Blogging for HONS 201: Feminism, New Media, and Health at Hunter College.


Liu and Miller as Watson and Holmes, via NYU Local. Fair Use.

Liu and Miller as Watson and Holmes, via NYU Local. Fair Use.

A few months ago, my wonderful colleague Sarah blogged about genderswapping and platonic relationships, specifically related to two contemporary adaptations of Sherlock Holmes: BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary. As Sarah outlines in her post, much of the Internet outcry related to Elementary was regarding the casting of Lucy Liu, an Asian-American woman, as Watson – Joan Watson. Much of the Internet backlash came from fans of the the BBC adaptation, and went from the racist to the sexist, to the straight-up ridiculous.

But what some Sherlock fans tried to do was argue that the depth of the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson depends entirely on both characters being cis, white, straight males, because of,  you see, “homoerotic/queer subtext.” Now, the nature of Holmes and Watson’s relationship (in the novels) has been under debate for years upon years; whether or not they were simply platonic friends or gay lovers is open to the reader’s interpretation. But the insistance that CBS and Elementary are somehow homophobic for casting a woman as Watson and therefore destroying homoerotic queer subtext is ridiculous.

One such reaction on microblogging site tumblr.

One such reaction on microblogging site tumblr.

This stems from the phenomenon in fandom known as queerbaiting. Tumblr blogger orbitingasupernova sums up queerbaiting pretty well, writing,

“Queerbaiting is what most shows with (predominantly white) male leads do. Put a little gay subtext in there to stir up interest, and then every so often go to the press, shout NO HOMO NO HOMO NO HOMO at the interviewer, and everything is fine.”

BBC’s Sherlock – and showrunner Steven Moffat – are guilty time and time again of queerbaiting; pretending to rep queer characters, while keeping any possibility of open queerness from moving beyond mere subtext. While many members of the Sherlock fandom continue pretend that “#Johnlock” is real, Irene Adler is only the openly queer character on the program. Idolizing John and Sherlock in the BBC series as queer characters isn’t progressive – it’s the fetishiztion of queer people while contributing absolutely nothing to actual queer representation in mainstream media. Queerbaiting completely comes from a place of privilege; it is privilege that allows fandom (and writers and producers) to serve up nudge-nudge-wink-wink queer subtext with nary a though about actual LBGTQIA invisibility in television.

The confirmed platonic relationship between Holmes and Watson on Elementary goes on to further complicate the “argument” that Joan Watson represents queer erasure. Liu’s casting can’t be homophobic or erasure because there was no homosexual/queer relationship to erase. And not only is Watson a woman, but she is a woman of color. She is an Asian-American woman who is not defined by her gender or her ethnicity, and does not exist for the erotic/romantic desires of the men around her. That’s pretty damn progressive (and impressive) in my opinion, and the trivialization of what Liu’s casting represents – that somehow the show would be better/perfect if she were a straight, white man who had a queer subtext – also comes from a perch of privilege.

Have a nice day.

Playing all your white male favorites.

Playing all your white male favorites.

(And for the record, it’s not just the Sherlock fandom that is guilty of queerbaiting; the Doctor Who, Merlin, and Supernatural fandoms are others come to mind for me.)


9 comments on “On Queerbaiting; or, SUBTEXT DOES NOT EQUAL REPRESENTATION.

  1. kohagan
    December 3, 2012

    Great post! Love that quote from tumblr. I do have to admit though, I still love Sherlock (the BBC show)–though I realize it also probably miserably fails the Bechdel test.

    • kerishma
      December 3, 2012

      I think you can like shows/books/film while still having problems with it. Just as long as those problems are acknowledged, I don’t think it’s an issue! ):

    • Kerishma
      December 4, 2012

      OK, that was totally meant to be a smiley face. Whoops! 🙂

  2. shatoum
    December 4, 2012

    Thanks for the pingback. I agree with everything here. Most fandoms involving two white, supposedly heterosexual male protagonists see queer representation and queer baiting as one in the same. Maybe if there was actual queer representation on TV shows then this wouldn’t be such a problem. Alas, this isn’t the case…

    As for the whole John/Sherlock business, I think fanfiction is fine but constantly arguing that “they’re so gay in canon” because they looked at each for more than 2 seconds is obnoxious.

    I will forever applaud Rob Doherty for his, as you said, “progressive” look at a modern-day Holmes & Watson. The “CBS is homophobic” argument is ridiculous.

    Re: Moffatisms, can I just present without comment this terrible and terribly angering (see: last sentence of quote) Moffat quote?:

    “There’s no indication in the original stories that he [Sherlock] was asexual or gay. He actually says he declines the attention of women because he doesn’t want the distraction. What does that tell you about him? Straightforward deduction. He wouldn’t be living with a man if he thought men were interesting.”

    (I love that joke on Tumblr that Lucy will play every white, male character you’ve ever loved. It never gets old. And people get so angry about it).

  3. Daniel Pecoraro (@dpecs)
    December 4, 2012

    This is totally spot-on. While I’m a fan of Sherlock – it’s a smart modernization, great use of graphics and technology, Freeman and Cumberbatch are good actors – the show is terrible from a feminist/LGBTQ+ inclusive perspective (as Kaitlyn noted, the show entirely fails the Bechdel test, even with the relatively small sample of 6 90-minute episodes). Somewhat surprisingly, Moffat’s tenure as Doctor Who showrunner has had similar issues – Amy Pond as constant damsel-in-distress, queerbaiting between Matt Smith and recurring character Craig (James Corden) along with downright homophobic lines throughout this past series, and Jack Harkness (easily one of the best supporting characters and a positive portrayal of a pansexual) completely ignored.

    Unfortunately, the Sherlock fandom (who additionally consider Sherlock, rather than the original Doyle stories, canon) makes it even worse, while considering themselves progressive gay allies when they’re anything but.

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