This is a pint-sized primer about the differences between queer representation, queer coding, queer reading, and queer baiting because I wanted to have something small to keep around and kind of… wave it at folks that want an easy way to know the difference.
This is literally the simplest I could make this (because I’ve got dense academic brain) and so it skims over a lot of crunchy academic writing to make its points and be as clear as possible.
If you want more in-depth texts or conversations about this, I personally love the late Alexander Doty’s work along with Harry Benshoff’s Monsters in the Closet, but there are a bunch more academics and whatnot writing about this in media fandom and related academic fields. I’d be happy to point y’all in the related directions.
Queer coding hinges on signals (or signifiers) for queerness that are layered on characters never officially called queer. Like queer baiting, it’s potentially harmful because not only does it not usually lead to representation for queer viewers, but because the signifiers/signals we’re supposed to read as queer?
They tend to be stereotypes, media go-tos for signifying queerness.
On top of that, there’s the problem that most of the famous queer coded characters tend to be villains – a problem because of decades of linking queerness to villainy, monstrosity, and violence.
Even when they’re not bad guys, queer coding rarely tends to become canon in a way that provides meaningful representation for queer audiences.
Examples: the Joker, a bunch of Disney villains, everyone on this list
Queer readings are basically headcanons.
These tend to come about as a result of folks looking at a character and reading queerness into their traits, arc, or backstory and deciding that those things signify queerness. Usually queer fans are the ones doing queer readings because they’re seeing themselves in these characters and assuming queerness. However, sometimes… that’s not the case and it’s straight folks reading queer signals where there’s nothing but smoke.
Fans can make representation out of their headcanons within fandom, but that’s about as far as queer reading goes.
Examples: folks deciding that Lance from Voltron Legendary Defenders was bisexual because of his skincare routine and the fact that he reminds them of Korra from The Legend of Korra, a bisexual character that wears blue; this shit about Armitage Hux that thinks it’s queer coding (it’s not); every queer person that looks at a character behaving or looking like them and clinging to that as proof of queerness because we’re starving for representation
Queer baiting is a pretty much negative experience all around.
Queer baiting is when the folks behind a piece of media – a showrunner, a writer, social media managers, the performers – claim queerness where none actually exists in order to get attention.
Queer baiting can be “word of god” confirmation of a character’s queerness that never appears onscreen or showrunners leaning into fannish queer readings in interviews or behind the scenes stuff in order to draw in queer audiences that will go unfulfilled once they’re there.
Examples: the folks behind Beauty and the Beast claiming that Le Fou was Disney’s “first gay character” based on a throwaway gag that’s all but lost in a crowded scene; Leverage producers saying that the OT3 of Parker/Hardison/Elliot was canon after the series finale; the Solo folks – including the man himself, Donald Glover – claiming that Lando is pansexual
Queer representation is simple: if there are queer characters who are open about their queerness (at least to the viewer/reader), they count as representation.
If we don’t know that a character is queer outside of “word of god” commentary from the creators or a throwaway scene that’s easy to miss, they’re not really representation.
Not all queer representation is entirely fulfilling, however. Shiro from Voltron Legendary Defenders (and how the series didn’t really do the right thing with his ex, Adam) is one such example of queer representation that wasn’t necessarily satisfying. Sure, Shiro got a happy gay ending in the very end of the show – via a still of him getting married to another dude – but that was in the show’s final moments and how it’s handled until then is… not great.
Examples: Poussey on Orange is the New Black, Clarke and Lexa on The 100, Anissa and Grace on Black Lightning, Magnus Bane on Shadowhunters, pretty much the entire cast of characters in Pose, Danny Mahealani in Teen Wolf
I hope this primer is helpful and as always, feel free to suggest more examples, ask questions, or clarify my murk in the comments!