Queerscope | To Be or Not to Be Gay: The Issue of Queercoding and Queerbaiting in Mainstream Media


Queerscope  is a bi-monthly column that aims to look at queerness and its aspects, in concern with modern culture as well as lessons from queer movements across the world.

Indian film industries have had a tenacious relationship with queer identities and their representation from times immemorial. While there has been a recent rise in representation, it is still a niche area of analysis in a country which struggles to appropriately represent women in the 21st century. Subtext then, is usually the road taken, and movies that do not shy away from addressing and acknowledging queer identities are considered landmark and praised for their supposed bravery. Here, the reference is to mainstream movies, such as the recently released Dream Girl, which has been hailed as a comic caper, a ‘laugh riot’ and a ‘family entertainer’.

What the movie is, is a sexist and misogynistic depiction of alluded trans identities. The trailer is built in such a way that audiences go in with the hope of yet another progressive film from Ayushmann Khurrana. What the trailer does instead is bait its queer audience with the characters of the ‘turned’ lesbian Roma Gupta, and Khurrana’s own cross dressing capers as Sita and Draupadi. This act of baiting is very successful – it is not until you reach the end of the movie that Roma is ‘fixed’ by the comment: “teen kharab kele“. Queerbaiting is thus successfully employed here in a mainstream Bollywood entertainer. This begets the question, what is queerbaiting?

A 2017 article by Rife Magazine defines queerbaiting as “the practice of hinting at, but never actually depicting, a potential romantic same-sex romantic relationship between two characters.” This, in opposition to queercoding, which is when characters in media are coded as queer, such as in terms of mannerisms, appearances or through language. SYFY Wire describes queercoding as “a process by which characters in a piece of fictional media seem — or code — queer. This is usually determined by a series of characteristics that are traditionally associated with queerness, such as more effeminate presentations by male characters or more masculine ones from female characters.”

While this is a traditional understanding of the term, queercoding actually runs deep in the texts it is invoked in. The line between queercoding and queerbaiting then is very fine and it cannot be said that they are completely different from each other. Any instance of queercoding is, by default, an act of queerbaiting. By reference to the Rife definition of queerbaiting, queercoding then comes with the potential to be of both positive, and negative intent. Baiting, as the name suggests, is a strategy to attract queer audiences with content that does not deliver to the extent of its promise. Such practices are used by media industries to ensure that they are able to appease both straight audiences and queer audiences. Appease is however, a strong word. Queerbaiting is essentially used with the belief that it will increase sales and viewership by peddling to a niche group of viewers and since it is a niche group, most of the heteronormative public would not come to know of it at all, or be unable to read the cues in the text. Queercoding thus turns nefarious in this aspect.

An indulgent reading of queercoding is to say that the coding is a way to represent and acknowledge while evading censorship. A more gritty reading is that queercoding often associates queerness with villainy or weakness. 1991’s Sadak saw Sadashiv Amrapurkar play the role of a trans character who was depicted as completely evil and nefarious. On the other end of the spectrum are roles like that of Anupam Kher in 1991’s Mast  Kalandar, and 2000’s Dulhan Hum Le Jaayenge, the character of Gulab Singh in Raja Hindustani (1996), and Kader Khan in Ghar Ho Toh Aisa (1990).

On the other hand, Aamir Khan in Baazi (1995), who crossdresses and presents himself as a woman to confound the villain is an invasive and sexist presentation of gender stereotypes. This Gaysi article does an apt reading of what happens next: “At the climax, you see him strip his attire and beat up the villain, in an excessive display of aggression, almost as if try to redeem himself for acting queer.” There are also movies like Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994), where Saif Ali Khan’s character is there to allow Akshay Kumar’s khiladi the chance to gain a better character development. Khan and Kumar’s characters are juxtaposed in an enemies to friends trope and yet,  can be read as queercoded. A common “test” is to replace one of the male characters with a female identity and then see if the relationship between them would be considered romantic or platonic. Main Khiladi Tu Anari clearly does not pass the test.

This brings into focus the trope of male friendships in Indian and Western media. While shows like Teen Wolf clearly bait their audiences by their publicity campaigns, India chooses ridicule (re:Dostana) or presents the friendship as the saving complex of the movie, its backbone and its crutch. This is an old trope, seen from Anand (1971), Zanjeer (1973), Sholay (1975) to Gunday (2014) to Sonu ke Titu ki Sweety (2018). Rowan Ellis, a British LGBT activist, explores the “evolution of queerbaiting” in some of her YouTube videos and calls this representation of male friendships a “gaslighting” thing where friendships can be healthy, can be intimate and riddled with allusions, but not romantic. Lesbian allusions too are baits and codes – in Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na (2008), Shaleen is popularly read as encoded in gay subtext. Fantasy serial Once Upon A Time has been read by its fans as coding the relationship between Emma Swan and Regina Mills. Supergirl, on the other hand, has been accused of baiting its audiences, as has Moffat’s Sherlock. Ocean’s 8 (2018) has been accused of both queercoding, and queerbaiting.

The source of the blame of this underhand representation of gender cannot be placed on anyone – is it the writers, the directors, the actors themselves? Is it considered a career suicide to include  queer representations? What can be said that fluidity of gender is not something that is universally understood or accepted. Increased pressure on creators has allowed for a few progressive films to have been made and yet, many do not give their queer characters happy endings. Fluidity of gender is thus exploited and abused and oftentimes used as a guise for acts of queercoding and queerbaiting.

Aditi Paul is a Research Associate with the Queer Resource Centre at One Future Collective.

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