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).

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8 comments

  1. j.

    “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. j.

    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. Jill Nuttall

    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. Ann

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

  5. tb

    ___> John hitting on Sherlock in Angelo’s – Moffat
    ___> Sherlock standing on a rooftop while John watches with a look of utter amazement in his eyes, with romantic music playing – Moffat
    ___> John killing a man for Sherlock after knowing him for 48h – Moffat
    ___> John and Sherlock flirting at a crime scene – Moffat
    ___> Sherlock being completely unaffected by a presence of a naked woman – Moffat
    ___> Sherlock being affected when JOHN starts to flirt with said woman – Moffat
    ___> Sherlock panicking when someone threatens to shoot John – Moffat
    ___> Sherlock completely ignoring a woman who’s interested in him – Moffat
    ___> John being blindly jealous of said woman – Moffat
    ___> John counting each and every text message Sherlock receives from the woman – Moffat
    ___> Irene saying John and Sherlock are a couple – Moffat
    ___> Irene implying that John is in love with Sherlock and John not denying it – Moffat
    ___> THE BEST MAN’S SPEECH – Moffat
    ___> Sherlock saying he LOVES John – Moffat
    ___> Sherlock yet again NOT sleeping with a woman who wanted to sleep with him – Moffat
    ___> John AGAIN being blindly jealous of said woman – Moffat
    ___> SHERLOCK COMING BACK TO LIFE FOR JOHN – MOFFAT
    ___> THE TARMAC SCENE – MOFFAT

    So can we please stop saying that Moffat is queerbaiting/ making fun or Sherlock/John’s relationship?

    People can of course say/think whatever they want, but they people ought to think carefully before they accuse another human being of something like that, and IMO the opinion doesn’t hold up the slightest scrutiny. It amounts to “these guys are acting unemotional” and that’s it, which also happens to be exactly how a realistically portrayed repressed character would act — and all this in a narrative that clearly says it’s not a healthy thing to be. It drives me up the wall when people can’t distinguish between a writer advocating something, and a writer realistically portraying something bad to show exactly why they don’t advocate it. Sherlock’s entire character arc thus far has been to get over his emotional repression, and John has progressed in that way too, albeit more slowly. Moffat’s episodes play a huge role in those arcs.

    It’s pretty uncritical to accuse Moffat of homophobia or being anti-Johnlock or just joking around just because he writes the episodes where their feelings are most powerful and they can’t yet act on them. In fact, Moffat writes the episodes where they cannot run from their feelings as much as they would like to; he forces them to confront their feelings and shows us the fallout. I don’t understand how someone can watch Sherlock and see that Sherlock has changed to be more emotional, and then take away that Moffat is a champion of emotional repression. I really can’t. It’s the exact opposite. John and Sherlock both suffer for not expressing their feelings, and it’s a HUGE stretch to conclude Moffat feels that’s how it ought to be forever. Moffat’s work even outside of Sherlock is full of repressed male characters who suffer BECAUSE they won’t just deal with their feelings. Hell, in Jekyll a character even uses the word “repressed” to describe what is essentially the root of a lot of the protagonist’s problems. Moffat does not think repression is healthy, he thinks it’s something to be overcome.

    And like, MOFFAT TOLD THE WORLD HE CRIED WHILE WRITING SHERLOCK’S BEST MAN SPEECH. How repressed do you imagine Moffat is as a person? Again: he not only cried writing that, he told the entire world that fact.

    I don’t think I’ve seen many serious writers make the argument Moffat is a homophobe, at least, because writers understand conflict and character arcs and romantic obstacles. Good writers understand that people do not change quickly, or easily, and that people tend to change only because circumstances force them to. And that’s where drama comes from. But when people are used to fanfics where John and Sherlock get together pretty quickly — which is fine! — people might perceive romantic obstacles and characters needing to change before they can be in a relationship as homophobia. Sometimes I wonder if this assumption comes from people who have only had a few relationships, or else maybe don’t think much about why relationships fail and why they work. I don’t know.
    You put a character like Sherlock through hell because he has so much psychological baggage that if he and John had confessed their feelings already their relationship would have fallen apart — and if it didn’t, it would be for unhealthy, codependent reasons, e.g. John sticks around with Sherlock, even though Sherlock treats him like shit, because he needs him to feel alive, a la the first two series. Sherlock needed to be convinced a relationship is what he wanted, and he needed to realize he had to be a better person and make John his priority over his work. Sherlock started working on himself in TEH and it lasted the entire series. Shooting Magnussen in Moffat’s episode was the absolute pinnacle of Sherlock accepting that he’s willing to love another person and sacrifice everything and just deal with the pain that entails, rather than trying to avoid pain like he did before TRF. If Sherlock had never been forced to cope with pain and heartbreak, he would always be a shitty partner who wouldn’t allow himself to open up to John and he’d still have hurtful outbursts like he did at the beginning of TGG. He wouldn’t consider John his equal, and John would still feel like Sherlock’s PA. That’s the kind of relationship John would be in. Why would anyone want that? Why wouldn’t people want to see Sherlock grow the fuck up first?

    I have read and enjoyed fanfics where that’s glossed over with the assumption that Sherlock would just be nice all of the sudden, or he’d still be rude but not so much that John wouldn’t mind, but that’s not realistic. Maybe I’m unfortunate because I’ve known people like that, IDK, but love alone does NOT heal all wounds, and Moffat’s writing usually has deeper psychology holding it up than the fluffy stuff people expect to have seen by now. (And dear god, the best man’s speech WAS fairly fluffy, even then.) When you love damaged, guarded people like pre-series three Sherlock, it means a lot to them, yes, but they still get defensive and insecure and lash out at you and it hurts. In reality, you don’t get a lot of fluff in a relationship between two psychologically damaged people. That’s not really a model gay relationship for the world to see, either.

    You get fluff once those people have worked through most of their shit. And that takes a lot of TIME. Having someone love you doesn’t heal your insecurities, it can just help you feel safe enough to confront them because you think if someone loves you, you can’t be that bad. You deal with your insecurities by doing the painful work of taking them on. Loving someone else ought to make you want to be a better person for them, and Moffat’s parts of series three demonstrate that very idea. Sherlock confronted emotional issues he was utterly unable to confront for the first three dozen years of life, issues which almost certainly feed into his having to be on suicide watch, because he loves John so much that John’s happiness is worth confronting those painful things.

    I mean, that’s WAY more romantic than most straight love stories. Jesus Christ. And people call Moffat a homophobe. I can’t. It’s seriously insulting.

    On top of all that, I don’t know how or why people assume all the writers write their episodes in a vacuum without conferring with one another. I don’t think those people have any idea of how writing for TV shows works, but it’s still frustrating to see that people would rather call another human being a homophobe than, I dunno, look into that sort of thing. Every interview Moftiss give they appear to be on the same page about everything, and talk about planning everything together. They talk about writing lines in one another’s episodes, etc. All three of them wrote The Sign of Three together, come on; how and WHY would they do that if they had contradictory visions for the show? Masochism?

    Furthermore, why does anyone think Moffat and Gatiss would even decide to write a show together if they knew they didn’t want the same things from it? Does anyone really think Gatiss would want to write a queer Sherlock Holmes adaptation and then inexplicably decide to do it with Moffat even though he knew Moffat wouldn’t let him go that route? They weren’t contracted out by someone else who already had the idea, they didn’t sign on because they were starving for a paycheck, they got together and put the idea together themselves and went through the effort of making it happen because they were excited about it. Together. Like… how many people who believe that argument have ever written anything with another person? Do they go out of their way to start projects with people whose vision they don’t like, when they already have plenty of other projects? Are these theoretical people okay?
    It’s already insulting and uncritical to call Moffat a homophobe, but it’s even more insulting and uncritical to cast Gatiss as this meek queer guy who’d allow himself to be bullied by Moffat into making John and Sherlock straight because Moffat thinks to do otherwise would be, I dunno, gross or something. Like, how low an opinion of Mark Gatiss do you have to have to think he’d write a show with a homophobe for four years? Either Johnlock is endgame or it isn’t, but if it isn’t, it’s almost certainly not because Moffat said he thought it was icky and Gatiss was like, “Cool, I still want to hang out with you because I have no self-esteem. And it doesn’t kill me inside to ruin my vision of the show I’ve wanted to see since I was a kid. I constantly Tweet and give interviews about LGBT rights, and about how there should be a gay detective show, but you, Steven Moffat, are the one straight guy in my life I’m incapable of standing up to. There couldn’t possibly be anyone else on earth I could make a queer Sherlock Holmes adaptation with, so I’m just going to settle for hanging out with a guy who thinks my lifestyle shouldn’t be depicted on television. Whatever you say goes, master. I must say, though, I find it odd that your episodes are an order of magnitude gayer than mine.”

    I just… (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

    And let’s not even start on the multiple queer characters Moffat has had in his other shows. Let’s not talk about the lesbian versions of John and Sherlock on Doctor Who and Jekyll, the latter of which is Moffat’s show alone, wherein the female versions of John and Sherlock were pretty normal people and one of them was pregnant and it was all domestic and… aaaargh.

    Plus SO MUCH of Moffat’s stuff is completely sex-obsessed, and he had that recent quote about finding Sherlock interesting because he perceives that he’s a sexual volcano waiting to erupt. Like. Moffat grew up reading about a couple of guys who live together for yeaaaars but are supposedly not fucking. Watch Coupling and tell me how realistic Moffat probably thought that was. The man’s mind is gloriously filthy. He would have seen quite clearly that Holmes was never interested in women — and Moffat writes him that way on Sherlock — and that Holmes was always all over Watson and maaaad depressed about him getting married — and Moffat writes him that way on Sherlock. When Sherlock’s sexual volcano erupts, which character do you think Moffat wants to get it in the face?

    *whispers in your ear* He wants John to get it in the face.

    It’s a very simple deduction. I bet you $5; see you in a few years. If I’m wrong I’ll throw in a sandwich.

    Because Irene and Janine didn’t get it in the face. They tried very hard to get it in the face, and they walked away cold. Moffat made sure that was clear. So why does no one call Moffat a heterophobe? No straight sex has been allowed to happen on this man’s watch. He made sure John didn’t get laid in ASiB, and suggestive dreams about Sherlock jolted John from Mary’s heterosexual grasp before her hand could get too close to his dick. Ugh, Moffat clearly thinks it’s okay to show straight people in unsexualized situations that SHOULD be sexual as a joke, but ewww, straight sex is apparently too gross. He’d never go that far. John and Mary are doomed, and it’s so unfair! Gatiss and Thompson set them up as a nice heterosexual couple and then Moffat went and ruined it! We should have seen HLV coming the way Moffat undermined John and Mary’s marriage in Sherlock’s best man speech. And of course Moffat has been saying in interviews a baby might not be in the cards for John after all: he’d do ANYTHING to erase the suggestion of heterosexual sex on the show. Heterosexual relationships are a big joke to him, it’s so ignorant!!

      • celestialteapot

        No, I don’t follow any Sherlock related Tumblr content (or any really, I don’t have a Tumblr any more) – there were links to articles and whatnot retweeted on Twitter.

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