LGBTQ Column: Taking the bait

by Katherine Burns / Beacon Staff • April 13, 2017

When I started watching the first episode of the CW teen drama Riverdale, I was excited, but a little tentative. As a long-time Archie Comics fan, I worried about how the wholesome cartoons of my youth would translate into a dark murder-mystery show. Much to my surprise, I was immediately sucked in. The first episode was campy—and fell more into the so-bad-it’s-good category than anything else—but I couldn’t stop watching. And after the pilot, I found myself watching every episode hoping that the show would play out differently than I expected, that it wouldn’t disappoint me.

Instead, it fell into the same trap that popular TV dramas often do: Queerbaiting, a technique used by writers to draw in, and keep, an LGBTQ audience by featuring storylines involving same sex characters. However, these relationships remain strictly platonic. Queerbaiting plays out differently in different genres and with different genders, but it essentially provides just enough subtext to draw LGBTQ viewers in, but not enough that straight people turn the television off.

Queerbaiting has a long and storied history, going back as far as the 1920s under the Hays Code, when it was actually illegal to show homosexuality on screen. Films of that era often fly just under the radar by representing LGBTQ characters in less explicit ways. We still see queerbaiting in movies, especially those geared towards children. The live-action Beauty and the Beast’s “exclusive gay moment” was no more than a few seconds of dancing between the character LeFou and another man—not enough to make a straight audience uncomfortable. While Kate McKinnon’s character in the Ghostbusters remake is clearly coded as gay—with her more masculine presentation compared to the others, and her blatant flirtation with her fellow Ghostbusters—there’s not a hint of anything close to a relationship or even an identity. The director even said he was coy about her sexuality because, “when you’re dealing with the studios and that kind of thing…” He didn’t fill in the blank.

This is yet another trope that Hollywood continues to uphold, not necessarily intentionally, but because they don’t know how not to. And it doesn’t hurt that queerbaiting gets more people, in this case LGBTQ people, to turn on the TV, without losing a mainstream audience.

In the first episode of Riverdale, Betty and Veronica, two of the protagonists in the show, share a passionate kiss during cheerleading tryouts, for shock value more than anything. One of the characters points out, “faux-lesbian kissing hasn’t been taboo since 1994,” and while this may have been an attempt on the writer’s part to be self-aware, it really shows how dated this move was in today’s media. What followed in the episodes after was a series of disappointing moments for fans, like myself, who really thought “Beronica” could be a reality.

Though Veronica buys Betty roses as a gift, and the two are constantly touching or sharing furtive glances, Betty quickly falls into a relationship with Jughead, who in the comics is canonically aromantic and asexual. By doing so, the show not only erases Jughead’s sexuality but continues the insidious television trend of queerbaiting. Betty and Veronica spend all their time together, and are constantly touching, even holding hands. Yet the show expects us to believe that Betty’s primary romantic relationship is with Jughead, who she occasionally kisses but usually keeps at arm’s length.  

Shows like Sherlock and Once Upon a Time have been accused of queerbaiting, along with countless others. Even in 2017, with shows like Riverdale, it doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, despite the strides we’ve made toward LGBTQ representation. A recent survey by Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation found that 20 percent of millennials identify as LGBTQ, in part because representation is so accessible. Many of these shows, however, live in the realm of Netflix or HBO. They wait until later seasons to pursue LGBTQ storylines in hopes that the mainstream audience has stopped paying attention. The more writers fall into the same heterosexual storylines, the more of a disservice they’re doing to this mainstream audience. And in today’s world, this antiquated subtext of implied queerness will ultimately render these shows irrelevant.

In the past, when representation of queer women started and ended with The L Word, any bit of subtext was a pleasant surprise, and something LGBTQ viewers clinged to. But it’s different now: Mainstream shows like Jane the Virgin, Glee, Pretty Little Liars, and Supergirl all have explicit woman-on-woman romances. Sure, these shows have received backlash, but they are unapologetically pursuing diverse and realistic storylines. Riverdale is a sharp contrast to that, and it’s not only disappointing, but outdated and bordering on irrelevant.

Giving a wink-wink-nudge-nudge doesn’t cut it in 2017; in fact, it’s dishonest. We want more and we deserve more.

And even though the writers recently told fans not to rule out the possibility of a relationship between Betty and Veronica, I’ll believe it when I see it. Not that I’m going to stop watching in the meantime. I can’t help but fall for the bait.