By Ashley R. Lierman
I’ve been big into NBC’s Hannibal from the beginning up until the finale a couple of weeks ago, not unexpectedly. I love horror, I admit I haven’t read the books but I love… the good parts of the initial movie canon, I loved Dead Like Me and have a resulting soft spot for Bryan Fuller, I love looking at Hugh Dancy’s face (look, I may be a lesbian, but you don’t have to want to make out with the Mona Lisa to go to the Louvre, okay?), this show seems kind of made for me, right? But the added bonus I did not expect out of the show, at the beginning and based on the source material, was for it to be basically a same-sex love story.
Which, as of the last couple of episodes, it is, basically. This is not a fandom’s wishful thinking (although I can say from some distance that fandom has been very enthusiastic about the prospect from long before it seemed to be on the table), “in love with” phrasing has been used and confirmed at least from one side in the text, and implied from the other. Nor has it come out of nowhere; since long before that point, the show had been building a relationship that had started to make even mainstream critics raise their eyebrows. A quick news search now shows major outlet after major outlet calmly and matter-of-factly talking about it as a completed love story. But there was a time, not so long ago in the series, when I think I can say with confidence that a majority of us watching would never have dreamed such a thing would happen. When we assumed that all we could expect to be told was that we were seeing things that weren’t there.
We have good reason to assume. When I wrote about Welcome to Night Vale last year, I mentioned how both I and most everyone I knew who had listened to the show from the beginning took a strangely long time to register that an actual same-sex romance was being presented as part of the show, and this is another piece of the same issue about queer representation: we don’t expect it, and when it shows up, we don’t trust it. That’s partly because there’s not a lot of it, of course, but it’s also increasingly because of a phenomenon that’s been called out in mainstream media recently: queerbaiting, when a piece of media plays up an erotically- or romantically-charged same-sex relationship to titillate audiences, but either the text or the creators deny any possibility of actual, textual queerness. (Definitions of queerbaiting are contested, of course, as with many things people argue about on the internet, and many may draw that line in different places than I or the linked article would.) Few creators will own up to queerbaiting deliberately, of course, but when it seems that they are, it particularly smacks of a cynical, greedy manipulativeness. Between LGBT+ fans, slash fans, and the many who are both (and oh, one day I will gird myself and we will talk about slash fandom here, friends, but it will not be this day), there’s a pretty substantial slice of fans to be gained from dangling the possibility of a same-sex relationship – but then it has to be snatched back, to keep from alienating an assumed-homophobic mainstream public. It’s like saying that fans hungry for queer representation – especially in popular genre media, where it seems particularly scarce sometimes – are good enough to take money and viewership from, but ultimately not important enough to take a risk for.
Even when queerbaiting maybe isn’t so intentional, though, it still has its consequences. For a creator to be oblivious to how queerly a work can be read, and then react with surprise, dismay, and finger-wagging shaming at fans for even thinking such a thing, is a slap in the face that leaves a welt every time, and it happens with depressing frequency. (This isn’t just true of creators about their own work, as an aside, on many occasions unrelated folks do feel entirely deputized to shut fans down even for reading a same-sex relationship into their favorite media.) To a certain degree, encountering this so often has a kind of gaslighting effect: you start to think you really are “reading into things” inappropriately when you feel that you recognize parts of your own lived experience in fiction, and you stop trusting your own perceptions of when a queer romance genuinely is being implied. You get told you’re doing injury to your favorite stories so often and so viciously that eventually, you start to feel guilty before anyone even says anything.
There’s been talk online at various points about whether Hannibal was engaging in queerbaiting itself, and even as I watched the finale, I did have questions in the back of my mind. I mean, there was no kiss, no relationship established in the traditional sense -although one thing one would not say about Hannibal is that it has ever had much truck with the traditional sense of anything. On the other hand, it’s true, in no way is that Hannibal‘s style nor the story it was trying to tell. The love story it contains is very much on its own unique terms, and even if it were consummated outright, a straight-up emotionally abusive relationship between a cannibal serial killer and his deeply troubled FBI friend/nemesis is maybe not the ideal representation of a male/male romance, anyway. This is an issue that also came up in the Diversity In Comics panel at ALA this summer, and there was general agreement that subtlety for the sake of storytelling – or to get around actual censorship – is a very different issue from the offense of queerbaiting. And to be fair, I did make some very approving statements earlier this summer about the finale of The Legend of Korra, which was even more subtle about its same-sex romance in some respects.
So the question is: where do we draw that line about what’s queerbaiting or what isn’t – or even, to be more charitable, about what “counts”? When is it “really” queer? When is it “real” representation? When do we get to celebrate, and when are we just being used or just kidding ourselves? Because while I’d love for there to someday be so much sexuality and gender diversity in popular media that we don’t have to get excited about each new instance, I definitely don’t think we’re there yet.
I’m not pretending I know the answers; these questions are genuine. But toward a solution, I can at least offer this much: whatever the series did or didn’t do, when Will Graham said “Is Hannibal in love with me?” out loud in one of the last episodes, and that idea was readily confirmed and not scorned, I felt very different all at once. To be honest, a lot of what I felt was relief. I didn’t have to be on edge anymore, waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for something to pop up and make my hesitant interpretation of events invalid. I didn’t have to question my own perceptions or crack deflecting jokes about how I’m single-minded and I was watching it wrong. The tension dissipated, and I felt safe. And as much as it felt to so many of us like that was a pretty obvious question by that point, it’s clear to me now just from my own reaction that it still very much needed to be said.