This week, the CW’s hit television show Supernatural returns to air its final seven episodes. On top of being the longest-running American live-action fantasy TV series to date, it’s also a contender for the most prominent example of ‘queerbaiting’ on television.
Queerbaiting is a term used in film, television, and literary criticism, and more recently in social justice circles. It refers to the practice of alluding to same-sex or otherwise queer romantic relationships within a series or movie, but never actually following through in its depiction. Queerbaiting allows showrunners to reel in LGBTQIA+ audiences, who remain underserved when it comes to representation on screen, with the appearance of the potential for diversity and inclusion while maintaining the heteronormative status quo.
Although this lens of criticism may seem obscure, it’s actually a fairly pervasive concern throughout mainstream television. Series like Sherlock, Hannibal, and Teen Wolf have all been accused of sewing references to romantic relationships between prominent male characters into their narratives without ever allowing those seeds to grow into genuine representation.
Supernatural is yet another show with predominantly same-gender protagonists: the series follows the story of two brothers, Sam and Dean Winchester, as they cross the US hunting monsters with their angel friend Castiel.
Since the character’s introduction in 2008, fans have detected some serious chemistry between Castiel and the older Winchester brother, Dean, spawning the now internet-beloved pairing ‘Destiel.’ Although the show has placed little emphasis on romantic relationships throughout its run, opting instead to focus more on ghost-busting and vampire decapitations, the subtext surrounding the pair often feels more like just plain text.
Of course, there are viewers who don’t agree that Dean and Castiel are subtextually queer—they see their relationship as a strictly platonic bromance. While each fan is entitled to their own interpretation of the show and its characters, it raises a question: how can we differentiate between genuine queerbaiting and positive representation of close same-sex friendships?
That particular line is difficult to define. In general, the term queerbaiting is often accused of being thrown around too liberally by overeager fans looking to push a ‘gay agenda’ on an otherwise heteronormative film or show.
It’s true that for shows in genres where same-sex romance is often censored—like children’s television—hinting at a same-sex relationship is, unfortunately, all the writers can get away with. Occasionally, same-sex ships that never come to fruition are labelled as queerbaiting, despite no romantic allusions within the writing. Both of these scenarios muddy what actually constitutes queerbaiting, making it difficult to discern between actual problematicity and the overuse of a sensationalized criticism.
In the case of Dean and Castiel, though, it’s pretty safe to say that the depiction of their relationship goes beyond a bromance.
Whether it’s a character commenting on the closeness of Dean and Castiel’s relationship by sarcastically referring to them as ‘boyfriends,’ or Dean making a crack about the Purgatory in Miami, which is a famous gay bar, there’s 11 seasons worth of queer subtext that promotes the idea of Dean and Castiel being potentially queer characters. Some of the more subtle references may sail over the heads of a chunk of viewers, but for those more in tune with queer culture, they seem glaringly obvious.
A key part of queerbaiting is intention, showrunners and writers looking to capitalize off of the increased viewership that comes with a queer audience. Supernatural’s production team and cast is well aware of Destiel and the queer viewership it attracts: they’ve acknowledged the Teen Choice Award win, discussed the ship at conventions, and even reference it explicitly in the show.
In a particularly notorious meta episode, Sam and Dean hunt a monster at a school which is putting on a musical based on an obscure series of books written about their lives. While talking to the show’s director, Dean is confronted with the ship when the student says she’s incorporated the couple into her imagining of the Supernatural story. It’s a funny moment on the series, but it also mocks the fans who are invested in seeing Dean and Castiel’s relationship exist outside of subtext.
In 2005, when the show first aired, it would’ve been markedly more difficult to pitch a storyline with a same-sex couple in mainstream American television. Now, however, Supernatural has no excuse for hiding beyond queerbaiting in lieu of much-needed representation.
With only seven episodes left until the show’s series finale, it seems unlikely that Destiel will become incorporated into Supernatural’s canon beyond being a running gag. It’s disappointing that a show that has been on the air for a whopping 15 seasons, has seen the ups and downs of queer representation on television in the last decade and a half, will end its run letting down the queer audience its exploited for the last 12 years.
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