Sherlock and Toxic Queerbaiting: Why Fanfic Isn’t Enough


Queerbaiting on BBC’s Sherlock was all about the hypocrisy and the tease, but passing queerbaiting off as audience fantasies will never be okay.

Queerbaiting is when writers and producers of media (usually film and TV) hint at a relationship between two same sex characters, to lure in an LGBTQA+ audience, with no intention of delivering.

Homoerotic subtext in film and media has existed for generations, harking back to a time when homosexuality or bisexuality had to be hinted at in order to get it past the censors. Being gay was illegal (and in many places still is) so the representation of gay romance had to coded and subtle – the hints, the heated looks.

Now we finally have the opportunity to watch explicitly gay-centred TV shows and films. Netflix even has an LGBT category! So why all the queerbaiting? What purpose, if any, does it serve? Clue: It’s certainly not for the benefit of the LGBTQIA+ community.

BBC’s Sherlock is, arguably, the king of queerbaiting. As a property, Sherlock comes with a lot of baggage regarding homoerotic subtext. Academics have been debating for decades over whether Holmes was gay, and whether he and Watson were doing more than just solving cases together.

The only gay portrayal of Sherlock Holmes to date is Billy Wilder’s 1970s film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and the writer/director himself wishes the film had been far more explicit and open about Holmes’ orientation:

“I should have been more daring. I have this theory. I wanted to have Holmes homosexual and not admitting it to anyone, including maybe even himself. The burden of keeping it secret was the reason he took dope.”

Wilder’s version of Sherlock Holmes was the blueprint for BBC’s Sherlock, and Mark Gatiss called The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes a film that changed his life:

“It’s a fantastically melancholy film. The relationship between Sherlock and Watson is treated beautifully; Sherlock effectively falls in love with him in the film, but it’s so desperately unspoken.”

There’s the explicit queerbaiting in Sherlock…

Queerbaiting usually takes two avenues; the implicit and the explicit. The explicit route is when people make jokes about the absurdity of the two characters being in a romantic relationship. In BBC’s Sherlock this happens in the first episode, when the landlady assumes they are cohabiting and a restaurant owner assumes they are on a date.

BBC’s Sherlock has a long-running ‘joke’ of characters mistaking Sherlock and John for being in a relationship, particularly Mrs Hudson the landlady. These assumptions are met with apathy from Sherlock and abject denial and “I’m not gay!” from John (no-one seems to mention to him he doesn’t have to be gay to be in a same sex relationship – after all, bi people do exist).

Many LGBTQIA+ fans of the show have voiced their frustration at feeling like they are being laughed at. There’s nothing ludicrous about the idea of their favourite characters being gay or bisexual, but it’s being offered as a joke where the underlying concept is that such a relationship would be too awkward/impossible/funny for words.

Then there’s the implicit queerbaiting in Sherlock, too.

BBC’s Sherlock is rife with homoerotic subtext. It is shown by lingering camera angles, lighting and storytelling methods. The beginning of the Holmes and Watson arc starts like some romantic tropes. One perspective lover is trapped, down on their luck (John; returned from war, injured and alone). The other ‘rescues’ them and introduces them to a whole new world of possibilities and fun.

The unaired pilot for BBC Sherlock is known colloquially among Sherlock fans, as the ‘Gay Pilot’ One particularly memorable scene is when Sherlock has climbed a roof looking for evidence, with the moon in the background (of course) while John looks on in awe.

Photo credits: BBC

The pilot was left unaired because it was deemed two short (at 60 minutes) and the BBC wanted the episodes to be longer (90 minutes). But was the Sherlock team also asked to tone down the gay symbolism?

It wouldn’t be the first time a scene has been cut for being ‘too gay’. Kingsman: The Secret Service featured what became known as ‘the breakfast scene’: the two main characters enjoying breakfast after spending a day and night together. The film’s director, Matthew Vaughn, said they took the scene out because “it looked like they had slept together” after spending a night drinking.

Queerbaiting in TV and film clearly exists. It’s not just the result of audiences reflecting on the hidden stories of two (usually) attractive characters, and I don’t believe it’s a case of fans reading too much into it.

Particularly in the case of Sherlock, there is just too much (and, in context, one shudders to use this phrase) evidence – right down to how things are edited. In just one example, the Season Four trailer came under criticism for making it look like Sherlock was saying “I love you” to John, with John clearly in the background:

The writers and actors of the show have said unequivocally and repeatedly – while, presumably, approving the editorial direction and choice of trailers – that Sherlock is not gay and Sherlock and John are not in a romantic relationship. And, over the years, have become progressively surlier on the topic. While still, presumably, approving trailers such as the Season 4 one.

In 2015, Moffat told Entertainment Weekly:

“[Sherlock’s] not interested in [sex]. He’s willfully staying away from that to keep his brain pure – a Victorian belief, that. But everyone wants to believe he’s gay. He’s not gay. And Doctor Watson is very clear that he prefers women. People want to fantasize about it. It’s fine. But it’s not in the show.”

It’s the hypocrisy that’s so frustrating. In directing The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, Billy Wilder explicitly set out to depict Sherlock Holmes as gay and repressing his orientation. In the BBC, the writers and directors have done everything possible, from dialogue to story to visuals, to depict Sherlock and Holmes as repressed and gay – then, when it’s brought up, Moffat throws his hands in the air and says it’s “very clear” they’re not gay, it’s “not in the show”, and reduces the audience to people who just want to “fantasize about it”.

That’s queerbaiting. It’s disingenous, deeply unfair to the queer community, and unfair to the audience as a whole

It’s not all on Moffat, either. One of the writers, Mark Gatiss, is both gay a proud advocate for LGBTQA+ rights and visibility. As a fan of Gatiss (I enjoy his novels, his acting and screenwriting) I can’t help but be a little disappointed in him – because he was in a position to do so, so much more for the queer community with his take on Sherlock.

At the San Diego Comicon panel in 2015 Gatiss made several comments on queer representation. He is quoted as saying he wanted gay characters to be a non-issue: “You want to say this is absolutely fine and normal.”

Excellent. That would be good representation. Being gay portrayed as normal, not as part of a pathology. However, in his own show, one cannot help but notice that a lot of the queer coded characters are villains.

Moriarty? He’s Holmes’ nemesis, and his interactions with Sherlock have an explicit sexual undertone. Some might argue that Moriarty knows Sherlock is gay and is mocking him with it. However, Moffat would say that was impossible, since he’s stated his version of Sherlock isn’t gay. So… we don’t have a super-clever Moriarty. We have a queer-coded villain.

Then there’s Irene Adler, the femme fatale, who describes herself as a lesbian but seems susceptible to Sherlock’s charms (and that’s a whole other issue about queer representation right there). Let’s not forget the Season 4 villain Eurus, who used her manipulation skills to get a nurse to have sex with her and claimed that, in the heat of the moment, she hadn’t noticed the gender of the nurse. In BBC’s Sherlock, if you’re a villain, there is sure to be something non-normative around your orientation. But not if you’re the hero – because, as the show’s creators keep insisting, Sherlock and John couldn’t possibly be gay.

If we come back to Gatiss, I’m not saying he should be a paragon for the community… but he has repeatedly voiced his passion for normalising gay culture in media. I just wish he’d attempted to do so on his own show! Sherlock and John didn’t need to ride off into the sunset together, but a little more positive representation would have been nice.

Queerbaiting is, at its core, a marketing ploy. It serves to get an audience who might not have otherwise been interested to keep watching. Like most marketing ploys, it’s soulless.

It is disingenuous to set up a coded romance between two characters with no intention to deliver in the hopes of reeling in a community so in need of mainstream representation that they will, you think, cling to anything. The writers and producers mock them in interviews for their ‘fantasies’ while continuing to make money off the back of them.

And, at the same time, that haha-hoho just-a-joke use of queerbaiting to keep heterosexual and normative audiences titillated is actively harming the queer community, presenting it as a joke, an impossibility, as other.

Is queerbaiting really that harmful? After all, there’s always fan fiction, right?

Not quite. LGBTQIA+ people are just sick of being used as ploys to make shows more ‘edgy’ or make creators seem more ‘inclusive’.

To use a more contemporary example, JK Rowling is – at time of writing – under fire for her comments about Dumbledore and nemesis Grindelwald’s ‘intense sexual relationship’.

Rowling told fans that Dumbledore was gay despite the fact its never mentioned in the seven books or eight films. She only mentioned it after the fact. And, with the new batch of films, Dumbledore’s orientation has not been mentioned. The creators don’t even commit to saying Dumbledore and Grindelwald had a romantic/sexual relationship. If I remember rightly, in The Crimes of Grindelwald their relationship is described as ‘brotherly’.

Are the creators wanting plausible deniability? Are they worried that, if they explicitly say it, they will lose a heterosexual audience? Not only that, Rowling has been accused of using her characters to try and score ‘diversity points’ about ten years after the fact.

And then there’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer… Willow and Tara were one of the best TV couples of all time, and it’s hard canon that Willow likes girls. Not queerbaiting, just representation that made a lot of bi girls very happy.

Queerbaiting in shows like Sherlock isn’t just about people’s fantasies. It’s about the lack of concrete, undeniable representation that the wueer community are just not getting in the mainstream.

Queerbaiting actively creates a barrier that stops us from advancing and making sure the next generations are completely accepting in a way that is still severely lacking today.

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