Television is an integral part of American society. In Kathryn Montgomery’s book on advocacy groups and television, she writes, “Prime time
[television] draws most of its material from contemporary American life […] Though the patterns of this ‘world of television’ do not match the contours of the real world, the more people consume TV’s images, the more likely they are to confuse them with reality” (Montgomery 1989, 7). As viewership grows, so does the number of people potentially affected by television’s version of reality. The Nielsen Company estimated that there were 118.4 million TV homes in the United States in the 2016-2017 television season, with around 301.7 million people in these households (“Nielsen Estimates, 2016). This number does not entirely account for the nearly 49 million people who subscribe to Netflix, the nearly 12 million who subscribe to Hulu, and the 54 million Amazon Prime users (Molla 2017; Kastrenakes 2016; Isidore 2016). Clearly, the United States values television. As reality and television interact and conflate, to what extent are the values, stereotypes, concerns, and ideologies of the country and its citizens reflected in television? In particular, what can queer representation on television reveal about wider perspectives on queer life?
In a 2016 article on queer representation in television, Daniel Marshall suggested that the question of visibility had been settled: “television across many Anglophone markets […] seems comparatively full of self-declared gay and lesbian characters and people. […] This […] raises the question as to whether or not the political project of queer representation on television has been achieved” (Marshall 2016, 87). Marshall may be too kind in declaring that television is “full” of LGBTQ+ characters; GLAAD’s latest report, published on their website, shows that 43 series regular characters, or 4.8% of characters on broadcast scripted primetime television programming were on the LGBTQ+ spectrum. I will not deny that television has made significant progress in adding queer characters. The question of whether queer characters are visible should perhaps be changed to a question of how queer characters are, and have been, visible. Visibility is, after all, only a small part of representation.
Melanie Kohnen argues that visibility is “informed by knowledge, power, and sexuality” (Kohnen 2016, 14). She argues that the process of visibility needs to be interrogated, that “who and what becomes visible, in which ways, and to whom, involves a multifaceted negotiation with and within established regimes of power-knowledge” (Kohnen 2016, 14). If we follow Kohnen’s logic, then we know that how queer characters are portrayed on television is just as important, if not more than, if queer characters are visible on television. LGBTQ+ characters assume roles on television, and it is worth examining these roles to further understand what perspectives on queerness are being articulated in television.
This essay will investigate a trope known colloquially as “Bury Your Gays,” or “Dead Lesbian Syndrome.” There are several iterations of this trope, all of which involve the death of lesbian and gay characters. I am most interested in this trope as it applies to the death of lesbian characters who have recently—often within the same episode—achieved romantic bliss. This specification defuses arguments that some show simply kill all characters, and equally allows for more specific understandings of how this representation is harmful. I argue that the Dead Lesbian Syndrome demonstrates a limited understanding of lesbian women: as victims of circumstance rather than as active agents.
Cicely dies in her girlfriend’s arms. Photo Credit: Alaskan Riviera; https://alaskanriviera.com/2014/07/30/3-23-cicely/.
The history of the trope dates back to early representations of lesbian characters on television. In December 1976, the show Executive Suite had a reoccurring lesbian character, Julie, who had a romantic interest in Leona. Leona admits she has feelings for Julie, and mere minutes later, Julie walks into traffic and is killed (Riese 2016). In 1992, the television show Northern Exposure devoted an episode to a plot in which the town rejects lesbians. While the episode is somewhat progressive, as this prejudice is considered wrong, defusing the prejudice comes at a steep price. Cicely, one of the town’s two lesbians, is shot by a man who intended the bullet for her girlfriend. She dies (Northern Exposure 1992). In 1997, NYPD Blue has a lesbian couple: Kathy and Abby. Abby becomes pregnant, indicating that she and Kathy can begin a happy familial life. Kathy is then brutally murdered, and Abby is shot (NYPD Blue 1997). In March 2016, The Walking Dead’s Denise gives a speech professing her love for her girlfriend. Mid-speech, she is shot with an arrow through the eye and killed (The Walking Dead 2016). These are only a few of many plots in which lesbian characters are killed shortly after achieving romantic success and/or clarity, and represent the historic regularity of this trope.
Denise dies, hit with an arrow through the eye. Photo Credit: The Walking Dead Wiki; http://walkingdead.wikia.com/wiki/Denise_Cloyd_(TV_Series)
Perhaps it is unsurprising that in relatively early television representation of lesbians, they would be quickly killed. The continued existence of this trope into the twenty-first-century is far more troubling, in part because these show runners openly support the LGBTQ+ community. I am interested in investigating two specific instances of this trope, largely because they deal with lesbian main characters and because they come from shows and/or show runners who are often viewed as progressive in their depictions of gender. As such, the eventual death of their lesbian characters was particularly enraging to their fan bases. The two shows I will examine are Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The 100.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a progressive television show, run by Joss Whedon, who advocated for gay rights and marriage equality (On Top 2011). Buffy herself, the protagonist, was strong and progressive, a challenge to gender hierarchy. She routinely bested male characters in physical and mental fights; she was strong without forsaking her femininity for masculinity. Buffy was also one of the first television shows to show an ongoing lesbian relationship. The characters Willow and Tara were the subjects of a will-they/won’t-they plot. Moreover, Whedon made the point that this was not just for ratings, publicly promising that they would not “promote the hell out of a same-sex relationship for exploitation value that we take back by the end of the [episode]” (Rylah 2017).
In Season six, episode eighteen, they kiss, and fans rejoiced. Episode nineteen opens on them in bed, naked, covered by sheets, kissing and enjoying themselves. Willow remarks, “I forgot how good this could feel” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer 2002). Other characters find out they finally got together and react with happy shrieks and squeals. One character jumps up and down and says, “I love you guys together!” (Buffy the Vampire Slayer 2002). However, in the final minutes of the episode, Tara is hit by a stray gunshot and killed. She dies in Willow’s arms. Despite Whedon’s progressive views, Tara is not free from the power of the trope.
The 100 is a show about a post-apocalyptic society that returns to Earth from space. It has a diverse cast. Women are considered equal to men in worth, and it certainly passes the Bechdel test. Moreover, in this society, sexual preference was not a contentious topic. The main character, Clarke, is casually bisexual, and another member of the regular cast is gay. No lengthy coming out scenes or angst over sexual preference or prejudice is displayed. In an interview with Buzzfeed, show runner Jason Rothenberg described The 100 as a “queer paradise,” and reiterated his personal beliefs in the equality of LGBTQ+ people (Peitzman 2016).
In the second season, Clarke and Lexa, a member of a rival group, share a kiss, though they do not express any other romantic feelings, and are shortly sent on separate plotlines. The fandom grew excited. In the ninth episode of the third season, Clarke prepares to leave Lexa and return to her people. This departure prompts a refueling of their romantic relationship and subsequent sexual consummation. Afterwards, they enjoy each other’s company and say sweet farewells, promising to see the other again soon. In the scene following the consummation of their relationship, Lexa is hit by a bullet intended for Clarke and dies in Clarke’s arms, leaving The 100 with no lesbian characters (The 100 2016).
Tara’s death on Buffy and Lexa’s death on The 100 are remarkably similar, down to the positions the women hold onscreen, each cradling their dying lover. Similar too, were the male show runners’ alleged intentions that they would not engage in harmful tropes or depictions of lesbian characters. These comments suggest that perhaps the engagement in this trope is something more internal than external, subconscious rather than conscious. If art is a mirror to life, then television is one in technicolor. It’s unfortunate, however, that reflections of lesbian life are so limiting.
There was one major difference between The 100 and Buffy: the fan response. Buffy’s fans were upset, but fans of The 100 were able to more clearly express their displeasure. After The 100 killed Lexa, fans of the show revolted. “#LGBTFansDeserveBetter” trended on Twitter and the show’s creator, Jason Rothenberg, lost over 15,000 Twitter followers in the days following the episode (BBC Trending 2016; Roth 2016). Across social media, fans expressed their anger for this death, calling for boycotts and even for the cancellation of the show (BBC Trending 2016). The show was renewed for a fourth season despite protests. Thus far, angry fans of the show have raised over $168,000 for The Trevor Project in honor of their dead character, demonstrating that they are not an insignificant number of people (“Leskru WW” 2017). As they protested, they drew parallels to other shows with a similar dead lesbian problem: The Walking Dead, Orange is the New Black, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer among them (“Latest Bury Your Gays” 2016).
Three California billboards paid for by LGBTViewersDeserveBetter.com. Photo Credit: Autostraddle; https://www.autostraddle.com/the-100-fans-once-again-remind-the-world-that-lgbt-viewers-deserve-better-339601/.
Death is not a shortage on primetime television. In fact, some argued that for shows like The 100 and The Walking Dead, death was natural (Prudom 2016). The 100 ended its second season with the mass slaughter of an entire group of people by radiation. As a zombie apocalypse show, The Walking Dead has killed many characters. Orange is the New Black takes place in a women’s correctional facility filled with death and violence. Moreover, the question seemed to be, why should a lesbian character be given any more consideration than straight characters in death? Why would the death of an LGBTQ+ character be more destructive than the death of a much beloved straight character?
In no small part, killing lesbian characters is problematic because the number of lesbians on television remains minute. Straight characters have also been denied their happy endings, but the percentages can hardly be equitable. Moreover, straight characters don’t have the same set of tropes; certainly, straight characters might die after romantic success, but the iterations of their deaths are far more varied. The linkages between death and romance for lesbians send messages to queer fans that they cannot achieve romantic bliss. But perhaps more importantly, the continued links between romantic success and death promote a view of lesbians as primarily victims. Lesbians are largely understood as tragic. In some ways, this is a step forward: at the very least, queer characters are no longer always made the instant villain. In other ways, we can see the Dead Lesbian Syndrome as indicative of society’s inability to move into a vision of queer as normal. Queerness remains stigmatized, and queer romantic happiness seems like something impossible even in alternate worlds.
Even as the LGBTQ+ community takes grand strides towards marriage equality and acceptance, they are still seen through limiting tropes. It is no longer—and perhaps it never has been—enough to simply make queer characters visible. They need to be fully fleshed-out active characters, rather than simply subject to cruel fate.
BBC Trending. “Fans Revolt after Gay TV Character Killed Off.” BBC, 11 March 2016. Accessed May 12, 2017. http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-35786382.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer. 7 May 2002. “Seeing Red.” Directed by Michael Gershman. Written by Steven S. DeKnight. UPN.
Isidore, Chris. “Amazon Prime now reaches nearly half of U.S. Households.” CNN 26 January 2016. Accessed May 12, 2017. http://money.cnn.com/2016/01/26/technology/amazon-prime-memberships/.
Kastrenakes, Jacob. “Hulu now has 12 million subscribers, but growth is slowing.” The Verge, 4 May 2016. Accessed May 12, 2017. https://www.theverge.com/2016/5/4/11589886/hulu-hits-12-million-subscribers.
Kohnen, Melanie. “All that Visibility Allows, or Mapping the Discourse of Queer Visibility.” In Queer Representation, Visibility, and Race in American Film and Television: Screening the Closet. New York and London: Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2016.
LGBTFansDeserveBetter. “Latest Bury Your Gays.” Accessed May 12, 2017. https://lgbtfansdeservebetter.com/.
Marshall, Daniel. “Reading Queer Television: Some Notes on Method.” The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 38 (2016): 87-101. Accessed May 12, 2017. DOI: 10.1080/10714413.2016.1119645.
Molla, Rani. “How Many People Stream Netflix?” Recode, 7 April 2017. Accessed May 12, 2017. https://www.recode.net/2017/4/17/15330158/how-many-stream-netflix-subcribe-international.
Montgomery, Kathryn. Target-Prime Time: Advocacy Groups and the Struggle over Entertainment Television. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.