[This article contains spoilers for all 3 seasons of Hannibal]
Edit: This author no longer supports Bryan Fuller and Hannibal by extension. Though I am not deleting this piece, as I still stand by my thoughts on general queerbaiting, I wanted to make my current thoughts and feelings clear. I no longer recommend that you give this show your monetary support.
In 2013, at the time of Hannibal’s premiere on NBC, I was never aware of the show outside of some second-hand exposure from lurking around on the internet all the time (teenager that I was).
I wouldn’t sit down for Silence of the Lambs for another five years, and by then, Hannibal was long since canceled after a very brief three season run; the closest I ever came to it was seeing #SaveHannibal hashtags on my Twitter feed. As a result, my knowledge of the whole Hannibal-genre was having seen one movie, general awareness of a few other films, and the existence of the show. Any exposure to the show from it’s online fandom (very much alive, four years on from cancellation) still gave me very little information as to plot and character details. I knew that Hannibal ate people, I knew that he had some strange friendship-rivalry with another guy, and that was about it.
The one other thing I kept hearing about the show? It was super gay.
Now, any online fanbase in this day and age seems to tote around some form of gayness, explicit or not. Some of the biggest examples of “gayness” talked about in shows and film are never once made explicit and rely completely on the fanbase to decide upon and discuss what they see as subtext. If you’re online long enough, that promise of proper gay representation loses it’s shine pretty quickly. I’m no exception; burned out from shows that were airing around the same time like Sherlock and Supernatural, and movies that promised gay characters who ultimately barely existed for a blink of screen time, I did not go into Hannibal with a very high bar. If I got a halfway decent show with some hand touches and ‘longing’ gazes between the two leads, I would’ve been disappointed, but not surprised. And, no, the strange transphobia of Silence of the Lambs did not do anything to raise that bar.
To give context to those who haven’t seen the series, Hannibal “focuses on the budding relationship between FBI special agent Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), a crime scene investigator who holds the ability to empathize with psychopaths and murderers, and Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), a forensic psychiatrist and secret cannibal destined to become Graham’s most cunning enemy” (x). Other series regulars include Laurence Fishburne (Will’s boss and the head of Behavioral Sciences), Gillian Anderson (Hannibal and later Will’s therapist), and Caroline Dhavernas (a psych professor similarly employed by the FBI and friend to both Will and Hannibal). Most of the first season follows a killer-of-the-week sort of formula, with Will using his ability to empathize with murderers to help track them down, interspersed with his conversations with Hannibal, who takes on an informal semi-therapist semi-friend role to him while definitely not eating people on the side, totally.
It’s in the last few episodes of that first season that things break from the mold [spoilers ahead], as Will becomes increasingly unstable due to undiagnosed encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and Hannibal starts framing him for Hannibal’s own murders. Formulaic episodes are completely abandoned as season 2 goes on to depict Will’s eventual exoneration from these murders, and, in the latter half, follows Will as he tries to both catch Hannibal in the murdering act, while fighting Hannibal’s constant attempts at manipulating him into being a murderer as well. Season 3 follows the aftermath of a very bloody season finale, and, despite a very slow start, picks up again once Hannibal and Will are back in the same room, and keeps its pace as it adapts the Red Dragon story-line through to the finale. I mourn that a fourth season has yet to be released, that less than half of the original seven season plan was ever made.
Doing my best to be academic here, I first want to focus on some technicalities before we dive into this article’s main focus, that of queer context and representation. The difference between queerbaiting and queer subtext/undertones has to be discussed, their differences both in the media in general and their separate positive and negative connotations. Then we can talk about homoeroticism in Hannibal and how it avoids the trappings of unfulfilled promises.
Queerbaiting vs. Queer Text
One phrase that gets thrown around a lot on the internet , especially in recent years, is that of queerbaiting. It’s used in regards to fictional situations and in regards to real people too — Ariana Grande and Harry Styles, to list some of note. So, for the rest of this piece to make sense, I need to do two things. First, I need to explain what queerbaiting even is (for the parents and millennials reading this, who don’t go into deep dives on Twitter and Tumblr as the kids do). And secondly, I need to explain how queer text (sub- and explicit) can exist without queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting, best defined, looks something like this —
“Queer-baiting is essentially a marketing ploy that celebrities, TV and film writers and authors use to appeal to an LGBTQ+ audience. The practice sees straight celebrities hint at being queer in songs, interviews, or music videos so that their sexuality becomes ambiguous. While appealing to LGBTQ+ fans, queer-baiting also avoids alienating a main audience by never fully embracing a queer sexuality.”
— Chelsea Ritschel, “Queer-baiting: What is it and why is it harmful?”
Queerbaiting in the context of actual people (ie: Ariana Grande and Harry Styles) is tricky, because it assumes that celebrities owe it to the world to be public about their sexuality. The definition above deals primarily with that (and to go into why accusing celebrities of queerbaiting is problematic is not the point of this article), but in the context of fiction, it’s the same idea. It’s Riverdale using a clip of Betty and Veronica kissing to promote the show to gay girls, it’s the Fantastic Beasts series promising to expand on Dumbledore’s sexuality only to show the bare minimum. To a lesser extent, it’s Lando Calrissian being declared pansexual in an interview, without any sort of reference to his sexuality within the film itself. It’s a cultural phenomena that has existed for much longer than its had a proper name and definition.
The primary harm in queerbaiting comes from the empty promise of representation. Because explicit representation, while growing, is still vastly outnumbered by heterosexual cisgender characters across the small screen: a study by GLAAD found that less than 10% of regular characters on primetime were in any way LGBT; that report doesn’t even cover all the LGBT characters that are killed off on television, which often happens after coming out or after sharing a tender moment with their partner. With such bleak prospects, its not surprising that so many people dip into subtext and headcanons — ideas that fans come up with to enhance a story that don’t interfere with the pre-existing story (for example, Luke Skywalker being trans and/or gay). It’s not surprising that people flock to these in order to feel sufficiently represented. And so when a show or movie seems to promise some decent representation only for it to be a classic case of queerbait, yeah, it comes off less as “we respect you” and more “fuck you, we got your money, now what?”
So, if queerbaiting is what happens when a show or film teases a gay romance without actually following through, how is that any different from queer subtext?
In doing my readings for this article, I came across an amazing post by Mary Kate McAlpine on specifically that distinction. It’s a great read all its own, but we’ll summarize here for those who don’t have the time to do a deep-dive. In short, queerbaiting relies on authorial intent and motivation. With queer subtext, endorsement of reading into the text is the result of genuine celebration, not minimal pandering in order to maintain a wider audience. McAlpine’s example in the article is Hot Fuzz, which, while not explicit, is loaded with queer subtext that was celebrated and encouraged by the writers and actors alike.
So, in layman terms, queer subtext may not be intentional, but it is never explicitly invalidated, in the text and/or by the creators; it’s the equivalent of the “it means whatever you want it to mean” answers a teacher would give you in school. Meanwhile, with queerbaiting, ambiguous sexuality is used as a tool for marketing; creators maintain a vagueness in order to maintain LGBT viewership without alienating homophobes, they mix in longing glances with disclaimer lines like “we’re not dating” or “I’m not gay”. With queerbaiting, if one person was another gender, they would undoubtedly be a couple, but aren’t only because if they got together as-is, it would be gay. For as far as we’ve come in media, that still is sometimes too much for people.
“Is Hannibal in Love With Me?”
So with that little lesson in terminology, we come back to Hannibal.
First of all, in case it wasn’t obvious by the existence of this article, I loved Hannibal. I can’t think of the last time I willingly, without force from my family or friends, sat down and binged a show in it’s entirety. Even separating it from the gay context, it’s an amazing show — unbelievably cinematic, with phenomenal acting and cinematography (James Hawkinson, you genius!). The final season, undeniably, is some of the weakest content, but filler episodes are nowhere near enough for me to deem it anything less than a phenomenal success in visual media. If Bryan Fuller gets his Silence of the Lambs miniseries, I can guarantee I’ll be there for every beautiful second of it.
The gay subtext of the show is the other major player in why I loved it so much; I feel like even saying subtext under-sells the extent of what they put on screen. Anyone following my Twitter got to watch me unintentionally tweet through almost all of it, completely in disbelief that this had aired on prime-time television and I hadn’t been there to witness it live; I can’t imagine myself at 15, seeing Will Graham be told that Hannibal loves him — explicitly. No metaphors or deep subtext you have to analyze, just flat out explicitly stated and not made a joke of. To give the audience a showcase of exactly what I was reacting to:
So, yeah. To my own defense, it’s not just me — the Hannibal/Will fanfiction count on Archive of Our Own has reached 15,000 works, and is rising still by the day, four years after cancellation. A quick Google search still brings up dozens of articles talking about their unique relationship, and the auto-fills validate this too. People still love this show, and they love the idea of this relationship, past and present.
Let’s go back, briefly, to the subject of queerbaiting. A lot of what you see in media that queerbaits is the subject of authorial intent; that being, when the creators become aware of the subtext in their work and don’t deny it, but don’t validate it either. This happened with Sherlock, where the light homoeroticism remained, but with “I’m not gay” shields thrown up every now and again to keep things, for lack of a better term, balanced. They didn’t want to scare away their viewers that wanted a gay relationship, but they were never going to give that to them either. Queerbaiting was their best choice to have their cake and eat it too.
Will and Hannibal, despite all their tension and purposeful intimacy, are never an explicit item, and continue to sleep with women throughout the show; so, compared to these other shows, how is Hannibal different?
Firstly, authorial intent. Bryan Fuller, the show’s creator and a gay man himself, has actually taken the time to discuss Hannibal and Will Graham at length in specific context to their sexualities. While he describes Will as “very definitely heterosexual”, getting a wife in the second half of the third season, he also acknowledges that that doesn’t void the ability to explore his relationship with Hannibal in a way that allows for subtext that is “practically text in a couple of episodes”. And while Will might be spoken for in terms of sexuality, Hannibal, purposefully, is not (paraphrased, he states that he has no idea what way Hannibal goes). But Fuller’s decision to introduce queer subtext into the show wasn’t born out of desire for gaining wide viewership under false pretenses, and upon realizing how so many of Will and Hannibal’s interactions came across, he didn’t shy away. While gay people certainly have the ability to feed into queerbaiting (see: Sherlock), Fuller is the refreshing other end to this spectrum, where he acknowledged and actively encouraged reading into a relationship they made purposefully intimate.
In a 2014 interview, Fuller comments that one of the writers had been actively pushing for more gay text within the show, and his discussion of the organic nature of the queer angle to the show is all just that — organic. Fuller seemed to be forever cautious not to fall into queerbaiting, while also not wanting to completely pander to what he saw as a very loyal demographic within the fanbase.
You can read that interview in full here, if ever curious.
Hannibal doesn’t stop at just male-specific homoeroticism, either, though. I can only write so much about the relationship between Alana Bloom and Margot Verger, but that’s only because the series was canceled right as they were introduced in this angle. Alana, previously relegated to an on-again off-again love interest for Will (and Hannibal, in season 2), enters Margot’s sphere in season 3; Margot was a minor character introduced about halfway through season 2 as one of Hannibal’s new patients, and slept with Will for plot purposes.
Margot and Alana, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it, aren’t given much in terms of buildup. They get a sex scene after maybe only a handful of conversations — unfortunate in that we don’t get a similar build of tension or emotion as we do with Hannibal and Will (who, again, are never even a couple), but fortunate in that we might never as long as the show remains canceled. Beyond that, once the Red Dragon plot starts, Margot kind of just disappears until the final episode, where she has no dialogue. One could make an argument that the show’s seeming lack of investment in Margot and Alana as a couple results in them becoming just flatly sexualized; however, I’d make the argument that everything in this show is so sexual that its hard to point to them as the only aspect that gets special attention. Hannibal doesn’t have many explicit sex scenes, but those it does have are almost mild to how any scene of dinner is filmed. Food gets a larger sexual focus than the canonically gay couple, which, hey, it’s a nice change.
Are they sexualized? Undoubtedly. But they aren’t sexualized to the point of dehumanization, they aren’t senselessly murdered, and each woman is her own unique and complex entity outside of the relationship.
(Further, Fuller didn’t just add in this aspect in order to throw in some more sex or to heighten the possibility that Will and Hannibal might end up together. Like we writers tend to see happen, it just ended up being the direction the character was meant to go in, and he’s incredibly protective of Alana’s character growth and revelations: “I think there was some criticism like ‘Oh, now she’s a lesbian just because you want her to be a lesbian’. No, she’s bisexual, she’s always been bisexual, and stop being so narrow in your perception of sexuality”.)
And, hey, they get a happy ending too! Alana and Margot kill Margot’s sadist of a brother in one of the most satisfying deaths of the third season, and they survive to the end of the show (mostly because they get the hell out of Dodge the second Hannibal escaped). When “burying your gays” is so prominent a fate for so many fictional gay characters (lesbians especially), it’s incredibly important to take note that Fuller gave them “as close to a happy ending as we could probably pull off”.
“But Do You Ache For Him?”
The unique world of Hannibal is one that was, frankly, before its time, and one that I already dearly miss. There is so much careful, purposeful effort into everything that comes on screen, and even the “throw shit at the wall to see what sticks” angle that the season three visuals started to take was still fascinating in it’s bizarre beauty, and I admired it for going full crazy. I fully understand why it’s fandom is still as active and passionate as it is, and I genuinely hope for all of us that we’re not left (pun not intended) starving for much longer.
Hannibal is especially unique in the extent to which it portrays and acknowledges gayness. I think back to what other shows were airing in 2013- shows like Sherlock, Supernatural, Glee- and none of them have the nuance that I now associate with Hannibal (Though I’ll admit I’ve never seen Glee, I’ve been hearing less positive discussion about it as time goes on). Two of those previous shows are some of the most notorious examples used in the discussion on queerbaiting. Compare them to Hannibal, which gives both implied and explicit gayness, and further gives these characters personality outside of just their sexuality.
Ultimately, Hannibal correctly answers a question that ends up being an important factor in determining whether something is queerbaiting: if it were a heterosexual couple, would there be any doubt?
Usually, in cases of queerbaiting, it’s fairly obvious that if the couple in question were heterosexual men and women, the likelihood that they’d become an actual couple would be far, far higher. In the case of Hannibal, its my opinion that Hannibal and Will would have the same relationship, regardless of gender. The fact that they’re both men isn’t the sole reason that they don’t just break the blatant tension between them; there are so many more story-specific reasons and character motivations that factor in. Hannibal knows how to balance that fine line between subtext and queerbait, how to acknowledge character relationships authentically and without pandering.
In this year of 2019, generally, subtext in lieu of explicit representation is kind of a cheap way to go. But once again, Hannibal breaks the mold of what I usually think about in media. While writing this, I read many articles about the end of the series, and a lot of them discussed how they thought that making the Hannibal/Will dynamic explicitly romantic or sexual would actually cheapen the viewing experience for those authors. And I surprisingly have to agree. I think that in any lesser show, the relationship between Hannibal and Will would have been nowhere near as uniquely executed, and would have fallen into the queerbait pitfall. But Bryan Fuller and his team’s dedication to their show is evident in every aspect of it, and that extends to the relationship between the two main leads.
Hannibal is phenomenal, an unfortunate victim of low ratings, and despite how beautifully (if not infuriatingly) the third season ended, I truly hope more is to come. There was too much talent here to have not lived out its full life. With as popular as Killing Eve is becoming (another series I intend to start watching soon, another about the relationship between a serial killer and their law enforcement counterpart), I can’t help but hope there’s a chance somewhere on that horizon of a revival. There’s always room for more at the dinner table.