Evolution of Queerbaiting
Queer-Femme Filmography, Xena to White Canary
Welcome back to our post-millennial analysis of the current state of fandom. Today we’ll discuss queerbating. While we’ve come a long way since the time where “gay” was a dirty word, even today, pop culture carries unfortunate baggage regarding homosexuality, especially when it comes to women.
Editor’s Note: When this series began, Zee Bowditch identified as a queer femme nonbinary woman. Today, Zee stands proud as a queer nonbinary trans genderfluid individual. We at The Unconventional are proud of Zee living his truth, support him completely, and will continue to do so in the future.
“Queerbaiting,” for the uninitiated, is when media, either intentionally or through the chemistry of the actors, implies a same-sex relationship and then negates, denies, or exploits that relationship to titillate or tease. Given that most queer pop culture representation is so thin, this often feels like an extra insult on top of the already glaring lack of queer representation in media.
Due to censorship, societal pressure, and various other reasons, it’s uncommon to see queer couples ride off into the sunset together or experience a happily ever after. Either all that subtext is washed away with a clumsy, shoehorned heterosexual relationship or, in the case where a queer relationship is made explicit, someone will get hurt or killed to motivate a suitably heterosexual hero (or, more rarely, a still-queer bad guy) into action.
It seems being an openly queer character in mainstream media often means being consumed by how shitty it is to be queer. However, the landscape is slowly but surely changing; today, we’ll explore the various trends in queerbaiting through looking at a trio of queer women in TV, specifically the superhero genre.
The No Homo
Xena, Warrior Princess was, by most accounts, the gayest thing on television before Willow and Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Based on a popular side character from Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena follows the titular warrior princess as she fights to redeem herself from her history of being a brutal warlord. To do so, she becomes a champion for the innocent and a defender of those unable to defend themselves.
Throughout the show, her primary companion is a woman named Gabrielle. Xena saves Gabrielle and the women of her village from a slaver, and Gabrielle is so enchanted that she decides she is going to become a warrior like Xena. She inevitably charms a reluctant Xena into allowing her to travel (and eventually train) with her. Gabrielle has her own hero’s journey throughout the series, at first acting as a sidekick and sometimes conscience for Xena, but eventually becoming a warrior in her own right as well as a foil for the stoic, reserved Xena.
The relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is incredibly intimate and is set up by the show as the most important and defining relationship that the two of them have in their lives. Gabrielle is constantly targeted by their enemies because Xena is willing to do anything for her; when Xena thinks Gabrielle is dead, she is grief stricken and barely able to keep going, revived only when inadvertently given a vision of the future that shows Gabrielle is still alive after all. This sort of intimacy defines their relationship, and at points the show even outright calls them soulmates.
However, the show goes out of its way to also provide on-screen male romances for both Gabrielle and Xena. For Xena, the main love interest is Ares, who also happens to be the main antagonist. Their history extends back to Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, where they worked together until Xena had a change of heart. This tension was a very influential part of their character arcs, and for two seasons he tries to lure Xena to his side, promising her riches, power, and his everlasting love. It is clear that the show wants to make him an appealing option for Xena, and that Xena has some feelings for him, though she ultimately rejects him as part of her becoming a true hero. Throughout the series Xena is also romantically (or at least sexually) linked to numerous other men including Hercules and Julius Caesar, among others.
For Gabrielle, her long-term potential love interest comes in the form of Joxer. The son of a warlord but possessing a peaceful nature, Joxer is enchanted with Gabrielle. He chooses to stay with her even when she rejects him, deciding that being her friend is better than not being in her life at all. Thankfully, the show never pursued a “friend-zone” type relationship, and Joxer develops into a good friend and companion to both Xena and Gabrielle. However, the “will they/won’t they” attitude lingers even after it’s resolved.
Xena and Gabrielle had so much chemistry that to this day they are considered lesbian icons [ 1 ]. However, the show went out of its way to prioritize the heterosexual attachments of the characters, making punchlines of the fact that women are attracted to both Xena and Gabrielle during various points in the show. This sort of mockery lingers, even as later interviews with both the cast and writers seem to confirm the subtext that Xena and Gabrielle were lovers.
Fridge Your Gays
Sara Lance, the White Canary from CW’s Arrow, is a particularly noxious combination of two tropes that kill fictional queer women. The first, “fridging,” is when a woman is killed off to further the angst and suffering of a main male character. This is often the fate of mothers and girlfriends with the trope originating from the protagonist finding their corpse literally stuffed in a refrigerator [ 2 ]. The other, “Bury Your Gays,” is just what it sounds like: an openly queer character gets killed off, usually because of their queerness, resulting in a mourning of the tragedy of being gay [ 3 ].
Sara is the younger sister of Laurel, the love interest of the main character, Oliver Queen. Sara and Oliver have some history, Oliver having cheated on Laurel with her younger sister. When both of them are presumed dead, Laurel sinks into severe despair, torn between being mad that Oliver for having cheated on her with her little sister and being sad that both of them have died.
Nyssa al Ghul, a famous assassin, found Sara on the lost island of Lian Yu and took her in. At Nanda Parbat, Sara trained with the League of Shadows and became an assassin by swearing her allegiance to them. At some point during her five years with the League, she and Nyssa became lovers. This relationship is used as bait, with Nyssa refusing to let Sara leave her and even going so far as to kidnap her mother to try to get Sara back. Through a series of tricks, Sara escapes and Nyssa lets her go. She has an affair with Oliver, but eventually Nyssa returns for her. While on a mission for Nyssa, Sara dies at the hands of Thea, Oliver’s brainwashed sister.
This is a lot to unpack, but two things jump out right away as problematic. One, the only female love interest Sara has is with Nyssa, who not only is a main antagonist, but uses and exploits their relationship, ultimately leading to Sara’s death. While the relationship is explicit, the fact that Nyssa is so willing to exploit it even though she claims to care genuinely for Sara, makes the one queer relationship she has (one of the few depicted on the show) feel rather deviant. Add to that the fact that Sara’s primary relationship to main character Oliver is a sexual one based around cheating on her sister and the whole thing gets even more distasteful. Often, queer people, especially bisexual women like Sara, are portrayed as deviant and morally gray; to have her downfall be directly caused by her relationship with Nyssa at the cost of our two main heroes just feeds that.
Second was the fallout from her death. It didn’t focus on her sister Laurel or even on Thea as she recovers from the brainwashing that made her kill in the first place. Instead, it just feeds Oliver’s angst and guilt. There is no larger reason for the death besides fueling Oliver’s guilt and pain, and even though Sara is later revived, it seems like her death really isn’t about moving her story forward but rather causing pain for Oliver and Laurel. Sara is never able to be her own agent and it certainly never feels like she is really in love with Nyssa.
Gotham’s Barbara Kean is one of the more interesting bisexual characters on TV right now [ 4 ]. While some arguments could be made about Barbara and her mental health, context does matter, especially in light of how everyone on Gotham is presented in some way as unstable. In Barbara’s case, it’s actually her obsession with a man, Jim Gordon, which brings out the worst in her, rather than a woman.
Barbara’s bisexuality is explicit and, in the show, she has more relationships with women than men, which is a refreshing change from the usual presentation where a bisexual woman is presented as mostly straight with one “lesbian” exception. At an unknown point in her life she entered a romantic relationship with Renee Montoya, though it ended after a year.
Several years later Barbara became involved in a relationship with Jim Gordon while he was in Gotham’s Police Academy; eventually they fell in love and he proposed to her and became her fiancée. Barbara leaves town during heightened danger and leaves a note for Gordon saying she’s afraid and can’t be brave enough to stay. She goes back to Renee Montoya, even though she regrets leaving Gordon. Her mental health continues to deteriorate and eventually she is forced to kill her parents due to brainwashing. This begins her descent into madness and evil. She and her girlfriend, Tabitha, become crime bosses, heading their empire from the Sirens Club before Tabitha gets tired of being treated badly and kills her.
Since her psychotic break, Barbara has openly become arrogant, aggressive, violent, immoral, unstable, and delusional, despite originally being compassionate, warm, and willing to do anything to protect the people she cared for. After Barbara comes out of a coma caused by a fall, she feels guilt and remorse for her actions and is apparently horrified at what she has become. Although she claims she was sane after being released from Arkham, she seems to suffer another psychotic break after Jim rejects her, as he is fearful that she will revert to her crime boss past.
Barbara is one of the most recent, interesting examples of a bisexual character on television. Very little of her drama and pain revolves around her being bisexual; rather it reads as an exploration of paranoia, trauma, and abuse. Her relationships and their problems stem from that and the forces that ultimately break her are very separate from her sexuality.
Her sexuality is never front and center of her drama and the fact that she swings back and forth between Renee and Jim feels less about the issue of sexuality and more about trying to find comfort while her life is falling apart. She’s not presented as bad because she’s bisexual, but rather that she is overwhelmed by her situation and then breaks down. Her relationships are often the only real source of comfort that she has.
To the Point
Why does any of this matter?
Put simply, even as creators make strides towards greater equality for people of various genders and sexualities, TV and pop culture like to present a very narrow image of what being queer means. For far too long, these images (contrary to the obvious evidence) are either that queer people outright don’t exist, or that their relationships will cause suffering and pain because they are deviant and different. For queer people, if this is the only message they get, it’s the message they internalize. Consequently, that means less self-esteem, less confidence, and, when added to the fact that many queer people get bullied, is a part of why there is still such a high rate of queer youth suicide [ 5 ]. How can someone be expected to feel like they deserve to survive if the only narrative they get from the culture around them is that they are sick and deviant?
Positive representation not only serves the direct needs of the targeted minority, but complex and varied media presentations mean that those minorities get humanized and more accepted by the majority population, as well. If we present queer people as just being one particular way, instead of being as varied as they are in real life, all people will suffer as a result. Honest, nuanced representation for all walks of life lies in creating media that benefits everyone.
What is Fridging?
Fridging is a commonly used trope where a character is killed off in a particularly horrendous and gruesome manner, then sometimes left to be discovered all in an effort to intentionally cause someone serious emotional trauma and anguish. The victims are usually people that matter most to the main character. Family, close friends, lovers, and sidekicks are all potential victims, but women are by far the most common targets.
The name of this trope comes from a particularly infamous story in a Green Lantern comic. In one particular story, the villain leaves the dead body of Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend literally stuffed into a refrigerator for him to find when he arrives home. Later the term came into popular use due to the website Women in Refrigerators. On this site, comic book writer Gail Simone compiled a list of female comic characters killed off as a plot device. The term has since broadened over time to encompass any character who is targeted by an antagonist to be abused, raped, brainwashed, killed off, or otherwise harmed specifically to emotionally affect another character or motivate them to act [ 6 ]. However, it should be noted that while this trope can theoretically apply to anyone, it is most commonly associated with stories where women are the victims in order to cause pain and anguish for their male counterparts.
In late 2015, a Xena reboot was announced, however in April 2017 writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach left the project, citing “insurmountable creative differences” when asked by interviewers, and later that year the whole project was canned, with no suggestions that it had been picked up in the time since [ 7 ].
An Addendum of Hope?
While it wasn’t as wise a move as, say, not fridging a woman in an IP to begin with, there was some effort to undo the Arrowverse’s mistake. Sarah Lance was eventually resurrected with the aid of the infamous Lazarus Pit [ 8 ]. She even became the leader of her own team, in CW’s Legends of Tomorrow.
We eventually saw a different fatality, however; that of the programming itself. Batwoman and Legends were not renewed. Other shows on the chopping block saw themselves picked up by HBO, some thanks to fan-petitions and writers’ room effort [ 9 ][ 10 ].
Writing in the Arrowverse got better in general, exploring concepts not done so often on comic-based programs, and doing that in new ways.
At the time, there was no comic run in DC’s history that had that same lineup of characters, so there was no reliable built-in fanbase for this new series — you couldn’t just hook viewers because it was the new adaptation of a comic they loved as a kid, even if it did share a title. The comic-less concept also meant that it couldn’t fall back on beloved comic storylines—like The Flash’s famed “flashpoint”— to draw viewership. [ 11 ]
Even now, the addition of James Gunn to the creative minds behind DC’s live-action programming is proving that it has a chance of keeping up with the talent behind its animated works. The Suicide Squad franchise drastically improved in its second theatrical outing, and Peacemaker is seeing excellent reception [ 12 ]. Here’s hoping that these trends continue, both for good character development, and for the sake of eliminated tired, hurtful tropes.
- “The kiss between Xena and Gabrielle in Season 2’s episode ‘The Quest,’ set the ongoing debate between ‘subtext’ and ‘text’ on the pair’s ‘Ship’.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xena:_Warrior_Princess – /media/File:Xena_and_Gabrielle_kiss.jpg
- “A construct of the Arrowverse series of shows on CW, Sarah Lance’s relationships with Oliver Queen and Eva Sharpe shape much of the narrative.” https://dc.fandom.com/wiki/Sara_Lance_(Arrowverse) OR Legends of Tomorrow, Season 1, Episode 16. (Use citation protocol for TV Shows/Serials).
- “While the trope existed well before, it’s understood that the death of Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alex DeWitt at the hands of the villain Major Force informs the term ‘Fridging’.” Green Lantern (Volume 3) #54
Zee has shape-shifted across several genres, as a lover of all things geek. They’ve been a shop-assistant and sales rep for Steampunk props and accessories company Gartisan Works and a writer for Feminerdity. A recent graduate of Salem State’s English Bachelor’s program, Zee’s extracurricular and academics indicate a bright career in education. Since their recruitment to Steam-Funk Studios in 2016, they’ve transitioned from the core writing team to senior creative staff over just four years.
- Upadhyaya, Kayla Kumari. “Read This: How Xena Became an LGBT and Feminist Icon.” AVClub, G/O Media, 17 June, 2017. news.avclub.com/read-this-how-xena-became-an-lgbt-and-feminist-icon-1798248438.
- “Stuffed into the Fridge.” TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/StuffedIntoTheFridge. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.
- “Bury Your Gays.” TV Tropes, tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/BuryYourGays. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.
- Lapin-Bertone, Joshua. “The Mysterious Comic Book Origins of Barbara Kean.” The Batman Universe, The Batman Universe, 15 May, 2018. thebatmanuniverse.net/barbara-kean.
- The Trevor Project. “Facts About Suicide –.” The Trevor Project, The Trevor Project, 20 Sept. 2017. thetrevorproject.org/resources/preventing-suicide/facts-about-suicide/#sm.0001k6h5v05mjdp6zuu2hy6ym8kq5.
- Simone, Gail. “Women in Refrigerators.” Women in Refrigerators, lby3.com/wir. Accessed 12 Apr. 2021.
- Harnick, Chris. “Xena: Warrior Princess Reboot Dead, But What About These Other TV Remakes & Revivals?” E! Online, Entertainment Weekly, 22 Aug. 2017, eonline.com/news/875019/xena-warrior-princess-reboot-dead-but-what-about-these-other-tv-remakes-revivals.
- “Restoration.” Arrow, created by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Andrew Kreisberg, season 4, episode 3, CW, 2015.
- Eclarinal, Aeron, Mer. “Why DC’s Arrowverse Shows Got Cancelled (It Wasn’t The CW’s Fault).” The Direct, The Direct Media Group LLC., 13 May 2022. thedirect.com/article/arrowverse-dc-shows-cw.
- Patterson, Michael. “Why DC’s Legends of Tomorrow was cancelled.” Bam! Smack! Pow!, Minute Media, 9 Jun, 2022. bamsmackpow.com/2022/06/05/why-dcs-legends-of-tomorrow-got-cancelled-by-the-cw/.
- Coates, Lauren. “DC’S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW WENT FROM FORGETTABLE SPIN-OFF TO THE ARROWVERSE’S BEST SHOW BY GETTING WEIRD.” SyFy, NBCUniversal Television, 20 Jan. 2021. syfy.com/syfy-wire/legends-of-tomorrow-arrowverse-best-show-evolution.
- Fransisco, Eric. “DC has always needed someone like James Gunn.” Inverse, Bustle Digital Group, 26 Oct. 2022. inverse.com/entertainment/james-gunn-dc-studios-future-marvel.