Accusations of "queerbaiting" don't do the Stranger Things character justice.
This story contains spoilers for Season 4 of Stranger Things.
The term queerbaiting gets thrown around a lot these days, and like any useful word that the discourse latches onto, it’s begun to lose any real meaning. In its most useful definition, queerbaiting refers to a piece of media that teases an implicit romantic or sexual chemistry between two same-sex characters, with the intention of drawing in a queer audience, only for the relationship to be left in a fog of plausible deniability. The queerness is never confirmed.
The most recent show to come under fire is Stranger Things — or, more specifically, the character of Will Byers. In a recent interview with Variety, Noah Schnapp, who portrays Will, made it clear that Will is gay. The fact that he had to say it in order for some viewers to believe it is indicative of a larger problem with the way we watch and talk about queer narratives.
It’s a twofold issue. On the one hand, you have queer audiences that are rightfully wary of having potentially queer characters dangled in front of them without any follow-through, and on the other, you have a straight general audience that often can’t see queerness in the narrative unless it’s spelled out for them. The knee-jerk reaction from queer viewers against a more subtle queer narrative is understandable. That doesn’t mean they’re right to call it queerbait.
The possibility that Will might be gay was planted in the very first episode, with Joyce telling Hopper that Will’s dad thinks he’s queer. The bullies at school likewise go after Will for being queer. That on its own is not enough to confirm that a character is gay, though it does portray an environment in which coming out would not be safe or easy. At the end of Season 2, we see further indications that, at the very least, Will is not particularly interested in girls. When he’s asked to dance at the Snow Ball, he panics, and only agrees because his friends cajole him into it. Season 3 offers up an even starker contrast between Will and his newly girl-obsessed friends. In the heat of an argument, Mike lobs off, “It’s not my fault you don’t like girls!” Again, this could simply mean that Will isn’t interested yet, but at a certain point, all these moments taken together start to mean something.
By the end of Season 4, it’s no longer a question. Early on we get what is essentially a repeat of the Snow Ball scene when a girl in his class tries to play footsies with him. He gives her the same panicked look and pulls his foot away. Later in the season, Will finally shows Mike the painting he's been carrying around for six episodes. He immediately deflects by saying that El told him what to draw. It's the audience's first clue that Will is using El as a cover — El has already told Mike that she doesn't know what the painting is, only that he's working on one. She even speculated that it might be for a girl. Then Will says, "These past few months she's been so lost without you. It's just, she's so different from other people, and when you're different sometimes you feel like a mistake. But you make her feel like she's not a mistake at all." He delivers most of this while turned away from Mike, looking out the car window with tears in his eyes.
Will is clearly talking about himself here, but just in case you missed the previous clues indicating as much, his speech is intercut with shots of Jonathan, watching him in the rearview mirror with a knowing expression. To further solidify that Jonathan knows exactly what's going on with his brother, the next episode follows with one of my favorite scenes in the entire season. Jonathan lets Will know that he loves him no matter what, effectively telling him, in no uncertain terms, that he knows Will is gay and that it doesn’t change anything. And he does it in such a way that doesn’t force Will to talk about it if he isn’t ready.
This is where the queerbaiting accusation becomes most egregious. Will is queer. The text says so. Noah Schnapp says so. To call it queerbaiting is not only incorrect under the most basic definition of the term, it points to a more worrying trend that demands queer stories follow a single, narrow formula, while forcing people out of the closet. Will Byers is no less queer for not having stated it in a way some viewers think he should have. To claim that his queerness is invalid for not having been spoken directly — and despite an undeniable landfall of evidence — invalidates actual queer people who aren’t ready or able to come out.
Will’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality and share that part of himself with his friends is a true and authentic experience for many queer people. We, the queer audience, deserve to see that play out on our screens just as much as we deserve happy endings. It can be cathartic to watch these kinds of lived experiences through a fictional character. Don’t queer people deserve some catharsis?
Will’s struggle to come to terms with his sexuality and share that with his friends is a true and authentic experience for many queer people. We, the queer audience, deserve to see that play out just as much as we deserve happy endings.
If you don’t like it, that’s fine — everyone is well within their right to feel however they feel in reaction to a piece of art — but that doesn’t mean it’s bad representation, and it certainly doesn’t make it queerbait. It just means this particular piece of art is not for you. And that’s okay! If you only want to consume queer stories that have happy endings, you are well within your right to do so, but it’s dangerous to demand that these other stories stop existing.
We cannot demand a multiplicity of queer stories while simultaneously decrying any queer narrative that fails to adhere to the narrow parameters of what constitutes “good” representation. Of course, we need to be critical of how queer stories are being told. There is a long history of harmful representation that has given us tropes like bury your gays, disproportionate queer coding of villains, and innumerable tragic endings. But it is also true that not all queer stories can end happily. Insisting that every queer character gets a happy ending isn’t just unrealistic, it erases an entire aspect of the human experience. Why should we get only a sanitized version of queer life portrayed on our screens? I don’t want that. I want a gamut of queer characters. I want victorious ones and tragic ones. I want them to be messy and imperfect and real. I want more queer narratives, so that every queer story doesn’t have to carry the weight of representing an entire diverse community.
In any case, Stranger Things isn’t even over yet. As far as we know, Will Byers could still get his happy ending. We just have to be patient enough to let the story play out until the end.