On accusations of queerbaiting and homophobia in ‘Sherlock’

I wanted to write a blog post to address the accusations of ‘queerbaiting’ and homophobia that’s been levelled at the Sherlock team. It’s something I’ve not felt I’ve been able to do before, which is a bit ridiculous as I am a lesbian so ‘queerbaiting’ and homophobia are things that affect me so I should be able to respond but I’ve always struggled to understand what exactly ‘queerbaiting’ is. Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘queerbaiting’ and homophobia are essentially two sides of the same coin. It’s the same attitude.

John and Sherlock are never going to get together as a couple. This isn’t because the bosses over at the BBC are homophobic or because the audience would be homophobic, it’s because Holmes and Watson were never a gay couple. Holmes and Watson don’t even really come close to having what we term a ‘romantic friendship’, they have a very close friendship and each has become very important in the others life but it’s our modern reading that’s made Sherlock & John gay, and I personally feel that the writers have got it right. They’ve acknowledged that as a modern audience we going to see John & Sherlock as practically a couple but at the same time they’re keeping it true the canon, they are not a couple.

This is probably where this accusation of ‘queerbaiting’ has come from. People view the writers as teasing us about a gay relationship and John’s continually denial that he is not gay must be homophobic. I don’t believe that all. I don’t understand why people think it is homophobic of John to deny that he is something he’s not – especially as he’s a heterosexual man and interested in the ladies so having everyone thinking you’re gay is perhaps not helping that situation. I’m still not sure what really could be constituted ‘queerbaiting’ as it feels like it should be something insulting, like two straight girls kissing to get a reaction but even then that’s not aimed at getting a reaction from lesbians in the same way that most lesbian porn is not for lesbians. Is that ‘queerbaiting’? It doesn’t seem like it as it’s not us queers they’re baiting.

I think ‘queerbaiting’ would be using a gay relationship in a promotional way. A new television show teases two men walking down the street together holding hands, thoroughout the episode people treat them as a gay couple and we see no denial from them but upon it transpires they’ve actually had an ‘amusing’ accident with some industrial strength glue. But that doesn’t really seem like ‘queerbaiting’ either, rather a casually homophobic joke. Which is why I say ‘queerbaiting’ and homophobia are the same side of the coin, using the perceived reading of a relationship to get a reaction from an audience (essentially seeing something and immediately deciding that it’s gay).

Sherlock & John were never going to get together. It has nothing to do with perceived or actual homophobia, they are simply not gay characters. They’re very, very close friends. You could say one completes the other and it’s a sad commentary on modern society that two men can’t have this sort of friendship without everything thinking that they’re gay or in a relationship. The writing of the show in my view acknowledges this commentary, but it also can’t ignore it. John and Sherlock love each other very much, but in a platonic way that would have been called a ‘romantic friendship‘ had we not decided that this sort of closeness was gay.

John has become so intricate and part of Sherlock’s life in a way that Sherlock never expected, of course Sherlock is looking over to him at the wedding. He’s not about to push Mary out of the way and confess his undying love, no he’s looking at two people he knows love each and can offer a companionship he can’t. He loves John and he wants him to be happy, but this has come a cost of his own happiness. John’s told him things won’t change but Sherlock knows that things will, especially now there is a child in the mix. For them both, it’s the end of an era and signals a change those of us familiar with the canon knew was coming. Holmes retires to the country to keep bees and Watson is not part of that life, and in fact sees his old friend very rarely. The two once very close friends have drifted apart, presumably through Watson’s marriage or marriages and I think we will see a similar drifting apart in John & Sherlock.

(For the record I’ve always believed that Holmes is a deeply closeted gay man who doesn’t have the emotional tools to begin to process what this means, he’s essentially your typical sexually repressed Victorian. Watson is either unaware of Holmes’s nature or more likely he doesn’t even begin to know what to do with that information).


6 thoughts on “On accusations of queerbaiting and homophobia in ‘Sherlock’

  1. “Sherlock” is definitely a show that contains queerbaiting.

    Queerbaiting is NOT homophobia. Queerbaiting is a tactic to attract gay and slash fan viewers to a show to increase viewership by repeatedly teasing gay themes and a “more-than-friends”/”wink wink nod nod” relationship between two men or two women (straight or gay) and not following through. It’s not about fear or aversion of gay people or homosexual topics.

    Homophobia only comes into play when, within the queerbaiting tactics, the idea of the two characters following through is treated like a joke by: 1) the two characters 2) other characters or 3) scenes and dialogue. Those who use queerbaiting tactics often make the idea of the two characters getting together a joke while hinting that they’re more than just friends so they can later claim that it was all accidental. See also “Supernatural.”

    Since the first series of “Sherlock,” the writers have repeatedly teased viewers by using queerbaiting tactics. They didn’t present Sherlock as straight from the beginning and there was some question about John “protesting too much” about his being straight. Add in other questionable dialogue, scenes and “jokes,” including other characters believing that they’re gay, and you definitely have queerbaiting.

    It doesn’t matter if one of the writers is gay or not. A story about Sherlock and Watson can be written (and has been) without queerbaiting tactics and still be an excellent story. Yet, many fans around the world commonly think of “Sherlock” as one of the best examples of queerbaiting. Why? Because it’s very obvious that its creators actively chose, and still choose, to put in little titillating parts that reference gay themes without actually following through or using gay characters (not including Irene Adler – Although you may notice that she was also used to bait fans into believing that Sherlock and John are more than friends whether they realized it or not).

    “No Homo” is the other reason that many fans believe that queerbaiting is taking place in “Sherlock.” There’s nothing wrong with a character in a story saying he’s not gay if someone mistakenly believes that he is gay. The problem is that it’s a common practice for writers who use queerbaiting tactics to start the process at the beginning of a series by initiating a scenario in which two characters are mistakenly thought of as a couple and then one or both states that he or she isn’t Then, as the series progresses, one or more characters repeatedly denounces being gay. It’s done for several reasons: First, some writers think it’s funny. Second, and more importantly, it gives the writers the ability to say later on if they’re caught queerbaiting that they told the audience from the very beginning that the character isn’t gay by having him repeatedly stating so. This is the “I think he/she protests too much” trope.

    Again, see also “Supernatural” – Dean Winchester – to get a better understanding of the topic. There have been multiple instances of Dean checking out guys on-screen and plenty of dialogue and scenes that appear to be queerbaiting tactics used to suggest that he’s bisexual although he has repeatedly stated that he’s straight. It didn’t help that the creators based his character on a bi-sexual character from On the Road. After S8, in which the queerbaiting rose to new heights, fans called out the creators for queerbaiting and then the creators did a lot of back-pedaling for S9. So far, S9 has pretty much become a “No Homo” season. Why? The writers pulled out one gay character, Charlie, and a potentially lesbian character, Dorothy, as well as referenced revisionist history with comparisons to fanfiction in an episode that also referenced being Friends of Dorothy. They’ve showed a flashback with Dean as a boy kissing a girl, referenced Dean being attracted to a female dog after doing a spell in an episode that shares a title with a movie about a lead bi-sexual character and have even gone so far as to do a re-virgining episode that focused on Dean’s sexuality. Queerbaiters often try to “appease fans” and rewrite they’re “mistakes” this way. They’ll even off-screen tell fans that queerbaiting was accidental, unintentional or just “kidding around.” Creatives for both “Sherlock” and “Supernatural” have done so at length over the past year as more and more fans have caught on to queerbaiting tactics used in television shows.

    All of the above said, queerbaiting is still used because it’s is wonderful for those who can pull it off. You would think that angry fans means that the tactic didn’t work, but that’s not the case unless angry fans result in reduced viewership that negatively impacts the future of the show or money made off it.

    Even if a show loses fans because of backlash about queerbaiting, the tactic is a win win for writers who pull it off in the early seasons of a show that becomes successful. Why? By the time fans start to get pissed off enough to leave, the show has reached a stage where the attrition of some fans won’t have a significant impact on the show’s future or the monetary bottom line.

    Better yet, queerbaiting is a “renewable” tactic. New fans who think it’s funny will join the show after hearing about the controversy. Other people, attracted by the show’s success, might decide to watch from the beginning before starting new episodes and get attracted to the queerbaiting tactics. When that happens, they also get caught up them and then the cycle repeats.

    If you do a bit of online searching, you’ll find people who heard good things about “Sherlock” or “Supernatural” and decided to watch the early episodes before watching the new ones, got hooked, realized after all that investment of time and money that they were baited and have now become angry alongside of some old fans. Yet, “Sherlock” and “Supernatural” aren’t losing steam. The only people hurt by queerbaiting are those creatives/shows that fail to make the tactics work for them in the first season of a show and the show is cancelled AND, more importantly, fans attracted to gay themes.

  2. One clarification: I don’t mean to imply that there’s nothing homophobic about not following through with gay themes used in queerbaiting tactics. Obviously, when there are no gay couples in a show at all and there’s queerbaiting, there might be an undercurrent of homophobia that’s prompting the use of these tactics.

    That said, you can have queerbaiting involving two characters in a show and also have realistic portrayals of gay characters outside of the queerbaiting.

    The problems I see with creatives are as follows:

    1. Some creatives feel that using these tactics is funny.
    2. Some are homophobic, or phobic about slash fiction, and use these tactics to mock gay and slash fans.
    3. Some feel that queerbaiting is the only way they can introduce gay themes and that somehow it helps promote LGBT awareness. (Yeah. There are people who actually think that way).
    4. Then there are the creatives who make a mistake in a scene or with editing that comes off as queerbaiting, or find out later that someone above them decided to make changes to their work, and then they get unjustly accused of queerbaiting by fans.

  3. Totally agree with you there. I also read/see this relationship as a deeply-rooted, though probably unnoticed, tragedy (both characters feeling strongly for one another, yet incapable of acting on those feelings) – I have always picked up on Holmes’ loneliness. Like every human being, he would love to belong, but he can’t. So he stays on his own. Alone. Always. Which is sad if you think of it…

  4. Hi! What do you think of the accusations of queerbaiting in supernatural? I really liked your post, I want your opinion on destiel too 😉

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