Queercoding and queerbaiting are two words you may have heard before but maybe don’t know their meaning or weight. Intertwined within each other and historical Hollywood guidelines, queercoding and queerbaiting present scapegoats for producers and perpetuate stereotypes to watchers.
Implemented in 1934, the Hays Code, otherwise known as The Motion Picture Production Code, was a set of “moral guidelines” the film industry placed on itself to keep the public happy with what the industry was producing.
This code either completely prohibited or restricted the shining of a positive light on a multitude of aspects in film including: profanity, nudity, childbirth, ridicule of the clergy, white slavery, crime, lust, a romantic relationship between a white person and a person of color, and “sex perversion,” or homosexuality.
This guideline is what paved the way for queercoding, which is the use of subtext such as actions, speech patterns, and body language stereotypically associated with queer people to make the character appear as such, within Hollywood.
The inherent issue here is, because “sex perversion” was not allowed to be shown in a positive light, the only spaces for queer characters to be placed were in the roles of villains. Often, these characters would die within the movie, especially if they were women. This trope originated from the term “Bury Your Gays.”
Ultimately, until 1963 when the code was abandoned, these trends not only provided an easy character template for people creating villains, but also vilified queer people and solidified the ideas of this community being predatory and evil in society’s subconscious.
This act of vilification continues to this day. There are many different television shows and movies in which the villain is queercoded, and often they are opposite a perfectly feminine woman or manly man. Take for, example, Ursula from “Little Mermaid”, Shego from “Kim Possible,” or Frank-N-Furter from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
Most of these characters are distinctly predatory, subversive and clearly queer. This opens a door for associations between these characteristics, which translates to real life prejudice and hate for real-life queer people who exhibit stereotypically queer behaviors.
Now, how do queercoding and queerbaiting intertwine? Quite simply put, queercoding allows Hollywood to bait us. Young queer teens, especially those with little to no support network, often look for validation from the movies and television shows they watch.
Because of the ripples left behind by the Hays Code, and prejudice in general, even good characters that writers and directors want to make queer aren’t necessarily given this label. In instances where they are, their queerness isn’t usually shown on screen. Some examples of this include Castiel in “Supernatural,” Dumbledore in the Harry Potter series, and Brunhild/Valkyrie in the Marvel series.
These characters, all beloved, have either been coded queer, or we are explicitly told are queer but not shown it.
This is where the issue with queerbaiting begins to come in. For instance, the relationship between Castiel and Dean Winchester on “Supernatural” holds a lot of tension, resulting in viewers mistaking the two as partners multiple times. Castiel recently ended up confessing his love toward Dean on the show, before unceremoniously dying.
The ultimate issue is writers, directors and producers dangling the prospect of a queer character in front of their starving queer audiences on a stick, hinting at the prospect of a queer relationship or a character who discusses their queerness. Teasing these relationships lets them cater to one demographic without scaring off another, but not actually providing any substance.
Queercoding and queerbaiting are weaved into so many movies and television shows to the point that we don’t notice unless we take the time to, which we must. These ideas continue to perpetuate harmful stereotypes and give Hollywood scapegoats to not actually provide the content that they seem to be promising to both young and old queer people looking for good, healthy representation.
The film industry also loves to kill off queer characters, as the “Bury Your Gays” trope is still alive. This leaves the industry with very few concrete queer characters, which are important for both young queer kids and for people holding on to prejudices to view us simply as people.
Taking the time to recognize prejudice within the way a character was created, or to make sure that you do not dislike a villain simply because of its stereotypically queer traits, are some of the easiest steps to make toward being conscious of this issue.
It is going to take longer for Hollywood to give us queer people a spotlight in the industry without any of the harmful strings attached. For now, though, all it takes is being conscious.