Friday, 28 March 2014

An open letter to Bomb Girls

Let's talk about queerbaiting.

Googling the term, you'll find a lot of contradictory definitions and think pieces and Sherlock macros, so I'll just save you the time and lay out a quick definition here and now: queerbaiting is when a show (or book, or movie) heavily implies that a character is queer (gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender) but never fully commits to the process. It allows the writers to claim representation and queer-friendliness while never taking the potential audience-alienating step of actually including a queer character. It's plausible deniability. "Oh, I absolutely believe these characters love each other [long pause] as friends." Queer audience members can spend years hooked on a show, convinced that one of these days the show will actually fulfill its promise and give them a queer character. It never comes true. But what do the writers care? The ratings are going to stay up.

That brings me to Bomb Girls.

When Bomb Girls first premiered in January of 2012, I- and a lot of other people- were wildly excited, for a whole bunch of reasons. Chief among them was the heavy implication in the pilot episode that Betty (Ali Liebert) and Kate (Charlotte Hegele) were being set up as the show's primary romantic pairing. Just in that first episode, they danced together, Betty eyed Kate in the shower, Kate stroked another woman's legs, and Betty promised that "whatever you're running from, you're safe here now. I'll make sure." Between those hints and the fact that the showrunner, Michael MacLennan, had a history of working on queer-themed projects (Queer as Folk and Prom Queen: The Marc Hall Story being the most prominent) it seemed like good things were on the horizon. Of course, we had to wait awhile- the show was set in the 1940s, when homosexuality was still illegal in Canada. Added to that, Kate came from a fundamentalist Christian background and was struggling to find her way in the world. The characters needed time to reach a point where they would feel comfortable entering a relationship. That was okay. We could wait. (You get really good at waiting when you want queer characters on TV.)

That first season did some amazing things- I remember episode four, "Bringing Up Bombshell," especially for depicting how queerness was erased from history by propagandists and people intent on presenting a heteronormative view of the world. Kate's assurance to Betty that "you don't need everyone liking you- just the ones that matter" at the end of the episode seemed like yet more evidence that we were on to something. Even when the first season ended in disaster- Kate, re-discovered by her abusive father, panicked when Betty kissed her and fled- it didn't seem like all hope was lost. There were plenty of chances for the storyline to progress- the show had already been picked up for a second season. We could keep waiting.

And then season two happened. And we started to realize that things were going wrong.

First of all, while Betty's sexuality was undeniable at this point- she had, after all, made a very romantic move on her best friend- Kate's remained shrouded in ambiguity. Her attempts at dating male co-workers all ended in disaster, and she remained close to Betty, but it was never stated outright what she felt. She kept casting longing looks at her friend, but continued to pretend that the kiss had never happened. When Betty finally confronted her, at the midseason finale, she still refused to disclose what she felt about it. And when the show came back after the break, she faded even further into obscurity, emerging only to become engaged to a co-worker and find her missing mother. Meanwhile, Betty went on to briefly date a servicewoman, a romance which ended when her girlfriend was posted away from Toronto. Betty and Kate barely shared screentime anymore. Sure, when they did, the show kept on hinting, but what good were hints by this point? We'd survived two seasons on hints; surely by this point we'd earned more than that. The show evidently didn't think so, though, because when the second season ended, their relationship had still not been resolved in any way. Then came the news that the show had been cancelled. Then came the news that all was not lost- the network had agreed to air a two-hour movie to wrap up all the remaining plotlines. There was still hope! Sure Michael MacLennan tweeted that he'd left the production, citing creative differences, but- well, he'd been responsible for the mess that was season two. Maybe the new writers were going to fix things.

Spoiler alert: they did not fix anything.

The movie aired last night, to a resounding "wait, what?" from fans. Betty and Kate's storyline went completely unresolved, except for the fact that they moved in together- "until you meet the man of your dreams," Betty assured her friend. The majority of the runtime was taken up with a spy storyline that few of the viewers cared about. One character died, which presented a whole host of other issues (killing sexually active female characters is a long and ignoble tradition going back to the Hays Code) and we closed with no resolution and no satisfaction.

So: queerbaiting.

It's hard not to see the way Kate's storyline was handled as an extreme example of queerbaiting, and one I thought this show was better than. She's given an endless litany of side-glances and giggles meant to imply- what? That she's maybe, possibly interested in women, but will never openly express this interest in the narrative? After a certain point, "slow-burning romance" is no longer a defence. We didn't need to see Kate and Betty declaring eternal love for each other. We just needed to know that the love was more than pathetically, eternally one-sided. The tragically pining queer character is a stock one in Western literature- a way of writers to make their character sympathetic while still avoiding the controversy of a queer romance. But this is 2014. We may not be past homophobia, but queer couples exist on TV. One of the exists on ABC Family Another exists on Fox, the notoriously conservative network that also features Bill O'Reilly. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Canada since 2005. So what's this show's excuse for refusing to give Kate and Betty a happy ending? What reason do they have for toying with queer audience members for two seasons and a movie but dodging responsibility for Kate's sexuality at the last minute? What's their defence for leaving their only canonical queer character in a state of lifelong romantic limbo? 

I loved this show for a very long time, and I defended it- all through the cheesy plotlines and writing ups and downs- because I believed in what it promised. I was so sure we were finally going to get what we wanted. After all the waiting and watching and hoping, what we finally got feels like a slap across the face. It's a reminder that watching shows for queer characters and hoping that they get happy endings is more often than not an exercise in futility- hints are there to be grasped at, but at the end of the day, the writers can still retreat safely into their position of assumed heterosexuality. Why not? No one's going to call them on it.

So I'm calling them on it now. What's your excuse, Adrienne Mitchell? What's your explanation, Donald Martin? Michael MacLennan, why did you wait so long? I know you knew we were watching. Did you ever care? Or were we just a convenient ratings boost for you?

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