When Supernatural ended back in November of 2020, much fuss was made about the character Castiel’s confession of love to Dean Winchester. A lot of the controversy revolved around the fact that the series was apparently making a long shipped pairing officially canon after about 11 years of queer-baiting. But did the writers intentionally queer-bait the audience with these characters, or was the homoerotic subtext between the two born unintentionally? If the answer is the latter, should the writers really get a pass for it?
Queer baiting is the use of subtext, any content of a creative work that is not stated explicitly by the characters or author, but is implicit or understood by the audience, in which characters presenting as the same gender are depicted in a similar way to romantic relationships. This is a deliberate strategy employed to lure in potential queer viewers with the idea that they may be somehow represented onscreen, only to back out and not embrace the subtext, leaving the relationship platonic so as not to piss off conservative viewers.
Since Castiel was introduced to Supernatural in 2008, fans have picked up on the chemistry between Castiel and Dean. The subtext surrounding the two characters often feels more like just plain text. In 2014, the ship of Destiel was the most reblogged ship on Tumblr, and in 2015, the couple as a ship won a Teen Choice Award for Choice TV: Chemistry.
When discussing some of the queer subtext, executive producer Ben Edlund said, “Well, that’s the weird thing, is that it reads in this weird way where it does feel like Dean’s a little bit like…it’s almost like a romantic comedy kind of fluster. Which is very interesting for the character Dean, like because it just sorta suggests this weird, this potential.” Executive producer Phil Sgriccia agreed by adding, “This potential for love in all places.”
Director Guy Norman Bee tweeted, “I’m not sure how people get upset and offended when a storyline that doesn’t exist… doesn’t exist” while WB executive Chad Kennedy said, “I support the idea of bi lead [characters]. But on this specific show, it is not our intention for these [characters.]…if it served the story, I would support it.”
Supergirl is another CW series that has caught a lot of flak for the way its cast and crew have handled the relationship between its protagonist Kara Danvers and her friend Lena Luthor. Just like with Supernatural, when asked about the possibility of a relationship between the couple, the team involved with the show reacted with ambivalence, discomfort, and sometimes outright hostility. Dean Winchester’s actor Jensen Ackles has been accused of homophobia because of his unwillingness to engage with fans about the show’s queer subtext, while the cast of Supergirl, bar Katie McGrath, mocked fans at a convention for their advocacy for the ship known as Supercorp.
This tells us that the subtext is in fact unintentional on the part of the writers. They may not be trying to imply sexual tension between two characters. The lack of LGBTQIA+ representation in the media encourages a lot of members of the community to read queer subtext into many character interactions, and many tropes code certain characters as queer to add to this. But with so many vocal LGBTQIA+ fans shipping characters and calling out queer-baiting, why do writers continue to mishandle how they write these relationships? It could be that they kind of just…don’t care.
In Captain America: Winter Soldier, the main character Steve Rogers gets shipped by fans with not just his old friend Bucky, the eponymous Winter Soldier but also with the character Sam Wilson, AKA Falcon. The movie does a lot to provide fans fuel encouraging this ship through its use of certain tropes. This includes the first meeting between Sam and Steve resembling a meet-cute, with the chance meeting while both are out running, the playful banter, and Sam requesting to meet Steve again.
Steve actively seeks Sam out after the therapy meeting and when he’s in danger, demonstrating deep trust in Sam after a relatively short time of having known him. Sam embodies a lot of the qualities of a superhero’s love interest. He’s extremely loyal, he is able to get Steve to open up about his PTSD and his emotional struggles and is shown to be nurturing and caring towards him. When Steve wakes up in the hospital at the end of the movie, Sam is at his bedside watching him sleep.
The fact is, if they were played between two people of opposite genders, everyone would read the relationship as romantic. The same goes for the interactions between Dean and Castiel in Supernatural and Kara and Lena in Supergirl. Really any time male and female friendships are portrayed in the media there tends to be a lot of shipping that often actually results in those involved pairing up.
But when these exchanges occur between characters of the same gender, it’s like writers and a lot of viewers forget that these tropes are often utilized in romantic pairings. The fact that they are being used in same-gender pairings seems to void the romance element to many. This can be attributed to heteronormativity, the idea that there are only two separate and opposing genders with associated expected roles that match their assigned sex, and that heterosexuality is their default sexual orientation. Characters are assumed to be straight, even when they are heavily coded to be queer unless explicitly stated otherwise.
This leads to writers sometimes queer-coding characters, by mistake.
As a result of being insulated from LGBTQIA+ issues and conversations, many writers exercise less caution with how they handle their same-gender relationships. They don’t read the romantic subtext in these pairings because they don’t think about romantic or sexual feelings when it comes to these relations. They use the same cues utilized in romantic pairings as a way to indicate a deep friendship, forgetting or not caring that these tropes often imply romance.
But neglecting to take care of how characters interact with each other with consideration to queer subtext is not harmless. It tells LGBTQIA+ people that their existence is not worth noting, and their ships are illegitimate and merely the stuff of horny fantasies.
Writers and media creators have a responsibility with regard to the messages they convey through their work. With the conversations around representation continuing and expanding, those involved in producing media don’t get to pretend they aren’t aware of their LGBTQIA+ audiences anymore. They don’t get to ignore the existence of queer relationships and dismiss the chemistry they have created between two characters as imaginary and strictly in the minds of the audience. To do so is gaslighting a community that has been perpetually let down by how we are portrayed by the media.
We deserve better, and Hollywood needs to do a hell of a lot better.
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