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No, 'Hannibal' isn't queerbaiting—that's just gay subtext

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Queerbaiting and homoerotic subtext are not the same thing.

In popular media, “queerbaiting” is the term given to when characters behave or interact in ways that make it seem as if they are canonically gay or bisexual, only to turn around and proclaim their heterosexuality instead.

With LGBT people still sorely underrepresented on mainstream TV, queerbaiting often seems like a cruel mockery, particularly when so many shows play with gay subtext but fail to acknowledge real queer people on screen.

Thanks to a growing awareness of LGBT representation (or lack thereof) on TV, more people are familiar with the concept of queerbaiting. However, not all cases of gay subtext are queerbaiting. In the past, subtext was the only way for screenwriters to get past puritanical censorship guidelines, in everything from Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train in 1951, to Xena: Warrior Princess. Even now, homoerotic subtext is used to illustrate a variety of different relationships, from the sophomoric “no homo” humor of Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill in 21 Jump Street to the intense partnership between Tyler Durden and the narrator in Fight Club.

The difference between subtext and queerbaiting is that in 21 Jump Street and Fight Club, you don’t really find yourself thinking any of those characters are headed towards a “real” romance. But in the case of TV shows including Supernatural, Teen Wolf, and Sherlock, some viewers have started to complain that the shows are benefiting from the appearance of queer relationships without bothering to depict them for real. Plenty of shows even seem to actively push the queerbaiting angle, most notably in the buddy cop genre. For example, Suits, Hawaii 5-0 and White Collar, the last of which which uses images like this in its advertising material:

Photo via whitecollaronline

Supernatural is possibly the worst offender, spending five seasons building up a relationship between Dean and Castiel that effectively comes across as a romance, but with no “payoff.” Combine this with Supernatural’s testosterone-heavy atmosphere and Dean’s veiled homophobia, and you have the perfect storm of queerbaiting.

The latest show to be accused of queerbaiting and implied homophobia is Hannibal. This comes as a surprise not just because Hannibal doesn’t share the same no-homo hallmarks as Supernatural or Suits, but because its showrunner Bryan Fuller is gay and an outspoken advocate of diversity on TV.

This accusation of queerbaiting comes in two parts, first concerning the relationship between the central characters of Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham, and secondly with the introduction of Margot Verger, who is a lesbian both in Thomas Harris’ original novels and in the TV adaptation.

To understand why the relationship between Will and Hannibal isn’t queerbaiting—and why, in fact, it’s one of the very few examples of effective homoerotic subtext on mainstream TV—you first have to look at the character of Hannibal himself.

As someone with heightened senses, his mere presence sensualizes his interactions with everything from wine to music to corpses. We see an aria leave an opera singer’s larynx and enter Hannibal’s ear. We see him sniffing Will Graham and commenting on his aftershave. We see him (of course) enjoying meal upon meal of sumptuous gourmet cannibalism. Bryan Fuller films his cannibalistic dinner scenes like love scenes, which simultaneously helps the audience understand Hannibal better as a character, and adds to the background horror that permeates even the most seemingly banal moments in the show.

In the second season, Hannibal utilizes a lot of what we would perceive as romance tropes during scenes between Hannibal and Will. However, there is never the tiniest shred of an implication that Will and Hannibal are ever going to become a couple. Instead, this subtext helps to illustrate the cat-and-mouse relationship between the two characters, and uses familiar romantic filming techniques to emphasise the intensity of their obsession with each other. Their relationship is set up as a “seduction,” but definitely not in the literal sense of the word. After all, they have both attempted to murder each other at least once.

This is a far cry from the example set by Supernatural, where Dean and Castiel repeatedly play out torturously romantic scenarios that would surely end with a kiss if one of them were a woman. On Hannibal, an apparently tender scene always masks the horror beneath: Hannibal washing the blood off Will’s hands after Will killed a man, all while hallucinating that he was strangling Hannibal himself.

In a recent interview with The Backlot, Bryan Fuller said, “I think Hannibal is a very broadly spectrumed human being/fallen angel, who probably is capable and interested in everything humanity has to offer. Whereas Will Graham is very definitely heterosexual, but that does not necessarily prevent us from a homoerotic subtext. It’s practically text in a couple of episodes just because we really want to explore the intimacy of these two men in an unexpected way without sexualizing them, but including a perception of sexuality that the cinema is actually portraying to the audience more than the characters are.”

NBC’s Hannibal is adapted from a series of novels published in the 1980s and ‘90s, by a novelist who perhaps did not have the most sensitive and well-informed take on gender issues and sexuality. As an indirect result, one aspect of the Hannibal TV series that recently put a wedge between Fuller and his adoring fanbase was the treatment of Margot Verger.

In the show, Margot alludes to the fact that she is gay, which carries over from the original novel. The problem is that in order to retain her family fortune she needs a “legacy,” which translated to her sleeping with Will Graham, in a scene that many viewers found reminiscent of the tedious and damaging fictional trope of straight men “converting” lesbians to bi- or heterosexuality.

In the actual scene, there’s no evidence that Margot is remotely attracted to Will. She is merely using him as an efficient means of getting pregnant, because her brother would find out if she used a sperm donor. The reason why this scene set off alarm bells is because popular media already contains far too many depictions of gay women having sex with men, implying they’re just waiting for the right man to win them over. In the context of the show, however, it’s just another miserable interaction between two miserable people, most likely a result of Hannibal’s manipulations because they are both his patients.

This scene’s other purpose was to ramp up the homoerotic tension between Will and Hannibal. While Will and Margot are in bed together, Hannibal and his lover Alana Bloom are together in Hannibal’s own home. This is significant because Will has feelings for Alana, and is actually picturing her while he sleeps with Margot. (Yes, it’s all a little complicated.) As the two sex scenes are edited together, we see a shot where the actors playing Will, Hannibal and Alana all appear to be in the same bed, signifying the increasingly incestuous relationship between them, both sexually and otherwise.

Part of the reason why this provoked such unexpectedly negative reactions is because Bryan Fuller is an enthusiastic Twitter user, and regularly answers fan questions during each episode. He also has very little patience for explaining himself when he thinks someone is making a ridiculous comment, such as calling him a homophobe for including a scene where a lesbian has sex with a man.

Most of the time, this kind of openness is a great way to connect with fans. But in the highly reactive world of social media fan culture, a single controversial tweet can be spun out into days of outrage, often without consideration for tone or context.

Did that Margot/Will scene share unfortunate similarities with the trope of lesbians being “converted” by men? Yes. But was it actually a depiction of that trope? No way.

In the original novels, Margot would have been a child at this point in the Hannibal timeline, receiving therapy from Hannibal after being sexually abused by her brother Mason Verger. Fuller decided to remove this aspect of the story and write Margot as an adult, also altering one of her defining traits in the original: her “masculine” appearance as a body-builder. Originally, Margot was rendered infertile by years of steroid abuse, and carried on the family line by obtaining sperm from her brother so her girlfriend could use it to get pregnant.

In an interview with the AV Club, Fuller expressed discomfort with the way Margot was portrayed in the book, and explained why he decided to rewrite her character. “It was unclear to me in the novel whether she was either transgender or a lesbian as a result of those horrible abuses and that horrible childhood and [Beat.] that’s not how transgenderism or homosexuality works. So I didn’t want to contribute to that misconception of what it is to be transgender or a gay woman.”

Still, some viewers found Margot to be a disappointment, specifically because it came from a showrunner who has often spoken about his desire to write Hannibal with a more diverse cast, including switching the gender of several characters to add more roles for women. In the eyes of these fans, he had failed to live up to his own standards, which was a greater crime than the average TV show that unknowingly erases any depiction of LGBT people for seasons on end.

One of the issues at play here is the way fans often characterize TV showrunners as all-powerful beings with complete creative control over their work. The truth is that not everything is a creative decision, since all TV shows have to fulfill network standards and avoid alienating advertisers. The same goes for movies, more or less. For example, The Avengers failed to pass the Bechdel test and seemed woefully low on female characters compared to Joss Whedon’s previous work. However, Whedon had to actively persuade Marvel Studios to allow just one woman on the main team of superheroes, meaning that the five-to-one gender ratio was actually a victory.

Making progressive entertainment has always been an uphill struggle, particularly on TV where everything has to be vetted by a foodchain of network representatives and advertisers before it makes it to the small screen. Star Trek’s first interracial kiss is an infamous example, with William Shatner purposefully messing up every take until NBC was forced to use the one where Kirk and Uhura do kiss. As recently as 2010, Modern Family was being congratulated for its “positive” depiction of gay marriage, despite the fact that the gay couple weren’t permitted to have the same kind of sexual or romantic relationship as any of the straight couples in the same show.

Along with Shonda Rhimes, Bryan Fuller is one of the most high-profile showrunners with a public agenda to promote more diversity on TV. In particular, he’s spoken on several occasions about clashing with his employers over whether or not to allow more LGBT characters.

Ten years ago, Fuller was already speaking out about his difficulties with getting LGBT characters on screen. “I had a gay character (George’s father) on Dead Like Me,” he said in one interview. “Unfortunately after I left that show they made the character straight, which I did not appreciate and frankly, thought was really shitty.”

In the same interview, he went on to talk about a lesbian couple in his short-lived 2004 show Wonderfalls, saying that he was told by the network that the couple’s lips were not allowed to touch on screen. “But if you look closely, he said, “you see Sharon and her girlfriend’s lips actually connect right before they fall out of the shot in one of the Wonderfalls episodes. It’s very quick, but we managed to get that in.”

Later, when he worked on Heroes, he wanted to make Claire’s friend Zach gay, but was told by the actor’s agent that it would damage the actor’s chances of getting a role in The Sarah Connor Chronicles if he was seen playing a gay character elsewhere.

Fuller is one of the few prominent writers and directors in Hollywood who goes out of his way to talk about discrimination in popular media, at the risk of damaging his career. When he’s not outing his characters on Twitter, he’s doing interviews where he talks about his dream of directing a Star Trek series starring “Captain Angela Bassett and First Officer Rosario Dawson.”

As someone who has presumably had to make compromises to get where he is in Hollywood, is Bryan Fuller perfect? Obviously not. But you can be sure that when you see instances of LGBT characters and gay subtext in his shows, it isn’t “queerbaiting.” Unlike the many shows that play with no-homo humor but have no real investment in portraying LGBT characters in a positive light, we know that Hannibal was created by someone who is well aware of the obstacles people face when trying to introduce more diverse representation on mainstream TV.

It seems unlikely that the same man who fought tooth and nail to get gay and lesbian characters on every one of his previous shows would suddenly turn around at the height of his career, and go over to the dark side.

Screencap via cthonical/Tumblr