Hey Lottie, how do you write queer sexual tension without it entering queerbaiting territory? Can you have unresolved sexual tension between queer characters in a story, or is that always a bad thing? Thanks!
this is SUCH AN INTERESTING QUESTION that I’ve already attempted to answer twice (once while drunk) and abandoned, but I’m gonna pull myself together, fucking relax about it and just answer it. okay.
so the first time I ever heard the term “queerbaiting” it was being applied to Supernatural and I understood it off the bat: what Supernatural does, what Supernatural is great at doing (and has been doing now for 4 years at least), is going to ANY LENGTHS to avoid explicitly saying that Dean and Castiel will never end up together and that they aren’t anything other than straight. the writers say “stay tuned! you never know what will happen!” the actors talk about how much the characters mean to each other and make vaguely worded statements that they KNOW will be interpreted by the fandom as a wink wink nudge nudge I’m on your team, folks! reference, and the characters themselves make jabs, maintain intense eye contact and are incredibly devoted to each other on top of enough pointed mise en scène and subtext to make your mouth water. they will bend over backwards to make it as queer-coded and romantic as they possibly can, get your heart pumping, and then successfully interrupt the moment and start No Homo-ing it as hard as they possibly can.
the reason behind this whole song and dance is twofold: 1) The Powers That Be want you, their devoted queer audience – with your “Dean Winchester is bisexual!” badges and your manifestos and your essays and, more importantly, your MONEY – to keep watching Supernatural, but they also 2) don’t want to lose any casual straight viewers by canonising Dean’s sexuality or his relationship with Castiel. so they straddle the divide. they tease. they have their queer-coded cake and eat all the straight viewers, or something. that’s the definition of it, for me: keeping you watching, supporting and spending your money (and keeping their ratings high) with the idea that maybe something might eventually happen – but never ever putting their money where their mouth is and cashing the fuck in.
there are two reasons why what you’re talking about is not and could never be classed as queerbaiting, IMO: 1) there is nothing inherently wrong or bad about homoerotic subtext or unresolved tension between queer characters; both of these things can be a feast, no matter the medium, and b) you’re writing it. it would be incredibly difficult to profit off your queer fans without delivering on the goods and stringing them along over a long period of time when you’re a writer; how would you even manage that? unless your blurb was THE SINGLE MOST MISLEADING BLURB OF ALL TIME, you’re gonna have a tough time baiting any queer readers. you’d have to be writing a series, and you’d have to drag your Possible Relationship out over X amount of books, write in enough subtext and UST to make people think it’s a possibility, spend time and effort keeping it simmering across hundreds of thousands of words, and then just… not. there is NO WAY that effort would be worth it. and even if, somehow, you were incredibly successful and made loads of money off of queer readers who’d been lured in, that would stop as soon as the first person put a ‘THEY NEVER EVEN KISS, FUCK THIS BOOK’ review up on Goodreads. plus… I’d like to say no self-respecting writer could fuck up their own work in such a colossal way, but, haha, let’s not go there or I’ll start in on Harry Potter.
look at it this way: The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater. they’re pretty popular books here on tumblr because they’re fucking great, but also because there’s subtext and UST out the wazoo – not to mention one canon* queer character and the Definite Feeling that we’re gunning for a second in the final book, as well as a Big Ol’ Kiss/actual declaration of love. this relationship has been building for three books now – we got to know them in the first book, found out Ronan was gay in the second book and possibly had a Crush, and the set up for them getting together found its feet in the third book. MS spent thousands of words on Ronan and Adam – individually and, eventually, sort of together. they’re a big part of the books and each others’ lives, and the subtext is slowly but surely turning into text. (the hand lotion. the barn.)
BUT: nothing has been ~canonised~ yet in Actual Words. (IIRC! I haven’t read them since last year.) MS could feasibly go full Supernatural, make absolutely nothing happen and be like “lol, what? haha, you crazy fangirls, it’s all in your head!” and that would be queerbaiting: keeping your fans eager and forking out their dough with the promise of a queer relationship but pulling out at the last minute. but she won’t do that, because then her books would be complete rubbish. she would have written an entire relationship into the subtext of her series and then just farted it away. it would have been a complete and total waste of 1000s of words and a loose thread marring her tapestry. no writer would spend the time it takes to write three novels setting something up only to back out at the last second. (I trust Maggie.)
and BESIDES, having homoerotic subtext (/UST) and not explicitly canonising it =/= queerbaiting. subtext (and allegory, metaphor and anything else you can point to and yell ‘THIS ONE’S GAY’) and the deciphering of it is one of the joys of reading or watching anything ever. it’s a useful and age-old part of storytelling. homoerotic/queer subtext can tell us things about a character that the character would never tell us themselves; it can be undeniable or just noticeable to those who’re attuned to it; it can play a part in the overarching narrative or not; it can be eventually made text or it can remain subtext for the duration – it doesn’t matter. there’s nothing wrong with it either way. the subtext and sexual tension itself isn’t the problem – producers and studio execs writing it in and making it blatant just to snag queer viewers and then refusing to say either way whether or not it’ll ever become Touching Of Mouths canon so that they can keep taking everyone’s money is the problem.
(it’s like the difference between pre-Swan Song Supernatural and post-Swan Song Supernatural: pre-SS had a lot of Dean-centric queer subtext – but didn’t labour the point overmuch – and UST between Dean and Castiel that grew from their epic meet-cute, initial chemistry and intense friendship. post-SS realised that a hell of a lot of people were watching for Dean and Castiel’s relationship, and immediately ratcheted it up to 11 with jokes, references, straight-up romance novel dialogue and UNREAL mise en scène and subtext and then fell all over themselves to insist that it’s all fan interpretation and nothing really supports it in canon, haha, but you never know! maybe! there’s so much of the story left to tell! I’m not sure what the current party line is re: Dean/Castiel or Dean’s bisexuality, but I can assure you it’ll be something like: LOL! MAYBE!!! WHO KNOWS?!?)
tl;dr having homoerotic/queer subtext or unresolved sexual tension between queer characters is absolutely not a bad thing, and it’s not queerbaiting. sometimes it’s queerbaiting, but generally it’s not queerbaiting. irregardless, whether it’s queerbaiting or not is irrelevant when it’s in a novel/short story because queerbaiting in literature is… pretty much impossible(/a terrible choice for your Art). okay. the… end…?
(*I’m not actually sure if Ronan Lynch is canonically queer in a ‘“I’m gay,” said Ronan’ way, or if it’s just been heavily implied. see? implication! subtext! no actual verbal 100% undeniable confirmation! and yet: not queerbaiting.)