Addressing Queerbaiting, Queer Coding, And Misrepresentation
Queerbaiting, Queer Coding, And All That The Queer Need To Escape

Queer ‘energy’ is a ploy to keep audiences hooked to shows that have no intention of ever allowing their characters to develop or display any real sexual fluidity

There’s a lot to be said about having grown up queer and non-binary in India during the late ’90s and early 2000s. On one hand, I had little to no point of reference for my feelings, and therefore, made no concrete acknowledgment of my identity before being able to access more of the internet around 2011. On the other hand, my mind still somehow filled itself with ideas on the type of queer individual I ‘absolutely should not’ be identified as, in any setting. In retrospect, I can see how desperately I was fleeing the reality of my identity, but I had no idea where that internal hatred for my potential future ever came from. So imagine my surprise, when a few weeks of mindless scrolling on Tumblr in 2014 eventually led me to snapshots asserting that all Disney villains from the Renaissance era were ‘coded’ as gender-bending and queer, with clear tributes to drag make-up and fashion and stereotypes of queer masculine mannerisms and expressions. Not side characters or the heroes, ever. Just the villains.


The claim was pretty straightforward. Disney needed a clear stylistic difference between its heroes and villains, and had actively chosen to draw inspiration from real life drag queens and queer people to ensure that children could immediately identify the ‘bad apples’ from their over-arched eyebrows, their heavy use of emerald green and deep purples, and their over-the-top facial expressions or voice acting, especially amongst the male villains. And just like that, a new trend was set. The male villains would speak at higher pitches, wear bows in their hair, have a certain grace in their body language and be easily startled, all so they could better highlight the heroism and respectability of the stoic, muscular, and ever-fearless protagonists.


And boy, has that been an exhausting bias to unpack. Even as someone who did not consciously identify as non-binary just yet, these messages were still damaging. Recognising the lack of femininity in my bones meant consciously aligning myself more with the tropes displayed by the eerie and dark female villains, while embracing my masculinity meant learning to demonstrate the cliches seen in their ‘good’ male heroes.


As if being a queer teenager in conservative-ish educational institutes wasn’t painful enough, now my brain wants to be Maleficent and Li Shang at the same time?



And Bollywood wasn’t far behind with the stereotypes. While queer-coded women received little to no spotlight, queer coded men were dressed in loud prints, wore make-up and sometimes wigs, and conveniently entered the scene to provide ‘comic relief’ (read: predatory vibes through unnecessarily obscene or self-deprecating dialogue), or offered bouts of advice for the hyper feminine main character whose friendship with the queer man in question was proof of her diva persona and social status.


The message was shockingly clear — being any shade of queer meant being weak but conniving, cruel but also incompetent, sexually charged and predatory, vain but not necessarily attractive, and mostly just present to fuel the growth of someone else’s character arc.


But queer coding was not the only tactic used to reinforce stereotypes. Its equally manipulative companion, queerbaiting, soon found a home in our television shows too. As fandoms for shows like Supernatural, 100, and Sherlock grew stronger, writers became quick to test the waters by creating fleeting moments of sexual tension between same sex characters only to get queer audience members hot and bothered, with no payoff by means of real on-screen relationships or representation, thus ensuring that they could simultaneously hold on to their more conservative viewers as well. Queer ‘energy’ became a ploy to keep audiences hooked and loyal to shows that had no intention of ever allowing their characters to develop or display any real sexual fluidity.


So when these shows do ultimately end, or when animation studios gradually reshape their ideas on ‘deviance’, where does that leave us with the newly imbibed stereotypes and biases about our own identities, or that of the people close to us?


How do we define queer happiness and success or healthy relationships despite these empty portrayals in television?


The truth is, I’m still figuring out the answer to those questions. Identifying and stepping away from years of conditioning is always hard, and the phenomenon of queercoding and baiting still feels too recent to fully understand the myriad ways in which it might have impacted our self-assessments and perceptions of other queer individuals.


But here’s what does help to some extent.


Engaging more with real life queers and enby folks


It takes a while to find the right people sometimes, but actively searching for gender non- conforming people on social media as visual sources of validation for your style, your desired mode of expression, and for your everyday experiences, helps.


Discovering your identity outside of pop culture expectations


It may sound obvious, but it is entirely possible that you feel pressured to enjoy activities or partake in events to ‘prove’ your validity as a queer person. I know I have. Between aggressively cutting my hair short and erasing my femininity to try and prove that my masc side was just as valid, I’ve denied myself access to several tiny joys in the hope of finally being seen as an enby person. But there is no right way to be queer or ‘queer enough’ and one of the greatest joys of being queer is in accepting that you are a complicated and ever-growing person containing multitudes, and you never have to be the same as you were yesterday. Your ideas on gender, sexuality, love, relationships and commitment can and will keep evolving, and no TV show can single-handedly do justice to everything that you are.


Embrace the cliches within you


This may feel difficult to do, but it helps to accept the occasional stereotype that you do find within yourself. Maybe you do want that piercing or the glitter make-up or maybe you do use the same vocal inflections as some fictional characters. But so what? Even mannerisms or choices that are born from conditioning have a place within you, and can be wonderful markers of the journey you’ve been on, and overcoming every little bit of conditioning is not a prerequisite for you to be a ‘good gay’. Nothing ever is.

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