Hollywood Still Doesn’t Get its Dead Lesbian Issue

Just when it feels like the Bury Your Gays discussion has become an exercise in beating a dead horse (yes, yes, we get it, gay people keep dying on TV and gay people are upset by it, says Hollywood), we’re reminded that the conversation needs to continue because its significance and ramifications haven’t adequately sunk in yet. “Bury Your Gays” isn’t just about how many gay and lesbian characters are killed a year on screen and fans’ frustration at seeing favorite characters killed, although that’s part of it. In the bigger picture, the trope is symbolic of Hollywood’s lazy and insensitive treatment of lesbian and bi women characters on TV in general and the gay community’s desire to see that changed.

The 2016 ATX Television Festival’s “Bury Your Tropes” panel, which should have been an exemplar of Hollywood’s new understanding of the issue, instead was a microcosmic example of how even those parts of Hollywood that would seem best positioned to understand the subject appear to remain defensive and occasionally reluctant to confront the real roots of the problem.

GettyImages-607654505“They’re still alive! For now.”

Problem 1: Shows are still vulnerable to the “Special Snowflake” syndrome, which they use to justify their continued use of the trope.

Faking It executive producer Carter Covington told the audience that Lexa’s death was “very different to me than people getting killed off because they’re gay” because it was “storytelling.” But then, wouldn’t all shows argue that the death of their gay and lesbian characters is in furtherance of storytelling vice punishment for a perceived moral flaw? It is therefore with no small amount of ironic arrogance that many shows view themselves as unique and an exception to the Bury Your Gays trope—they regret that other shows have historically contributed to the trope, but their character’s death is different and therefore shouldn’t be lumped in with the others. This attitude, however, blinds its holder to situational nuances that compound the outrage over their character’s death.

Photo: YouTube

In the case of Lexa’s death on The 100, for example, the Clexa fandom might have been more receptive to Lexa’s death if it hadn’t been: 1) immediately after Lexa and Clarke had sex, reinforcing the horror movie trope that women who have sex must be immediately killed, 2) the episode immediately after Lexa and Clarke finally consummated their relationship, an eagerly awaited event among the fandom that built up excitement about the show and therefore made the letdown worse when the relationship was promptly snuffed out, 3) a “dishonorable” death by the accidental ineptitude of a man rather than death on the battlefield where such a character should have been given the dignity of a death in battle, and 4) pretty much exactly what happened to Tara Maclay on Buffy the Vampire Slayer 14 years earlier.

Problem 2: Hollywood still doesn’t understand the magnitude of the Bury Your Gays numbers problem.

Krista Vernoff, a writer for Grey’s Anatomy, tried to find the silver lining of Bury Your Gays by noting that when Charmed aired (1998-2006), a gay character would have been “killed in scene one,” so at least there are more gay characters now and they’re lasting longer on TV. This is an unacceptable response.

In 2016, Vox calculated all American primetime network and streaming platform series deaths in the 2015-2016 season (the character killed appeared in at least three episodes). The article found that 56% of deaths were male, and 44% female…proportionally consistent with the fact that 43% of regular characters on primetime broadcast programming are women, per GLAAD’s 2015-2016 Where We Are on TV. Minority deaths were even slightly underrepresented: 33% of characters on broadcast are people of color, but they were only 26% of the characters killed. Queer males fared a little worse: they are 2% of characters, but 3% of deaths, meaning their kill rate is 1.5 times higher than one would expect based on their representation. 

Then there are the lesbian deaths. 10% of deaths this TV season were lesbian or bi women, but they are only 2% of all TV characters. This means that while other minority groups are relatively well proportionally represented in character deaths, gay women are killed at five times higher a rate than should be indicated by their appearance. This isn’t just coincidence. Something is going on here. Why does Hollywood find gay women so disposable? Until Hollywood can acknowledge this number and confront the underlying reasons for it, it’s irresponsible to talk about the needs of “storytelling” outweighing the need to slow the trend numbers.

GettyImages-643998365“They’re in love! I’m nervous but excited.”

Problem 3: Hollywood is misreading the Lexa Pledge because writers and producers are all special snowflakes

The Bury Your Tropes panelists all refused to sign the Lexa Pledge, most claiming the pledge would prevent them from ever killing a gay character and would limit their creativity. This is a disappointing, almost willful misreading of the pledge given that the pledge only asks its signers to not kill a gay character “solely to further the plot of a straight one.” It doesn’t blanket prohibit the killing of gay characters now and forever.

In fact, the pledge is largely positive, seeking to create multi-faceted, realistic characters with substantive storylines—surely a development all writers and producers can get behind, right? Are there still writers out there who want to write insignificant storylines with meaningless arcs based on outlandish stereotypes, with characters who will be killed solely to further the enshrinement of heteronormativity? There are ways to create drama that don’t involve death, but shows have to commit to giving its gay characters those stories.

Sad young woman watching TV at home“And there it is. Sigh.”

Problem 4: Shows with gay characters need to really educate themselves on what will spark controversy with female bi and lesbian viewers, including and beyond death.

Covington, who has certainly faced his fare share of criticism from the gay female community, complained about backlash “from the very community I was trying to help. I really wish we could change the conversation and become a glass half-full fandom.” Faking It had a rough fandom, true, but part of the criticism Covington faced from gay women was the fact that the show seemed to be setting Amy up to be a lesbian character, then gave her lines like, “Sometimes my body reacts to guys, even though my brain doesn’t want to. It’s like I’m a sexual Hulk.”

In all fairness, studies have shown that women of ALL sexual orientations react to EVERYTHING, and the show was attempting to cater to teenagers unsure of their sexuality, but it left a sour taste in the mouth of many lesbians.  And where did the show’s adoration of the straight male come from? Rather than asking why fans are so abrasive and angry, a show in a similar situation might do better to ask itself in advance of the storyline whether the storyline would make viewers angry and why.

Covington opined that issues like LGBT Fans Deserve Better will make studios and networks more apprehensive of including gay characters on TV shows for fear of possible backlash. Intentional or not, his words seem a quiet rebuke to the lesbian community for daring to challenge the Hollywood machine. Yet silence would not have stopped the Bury Your Gays trope, and the dialogue is necessary, in the long run, to create change.

And in the end, perhaps change will come faster than expected: already showrunners like Emily Andras have shown that conscientious producers, writers, and actors can quickly bring about change. Let’s hope that a few years from now we really will have buried our tropes. #2020