C-Dramas: How ‘The Untamed’ Avoided Queerbaiting When ‘Supernatural’ Didn’t

Screenshot from ‘The Untamed’, starring Wang Yibo (left) and Xiao Zhan (right). Copyright goes to Tencent Penguin Pictures and New Style Media.

Hey! Hallie here!

Given that Destiel was trending on Twitter a few days ago, I doubt many people are in the dark about what happened on ‘Supernatural’ a week ago. For those who don’t know, however, I’ll explain. “Destiel” is the ship name for monster hunter, Dean Winchester, and literal angel, Castiel. Fans have been rooting for this couple since Castiel’s appearance in season four, which is crazy because the show is now on it’s fifteenth and final season. On the episode that aired last week, Castiel finally confessed his feelings to Dean. Then he promptly died in a scene that was more problematic than it was heartwarming. This is far from the first problem fans have had with the writers over this couple. The writers have been accused of queerbaiting for many, many years. As a very large fan of ‘The Untamed’, this entire situation made me think of it’s main couple. Both Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji do things for each other that go very obviously beyond friendship. In fact, the show is based off of a Boylove novel. Unfortunately, due to censorship, the show runners were prevented from officially making Wuxian and Wangji a couple. Yet, somehow, this show managed to completely avoid queerbaiting. Let’s look into how they avoided it.

What is queerbaiting?

Queerbaiting is a tactic used by show runners to get the LGBTQ+ community to watch a show for a potentially queer couple, without actually making the queer couple canon. Characters might spend a lot more time together than they do with other characters and even openly flirt, but writers who use queerbaiting will only do this to keep those routing for queer representation watching. In the end, they won’t actually take the steps to put an openly queer couple on their show. Two things should be understood about this. One is that it’s a purposeful move from the creators. You can usually tell if creators are intentionally doing this if it’s a frequent occurrence in the show. Even worse, some creators, like the ‘Supernatural’ ones, will acknowledge the couple during fan events but will refuse to commit to the couple in the show. The other thing that should be understood about queerbaiting is that it’s refusal to represent queer couples harms the LGBTQ+ community. It contributes to the normalization of favoring straight couples over gay couples, and it often makes it seem as though people who are gay can just make the decision to be straight instead. Which is absolutely ridiculous.

Did the writers intend for Wangji and Wuxian to look like a couple?

Yes. Absolutely. So why isn’t this considered queerbaiting? Because the writers wanted Wangji and Wuxian to actually BE a couple. The writers of ‘The Untamed’ had to operate under censorship laws. Under those restrictions, there was no way they could openly state to the audience that Wangji and Wuxian were a couple. So instead, the writers stayed as close to the book as possible and let it’s story do the talking. This included scenes where Wuxian calls Wangji his soulmate. This included an entire storyline where Wangji waits for Wuxian for sixteen years, becomes depressed, and refuses to leave his side once Wuxian returns. This included Wangji becoming angry at Wuxian for implying that Wangji might have feelings for a female character. Plus the many, many, many scenes of Wuxian passing out and ending up in Wangji’s lap. There’s even a scene where Wangji wraps his forehead ribbon around Wuxian’s wrist, which Wuxian later figures out signifies marriage in Wangji’s clan. The writers were sure to put in every sweet conversation and every accidental touch from the book. In the end, they worked so hard at putting all of this in that it was obvious they were a couple without a kiss being necessary. Compare this to ‘Supernatural’ which did not have censorship to worry about. Castiel tells Dean that he loves him and within the context of the scene there’s no denying what he means by that. But Castiel also notes that Dean is something he can’t have because Dean doesn’t feel the same. Sure enough, Dean doesn’t tell Castiel he loves him as well, and there’s no indication that he wants to. They made Castiel gay, but they turned it into something one sided so they didn’t have to explore that relationship. After years of talking about it. The writers had no desire to write a queer couple, and in the end, they didn’t.

What about ‘Bury Your Gays’?

To those who don’t know, ‘Bury Your Gays’ refers to when a show has very few LGBTQ+ representation, but chooses to kill off it’s queer characters and keep its plethora of straight characters. This trope is used very often to avoid pursuing queer storylines and queer relationships. It’s often a tool used with, and sometimes for, queerbaiting. One of the major events in ‘The Untamed’ is the death of Wei Wuxian. So why isn’t this aspect of the story problematic? Wei Wuxian’s story doesn’t end there. In fact, ‘The Untamed’ begins with Wuxian being brought back to life. ‘The Untamed’ has two different storylines. One is told through a long flashback sequence and it details how Wuxian met Wangji, how Wuxian began demonic cultivation, and how many people, including himself, died from it. The other storyline follows Wuxian coming back to life, reuniting with Wangji, and learning to control his abilities to defeat the real villains. Wuxian’s death is a major part of the story, but it doesn’t put an end to the exploration of his character. Meanwhile, in ‘Supernatural’, Castiel revealed he was gay minutes before he was permanently killed off. Castiel, before this point, wasn’t confirmed as gay and wasn’t written as a gay character, meaning he didn’t serve as representation. The moment he became representation he was killed. That’s not even the worst part. The worst part is that ONLY Castiel was gay, so when Castiel died, Dean didn’t have to grapple with his feelings for Castiel. Instead, Dean could mourn him as a friend. Poof! No more gay in the show! The way this was treated is absolutely disgusting.

The ‘Untamed’ writers aren’t perfect. The novel wasn’t perfect either. While the writers did change or exclude a few of the problematic pieces from the novel, they didn’t change everything. For example, all of the main female characters in ‘The Untamed’ die to further the male characters storylines. All of them. Still, they did a better job at representing these often poorly represented groups than most American TV shows have. It’s also important to keep in mind that China is more closed-minded when it comes to things like queer relationships. As someone who lives in America, which frequently boasts about it’s more laid-back and open-minded culture, I’m embarrassed that a show like ‘Supernatural’ wrote this queer representation. ‘The Untamed’ shows us just how much more we need to accomplish before we reach good LGBTQ+ representation. It’s important to hold writers accountable so that, in the future, we get less LGBTQ+ representation like Castiel, and more representation like Wangji and Wuxian.

Don’t do anything fun until I get back!

Hallie

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