SwanQueen, the name of the ship for Once Upon a Time characters Regina Mills and Emma Swan, has won the AfterEllen Ultimate FemSlash competition two years in a row. I was casually lurking on the AfterEllen FB comments on the latest SwanQueen article, wondering if I should give Once Upon a Time some of my precious Netflix binge-watching time, when I came across a comment thread that really hit home.
“I still love SwanQueen, but I had to stop watching the show because I knew we would never get it. I’m tired of shipping couples that will probably never be a thing, especially in this day and age — it’s not the ’90s and it’s not just Gabby and Xena anymore. Subtext can eat me. If you want my support, give me something real.”
“Agreed. I love Swan Queen and the fanfictions, but it’s not canon and the show is getting worse and worse… so I don’t watch it anymore.”
“Also stopped watching, but I really appreciate Lana’s constant support in us.”
Based on that thread alone, I decided I’m not going to start watching Once Upon a Time because I’m so over queerbaiting.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, queerbaiting is a tactic that TV shows and movies have used to draw in queer audiences by using subtext and hinting at a queer romance without any intentions to ever follow through on it.
Obviously, I’m not the only person who is tired of this idea. Rizzoli & Isles, Sherlock and Supernatural have all been called out by multiple news outlets and fanbases for creating strong gay subtext between characters, drawing in legions of loyal queer viewers, and then throwing in some “no homo” jokes to ensure they don’t alienate their straight audiences.
There are some arguments amongst fans as to whether Once Upon a Time is actually queerbaiting or if SwanQueen shippers are seeing a love that just isn’t there. Rizzoli & Isles is generally held up as the most egregious example of lesbian queerbaiting in modern television. The Season 5 promo, for example, was called “Ladies Night.”
Angie Harmon, who plays the titular Jane Rizzoli, has admitted to the show playing up the lesbian subtext between the two women. She told TV Guide in 2013:
“Sometimes we’ll do a take for that demo. I’ll brush by [Maura’s] blouse or maybe linger for a moment. As long as we’re not being accused of being homophobic, which is not in any way true and completely infuriating, I’m OK with it.”
There are endless examples of Rizzoli and Isles touching each other and giving each other lingering looks, some of which are because they actually do sometimes pretend to be in a relationship to get annoying men to leave them alone. They also love to lie in bed and have heart-to-hearts. And they also check out each other boobs.
Despite all of the subtext, showrunner Janet Tamaro has said that she find the “lesbian theory amusing”: “Rizzoli and Isles have been heterosexual from the first episode.” The fact that the show lays on the lesbian subtext so thickly and then feigns surprise that people think the characters are gay is so offensive it’s mind blowing.
Once Upon a Time does not lay the subtext on between Emma Swan and Regina Queen as thickly; which is why there is a lively debate between fans as to whether or not SwanQueen is actually queerbaiting. Emma and Regina don’t ogle and grope each other, they don’t lie in bed together and tell each other how much they love each other. But that doesn’t mean that Once Upon a Time isn’t queerbaiting. The very premise on which Emma and Regina’s relationship is based is a storyline straight out of The L Word: Henry is Regina’s adopted son and Emma’s biological son. Right away, the two women hate each other as they rival for Henry’s affection, not unlike a pair of divorced lesbian moms. Their rivalry over Henry makes sense and it’s understandable that Henry wants to be a family with both his moms. The kind of family that has two moms is…well, it’s a lesbian family and that’s probably part of what is attracting fans to the SwanQueen fandom.
The other part is that sexual tension between characters is sometimes created by having the characters frequently argue. TV Tropes calls this the “Awww Look They Really Do Love Each Other” trope. They define it as:
“When a couple/potential couple — who spend the entirety of the show yelling at each other, insulting one another, stabbing each other in the back, etc. — have a moment when they reveal that, deep down, they really care for one another. Awwww.”
The TV show Cheers and the movie You’ve Got Mail are good examples of this, and, personally, I hate that trope. It makes no sense and I’ve never known it to happen in real life. But it’s still a thing on screen, and it’s a tactic that Once Upon a Time is arguably employing when it comes to SwanQueen. Regina has strangled Emma before, the two frequently visit each other’s home to confront one another and have dreams about tying each other up. Undeniably subtexty.
The characters are also starting to complete the arc, by going from hatred to realizing they make a good team, like when they combine their magic to save their town of Storeybrooke. After saving each other’s lives a couple of times, the two women begin to work together. And, it might not be a Rizzoli and Isles style declaration of love, but Regina tells Emma, “I need you” in a recent episode. (Spoiler alert: In the Season 5 finale, Emma makes the ultimate sacrifice for Regina and becomes the “Dark One” to stop Regina from being consumed by the darkness.)
In 2016, queer audiences don’t have to subsist on subtext crumbs. There are a number of successful shows with complex queer female characters: Jessica Jones, Pretty Little Liars, The 100, Orange is the New Black, Grey’s Anatomy, Jane the Virgin, The Fosters, etc. These shows are all commercial blockbusters which proves that audiences enjoy stories that include lesbian relationships. There are no more financial reasons to have unfulfilled gay subtext on a show anymore. So, if you take away the financial reasons for queerbaiting, the only reason left is heterosexism and that’s not OK.
The SwanQueen fandom has been super vocal on social media to both the actresses and the show’s creators about their love of this ship. Despite that, neither of these shows has given any indication they plan on following through with the romanticization of the relationships in question. And while they shouldn’t have to acquiesce to every fan ship out there, if the relationship works in the storyline and the characters have chemistry, why wouldn’t they? If the characters are telling you they are queer, make them queer. If they are straight, leave them straight and cut out the subtext. Either way quit playing games with our hearts; it’s condescending. If OUPT’s endgame is that everyone is going to live heterosexually ever after, it doesn’t deserve its loyal queer girl fanbase.