In November 2020, Americans held their breath as votes were being tallied in what was an unprecedented presidential election in a year like no other. Over 300,000 citizens had succumbed to the deadly pandemic that was sweeping the globe, raging wildfires ripped through California as a result of the climate emergency, and international protests had been sparked in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. With so many cataclysmic events sprinkled throughout 2020, what was there left that could shock people?
Refreshing the latest counts from swing states Nevada and Georgia, many tuned in to the antepenultimate episode of CW’s Supernatural, “Desire”.
Hiding out in a bunker from Billie, the new Death, unlikely to escape, Castiel, a fallen angel who had rescued the show’s protagonist, Dean, from Hell, remembers a deal made with The Shadow in earlier seasons to save the life of Jack, Dean’s father. In exchange for Jack’s life, the moment that Castiel experiences a moment of true happiness, he will be taken somewhere worse than Hell - The Empty. Knowing this is the only way to destroy Billie, Castiel shares with Dean that he was unsure of what his ‘true happiness’ would ever look like, as he knew that the one thing he wanted he could never have.
After disclosing how Dean had changed his life, Castiel simply says “I love you”. Instantly, The Empty shows up, absorbing both Castiel and Billie, and banishing them both for eternity. Dean is shell shocked, ignoring calls from his brother Sam and father as he processes Castiel’s confession. Social media erupted, fans rejoiced, many even tuning into the penultimate and final episodes for the first time in years to see how Destiel, the portmanteau of Dean and Castiel, would be resolved. Would Dean admit his feelings too? Would Castiel, like he had so many times before throughout the show, come back from the dead? Of course not.
The fate of Destiel is a prime example of queerbaiting, a phenomenon that is rooted in homophobia and has become a widespread problem through most modern works of media. To understand the issues that queerbaiting presents for LGBTQIA+ audiences, it is important to look at its origins.
Terrified that a new era of cinema would negatively influence audiences, The Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as the Hays Code, was co-written and implemented in the 1930s by a Catholic priest and the Catholic publisher of the Motion Picture Herald. Effectively, this document set out guidelines as to what filmmakers could and could not show on film, emphasising that it should not “lower the moral standards of those who see it”, meaning that the hero or protagonist could not engage in any “crime, wrongdoing, evil, or sin”.
Whilst this code was voluntary, it was almost essential to follow in the hopes of receiving funding. This meant that until the Gay Liberation Movement in the late 1960s, not only was there little to no queer representation in media, it also meant that to avoid censorship, characters, often villains, took on stereotypes and characteristics that would be queer coded.
Queer coding refers to a process where characters appear, or code, queer usually through specific characteristics that are traditionally associated with queerness. This could be from the character's mannerisms right through to their dress sense. That isn’t to say these characters are in fact queer, but these are traits most often aligned with queer people, traits that queer people will recognise in themselves but for the straights, this will fly under the radar thus avoiding censorship.
Disney is the main culprit when it comes to using queer coded villains. Their insistence on using these tropes and stereotypes with each one of their villains creates an unhealthy cycle where it feeds into the discourse that queerness is inherently immoral. After being starved of proper, positive representation for so long, it’s no wonder that media conglomerates are finally recognising that the LGBTQIA+ community are now a market that need to be catered to, thus queerbaiting enters stage left.
Queerbaiting is the practice of hinting at, but never actually depicting or confirming a queer character or relationship on-screen. The hints could be queer coded characters with homoerotic tension, press conferences where the makers or actors hint at a queer character or relationship, or even entire marketing campaigns built around a relationship (here’s looking at you, Sterek). Queerbaiting is done with the sole purpose of ‘baiting’ queer audiences to become emotionally, and financially, attached to the show, but not obvious enough as to alienate more conversative audiences.
Just like the capitlisation of Pride, queerbaiting gives executives and conglomerates the chance to profit off vulnerable viewers who just want to see themselves positively represented on-screen after years of demonisation in society and in the media. That’s why queerbaiting is unforgivable.
Bored by the monotony of lockdown three, and the fact that I was still unemployed three months post-graduation, I logged onto Disney+ and began watching all of the Marvel films in timeline order. The more I watched of the Captain America trilogy, the more I thought about how Bucky Barnes, played expertly by Sebastian Stan, was queer coded.
In Captain America: The First Avenger, Bucky is rescued by his super-soldier-serum-filled childhood best friend, Steve Rogers. They spend years together in the Howling Commandos, a task force of soldiers whose main aim is to defeat HYDRA bases across Europe. In an unfortunate incident on a train, Bucky loses his grip and falls to his death in the Alps. Steve is heartbroken, but it is Bucky’s death that motivates him to see his mission to destroy HYDRA through - a role usually reserved for female love interests.
Later, when it was revealed that Bucky actually survived the fall due to Dr Zola’s experimental serum, the plot of both The Winter Soldier and Civil War follow Captain America’s journey to risk it all to save his best friend despite 70 years of brainwashing. Steve abandons the shield in The Winter Soldier, a symbol that represents everything he has stood for, and becomes a criminal in Civil War, just to save Bucky. In turn, despite years of torture, Bucky is freed from HYDRA’s brainwashing by Steve uttering the words, “I’m with you until the end of the line” in The Winter Solider, a callback to an earlier flashback Steve has while reminiscing on their childhood.
This could be an entire dissertation and I still don’t think there would be enough space to cover what makes this relationship queer coded. Replace Bucky with a female iteration and audiences would automatically assume that Steve Rogers is doing all of this out of love, so why is it different when it’s a man?
Of course Marvel could never make Captain America queer. If Captain America, a character that represents American ideals and values, a patriotic hero who adorns the stars and stripes, were queer, Marvel would lose a considerable number of conservative fans, and what could be worse than that? With Steve’s departure back to the 1950s to be with Peggy Carter at the end of Endgame meaning that Stucky (Steve and Bucky) could no longer become canon, fans looked to The Falcon and The Winter Soldier (TFATWS), Disney+’s original series starring Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes, for answers regarding Bucky’s sexuality.
President of Marvel Studios, Kevin Feige, committed to introducing a explicitly queer character in the MCU’s fourth phase, and even the Russo brothers stated that there were plans to introduce a character fan’s already knew and loved as gay. With confirmation from the makers behind the show, fans were convinced that Bi Bucky Barnes would be made MCU canon after a decade.
Within the first two episodes of TFATWS, Bucky mentions that he had been using dating apps but he found them weird because of all the tiger pictures, a well-known stereotype of men’s dating profiles, Bucky and Sam literally roll around in a field together, and are then forced to undergo ‘couples therapy’. Although it had no yet been made explicit, these queer coded behaviours all pointed towards Bucky being confirmed bisexual. After episode two, head writer Morgan Spellmann was asked whether Bucky’s sexuality would definitely be confirmed throughout the series to which he responded, "I'm not diving down rabbit holes, but just keep watching."
So fans kept watching, hoping that at some point there would be some confirmation. Spoiler: there never was. Weeks after TFATWS ended, director Kari Skogland stated that actually fans had gotten it all wrong, Bucky was never looking at men's Tinder photos, but was just confused by the technology of it all. She had also pointed out that fan’s shouldn’t read too much into the relationship between Sam and Bucky, that it’s only affection between two bros.
The writers behind TFATWS had told fans to keep watching and that they would get their answer. They didn’t. TFATWS creators played directly on Bucky’s sexuality and his relationship with Sam to lure in queer viewers, to profit off their vulnerability and need to have positive representation in media, and then cast them aside as to not to offend any conservative viewers. How many more times will queer viewers have to experience queerbaiting before they are afforded explicit, positive representation in one of the most popular movie franchises of all time?
Disney are making small steps towards creating LGBTQIA+ representation in their media, from confirmation that Le Fou in Beauty and The Beast was gay, to Jack Whitehall’s character in the upcoming Jungle Cruise being openly queer. It’s a good first step, but continuing to relegate queer characters into secondary, background roles does nothing to create positive queer representation.
Queerbaiting is an ongoing issue not just in the MCU but in every piece of media, and it is exhausting for its LGBTQIA+ viewers. Queer viewers deserve to have positive and explicit representation, and not to just be seen as a market that conglomerates can take advantage of time and time again when they need to make a little bit of money.
In episode three of Loki, the titular character is confirmed to be not only gender fluid due to his shapeshifting abilities, but in a conversation with Sylvie, it is revealed that he is bisexual. A win, finally, for the gays. However, looking deeper at Loki’s legacy, I don’t think it was an oversight that the first queer character in MCU’s 13-year run is a villain.
Disney can change their logos to the Pride flag and talk about inclusivity all they want, as long as they are still queerbaiting their viewers and demonising their queer characters, I’m not going to believe them.
Jessica Lawrence is a 24-year-old content creator based in Belfast with an MA in Media and Broadcast Production and an interest in radio, current affairs and fictional male characters who were written by women. Her greatest achievement to date is a viral tweet about New Girl.