Why a “ship” on a genre television show is proof of decades of queer erasure
Claire Brnjac // Arts & Culture Editor
Thea Pham // Illustrator
To understand the fervour behind queer “ships”—a term used to connote a wish for two characters to begin a romantic relationship—is to realize that there has been a long-running effort to erase or belittle queer people and relationships in media.
In the 1930s, during the waning of the movie industry in America, the Motion Picture Production Code—also known as the Hays Code—was a set of rules established to change the public’s perception of movies to a more sanitized version due to mounting studio pressure. This code included rules like not showing interracial relationships, no childbirth or sex scenes, no positive criminal portrayals, and no taking the Lord’s name in vain. In the beginning, homosexuality in any sense was not allowed to be shown, but by 1941, a homosexual could be gay on screen but must be punished somewhere in the metanarrative in order to pass through the guidelines and be shown in theatres.
“Queerbaiting,” a phenomenon in which producers will tease a queer relationship between two characters to attract and sustain viewers without making an effort to canonize the relationship—thereby avoiding the loss of more conservative or homophobic viewers.
Due to this code’s nature, characters believed to be gay had to show it in subtle ways, if any ways at all. Depicted and cast as “interior decorators” or “hairstylists,” these “pansies” had few ways to show their queerness—usually confirmed years after the movie had come out, through conversations with the actors or directors—or they are portrayed as serial killers or misfits from society, like in Silence of the Lambs.
The Hays Code died out in 1968 when the Motion Picture Association of America created four well-known levels of ratings for moviegoers: G, PG-13, R, and X. But the effects of this code have been felt well into the present, especially concerning ideas around “public safety” and what a “good character” must present themselves as, which brings us to now.
Social media exploded on Nov. 5 with the news that a male character, an angel named Castiel in the long-running horror/fantasy television show Supernatural, professed his love to a human male named Dean Winchester. Before fans could rejoice, Castiel was immediately killed for that action and sent into a void of nothingness called the Empty, where he was to presumably suffer for all eternity.
Queerbaiting will never be as strong as an actual queer relationship, with all the risks that come along with it. While it is excellent that this confession was made, it was cheap to immediately rescind it and regulate Castiel’s fate to a single line in the show’s finale.
Dean and Castiel’s relationship had been fraught with sexually suggestive dialogue throughout the twelve years since Castiel’s first appearance, constantly being called “boyfriends” by other characters throughout the seasons, and subtext frequently suggested by the actors of the characters themselves. In part, this relationship sustained the show, as many viewers tuned in to see Castiel and Dean interact. This directly ties into the notion of “queerbaiting,” a phenomenon in which producers will tease a queer relationship between two characters to attract and sustain viewers without making an effort to canonize the relationship—thereby avoiding the loss of more conservative or homophobic viewers. The writers and showrunners could tease that they know about it in an episode by mentioning it directly but do not seem to give it any actual thought in the show’s canon.
It seems, in a word, dated. As the years go on, queer people are making and writing their own content in the face of potential backlash from more conservative fanbases. With the death of Castiel, it seems Supernatural had unintentionally followed a Hays Code-era guideline—for their queer character to exist, he had to suffer for it. Queerbaiting will never be as strong as an actual queer relationship, with all the risks that come along with it. While it is excellent that this confession was made, it was cheap to immediately rescind it and regulate Castiel’s fate to a single line in the show’s finale.
The real motivations behind Castiel revealing his love will never truly be known, whether it is a loving reference to the fans who supported the ship, a last-minute viewer grab by the studio, or an honest decision by the writers and actors. Maybe Supernatural’s parent company, much like in the 1930s, forbade the relationship in fear of freezing out other viewers. In the end, we can mourn what would have been, and push for more well-written gay relationships in the future that hopefully don’t take 12 years to come to fruition.