“The Handmaid’s Tale” S1.E3 — Bury Your Marthas

When AfterEllen was founded in 2002 by Sarah Warn, the lesbian community had a problem: we were invisible. On screen, our representation was a fraction of what it should have been based on our proportion in the general population. The tagline of the site was “Visibility Matters” because although representation was slowly increasing, there weren’t enough of us on screen to really be “visible” to the heterosexual public, and what few characters there were often weren’t ones we necessarily wanted. We appeared mostly during Sweeps Week as a titillating draw for viewers, and when there was a queer female character with an actual storyline, often she was psychologically deranged in some way. A character who wasn’t crazy was likely doomed to end up alone. Like a horror movie in which the “slutty woman” always gets killed first, the message—conscious or not—was that lesbian and queer women were either crazy or they didn’t deserve happy endings.

Then, most likely because of shifting social values that made it more acceptable to be LGBT and therefore to show LGBT characters on TV starting in approximately the mid-2000s, lesbian representation on TV increased dramatically. We got actual characters (although normally not the main character) who came out, had relationships, and were not trying to kill people or be psychologically manipulative. It was wonderful…except for one thing: the slutty woman in the horror movie was replaced by a lesbian.

Source: TVtropes.org
Source: TVtropes.org

Like an awful, invisible war that no one else notices is happening, a third or more of all our characters were getting mowed down on screen: bullets, knives, car accidents, poison, cancer, etc. Approximately 31% of all queer female characters have been killed, a veritable silent massacre. As is well known, last year this so-called “Bury Your Gays” trope problem exploded with the death of Lexa on “The 100,” sparking articles throughout the mainstream media about how lesbian and bisexual women were being disproportionately killed off compared to all other characters (their death rate spiked at 40% in the 2015-2016 season and queer women were killed at a rate five times higher than other characters). In June, I wrote that despite this public spotlight on the issue, Hollywood still clearly hadn’t grasped what “Bury Your Gays” actually means. I speculated that shows would continue to argue exceptionalism: that their killing of queer characters was different because they were storytelling.

I am deeply disappointed at this episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” because it has furthered the “Bury Your Gays” trope even though the cast and crew were aware of it. They used this awareness like an absolution; as though this knowledge gave them permission to use it. In this episode, a nameless lesbian is killed after three and a half minutes of screen time (yes, I timed it). When talking to The Hollywood Reporter about “Bury Your Gays,” showrunner Bruce Miller explained:

I’m a straight man, and when you’re not part of a group you don’t necessarily see how that group is treated on television. I read about that trope; I left The 100 before that happened but I saw that and I was surprised. Looking back, it makes complete sense. On this show, “kill your anything” is probably up for grabs…So the “kill your gays” policy is institutional in the series. You’re operating on a different lane than that conversation.

Except, Miller is wrong; it’s not a different lane at all. It’s all the same lane and speaks to what types of characters are viewed as most expendable to showrunners and writers like himself. When the slutty woman was killed in the horror movie, it was because she transgressed social norms; her “brazen” sexuality was considered an affront to society. Her story arc therefore represented a clear and obvious parable of morality for viewers: the “immoral” deserve to be punished (with death, in this case) while the virginal female is rewarded with survival. What is often lost in the conversation about “Bury Your Gays” is that although it doesn’t occur to producers, they are setting up viewers to apply that same mental model to queer characters: queer characters die, straight characters live. Gays—who are “socially transgressive”—don’t get happy endings.

Getty Images
Getty Images

For Miller to argue that “The Handmaid’s Tale” operates in a “different lane” than other shows means that for a show that seeks to spotlight sexism in American society, it is abdicating any social responsibility toward queer women. Heterosexual female lives matter. The killing of Martha 6715-301 in this episode is poignantly symbolic of the way that Hollywood still treats its queer female characters: they are there to further the storylines of others or be part of some larger social commentary, but never there to represent their own social commentary.

I believe that a socially responsible show—and I believe that shows increasingly feel pressure to be socially responsible—would say: We know that although queer women understand that often characters must be killed to further a storyline, queer female characters have historically been disproportionately used for this role. We understand the marginalization of queer female characters happens based on how, why, and when they are killed on a show, and that often gay female characters receive significantly less screen time than heterosexual characters. We are committed to telling a good story, but we also want to combat this toxic trope of dead queer female characters. We want to help undo years of this trend, so we will not kill our gays. Social responsibility means affirmative action, not a perpetuation of the trope.

When The Hollywood Reporter asked Samira Wiley about the show and “Bury Your Gays,” she replied: “We’re not trying to kill anyone; we’re trying to show the realities of what can happen to anyone that is marginalized in this society…I would challenge anyone and encourage anyone who is of that line of thinking to look at the story as much more than that.” And we at AfterEllen will look at the story in the larger context. After all, there are lots of great parts of this episode. But we also must think about the unintended, subliminal messaging that happens with this continued trope.

This 2016-2017 season, another 14 queer female characters have been killed out of the 38 queer female characters on TV. That means an average kill rate just shy of 37%. We haven’t improved at all, and “The Handmaid’s Tale” is contributing to the problem, not helping. In the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” everyone dies. Viewers should be prepared for that; the show is an equal opportunity killer and no one can complain if it’s a queer character who dies. Miller claims that “The Handmaid’s Tale” will follow a similar “anyone can die” policy. However, I would highlight the fact that so far in “The Handmaid’s Tale” only two characters have died on screen: a rapist and a lesbian (others, like Luke, were killed offscreen). What does that tell viewers?

I would highlight the fact that so far in “The Handmaid’s Tale” only two characters have died on screen: a rapist and a lesbian (others, like Luke, were killed offscreen). What does that tell viewers?

Readers may disagree with this assessment of how “The Handmaid’s Tale” fits into the discussion about “Bury Your Gays” and view it as an overstatement. It is, however, a conversation worth having. Now onwards to the episode!