So AJ and I started watching Hannibal recently. We literally devoured S1 and S2, but halfway through S3, it started to jump the shark. The reasons we said that were various, and included the mashed up timeline and the whole mess that was the European jaunt, but what most got our goat was the queerbaiting surrounding the relationship between Hannibal and Will. At the time (three days ago) fans of the show told us it wasn’t queerbaiting and to wait until we’d finished it completely to form a conclusion. Yesterday, we finished it. This is our conclusion.
BE WARNED: herein lie spoilers for Hannibal and Black Sails
Queerbaiting: “In a fannish context, queer baiting (or queerbaiting) is a term used to describe the perceived attempt by canon creators (typically of television shows) to woo queer fans and/or slash fans, but with no intention of actually showing a gay relationship being consummated on screen.”
There are plenty of examples of queerbaiting in action in modern TV drama. Sherlock (Sherlock Holmes/John Watson), House (Gregory House/James Wilson), Merlin (Arthur/Merlin) and Supernatural (Dean/Sam), are prime examples of series with characters fans love to slash. Where queerbaiting comes in is when the writers play along, hinting there might be more to a pair’s relationship than meets the eye.
The most obvious example is Supernatural (SPN). The slashing began with “Wincest,” Dean/Sam slash centred around the two main characters, who happen to be brothers. Obviously that wasn’t going to play well with the network, but come Season 4 the character of Castiel was introduced, and Destiel (Dean/Castiel) was born. Destiel is a completely different phenomenon from Wincest, because hints to its veracity are written into the plot.
Fans went crazy over Destiel, and for a while, show writers went along with it, until it “got old” and that’s when the gaslighting began. If fans so much as mention the word Destiel at conventions where SPN is represented they are removed from panels [x/x]. People irritated with the Destiel crowd demand to know why they have to sully the show by shipping that pairing, as if Destiel fans weren’t given crumbs to follow, and when they followed them, were blamed for buying the hints and hoping for actual realisation of a same-sex pairing among two male leads on a popular TV show.
Destiel fans are told Dean and Castiel had no greater subtext to their relationship in the first place, and that by believing otherwise, they’re at fault for the pairing they’ve shipped getting summarily refused. Yet all the while the writers were dropping a multitude of hints into the show, thereby giving hope to the queer fans that this might be the time we finally get some real representation. Then slam! Nope, and there’s the door for you for mentioning Destiel in the presence of the cast or producers of the show.
Amid this backdrop, enter Hannibal. The shipping of Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter (“Hannigram”) began early in the first season, but from the second season it started to appear in canon.
By the end of season 1, Will has identified Hannibal as the Chesapeake Ripper, a cannibalistic serial killer whose elaborately presented corpses have haunted the FBI for years. Will tries to bring Hannibal to justice but ends up imprisoned himself, framed by Hannibal. Thus begins a curious game of cat and mouse between the pair. Will sends a killer after Hannibal, and Hannibal responds by going on a murder spree, causing chaos in Will’s trial and eventually securing his release by casting doubt on the evidence he planted against Will to begin with. Will declares they’re even after murdering his own would-be assassin and presenting the corpse to Hannibal. Suspicion about Will and Hannibal grows among the other characters, with Freddie Lounds convinced they’re killing together, and Alana Bloom categorising the matching murders not as competition, but as “courtship.”
The positing of this deadly back and forth as a form of flirtation or foreplay between the two is compelling, and throughout the remainder of seasons 2 and 3 there’s a clear “relationship” narrative that develops, ultimately concluding in a consummation of sorts at the finale of season 3, when Will and Hannibal team up to kill together. The show fell into queerbaiting, in our opinion, when the writers abandoned allegory for direct references to a sexual attraction they had no intention of ever bringing to fruition.
In the words of Bryan Fuller, creator and writer of Hannibal:
“…we really want to explore the intimacy of these two men in an unexpected way without sexualizing them… to be absolutely clear, it is not sexual, but it’s beyond sexual. It is pure intimacy in a non-physical way. But it is that intimacy between heterosexual men that I’m fascinated with because it does go beyond physical parameters to this very primal basic male bonding place.” [x]
“…at its heart, I think Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham are having a heterosexual romance.”[x]
Queerbaiting generally falls into one of two categories. Either it’s a cynical ploy to gain fans who are hoping to see a real representation of LGBTQ main characters in a mainstream TV show, or it’s the result of lazy or bad storytelling. The Will/Hannibal story arc promised to be fascinating: under the right (or wrong!) influence, how far can a good empath fall? How completely can Hannibal subvert Will’s psyche and turn his entire sense of self inside out? We open Hannibal with Will very much the good guy, but under Hannibal’s influence we watch him descend into madness and rise from it a completely different man. That’s compelling TV right there, but it takes incredible writing to pull off. Instead, halfway through season 2 Will’s changing personality started being explained as “he’s in love (no-homo)” and that felt… disappointing.
Not that there were any on-screen declarations of love. Fuller recounts a conversation with Don Mancini, “one of our writers who was always pushing for more homosexual text—not just context or subtext but text,” regarding the scene in the penultimate episode of season 3 when Will asks Bedelia Du Maurier “Is Hannibal in love with me?” “and [Mancini] was like, ‘I’m so glad you put that in there! They said it! They said it!’” [x] Except, of course, they didn’t say it. Will asked a third party character about Hannibal’s feelings, which renders her confirmation moot. Her return question, if Will also “ache[s]” for Hannibal, is left unanswered.
All these omissions, the slew of subtext without any supporting text (to the point where the writers can’t even recognise the difference) and, more significantly, Fuller’s repeated insistence that Hannigram is a relationship “beyond sexual,” serves to reinforce the impression that queerness is synonymous with self-loathing. The will-they-won’t-they aspect is ultimately invalidated because it exists between two men, and what should have been an interesting psychological character study is reduced to fear of being othered. In Hannibal’s world, it is literally better to be a serial killer than to be gay.
Had the writers gone there, a fully-realised sexual love between Will and Hannibal could have been the force that humanised them; it could have been the best part of them. Instead it’s implied only in order to bring out the worst. Not only that, but the intimacy between Will and Hannibal didn’t need the homoerotic subtext to exist. Such intimacy depicting a wholly deeper level of male/male interaction could have stood on its own, and yet the unfulfilled romantic elements left us as viewers with a loose, untied plot thread and a sense of dissatisfaction. All those clues leading to romantic intimacy—because it can be construed no other way—were entirely unnecessary, and in fact, detracted from the deeper intimacy the writers professed to be going for: a non-sexual bonding between two men at the base of their very humanity regarding life versus death. Had the romantic elements been left out, the killer instinct and Will’s transformation would have been, as Will called it in the finale, “beautiful.” Instead, we’re left feeling deprived because the romance never came to fruition—the very definition of queerbaiting.
There was, however, one on-screen same-sex couple in Hannibal: Alana Bloom and Margot Verger. Their pairing, which occurred halfway through season 3 (and which moved with the speed of every lesbian cliche through marriage and motherhood), took a lot of viewers by surprise because there had been no prior indication that Alana—an earlier love interest for both Will and Hannibal—had any sexual or romantic interest in women.
Interviewer: This season depicted sexuality as very much on a spectrum, with Alana falling for Margot and Hannibal for Will. Was that a deliberate theme?
I definitely wanted to do that with Alana and Margot because I feel that sexuality can be fluid, and there are so many stopping points on the spectrum that it seemed perfectly natural for Alana to be bisexual, and not make a thing of it, it’s just who she is. She didn’t have to explain it or rationalise it, and I think there was some criticism like ‘Oh, now she’s a lesbian just because you want her to be a lesbian’. No, she’s bisexual, she’s always been bisexual, and stop being so narrow in your perception of sexuality. There’s this prejudice against bisexuality that I think just stems from narcissism, because people can’t accept that someone could think or behave differently than they do, and that’s pathological when it comes right down to it. —Bryan Fuller [x]
While Fuller is 100% correct that sexuality is fluid, I (AJ) was totally blindsided when Alana and Margot ended up in bed together (the cinematography of which was a kaleidoscopic effect of tangled limbs, ecstatic expressions, and this weird morphing of the faces of two women who look very much alike. I asked Kate, “Is this all in their heads or actually happening?” Incidentally, a question I asked a LOT during the entirety of our watching the series). At no point in Alana’s character background were we given the idea she might be bisexual. Margot told Will upon meeting him at his house for the first time that he possessed the wrong parts for her to be interested, but of Alana, there wasn’t even a hint of what would become of her relationship with Margot.
As a bisexual, I’m thrilled someone is on-screen to represent people like me in a popular show, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired in my opinion. As nice as it would be not to have to explain a person’s sexuality and simply have it be accepted, society is not there yet. Before we can assume viewers will accept a nuanced fluid sexuality without explanation, we need these relationships to be obvious to viewers for a while. Slipping this in without a single word from Alana’s character about her fluidity, especially after the travesty of her previous sexual relationship (with Hannibal, before he tried to kill her), this felt like, “My last encounter failed so spectacularly, I’m going to the other side. It’s safer there.” That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement or personal acceptance of her sexuality. It smacks of her hiding a facet of her true self, or of denying it until she literally slept with a serial killer and it turned her away from men in general. There’s weight to this feeling, given how she admitted interest in Will before sleeping with Hannibal but refused to deepen a relationship while she felt Will was unstable. *shrug* If she can’t pick decent men to be with, might as well go with a woman.
To then throw that back on the viewer, suggesting they’re being narrow-minded, narcissistic, or even pathological if they can’t accept the sudden turn of events without questioning it is absurdly hypocritical, and serves only to smack down any nuanced discussion of the canon as it relates to this or any other pairing in the show. If we follow this line of thought to its logical conclusion, we must always take the canon at face value, which then erases the entirety of the subtext between Will and Hannibal as totally irrational until the moment they do make it sexual—which they never do.
Given the fact that Alana and Margot have arguably the most stable, happy relationship of the entire show (with the exception of Jack Crawford and his wife Bella, who get some, but not a lot of screen-time), I’m (AJ) begrudgingly coming to terms with how Alana and Margot played out. However it remains problematic because it seems less like narrative symmetry mirroring Will and Hannibal, and more like the token same-sex couple being included to “pander” (as Fuller put it) to the fans who wanted to see an unmistakably canon queer pairing. That this was delivered not through the two male main characters, despite so many hints, but through two female secondary characters, speaks volumes about the unwillingness of major networks to put queer male sexuality front and centre.
Take shows that do put (male and female) queer sexuality front and centre: Sense8, Black Sails, and The Walking Dead. In all instances, fans of the shows complained online so much about the writers “shoving the gay stuff in our faces” that boycotts were promised [x], and in the case of Black Sails, irrefutable proof of the male lead’s relationship with his best friend (a man) was still denied. There was an on-screen kiss and a moment where both men were seen in bed sans clothing, and yet, their intimate, clearly sexual relationship was denied by viewers who couldn’t handle it being anything more than a bromance.
In Sense8, when two of the eight sensates were introduced as participants in same-sex relationships, and a third was depicted as having some fluidity to his sexuality, the reviews of the show tanked. During the course of the show, the other six sensates weren’t in relationships (with each other) but when two pairs began developing ties for heterosexual relationships, no one batted an eye. So eight main characters, four relationships, two opposite-sex relationships and two same-sex, but people complained that “every show now has to show a token gay to align with the gay liberal agenda.” [x] It’s no wonder writers are afraid to go there with main characters (especially males), given the flak for these examples alone. Yet to avoid alienating a subset of viewers who have enough sway to make a show popular, i.e. non-heterosexual viewers, we’re given hints (some veiled and some overt), follow them logically, and then we get berated when we’re left wanting and have the audacity to complain.
Queerfolk in TV shows are essentially aliens: to those who believe, any evidence is proof. To those who don’t, no proof is enough.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this leads to the alienation of fans who do read between the canon’s lines, which results in non-queer fans policing the ones who are shipping same-sex pairings on TV shows. We’re flat out told we’re wrong, that we’re looking for things that aren’t there, and the policing viewers dismiss the shipping viewers as an “impassioned cult” [x], their dissatisfaction “just middle-aged women and sexually confused young men projecting their fantasies.” [x] The heteronormative viewers’ satisfaction is automatically deemed more valid (a point reinforced every time a show fails to elevate their queerbaiting into legitimate queerness), and those of us with grumblings should (and do) take a backseat because we’re a minority. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, they might as well tell us overtly, “Take your crumbs and shut up, you’re ruining my steak.”
We’re also told the crumbs should be enough because the alternative is worse, like the show Constantine, based on the DC Comics character who is, in canon, bisexual. Instead of the crumbs, Constantine’s sexuality is completely ignored as “an unimportant facet of his character.” The network was more concerned with getting Constantine’s chain-smoking habit on screen without violating FCC regulations than it was about representing more important aspects of his character, and nonchalantly erased his bisexuality as inconsequential, completely straightwashing him.
Show runner Daniel Cerone had this to say: “In those comic books, John Constantine aged in real time. Within this tome of three decades [of comics] there might have been one or two issues where he’s seen getting out of bed with a man. So [maybe] 20 years from now? But there are no immediate plans.” [x] Plans that never came to fruition, since the show was cancelled after the first season.
While sexuality may not be a character’s only or even most important trait, it can and does colour many different aspects of that character’s personality, just as it does for people in real life. Perception of and interaction with society in this context shapes how we view the world, so calling someone’s sexuality inconsequential to who they are is shortsighted, dismissive, and isolating for the viewer who might connect with that character due to shared orientation. Completely ignoring it erases some of a character’s depth and humanity, which tells queer viewers people like us are better off as cardboard cutouts of ourselves. Straight viewers’ comfort is a bigger deal than our discomfort, and if we complain about crumbs, we’ll get nothing instead.
Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of #1 LGBTQ romances What He Wants, Ace, The Slave, and other works.
AJ Rose is a Rainbow Award-winning author of LGBTQ romances and loves to play with your feelings. Her latest novel, Defenseless, is available now.
Together they plan to take over the world.