Let’s Talk ‘Queerbaiting’ – An Inquiry into Queer Shipping on ABC’s “Once Upon a Time”

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I was never sure about the validity of the concept of queerbaiting. As I understand the term, the powers that be put something queer in a movie or a tv show to get queer people to watch. They may not be following through on a story line, they may not make your OTP canon but something queer is happening which to me always meant: exposure, discussion, visibility. A win-win situation. That was until yesterday (Monday) when the strange intricacies of Once Upon a Time‘s (love) story lines hit me over the head and asked: do you think that’s okay?

I obviously didn’t or I wouldn’t be writing about it. What happened? SleepingWarrior happened, or maybe – more accurately – they didn’t happen, per se.

Once Upon a Time is a complicated story, I cannot go into the details of all the story lines, let’s just say every character has a complicated history with every other character and it so happened that Neal Cassady/Baelfire (Michael Raymond-James) came back to the Enchanted Forrest, met Mulan (Jamie Chung) and Robin Hood (Sean Maguire), talked about his love for Emma (Jennifer Morrison) and got Mulan to go seek her love to tell them how she felt. The next time we see her she is smiling at the sight of Princess Aurora (Sarah Bolger) and the hearts of SleepingWarrior shippers everywhere soared but weren’t quite sure whether it would happen, since there was – since the beginning of this story line – Prince Philip (Julian Morris) lurking in the shadows. But here, the producers followed through (kinda), they made Mulan almost confess her love to Aurora but before she can, happy Aurora tells her that Philip and she are going to have a baby.

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Mulan’s heart breaks (as do a gazillion shipper hearts still in flight) and she leaves to join Robin Hood’s merry men.

I guess, I could as well put an ‘the end’ at the end of this short paragraph. Because what else is there to happen? Aurora and Philip have their happy ending as those are still possible in the Enchanted Forrest and it is, after all, the plot device to end all other plot devices. At least, in fairy tales it is so. The question would therefore be: does Once Upon a Time follow the rules of fairy tales? I wouldn’t say so, at this point, I think, it is safe to say that this will turn into a Neverending Story – pun intended. And as we already know that Philip is prone to being cursed or disappear, Mulan might yet get her chance to become Aurora’s one true love…

This would mean, there is hope for SleepingWarrior, yes? I guess there would be if this wasn’t exactly the point where for the first time in my life I see queerbaiting. Before you, a valiant SleepingWarrior shipper, start throwing rotten apples, remember that this is a subjective opinion. I don’t own the copyrights to indisputable wisdom, and I’ve been wrong more times than I can count (and I would be happy to be wrong in this case). But let’s discuss this:

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Mulan as a character in her own story certainly has the potential to be a queer character – all gender-bending and cross-dressing characters are basically queer. But queering gender and having a queer sexuality are two different things. They are not necessarily exclusive but they are not the same thing. The gender bending, cross-dressing aspect holds true for the Mulan in Once Upon a Time. With her body armour and helmet in place she’s still able to pass, though once the helmet is taken off, there is no mistaking Mulan for a man – which is the desired effect for Mulan, her days of deliberately masking her gender are over. While she might still be queering the gender-range with her garb, her sexuality is supposedly straight (I’m referring to Aurora’s supposition that Mulan is in love with Philip. While Mulan denies this accusation, it is strongly suggested that she lies to keep her peace with Aurora and probably also because she knows that Philip loves Aurora and could never love her).

I’m talking about ‘assumed sexuality,’ here, and should know better. If I learned anything from being a fan and walking through fandoms it’s that any given character’s sexuality is fluid, if not in the canon then in the fandom. With Mulan, there are even more indicators (one might even talk of a stereotype) that she might be gay: the fact that she adopted a male identity in the past, that she is still cross-dressing to possibly appear as a man at first sight, and also the fact that she is Asian. I’m not trying to be racist, it’s a mere fact that women of color are more likely to be chosen as lesbian (or bisexual) characters by story tellers (at least in movies and on tv, I’m not sure if this holds for literature), and especially Asian (American) women have a tendency to be bisexual – or at least, assumed to be bi.

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The possibility of Mulan being indeed queer is great, even though the story-tellers (writers and creators of Once Upon a Time) have been coy to actually let her come out – until Sunday. Because on Sunday they basically shoved her out of it in what seemed like an aweful hurry. If you think about the whole plot device that led Mulan to (almost) confessing her love to Aurora, it seems really constructed. Neal gets shot, tells Emma he loves her and awakes… in the Enchanted Forrest. He explains that he thought of the Enchanted Forrest while falling into the portal but that seems awefully convenient. He’s about to die, has just told the mother of his child that he still loves her and then he thinks of the Enchanted Forrest with all the bad memories of his dad (Robert Carlyle)… well, I guess you can’t control your dying thoughts even if you’re not really dying. He meets Robin and Mulan (is it even explained what Mulan is doing in Rumple’s castle?), recovers really quick from his bullet wound and talks Robin into using his son as bait (which is so unbelievably stupid, I’m still trying to forget it ever happened). Then he releases his speech on love and how he wants to be with Emma because she’s the only one he’s ever loved, yadda, yadda and disappears with Pan’s shadow.

The two reasons why Neal ends up in the Enchanted Forrest are: 1) so that Mulan is discovered to be in love with Aurora and 2) to give the audience another look at the lion tattoo on Robin Hood’s arm, telling us that he’s a supposed love interest for Regina (Lana Parrilla). Holy plot device, Batman! Did the Once-creators just turn one character gay to ensure that another character is definately not gay – especially not with the lead character, and NO SWAN QUEEN, SUCKERS! (I’m sorry, sometimes tumblr-speech just takes over. Or rather: sorry, not sorry at all.) That’s how it looks like to me, at least.
You may ask: okay, what has Mulan’s coming out to do with SwanQueen? Maybe nothing at all. But while there are a lot of SleepingWarrior shippers out there, there seems to be a whole SwanQueen fleet that is slowly but surely taking over the fandom because the creators have failed to give Emma and Regina both a believable (and alive) love interest. Chemistry is a tricky thing but it’s painfully clear that Emma never had it with August (Eion Bailey) or Hook (Colin O’Donoghue) and I’m also pretty doubtful about whether she has it with Neal. And Regina may have had chemistry with Daniel (Noah Bean) but he’s dead and I doubt he’ll be raised from the dead a second time. But then Emma and Regina have chemistry together, which is something that is wanted and needed on the show. Without this chemistry, most of their actions would seem stupid and questionable, they wouldn’t be able to make magic together. But here is where it gets tricky: making magic together has become a wonderful euphemism for… being in lesbians with each other.

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The fandom is split on this issue, for sure. There are those who do not want Emma or Regina to be gay, and there are those who want them desperately to be together because it would ensure a happy ending for Emma, Regina AND Henry. There’s a shipping war going on but since the side of SwanQueen-opposition is devided into multiple ships, SwanQueen is relatively dominant. This poses a problem for the creators because they do not want Emma and Regina to be together either (this may be a supposition on my part but I really haven’t seen any indication that the creators are in favor of this ship – if I’m wrong, prove me so). What to do? Give the queer audience another queer character. And here we are back with Mulan and her broken heart. By giving us Mulan, they draw (bait) our focus from SwanQueen while introducing another love interest for Regina in the same plot device and have Neal profess his love for Emma – don’t tell me they did not do this on purpose, it’s simply a too convenient muddle of plot device to not be connected.

While giving us Mulan as a queer character, the creators are not giving us SleepingWarrior as a canon relationship. Given, at this point of the Aurora/Philip/Mulan story line it would have been stupid to do so. Aurora and Philip are a canonical item on the same level that Snow White (Ginnifer Goodwin) and Prince Charming (Josh Dallas) are – their story as fairy tale alone gives them this status. Of course, if the creators had really wanted to create a lesbian relationship and had thought this through and not just jumped into it, they could have left Philip lost. But it really doesn’t feel like they ever wanted to do that – whether the story line was well thought-through or not. And here is where I come back to the queerbaiting aspect of this whole story line – a possible queer character, yes, a canonical lesbian relationship, no. And we all know how much queer action characters get once their status as gay/lesbian/bi/other is established: 0, that’s how much (I don’t think we need to dwell on the reasons for this, we have discussed those at length and the most common [and commonly stupid] for Once has always been the ‘family show’-exclamation of sensitive heterosexualists’ souls).

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There is one aspect in this whole story line that might actually become a redeeming factor for the whole show. When Tinkerbell (Rose McIver) uses pixie dust to conjure up a new love for Regina, one of the fundamental truths of fairy tales is put into question – that of one true love. Daniel has been introduced to us as Regina’s one true love, if there can be another, however, who is to say that this wouldn’t also be true for Aurora (or even Snow)? Of course, this could just be one of those not very well thought-through plot devices that the creators of this show like to throw at us – like how true love’s kiss sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t (unless, of course, as I am kind of hoping Rumple is not Belle’s [Emilie de Ravin] one true love). I would like to see this followed through, however. Not because I want to see Regina with Hood but because I like to see the fairy tale myth questioned and ultimately broken. The myth of one true love has created a standard human beings are not really born to live up to, it also holds us all hostage to a repetitive Hollywood theme that allows a whole industry to become lazy. And it makes Once Upon a Time cling to Snow and Charming as a representative tool for advertising heterosexuality as the norm – when the show could do so much better than this.

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The Meta of Pitch Perfect: the Shower Scene

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That infamous shower scene. A discussion of the movie would not be complete without at least mentioning it. Its function within the movie is obvious and yet, as a mere plot device, the movie could have done without it. The scene is unconventional on different levels and the fact that it has made it into the script (and ultimately into the movie) is probably due to one deciding factor: it is a parody/reference to another (popular) text – Glee.

You don’t have to look far to see Pitch Perfect’s symbiosis with Glee, the whole concept of the movie seems to build on the show’s popularity with criticism and mockery thrown in for good measure. The shower scene is put in as a reference to what I coined ‘locker room gaiety.’ There are several instances on the show where recruitment is preceded by a shower scene – Will Shuester (Matthew Morrison) hears Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) sing in the shower and although he refrains from entering the shower stall, he recruits Finn on the grounds of having heard him sing in the shower. This scene is paralleled by one where Finn hears Sam Evans (Chord Overstreet) sing in the shower and recruits him later.

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Pitch Perfect takes this up but follows through, if you want. Chloe (Brittany Snow) barges into Beca’s (Anna Kendrick) shower and makes her audition for the Bellas. But this is just the part of the plot that could have been established differently. The important part is the popcultural reference to Glee, the laugh it elicits among those who love or hate the show.

But the scene has another meaning, another purpose – one that may have been underestimated by the makers of the movie. The lesbian innuendo. While the scene is meant as a comedic nod toward another text, it quite effectively unleashes ‘the gay.’ And it doesn’t matter that gray sweater guy/Tom (Cameron Stewart) is put into the scene as a heteronormative convention, a buffer to contain the homoerotic tension between Beca and Chloe – the mere fact of two women, naked in a shower stall, singing to each other while looking deeply into each other’s eyes… it’s too gay to not function.

And the scene works on this premise, and it works for several reasons: one is that it is a scene between two women. Considering the plot of the movie, it, of course, had to be two women. The premise of the plot works with two same-sex a cappella singing groups and the focus is on the Bellas and Beca Mitchell as unrivaled lead. But even if the premise was another, it would not have worked with another pairing. A man walking into the shower of another man? Unthinkable (Hollywood is too sensitive toward its male audience; just ask the makers of Glee why they never actually did it). A man walking in on a woman showering? Sexual harrassment! A woman walking in on a man showering… well, that could work in a society which does not constantly perpetuate the male as the dominant and the female as the passive part of a heterosexual relationship. The dominant female in Hollywood is a man-eater, not a likable lead character in a mainstream Hollywood production.

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Another reason the scene works is Chloe’s character – someone who is insensitive to personal boundaries. She is the one person who the audience can ‘forgive’ this indiscretion, and also the one Beca would forgive. There is an underlying reasoning of ‘she doesn’t know better.’ Of course, this is also meant to disable the homoeroticism of the scene, same as Tom. These obvious devices, however, do not work; and one can easily argue that they are not supposed to work either. Neither Chloe or Beca are ultimately labeled as straight. Sure, there are Tom and Jesse (Skylar Astin) who act as love interests but the great thing about Pitch Perfect is that it does not focus on these heterosexual love stories; it focuses on the Bellas as a diverse group of strong women who come together as friends, allys and – in possibility, at least – lovers.

The shower scene conveys this possibility. And it is not the only scene which hints at it, either. This could easily be interpreted as ‘queer baiting’ but for the fact that there is a nonchalance about these scenes, they are not drawn out, there are no flashy neon signs pointing them out to the audience. They are altogether too subtle, too unselfconcious, more endearing than sexy. They live from the one thing that is so rare, so special and at the same time inexplicable: chemistry. The chemistry between two characters that more often than not equals the chemistry between the actors portraying these characters. Anna Kendrick and Brittany Snow alias Beca Mitchell and Chloe Beale have it. And that’s the ultimate reason the shower scene works.

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The Meta in Pitch Perfect: Introduction

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Pitch Perfect was supposed to be fun – nothing more. And, after all, it is a comedy/musical and nobody expects deep thinking to happen during or after watching something like this.

And then the fandom built and suddenly you’re overanalyzing every scene, every look, every song and you come across something (I came across it) that can best be described as a meta-discourse.

What do I mean when I say, meta-discourse? Meta in Greek means (among other things) ‘beyond,’ in cultural studies it means ‘self-referential.’ And I think both definitions are fitting.

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As an example, think about Beca (played by Anna Kendrick) and Jesse’s (Skylar Astin) picnic where he tries to talk her into watching a movie with him and she tells him that she doesn’t like movies because the endings are too predictable, giving the example “the boy gets the girl.” Talking about movies in a movie already constitutes as meta-text despite the self-referential recognition the movie might put on what is actually being said. And let’s just say that this quote in particular opened a can of worms.

Starting this blog, I actually thought that I could simply write one post about PP and be done with it. But then I tried to summon my thoughts into one post and kept thinking of things to add. Suffice to say, there’s a lot more to this movie than catches the eye.

So, this post is to say: yes, I’ll be writing about Pitch Perfect, about the songs, the movies mentioned, about toners and same-sex shower scenes. I hope I can shed some light on the question of why this is such a good movie – when everybody merely expects some light entertainment.pitchperfect2