The second season of the television adaptation of Spike Lee’s 1986 comedy She’s Gotta Have It opens with a fairly explicit sex scene between Nola Darling (DeWanda Wise) and her female paramour, Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera). The foregrounding of the scene made it evident that the show’s writers’ room listened to criticisms about what felt like a parodic treatment of Nola’s sexuality and queerness. But instead of a thoughtful illustration of Black Brooklyn millennialism and dynamic romantic engagements with women as opposed the earlier season’s sordid love quadrangle, we were baited with a girl-on-girl softcore scene only for female-centric romance to be altogether abandoned just a couple of episodes later. Worse yet, Nola returned to one of the few things, other than her art, that defined her both old and rebooted character: her (now largely platonic) entanglements with shitty men.
In fiction and entertainment, queerbaiting refers to the strategy where creators allude to, but never actually show or develop, same-gender relationships, or otherwise use queer relationships as plot point or a means of furthering a particular storyline. It’s a fence-sitting: an attempt to appeal to queer markets (who are increasingly demanding authenticity from media portrayals of LGBTQ characters) while also attempting to not alienate heterosexual viewers that might be offended by the apparently “obscene” presentation of queer love.
After a tableau of the series’ main characters beating the Brooklyn summer heat and after Nola’s recitation of the opening paragraph of her favorite literary work—Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, one of many undeniable allusions to the opening credits of Lee’s first feature-length film—and after a celebratory champagne toast, Nola and Opal have sex. Rather, they “make love.” They have the kind of sex between women that exists in stark contrast to the exaggerated long-nailed artificiality we find in the “lesbian” tag on Pornhub: You’d file this kind of soft, genuine seeming, atmospheric intimacy under “popular with women.” The montage of bedrooms and sexual positions and ecstatic moans and times of day is slower and more protracted (almost gratuitously so) and more loving than the sex Nola is shown as having with male partners.
If we appropriate this understanding of queerbaiting from the domain of entertainment, we might understand the relationship between the exploitation of queer identity for the sake of profit margins against the background of liberal efforts around “diversity and inclusion.” For example, each Pride Month we see corporate attempts to appeal to queer markets that lack any real understanding of queer identity and subcultural history. Queer people are turned into rainbow-marked commodities, made worse still as 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Throughout June, corporations paid lip service to the contributions of pioneers Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and the sloganization of the historical reality that “the first Pride was a riot” while simultaneously refusing to meaningfully materially support transgender communities, especially Black transgender women, who are particularly victimized.
Police departments across the country slap rainbow stickers on their cars while persistently brutalizing queer and trans communities, including those who actively protest police and corporate presence at Pride events. And, this June 2019, at perhaps the country’s largest Pride event, peaceful protestors were met with disproportionately heavy-handed responses by the San Francisco Police Department (who, unironically, had a booth at the Pride celebration that same day), resulting in the arrest of two protestors and the injuries of others.
The function of queerbaiting is the production of a trans or queer aesthetic and/or person that is unthreatening to cis/heteronormativity. It is the creation of an apparently revolutionary Johnson without her sex working past and structurally transformative freedom dreams, or Rivera without mentioning the fact that she was a member of the revolutionary Young Lords and had a desire to destroy the Human Rights Campaign for standing in the way of trans rights. In the case of She’s Gotta Have It, lesbian sex is treated as sexy spectacle while same-gender intimacy remains largely flat and underdeveloped throughout the series, as does the rest of the season’s social commentary.
On July 1, companies across the country literally and metaphorically removed their rainbow flags and queer-targeting marketing materials. The nakedly superficial relationship that these companies, brands, and mainstream pop culture products have to queer people and community politics is a product of the crisis of liberal representation or the impulse to simply slot marginalized identity into our social landscape without also incorporating the corresponding politics. Arguably, showing images of diverse gender and sexual identities sensitizes people to images and social lives beyond the norm (and this can be incredibly affirming for often-alienated young queer and trans people). But it’s ultimately a capitalist transformation of the façades of cisnormative and heteronormative institutions without any real attempt to transform the material conditions that have portions of queer and trans communities overrepresented in statistics about job and housing instability, poor mental health, physical assault, and murder.
This episode was written and directed by Spike Lee himself, a straight man who writer Teresa Wiltz describes as being unsure of “whether to worship [women] or punish them.” His younger brother and sister, Cinqué Lee and Joie Lee, respectively, were story editors. The Opal Gilstrap of the 1986 original was a predatory lesbian who wished for Nola, who she admitted may have been “straight as an arrow,” to be “more open-minded” to the possibility of being with a woman. She tends to Nola while she’s bedridden with a summer cold. But even that is presented as being tainted with ulterior motives, illustrated by their exchange about what it’s like to make love to a woman followed by a tense exchange between Opal and one of Nola’s male suitors, Jamie Overstreet, and Opal’s subsequent departure (and then Jamie’s insecure interrogation of Nola and her relationship with Opal).
One could argue that Lee’s 2019 flirtation with queer intimacy is not queerbaiting, but rather an effort to correct his track record of gendered antagonism. But like the fairly empty gestures of flag-waving corporations, there is little evidence that this creative representation accompanies any particularly progressive politics.
One critical antidote to queerbaiting is self-determination: the idea that queer and trans people can and should be the ones authoritatively producing the narratives of our communities (à la Janet Mock and Pose) that are often less-than-respectable but still deserving of humanity. The debate around representation reveals the disparate and contradictory goals of both community members and society at large. LGBTQ communities are permitted to exist in the public sphere as long as we do not disrupt the boundaries of political and economic hegemony; while many community members refuse this conditional acceptance, others are content to cling to bourgeois respectability in their views on marriage, support for nationalism and militarism and fascism, and queer and trans-antagonistic politics.
As a queer disposed to nihilism, I question whether we can or should ever rely on mainstream discourses to create an image of the vastness of the community with any kind of honesty, or whether we should simply come to expect Hollywood’s gay-for-pay and cis men as trans women castings to continue as an industry norm. But I do know queer identity deserves far more than to be utilized as a prop and that queer people deserve better than to compelled to be grateful for a month of cynical lip service. Perhaps the aesthetics, sexual politics, and kinship forms of queer and trans life are simply too expansive to fully exist under the confines of this onscreen world. Perhaps the only kind of representation we can truly trust must come in the revolutionary worlds that we create outside of this one.
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