Pitch Perfect 2 was one of my most anticipated movies of the year. The moment I found out about its creation I knew I would see it on opening day. Imagine my surprise when I got a chance to see it even earlier, the day before it officially opened to be precise. While I enjoyed the movie on the whole, I was struck by its use of intense and unresolved queerbaiting for humor.
This is not really a movie review, but context is important; a continuation of Pitch Perfect, this sequel is about a group of young women at “Barton University” who sing in an a cappella group named the “Barton Bellas.” The original Pitch Perfect is far from a perfect movie, however the fundamental core of the movie was an ensemble cast of women living, struggling, and competing together in a spirit of sisterhood and friendship. This core was so well-formed that the included “love story” felt like a second thought. Indeed, the fact that none of the women talked about their love lives or men for most of the movie (blowing the Bechdel test out of the water) was extremely refreshing.
Were there faults? Of course. Casual racism, and almost celebrated fatphobia and slutshaming were par for the course of the average big studio film. Likewise transmisogynistic and ableist jokes had a regular presence. On the other side, though, there was a distinctly subversive use of anti-queerphobic humor, portraying queerphobia as both unreasonable and inappropriate. One of the things that I did expect from this sequel was a similar handling of both the only openly queer character returning, and any new queer characters.
Unfortunately, it did not deliver. Unfortunately the form that queerphobia took was in queerbaiting.
Queerbaiting happens when media hints at or constructs a relationship between characters that is purposefully ambiguous and romantic to excite and entice queer consumers, or for the titillation of heterosexual consumers.
Sometimes this happens in media for purposes of “plausible deniability” so that creators can keep queer characters while ensuring the continued life of their creation. An example is Legend of Korra, the nickelodeon animated series that includes a canonically bisexual main character (Korra) who ends the series by entering a relationship with a woman (Asami), all of which rendered entirely through suggestion and post-airing confirmation by the creator.
In Pitch Perfect 2 Becca, played by Anna Kendrick, finds herself speechless when faced with another character who she describes as physically flawless and beautiful. Indeed, Becca goes so far as to blatantly state that character is making her question her sexuality. Consistently throughout the film Becca becomes inarticulate when faced with the character who happens to be a rival she is trying to trash-talk, and compliments her profusely (my favorite was “…your sweat smells like cinnamon!”). This alone is innocuous, if annoying. The issue is that the character never really confronts being confused about her sexuality at all throughout the film, despite there being a clear discomfort and tension. It plays solely for comedic effect. But wait! There’s more.
In addition to her rival, there is another Barton Bella Becca gets close to. This relationship comes off as romantic; I asked my mother and another random person in the bathroom while we were both washing hands (because I am all about breaking taboos apparently) to ensure it was not me creating a headcannon. It was clear that there was more implied in that relationship than stated and literally one word or one more long look would have made it a clearly romantic one.
This alone would normally not be an issue; after all, Becca has a boyfriend, right? Well. Sort of. The love story between Becca and Jesse (Skylar Astin) continues to feel contrived. Indeed, with Becca’s increased intimacy and regard for this new character it throws her relationship with Jesse into stark contrast and honestly Becca completely ignores Jesse for most of the film (and not in an intentional way). The simple fact is that the relationship between Becca and this “friend” feels more authentically romantic than that of her and Jesse.
When coupled with a clear questioning of her sexual orientation, the increasingly intimate relationship with her fellow Bella made me palpably excited to see what was a main character make a very well done discovery to bisexuality. Instead the writers chose to pair off this new character with another (male) returning character in what was sweet but ultimately disappointing; even this was made with a tacit message via nod from Becca, probably meant to show happiness for that character finally “finding someone” but which instead read to me as “this is ok; we couldn’t be together anyway.”
I could have easily changed the entire film’s queerbaiting by adding two lines, both said by Becca. 1) “Wow, I think I might be bisexual; she was just so beautiful and I just… wanted her” to her boyfriend later when describing the rival, and 2) “Wow, no, it’s… it’s ok. You two are great together” (with Kendrick’s perfect delivery of the awkward smile) when she sees the “legacy” kiss the other character. Neither of these lines would change anything in the plot or anything about the characters, and yet they would completely diffuse the queerbaiting (done for both humor and titillation) into a three-dimensional experience.
Upon leaving the theater, I had a heated debate with my mother (who is a cisgender heterosexual white woman in middle age) over this queerbaiting and one thing really stood out for me: she could not understand the impact that this unresolved issue had.
Overall queerbaiting may seem innocuous, but it leads to a whole host of systemic issues. Those with privilege on a given axis will go out, see films like Pitch Perfect 2 and subconsciously draw conclusions about bisexuality, “same-sex” attraction, and any one of a number of other things that the film gets “wrong” that continue to reify structural oppression on that axis.
By positioning Becca’s confusion around her sexuality as unimportant and incidental (to the point that it is a joke), it suggests that confusion around sexuality is both abnormal and unimportant. This sends the message to those struggling with or confused by their sexuality that there is something wrong with them for not being able to shrug off that confusion. Likewise, it confirms the idea that even if you are confused/questioning you will eventually “get over it” while sexual orientation is truthfully in constant flux and change.
By not addressing an intimate relationship between Becca and another female character that eclipses the intimacy of both of their romantic relationships with men, it suggests that intimacy and “chemistry” is less important than dating a man. The incredibly biphobic idea that a bisexual person should or would choose to date and “pass” as straight is one that asserts heterosexuality/straightness as normal and anything else as abnormal (which is the literal root of queerphobia).
By leaving the question of Becca’s bisexuality (or at least questioning sexuality) open and up in the air the creators made a very safe choice. Those that want to see Becca as bisexual can. Others will see it as a lark, as something that just happened to the character, which had no real impact on her characterization. The problem with this plausible deniability is that it continues to add to an air of queerphobia (and biphobia specifically) which suggests that queer/bisexual relationships are 1) fleeting 2) fickle 3) unimportant and finally 4) not as intense or real as heterosexual relationships. Despite the fact that Becca’s relationship with the “legacy” is clearly more intimate than that with Jesse, we see her default to the latter. Whatever the reasoning is ostensibly, the simple truth is that she does so because he is a man and why should/would she realistically question her sexuality when she’s already in a relationship (no matter how dull) with a man? Likewise the “legacy” is paired off with a character who is the typical “nice guy nerd” trope, unable to talk to women and when she goes to kiss him he pulls scarves out of his mouth. I’m not saying their relationship is poorly constructed (it’s actually very sweet), however it is not as well constructed or as well supported as a relationship with Becca would be.
When it comes to depictions of queerness (and transness) we still see a lot of reliance on old tropes or creation of new tropes, instead of a real and thoughtful interaction. Hell, we still see this a lot of the time with race and binary gender roles. Part of the issue is that media creators are not regularly held responsible and to a higher standard. Because we do not hold media responsible for showing three-dimensional experiences of people who are not white, cisgender, and heterosexual (because it’s “just entertainment”), there is a carte blanche acceptance of a lack of three-dimensional experiences.
My issue with Pitch Perfect 2 comes in the fact that I honestly expected and could see it doing better. The only reason it did not was that it did not have to.