicit queer may not be acceptable. Queer coding also has a huge place in the media now, because even now, many people and places face the stigma – or worse, persecution – for making queerness part of their work. A good example of this is the popular Chinese historical fantasy show The Untamed, based on the web novel Mo Dao Zu Shi. While in the web novel the characters of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are explicitly queer, due to Chinese media censorship these same characters are coded as queer on the TV show.
There are many other examples of how characters have been coded queer, and the idea of what is queer coded can change over time as well. For example, many female characters who have been written in books and other media, as tomboys, have often been read as queer: characters like Harriet from Harriet spies on it by Louise Fitzhugh. So often female characters who go against the norm of what is expected of their gender can be interpreted as being coded as queer. Likewise, male characters who identify with more “feminine” traits were read as queer coded.
However, queer coding can be used in a negative way. Especially when we see patterns of how queer coding has been used to negatively impact queer people. One of the most famous examples of queer coding in the media is Disney. Historically, many Disney villains have been coded as queer. This can be seen in the way these characters are drawn, from their “female” characteristics – which are often highlighted opposite the “male” characteristics of the main characters – and even from the fact that many of these male villains of Disney sport a very obvious eye shadow. Some famous examples of queer coded Disney villains are Jafar from Aladdin and Scar from The Lion King.
So queer coding isn’t inherently bad, but when used to overwhelmingly portray villains more than heroes in many media, it can have an incredibly harmful impact. It is important to consider the history and models of queer coding when using this term to criticize the media.
Queerbaiting is when a medium alludes to the presence of queer, but does not actually include any queer representation. This is usually done to attract audiences to a medium, especially queer audiences, and is ultimately very harmful.
There are many examples of queerbaiting in the media, and one of the most popular examples in the literature has occurred in Harry potter, after the books have already been published. JK Rowling claimed in 2007 that Dumbledore was gay and acted surprised that no one had read his odd character in the book, despite not writing it down as explicitly homosexual, and she did. had also not clearly coded as homosexual. . Later, as the Harry Potter franchise grew, JK Rowling continued to refuse to explicitly address Dumbledore’s sexuality, despite numerous opportunities to do so. In fact, when she and David Yates, one of the directors of Harry Potter, were asked about Dumbledore’s sexuality and how she would be portrayed in the Fantastic beasts movie, Rowling claimed fans should “watch this space.” There is not much more than that.
Another famous example of queerbaiting in the media is on the show Supernatural and the characters of Dean and Castiel (the ship being known as Destiel). For many years, the series has increasingly focused on the relationship between these two characters, while keeping the status of their relationship ambiguous. Is it a platonic or a weird relationship? As fans of this specific ship grew even more, the focus on the relationship grew as well… but no clarity on their dynamics was offered. In fact, there are a lot of things that hint at Dean and Castiel’s strangeness on the show, including the explicit flirtation between the characters, as well as plenty of references and jokes. The show’s producers even hinted at the quirkiness of the characters in interviews, suggesting that there is potential for these characters to be queer. Yet Dean’s character is never explicitly queer, and they are never explicitly in a romantic relationship.
Queerbaiting vs Queer Coding
Queerbaiting and queer coding are often confused. There is a similarity between them: both queerbaiting and queer encoding use a subtext to refer to queerness, and both can have a negative impact. However, queer coding has historically been used to explore sexuality when it might not have been allowed otherwise. Queer coding exists in neutral space and can be used both positively and negatively. Queerbaiting, on the other hand, is only used to attract a queer audience to a medium, and its intention is never to explore queerness in any meaningful way. It always has a negative impact.
It is important to know the distinctions between these things and their historical use, especially when we use these terms to criticize the media. Because, as we see, queer coding can often come in handy for queer creators who want to express homosexuality in their work but may be unable to do so due to censorship, or because they are trying to maintain their own safety as queer people. But queerbaiting continues to take over from queer creators and do a lot of harm to the queer community. The more aware we are of the distinctions between these terms, the better we can engage in media criticism and, hopefully, work to make more room for queer creators and queer works that do not public bait.