I tried to come up with a catchy title and obviously failed, though in my defense I think this conversation is important enough for the blunt and the straight forward. A little over two weeks ago Good Omens dropped on Amazon Prime to the utter joy of Gaiman and Pratchett fans alike----myself included. Given the criticism we've seen lately against live-action remakes (Aladdin), "live-action" remakes (The Lion King), long-running franchises (Star Wars), and shows with lackluster finales (Game of Thrones) it's a real treat to have both a show and an adaptation that's just all around excellently done.
If I start singing Good Omen's praises we'll be here all day. Besides, you don't need me for that. Pop onto any other blog and you'll find plenty of love poured out for this mini-series. No, rather I want to make sure that enough of us are covering Good Omen's black marks as well. Namely, accusations of queer baiting.
Plenty of fans are talking about this, though mostly in short, emotionally charged posts. Which I get. It's difficult to see others dismissing not just an excellent show, but a beloved author----starring out Gaiman's name like it's a curse----because of one "wrong" opinion. It can even feel like a personal attack given that saying the queer rep in Good Omens isn't enough reads as saying you're not enough, all of you who have embraced this show and see yourself in these characters. In contrast, the anti-Gaiman posts are just as emotionally charged and I get that too. It's 2019 and hearing anyone claim "They're not gay because..." immediately makes our hackles rise. It sounds like an excuse, but "sounds like" is the key phrase here. Good Omens only appears similar to queer baiting at first glance and a more nuanced look reveals----in my opinion---a text that deserves all the praise we've been giving it and so much more. Obviously no one is required to accept my perspective and many won't be persuaded by this little project: an effort to collect the primary arguments against queer baiting in one organized post. But I hope others will at least consider these points. Not because anyone needs to adore Good Omens as I do, but because there is an important, ongoing fight against queer baiting and this isn't it. Attacking Good Omens in lieu of turning that energy towards shows that actually harm the queer community is the fandom equivalent of shooting ourselves in the foot.
So in the name of organization let’s tackle this bullet point style.
What Exactly is Queer Baiting?
According to our beloved Fanlore, queer baiting is a term that describes the “perceived attempt by canon creators to draw in a queer audience and/or slash fans by implying or hinting at a gay relationship that will never actually be depicted.” Take note of the subjective language throughout. Queer baiting is “perceived”-----meaning not every fan is going to agree with every assessment. It is never “depicted”-----meaning that we’re bumping up against questions of how you show queerness on the screen and, again, not everyone will agree on what it means to “really” depict a queer relationship. However, despite the breadth of the definition, over the years we’ve come to identify certain actions as queer baiting and use those as a handy checklist to determine when a show as a whole is queer baiting us:
Deliberately coding a character as queer-----drawing from our language, style, mannerisms, history-----while continually putting them in straight relationships (notably not a bi, pan, ace, etc. relationship with someone of the opposite sex).
Setting scenes up to read as queer only to pull back with a dramatic “No homo!” This is usually done by making fun of the moment itself-----and by extension the audience members who took it seriously-----or by reasserting the character’s heterosexuality quickly after the fact.
Using interviews, meet-and-greets, and the like to acknowledge fans’ desire for queer relationships in a way that suggests it will eventually come to pass, but the creators have no intention of doing that. i.e. “We’re indebted to slashers! We love them! Stay tuned, you never know what will happen next between those two ;)” and what “happens next” is more of what fans have dealt with for seasons.
Writing that ignores the deep, emotional bond between two same-sex characters in favor of pairing them with characters they have shallow, seemingly forced attraction to. Often these love interests then leave or die to make room for more ambiguous moments between the first two characters.
The overall effect of queer baiting is that queer audiences feel insulted, cheated, and lied to. Those negative feelings outweigh any enjoyment you might otherwise feel from a show with queer subtext. The situation reads less like a small step forward and more like a permanent roadblock: “This is as far as we're willing to go. We’ll never give you overt representation.”
Also take note of the intentions here. Queer baiting does not exist solely----or even sometimes primarily----in the text itself. It originates in production and advertisement too; it’s the creator’s attempt to draw in a larger audience, in particular a queer audience, by promising us something we’ll never receive. It’s like if a bake sale was long in the making and during that whole process the sellers dropped hint after hint that there’d be chocolate chip cookies there. You show up, no chocolate chip. But the sellers keep hinting (and anyway there’s other delicious stuff too), so you come to the next year’s bake sale, and the next, continually buying things there despite the fact that you’re growing increasingly frustrated when you’re only offered oatmeal raisin. To say nothing of all the times you’ve outright asked for chocolate chip. Can’t you bake both? Finally, when you drop that bake sale and start going to another the sellers come back with a, “Well we never promised any chocolate chip. Be happy with the flavors you’ve got.”
Okay. Shitty allegories aside, you get the idea. Queer baiting is a form of gaslighting in which writers, producers, actors, and the text itself gesture towards queer relationships or identities, only to then turn around and insist there was never anything queer there to begin with. They’re just friends. You crazy slashers will read into anything.
So there are three steps in total: queer coding within the text, using that coding as a way to drum up interest during the show’s promotion, and then failure to deliver on the promised representation. Good Omens hits steps one and two. I don’t think I need to convince anyone that the show itself is, pardon my French, gay as fuck and there’s no doubt that this has been used as a draw.
Where Good Omens saves itself is in that crucial third step. It does follow through on all the textual hints and promises from the actors, it just does so in a way that isn’t the simple, neat little package that some fans would prefer it to be. We’ve been given a queer relationship that:
Takes place between two non-human characters, thus opening up the possibility that their romantic and/or sexual identities can’t be summed up with a straightforward, “They’re gay.”
We have an author who refuses to simplify the situation for us, leaving interpretation almost entirely up to the audience. Word of God cannot be used as the final say here.
The identities most prominently displayed-----asexual and aromantic-----are some of the most derided within the queer community. Acephobia is, sadly, alive and well so if that’s how your characters present it’s only logical that many exclusionists would rather settle on “They’re queer baiting” as opposed to “They’re representing and celebrating an identity I’ve put effort into rejecting.”
We’re given a very short amount of action in the present----covering just a few days-----and the story is fixed; no real chance of a second season. We thus leave Crowley and Aziraphale right at the point where they’re finally able to show their relationship more overtly, if they choose to, but that’s not something we get to see. Personal character growth doesn’t always tie up as neatly as the plot does.
This relationship was written by a man who has authored numerous other queer characters, thus giving him the right (for lack of a better word) to try something with a little more ambiguity.
Gaiman is only a co-author of Good Omens and Pratchett’s death greatly complicates his ability to make drastic changes to the story.
The overall feeling behind Good Omen’s coding is one of celebration. Acceptance. Utter joy at the relationship Aziraphale and Crowley have together. It is, in short, a direct contrast to the feelings queer baiting tends to produce.
Seven arguments then. Let’s take a closer look at each.
1. Crowley and Aziraphale For Real Aren’t Human
This is perhaps the iffiest defense simply because it edges so closely to other, cop-out examples. The line between “plausible explanation” and “insulting excuse” can be a blurry one and is, again, subjective. Think for a moment about another rampant issue common in media: sexism. Let’s say we have a woman, a superhero, whose outfit was designed by men in the 30s. Now it’s 2019 and there are endless debates like this one going around:
The Problem: “Why are we still designing her like this? It’s clear she exists only for the male gaze and besides, her outfit is absurd. That armor doesn’t actually protect her. What, she artfully styles her hair before every fight instead of just pulling it into a ponytail? Who fights in three-inch heels??”
The Excuse: “ACTUALLY her outfit is super empowering because she chose to wear all that and doesn’t give a damn what anyone else thinks. He armor HAS to be that skimpy in order to give her the maneuverability she needs. Plus she’s a range fighter so it’s not like it matters if her midriff is bare----no one’s getting close enough to hit her. Women’s hair just does that naturally (right?) and anyone can fight in heels! I, someone who has never worn them, consider it entirely logical that she’d choose those.”
On and on with fans desperately trying to justify the sexist design with “logic.” These situations are rampant, so I can easily see how Good Omens fans would see similarities:
The Problem: “Wow, another popular pair that dance around each other but never officially become a couple. I’m so shocked.”
The Excuse: “ACTUALLY it’s impossible for Crowley and Aziraphale to get together because angels and demons don’t have sexualities like we do and it would be entirely illogical for us to expect them to act human like that. I’m upset because what you’re suggesting is bad writing, not because I’m in any way homophobic.”
That is, on the surface, exactly what Gaiman himself has been saying since the adaptation released. He’s explained on multiple occasions how Aziraphale and Crowley don’t fit into human labels and we even get confirmation of this within the text itself.
“Many people, meeting Aziraphale for the first time, formed three impressions: that he was English, that he was intelligent, and that he was gayer than a tree full of monkeys on nitrous oxide. Two of these were wrong: Heaven is not in England, whatever certain poets may have thought, and angels are sexless unless they really want to make an effort. But he was intelligent.”
However, both in the story and in interviews Gaiman uses the ‘celestial as sexless’ concept as a means of possibility-----they can be ANYTHING because of supernatural stuff-----rather than using that as an act of gatekeeping-----it’s IMPOSSIBLE for them to be gay because supernatural stuff. Aziraphale is canonically perceived as gay by others, but he’s not even technically a man, so where does that leave us in terms of labels? We could have easily been given a story that uses non-humanness as an excuse for why these two can only be best eternal bros for ever and always. Instead it’s open ended, especially with the inclusion of “unless they really want to make an effort.” Gaiman has reinforced this extensively lately, reminding fans that it is a love story, but what kind of love story is entirely up to you (see point #3 below).
Had this defense been Good Omens' only defense then yeah, I’d be a little skeptical. Because the general concept of “I’m not invested in doing that... but you’re free to!” can rankle just as much as an outright refusal to include representation can. Think about the backlash against J.K. Rowling. She’s spent years now assuring fans that there are queer people at Hogwarts, disabled people at Hogwarts, etc. all while refusing to include any of that in her writing. It shouldn’t always be our responsibility to revise stories in order to see ourselves in them. So yes, there are no doubt fans asking-----from a broadly justified position-----why is it our task to assign Crowley and Aziraphale a sexuality, a gender, any of it? Well, because in this case that freedom is actually... rather freeing. This is why I put this point first. I believe firmly that everything onwards, all those other reasons why the show doesn’t read as queer baiting, reframe this decision into something positive. Gaiman isn’t J.K. Rowling who refuses to give us any canonical queer characters while insisting on the sidelines that they’re still somehow there. The Aziraphale and Crowley of the show are undoubtably queer, we’re just given a bit more leeway in terms of how we want to read that queerness. For once, I think the “It’s logical not to tie them to one label because they’re literal, celestial beings” argument is both logical in-world and serves the queer community rather than excluding us.
2. Gaiman’s Status as (Dead) Authorial God
Does this point really need its own section given what I’ve already said above? Maybe not, but just to reiterate: having power over a story isn’t always a bad thing. Fans will take that power whether there’s permission or not-----ding dong the author is dead-----but usually it really is a tooth and nail kind of battle. Gaiman’s manner (from my perspective at least) has been honestly accepting lately. There’s a massive difference between authors ignoring the queer community, pandering to us, or acting outright hostile and Gaiman’s enthusiastic stance of, ‘YES it’s a story about love! And I’m legitimately thrilled for you to take that in any direction you please.’
Fans have spent a long time arguing that publishing a work gives us a certain amount of control over it. Once you invite us in-----accepting our payment of money, time, reputation, praise, adoration-----the flip-side is that the story no longer solely belongs to you. Emotionally, that is (no one has time to delve into copyright laws right now). To include a bit of theory for just a moment, we re-create and re-write texts each time we view them; no text can exist as is without its audience and this has become even more extreme in the digital age, where audience participation (of multiple sorts) is not only expected but demanded. The point is that Gaiman is one of the few authors who has ever enthusiastically embraced this perspective. Perhaps not always (we can argue over his and Pratchett's response to fandom 30 years ago), but certainly in regards to this specific adaptation. He gave Good Omens to the world and is now actively encouraging us to do what we will with it. Those authors are a rare breed indeed.
Does this eliminate the need for overt “They’re This Label and nothing else” representation in media? No, but the fact that Gaiman is doing something different doesn’t mean that what he is doing is bad.
3. Showing Asexuality on Screen is ????
Okay, here’s where we delve into the show itself a bit. How do we demonstrate, visually and overtly, the very particular relationship of two non-human entities madly in love with one another, but not at all interested in many of the more common markers of that love like, say, sex? There’s one sure-fire way to achieve that. Behold my totally awesome revised script:
Aziraphale: I’m asexual. Madly in love with this fool, but ace as they get.
Crowley: What he said.
Or we can write a sure-fire script for the aros out there:
Crowley: I love Aziraphale, he’s the most important dumbass in the universe to me, but I’m not in love with him because that’s not how I role.
Aziraphale: *tips glass*
Or any combination, really. A writer with actual talent (AKA not me) could achieve good dialogue AND overt rep by just having our characters say at some point, “I’m ___” The problem is, as already established, that Gaiman doesn’t want to limit our readings like that. So how do you establish a queer relationship without a) having characters use exclusive labels or b) relying on markers that would exclude a good portion of the queer community (in the way that an on screen kiss would exclude a lot of aros/aces)?
Might you focus the camera on the characters’ expressions as they give one another positively smitten looks? Include romantic music throughout, notably during the end Ritz scene and after the church bombing (where Sheen has admitted to playing Aziraphale falling for Crowley in that moment)? Emphasize their domestic routines together? Run through 6,000 years of both intimate and dramatic ways in which they’ve helped one another? Draw overt parallels between the forbidden love of an angel/demon and the forbidden love of queer individuals?
I get it, based on TV/film history all that looks like just queer coding----which, remember, isn’t the same as queer baiting-----but we also have to acknowledge that it looks a lot like aro-ace relationships too. That’s what a lot of queer relationships are: adoring each other, fighting for each other, spending time with each other, loving each other in a way you don’t love others in your life. If we insist on specific types of physical intimacy (they never kissed!) or even specific social traditions (they never married!) then we’re by default rejecting every queer fan that doesn’t want to kiss people and doesn’t want to marry. The “I lost my best friend” line only reads as some sort of failure on Gaiman’s part if you believe that partners aren’t also best friends. Part of pushing for queer rep is pushing for variety and Good Omens is one of the few shows I have EVER seen that unambiguously shows two men’s profound love for one another----something beyond a ‘bromance’----without either undermining that love later or limiting the ways in which if might be expressed. Again, every fan is welcome to write Crowley and Aziraphale having crazy celestial sex after the not-Armageddon, but if we’d gotten anything like that on screen it would have immediately shut the door on a huge portion of the queer community; a portion, I might add, that has even less rep than us gay, lesbian, and bi folks. Gaiman kept the door open for everyone while also encouraging us to tailor this love story to fit our own needs. In some respects it’s the best of both worlds.
4. 6,000 Years of Pining is Just Stage One
Back to logic for a moment. I’ll be the first to admit that too many authors use “That’s not the story I wanted to tell” as a catch-all justification for their homophobia. Meaning those who write 20+ het relationships and then come back with, “A queer couple just wouldn’t fit in this story, okay?” When faced with the question of, “So what? Queer people just... don’t exist in this universe?” they circle back to those “logical” explanations. No, no they exist... but the characters are too young. Or too repressed. It’s not the right time period. They have other things on their mind besides romance. They’re there, absolutely, I just didn’t have any reason to mention it!
You’ve heard it all before.
Good Omens though, it actually has a story where an overt (more overt than what we got, anyway) relationship between our two main characters wouldn’t make much sense. Partly because of the whole angel/demon thing. As mentioned above, there are obvious parallels between society keeping queer couples apart and heaven/hell keeping our Ineffable Husbands apart. A relationship for them is dangerous and ultimately something to avoid for those first 6,000 years.
‘But the Arrangement!’ you cry. ‘They’re already risking it all by being friends. That wouldn’t change if they were friends who also kissed.’ Excellent point. To which I respond, ‘Aziraphale.’ His entire character arc revolves around accepting what the audience can already see: heaven isn’t totally good, hell isn’t totally bad, and maybe those mixed-up humans with their free will have the right idea. Aziraphale’s feelings for Crowley are intricately tied up in all this, for the simple reason that an angel admitting to loving a demon would upend his world view in a way he’s just not ready for yet. That’s why Sheen delivers “You go too fast for me, Crowley” in the way he does. That’s why their first fight involves Aziraphale denying that they’re even friends. Something more than that? He’s not ready.
Notably, Aziraphale only becomes ready at the very end of the story. He’s primed now to start loving Crowley in a more open manner thanks to their experiences over the last eleven years, but at that point the plot is finished. Armageddon averted, end of the show. We don’t get to see what happens next (ignoring Gaiman’s very telling note that they get a cottage together in South Downs), but that doesn’t mean the relationship stalled and remained fixed. Is it frustrating not to see that growth on screen? Sure, it can be, but the lack of it didn’t feel out of place given the story Gaiman was telling and the weight that acting, cinematography, and even dialogue (“I’ve been there. You’re better off without him”) give to the relationship. Aziraphale may not fully know (or at least be willing to admit) that he loves Crowley yet, but the audience knows.
It essentially makes Good Omens a kind of coming out story and we need those too.
5. High Standards Are Great But We Can’t Demonize All Our Allies Either
Real talk here: as a community we’ve got to find a better balance between criticism and praise. Keep calling out the shows that fail, the shows that can do better, but also praise them when they take steps forward. Think that step should have been bigger? That it came too late? 100% valid, express that, but if that’s all we express then we’re giving cishet creators very little reason to continue sticking their necks out in an industry that by and large still doesn’t want queer stories. It’s just like any other type of education, the criticism you give needs to be constructive and it needs to be paired with a bit of carrot along with that stick.
Even if you firmly believe that Good Omens as an individual text is queer baiting, Gaiman as an author has been writing queer characters for decades and has, by and large, done right by us. Context is king. You have an author that holds great power in the writing community and consistently refuses to include queer rep in their works? Or much more obviously queer baits with little regard for the effects of that beyond lining their pockets? Those are wildly different contexts than this one, where an author maybe had a bit of a misstep. Again, I don’t think Gaiman did misstep with Good Omens, but if that’s your perspective let’s at least acknowledge that mistakes are inevitable. I’d much rather have a world where authors were writing queer characters left and right and fumbling them once in a while, but that’s an unlikely scenario if we continue to fully and immediately “cancel” anyone who doesn’t achieve perfection across their entire career.
6. Pratchett Gave Up the Ghost. Please Respect That
A lot of changes were made to Good Omens when Gaiman adapted it, but they were, by and large, cosmetic. Meaning that the core of the story-----its characters, themes, message, overall plot-----remained the same, shifted only slightly so that they fit into a new medium in a new age. Changing the dynamic of our protagonists to include an unarguably sexual and/or romantic bent is not cosmetic. And Gaiman isn’t the only author.
Pratchett is as much Good Omen’s author as Gaiman is, though it’s hard to remember that when only one of them is capable of staying involved in the story’s growth. I think collectively we’ve come to view Gaiman as the “real” author based solely on his continued presence, but that’s a rather horrible mindset to fall into. To be blunt, Gaiman should not have changed the story in such a manner. It wasn’t his right and I’m glad he didn’t try. Even if we ignore every other point I’ve made----particularly about wanting an open-ended, queer relationship----I honestly don’t believe that Gaiman was morally in a position to give Crowley and Aziraphale something overt and fixed when half the writing team is no longer with us. Context again: there’s a massive difference between queer baiting and maintaining the authenticity of a thirty-year-old text because your friend is dead and can’t give his okay on making changes. In this case I don’t believe that what Gaiman may owe his fans outweighs what he owes Pratchett. It’s a matter of respect and I, in turn, think we should respect that.
7. It’s Gay As Fuck and That Feels Good
Pretty much what it says on the tin. My last point is less an argumentative stance and more just a feeling. A personal response. I loved Good Omens. Every moment of it, including the relationship between Aziraphale and Crowley. After years of Supernatural and every other show like it I’ve become hyper-sensitive to queer baiting. I wait for it because I’ve come to expect it; a matter of “When will they pull the rug out from under us?” rather then, “Will they?”
But Good Omens never goes there. In any capacity. Aziraphale doesn’t scoff at the stranger who assumes Crowley is his boyfriend. Crowley doesn’t flirt with every woman that passes by to reaffirm his heterosexuality (and let’s be frank, that would have been a really easy route to go down given his ‘cool demon’ persona). When the term “friend” is used it’s during a moment of pure anguish, something emotionally visceral and real, not a way of undermining a romantic reading. The music and cinematography never falters in what it wants to say. Our actors are open about how they played their characters. Gaiman is open to any relationship you might want them to have.
That really doesn’t feel like queer baiting to me. I came out of those six hours feeling giddy and proud, not disappointed. For me that’s a distinct indication that Good Omens is one of the few shows that managed an overtly queer relationship without making it traditionally overt. Sex, kisses, or blatant “I love you”s weren’t needed. The relationship was conveyed in other ways and, in doing so, made that relationship more accessible.
Do we want every single show to follow in Good Omen’s footsteps? Not necessarily. We need that blunt “I’m ___” as much as we need the nuance. But that’s just it: we need both. Just because Good Omens wasn’t invested in telling these specific types of queer stories doesn’t mean the overall result wasn’t queer itself.
So no, I don’t think the show was baiting us. For those of you who felt that disappointment, I hope this gave you another perspective to consider. If not? At the very least thanks for taking the time to read.
Happy watching ❤️
Image #1: https://allaboutmebutnot.tumblr.com/post/185632156846/gosh-i-cant-believe-i-only-just-
GIF #1: https://missanthropicprinciple.tumblr.com/post/185625765228/im-ineffable-husbands-
Image #3: https://www.indiesunlimited.com/2016/01/19/what-is-fanfiction-and-can-i-write-some/
GIF #2-3: https://loveofafangirl.tumblr.com/post/185641689782/heart-eyes-appreciation
GIF #4: https://crawlay.tumblr.com/post/185639264284/the-evolution-of-two-enemies-angles-
Image #4: https://comicsverse.com/queer-characters-sandman/
Image #5: https://www.locusmag.com/2006/Issues/1991_Gaiman_Pratchett.html
Image #6: https://casebasket.tumblr.com/post/185621927505/crowley-manhandling-aziraphale-v-