Pacific Rim: Uprising and the dread spectre of queerbaiting

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Mar 28, 2018, 6:02 PM EDT

There are both positives and negatives to Pacific Rim: Uprising. In the positive column for Uprising: John Boyega, who proves himself a star with sufficient charisma to elevate even thinly written material. On the negative side: Scott Eastwood, superhero name The Great Cardboard Man. 

Positive: ALICE. Know that there are massive spoilers at that link. Also know that, if you read the piece despite not having seen the movie, I am 100% not joking about anything Alice-related. What I described is real. It happened.

Negative: queerbaiting.

For those unfamiliar with the term, “queerbaiting” describes the process by which a piece of media heavily, heavily hints that one or more of its characters are LGBTQIA without actually coming out and confirming it. It’s throwing crumbs to fans who want queer representation while still maintaining a veneer of plausible deniability in case some nervous studio executive or pearl-clutching viewer decides to pitch a fuss about how The Gays, They Are Indoctrinating Our Children!!! It’s particularly common in media with young, enthusiastic—often female—fandoms with thriving shipping culture. Supernatural and Sherlock are your classic examples, but once you know what you’re looking for, it happens quite a lot. Including in Pacific Rim: Uprising. Giant monsters versus giant robots—who will win? Not gay people.

The queerbaiting in Uprising centers around two main couples. The first is Drs. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), returning from the first film as the Pacific Rim universe’s resident scientist geniuses. They’re bickering BFFs, one of them awkward and stuttering and the other loud-mouthed and tattooed, and also they’re both white dudes, so you pretty much know Tumblr decided right away that they were boning. In Uprising, they’ve been apart for several years, with Newt… well, I can’t go into the specifics without getting into bonkers spoiler territory, but let’s just say that Hermann thinks Newt is in a long-term romantic relationship with a woman. (He… sort of is?

Over the course of the film, the two characters reunite and share a handful of emotional moments, including one where Hermann brings a cane to a gunfight and still somehow wins. There’s a hug! As far as queerbaiting goes, it’s not an ironclad example—two characters not being in a relationship despite some fans having decided they should be doesn’t constitute queerbaiting necessarily, and thinking it does is a dangerous recipe for fan entitlement. And I’d be willing to give Pacific Rim: Uprising a pass on the queerbaiting front if it weren’t for Jake, Nate and Jules.

Jake, played by Boyega, is the rebellious bad boy of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps. Nate is his blandly handsome, regulations-obsessed partner—"partner" in the sense of training new Jaeger pilots, not in swapping spit. They used to be best friends, but a falling-out left them a little testy with each other when they reunite years down the line. Are your shipper senses going off? If you’ve spent any time on Tumblr at all, probably. The pair’s interest in each other seems, shall we say, a bit more than platonic? They banter. They bond. Jake at one point calls Nate “sexy” and “handsome.” Add into the mix the Jules (Adria Arjona), a mechanic whom both Jake and Nate are apparently into. Her character is so thinly sketched that she seems to exist only as a means of stoking sexual rivalry between the two men. (Underserved female characters is definitely A Thing in the queerbaiting narrative.) The kindasorta love triangle comes to a head when Jules gives one of them a very loaded kiss on the cheek and then kisses the other one, too. It’s the PG-13 version of, “We’re going to have a threesome later, FYI.”

Except why couldn’t you have these characters express actual, confirmed romantic interest in each other? Taken by itself, Pacific Rim’s lack of LGBTQIA representation isn’t all that bad. The first movie, after all, didn’t have any romantic pairings at all. Neither does Uprising, barring the implied Jake/Nate/Jules poly relationship. But movies don’t exist in a vacuum, and Pacific Rim: Uprising takes place in the context of more and more Hollywood movies making half-assed attempts at LGBT representation that fall far short of what is needed. Holtzmann in the Ghostbusters remake—is she into women? Yes, says director Paul Feig, but “the studios” weren’t too keen on him making that clear. Bisexual Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok is out. Ditto a same-sex romance in Black Panther. Alien: Covenant has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-them gay couple. The Power Rangers remake took the bold, groundbreaking step of—gasp—hinting that maybe the Yellow Ranger is into women… or maybe she isn’t. Dumbledore? Sure, sure, JK Rowling's said he's gay but nobody actually needs to say that in any of the movies, right? It's Schrodinger's Homosexuality—there when you want to claim progressivism, absent when studio execs are worried about pissing off some anti-gay bigot.

Pacific Rim: Uprising director Steven S. DeKnight—who, not for nothing, established a good record with regards to LGBT representation with the TV show Spartacus, which featured a good number of well-developed, canonically LGBT characters over its four seasons—addressed the issue on Twitter, firmly stating that Uprising has “no overtly gay characters.” He continued, saying that's something "I wish I could have had control over but didn’t.” It appears, from DeKnight’s statements, that the same old narrative is rearing its head: director (or actor, or writer) wants to include LGBT representation, and may even think of certain characters as being somewhere on the LGBT spectrum, but the studio (Universal, in this case) deems it a no-fly zone. 


"Gay people?" sputters a studio exec, a sudden outpouring of flop sweat causing him to slide off his leather-upholstered chair onto the plushly carpeted floor. "Heavens, no. Would you accept... a man-hug?"

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