In this article, we'll explore the concept of queerbating to decide whether or not the creators of Stranger Things are guilty of indulging in it to promote their show.
What is queerbating and why is it problematic?
Urban Dictionary defines queerbating as "a marketing technique used to attract queer viewers that involves creating romantic or sexual tension between two same-sex characters but never making it canon or evolving on it."
The term was made popular online after queer people discussed feeling manipulated into watching a show for representation that ultimately wasn't there. Essentially, it's seen as creators using characters to gain a queer audience while not following through fully in order not to lose anyone straight from their audience in the process. It's hard to find quality representation for marginalized groups and queerbating is seen as disrespectful.
The exploration of LGBTQ+ in Stranger Things
In Stranger Things season 3, the audience was led to believe that Robin, Steve's new co-worker, could be a love interest. However, the end of the season reveals her to be a lesbian. Robin was the show's first 'out' character and her sexuality was revealed in a very non-queerbating way.
However, just because Robin wasn't used for queerbating, it doesn't mean that Will's character can't be.
Since the very first season, Will's sexuality has been hinted at. He was called homophobic slurs and is uninterested in girls, which prompts Mike to exclaim, "it's not my fault you don't like girls!". Robin, on the other hand, suffers no homophobia and doesn't even refer to herself using the term 'lesbian'.
What do we know about Will's sexuality?
Stranger Things season 4 seems to confirm suspicions around Will's sexuality. He is shown to be painting and eventually, he gives the painting to Mike. However, he reveals that it was Eleven who commissioned the painting, and he substitutes his feelings for hers in his monologue. The painting shows several knights in a fight with a three-headed dragon. Mike is depicted as the group leader and Will refers to him as the group's heart. When talking about the difficulties Eleven has faced because of her differences, it's obvious to the audience (and to Will's brother, Jonathan) that he is also talking about himself and his feelings for Mike.
Why queerbating has been brought up
It's easy to see why some of the LGBTQ+ community are upset by Will's coming out (or lack thereof). It's all very subtle and could actually be missed altogether. There is no grand 'coming out' scene nor is there a scene that shows Will realizing he is gay.
Many argue that the writers have used queer suffering to develop a character while also making him a relationship advisor for a non-gay relationship. Ultimately, it can be argued that Will is a plot mechanism rather than a character in his own right. Some also believe that this character 'lessening' only really began when fans were questioning Will's sexuality. What the depiction of Will could be said to show is that young, queer folk can't be happy.
But is it really queerbating?
While many are adamant that queerbating is going on, others argue that Will is a queercoded character instead. Stranger Things uses obvious and extensive subtext to show Will's sexuality and story. What's more, the show still has more seasons to come. Will's character has developed from a young boy to a teen already, who's to say this storyline won't be explored fully in future episodes?
It could even be argued that the scene in the van was Will beginning to come to terms with his own feelings. Moreover, it has set the scene for Will to confront his own sexuality in the next season.
The fact that Will doesn't come out would be standard for the time. The season takes place in 1986. This is only a few years after AIDS was discovered and when it started making the news as a public health crisis. At this time, being gay wasn't welcomed and homophobia was rife. Will's character, therefore, is entirely believable for the era in which the show is set. He's not ambiguously gay, his sexuality is pretty obvious, and the writers are showing what many young gay people would have been like at the time.