Netflix Wasn’t Queerbaiting With ‘Stranger Things’, But They Are With ‘Wednesday’
Between Netflix's official Twitter account retweeting romantic tweets, and their 'WednesGay' premiere, we've got some proper queerbaiting on our hands.
Netflix’s new series, Wednesday, chronicles the murder mystery solving adventures of a teenage Wednesday Addams at the exclusively weird Nevermore Academy. The academy is attended by vampires, sirens and werewolves, but by far the oddest spectre walking its halls is the ghost of promised queer representation that never came.
The series’ lack of significant queer representation confused and disappointed fans after Netflix hosted a major “WednesGay” event featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni to launch the series, heavily implying the series would be queer.
The opposites attract storyline we needed. pic.twitter.com/fFrjgHeL8O
— Netflix (@netflix) November 26, 2022
Not only did Netflix host an explicitly queer event to premiere the series, but their official Twitter account pushed content implying that Wednesday and her adorable werewolf roommate, Enid were queer.
“The opposites attract storyline we needed,” tweeted the show’s official account, along with a screenshot of Wednesday and Enid. Another read “Wednesday & Enid’s relationship is elite,” accompanied by selfies of stars Jenna Ortega and Emma Myers. Not to mention the account frequently retweets tweets from people that ship the characters romantically.
The use of the word “relationship” instead of friendship kept the nature of Wednesday and Enid’s connection ambiguous; combine this promo material with a ‘WednesGay’ premiere event and it would seem entirely reasonable to assume Wednesday herself is queer in the series. The only thing is: she isn’t.
— rin || wednesday spoilers (@moona_pi) November 23, 2022
There is a somewhat unsubtle queer allegory to be found in the plight of Wednesday’s adorable werewolf roomate as Enid and Enid’s parents’ attempt to send her to werewolf conversion therapy. But the only overtly LGBTIQ+ characters in Wednesday’s first season are the briefly present gay mums of Eugene Otinger, Wednesday’s friend from beekeeping club.
All of this means that the series has spurred allegations of queerbaiting, and in this case, I’d say people are right.
What Is Queerbaiting?
Queerbaiting has been a term used for decades. It describes a very specific type of marketing when media is marketed toward LGBTIQ+ audiences to profit off their engagement, while failing to deliver on that promised queerness. Queerbaiting is not, at least not in its traditional context, a storytelling trope.
If anything, queerbaiting is about what’s absent from storytelling.
In 2022, Netflix has been plagued with accusations of queerbaiting from fans. Such fans have accused the production company of queerbaiting with Wednesday, Stranger Things, Heartstopper, Vincenzo, The Witcher, and even the Knives Out sequel, Glass Onion.
But with the exception of Heartstopper, none of these shows and films technically fit the bill. Queerbaiting is a marketing technique built on false promise and none of the above (except for Heartstopper) were promoted as explicitly queer.
In the case of Heartstopper, it was not the show but one of its main actors that fans accused. While the lines between public and private often blur with personal celebrity branding, the assertion that a person can ‘queerbait’ via their private life is a blatant bastardisation of the term.
As for Stranger Things, Vincenzo, and The Witcher — none of these shows were advertised as having queer storylines. For something to be queerbait, it has to bait. So, if these shows and films aren’t queerbaiting, what are they doing? And why does it rile up queer viewers and fans?
Queerbaiting V. Queercoding
Queerbaiting is queercoding’s evil cousin. Originating in the seminal novel, The Celluloid Closet, queercoding refers to the language and techniques creatives used in media to signify queerness to the audience without making it explicit.
This kind of stealthy storytelling was (and in many cases remains) necessary due to the censoring, blackballing, and stigmatisation of LGBTIQ+ media and those who make it. Queercoding became a way for people wanting to make queer stories to bypass bigotted gatekeepers and gain resources necessary to make them.
Queercoding comes in various forms, encompassing everything from an actor’s performance, certain phrases used in the dialogue, the design of animated characters, and even the way individual shots are composed.
Some infamous examples include Ursula in the original Little Mermaid whose character design was inspired by a real-life drag queen, Divine. Another more recent example is the film, Passing, in which director Rebecca Hall intentionally made the queer subtext of the novel more visually obvious, with many shots lingering on the two women sharing longing glances and brushing hands.
Arguably, when it comes to shows like Stranger Things, it is queercoding that fans are picking up on, rather than queerbaiting. Fans have repeatedly accused the Duffer Brothers of queerbaiting with Will Byers when in reality Netflix have never promoted Stranger Things as an LGBTIQ+ series.
From Stranger Things’ first season, Will has been coded as gay. In the first episode, his own mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder) tells Hopper (David Harbour) that Will’s own father called him queer and a “fag”. Later in series one, a school bully says that his dad believes the missing Will to be dead, killed by “another queer.”
The most recent season included a touching scene in which Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) recognises his little brother’s anguish over Mike and reminds him that he would love him no matter what. Will has never officially come out in the show, but the coding could not be more obvious. But it is not bait.
While queercoding allows for queer creators to inject queer subtext in their work without being penalised, it also became a way to villainise the LGBTIQ+ community without explicitly appearing to do so. Disney famously has done this, not just with Ursula, but with other villains including Jafar, Scar and even Elsa.
Ultimately, it’s this queercoding that LGBTIQ+ fans engage with, and major corporations like Netflix and Disney know that. So, they flip queercoding into queerbaiting as a means to profit from queer audiences’ engagement without the risk of actually creating queer stories. It’s an insidious strategy that prioritises profit over the humanity of LGBTIQ+ people.
Why Netflix’s Wednesday Should Not Get Away With Queerbaiting
The line between a piece of media’s fandom and the media itself is becoming increasingly blurred. Fandom has always been viewed as a source of profit; hence the existence of merchandise and conventions. But with social media, a fandom’s ability to influence media has increased, for better and worse.
So, it’s no surprise that major companies like Netflix have co-opted fan language to promote their content. “The opposites attract storyline we needed,” tweets Netflix; but one has to ask, who is the “we” here?
The “this is the _____ we needed” meme format is frequently used by fans to praise elements of a piece of media they like. The “we” is used by fans to refer to themselves and fellow fans.
But when Netflix calls an event “WednesGay”, when it uses fan language with the power of its multi-million dollar cooperation behind it, we see a cynical self-congratulating gesture that serves scraps with the conviction of serving a feast.
This is especially unsettling for fans given that Netflix consistently has cancelled a bunch of their openly LGBTIQ+ shows. Over the past few years, First Kill, One Day At A Time, I Am Not Okay With This, Merry Happy Whatever, Trinkets, Teenage Bounty Hunters, Sense8, and many other series with lesbian and queer leads have been axed by Netflix. Given this history, perhaps Wednesday’s Season 2 renewal is the ultimate indicator of the show’s queerness.
In February 2019, video essayist and academic, Rowan Ellis coined the term “queer catching”. An offshoot of queerbaiting, Ellis defines queer catching as a practice where creators and corporations queerbait audiences into believing a show will be openly queer, but the representation of queerness is, in reality, practically inconsequential. At best, queer catching is what Netflix is guilty of here, but some lesbian mums with a single scene is hardly a win for inclusivity.
Between Eugene’s gay mums, and Enid’s awkwardly overt conversion therapy allegory, an argument could be made that the show was not queerbaiting, There are, after all, some queer themes and minor characters. But these are so inconsequential that, were they to be removed from the story, the series would remain unchanged.
In 2016, GLAAD created the Vito Russo test as a helpful criteria to gauge the significance of LGBTIQ+ representation in a piece of media in a similar measure to the Bechdel Test. To pass the Vito Russo test, the media in question must have an openly identifiable queer character, must not be defined solely by their sexuality or gender, and must be tied to the plot in such a way that removing them would change the plot. No element of Wednesday passes this criteria, despite queer promotion of the show.
It is quite something for a series that’s core message is to embrace social outcasts with humanity and dignity to use a marginalised and stigmatised community’s aesthetics as promotional material. And, for that same series to use the real trauma of queer conversion therapy as an allegory within the show, without then including any significant queer representation within.
Queerbaiting is not a character widely interpreted as queer not coming out, nor is it the idea that queer subtext is a social contract that guarantees an explicit coming out story, and its not an actor doing their job by playing a role.
At best, queerbaiting is unintentional false advertising and at worse it’s a maliciously co-ordinated corporate-funded lie intended to profit socially and financially from a marginalised community. Netflix’s Wednesday is queerbaiting and, in 2022, LGBTIQ+ audiences deserve better.
Queerbaiting is an accusation that has been both diluted and weaponised over the past few years. The solution to this does not lie in harassing young actors to come out, but in holding major companies accountable for their parasitical allyship and appropriation of queerness, supporting openly LGBTIQ+ shows, and demanding queer voices behind the scenes, as well as in front of the camera.