Crisis of Visibility: Why Queer Character Deaths Always Matter
When LGBT characters are few and far between, every character death is a blow to representation.
Another week, another stray projectile, and another death that torpedoes LGBT representation on television.
Frustration from LGBT fans intensified this week when Denise (Merritt Wever) was killed on The Walking Dead. Denise was one half of a lesbian relationship and shortly after she’d decided to buck up tell her girlfriend, Tara (Alanna Masterson), that she loved her, she was accidentally shot by an arrow. Her death was painfully familiar for fans still mourning the loss of one of the most significant queer female characters in recent memory, and one whom you’ve probably read about by now: Commander Lexa on The CW’s The 100.
In the nearly three weeks since Lexa’s death on The 100, there’s been a lot of talk about the Bury Your Gays trope. There’ve been hashtags, most notably #LGBTFansDeserveBetter, which out-trended The 100 in protest the week after Lexa was killed. There’ve been articles about backlash and social media participation in the age of online fandom. There’s also a fundraiser for the Trevor Project, organized by fans left feeling hurt and angry following Lexa’s death. It’s raised over $62,000 at time of writing.
The Bury Your Gays trope is hardly new. In fact, the site Autostraddle did the math: Since 1976, 147 lesbians and bisexual characters have died on TV. That number stands in stark contrast to Autostraddle’s other list, adding up the number of lesbian and bisexual characters who got happy endings: 29. Many of those characters were part of a couple (which counts as two characters), and all-told, only 15 shows made the happy endings list.
15 shows in 40+ years of television history. It’s a pathetic excuse for representation, particularly compared to the decades of TV canon that’ve seen straight couples end up happily ever after. 15 individual happy endings for 29 characters, and it took 147 dead lesbian or bisexual characters to get there.
There’s an obvious problem, and Lexa’s seemed to be the character death that finally broke the dam and has people talking with renewed vigor about the portrayal and treatment of LGBT characters. Denise’s death is adding some fuel to that flame.
As issues of representation are discussed with increasing frequency, showrunners and networks often get a pat on the back for being inclusive of LGBT characters. Shows are called “progressive” and “groundbreaking”, even when their treatment of LGBT characters doesn’t quite fit the bill. The 100’s treatment of Lexa certainly felt groundbreaking — at least until the final minutes of the episode in which she was killed. She was a strong, powerful, layered queer character that affected fans deeply and she’s carved herself a permanent place in the landscape of moving and important queer characters.
But when a show uses the death of a groundbreaking character as a plot “twist” and in a way that feels unceremonious and mishandled, it clouds and taints the larger “progressive” narrative. The way that Lexa was killed was painful and blindsiding, but didn’t feel new. We’d seen it happen before, and it reopened old wounds — 146 of them.
At SXSW, Ellen Page and Ian Daniel gave a keynote and talked about their new series on VICELAND, Gaycation. They discussed their travels, what it means to come out as a creative and influential person, and the importance of representation. Page summed it up perfectly when she touched upon the immense importance that media representation has for the LGBT community and how that influenced the creation of Gaycation.
“I think for me, it really was about wanting more representation. ‘Cause I knew how much it meant to me at, like, 14 in Halifax, Nova Scotia to be stumbling through the TV to find But I’m A Cheerleader, and when Natasha Lyonne is like, ‘I don’t get it’ about French kissing the guy, I was like, ‘Neither do I!’ and that meant something to me.”
There’s a reason why most queer women who watch TV can talk to you about Naomily (Skins), Clexa (The 100), and Sharmen (The L Word) at length. They’ve seen nearly every show that features a meaningful lesbian or bisexual arc. Compared to the decades of television with heterosexual characters (more content than one could likely watch even if given their entire natural lives), LGBT fans have a relative handful of episodes in a handful of seasons on a handful of shows that treat our handful of characters with varying degrees of respect.
As Dorothy Snarker says in her piece for The Hollywood Reporter :
“LGBT viewers long to see their own happy endings reflected back to them. Underrepresented groups — from people of color to people with disabilities to LGBT people — who are denied that kind of positive representation in our shared culture naturally have a harder time imagining it for their own lives. When death, sadness and despair are the predominant stories we’re told, particularly for younger viewers, it can seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
For many audiences, character deaths are impactful, but for LGBT audiences, the death of a queer character can be striking blow that shatters one of the few existing examples of meaningful representation and leaves fans hurt and angry. It leaves fans searching for another show. Many went to The Walking Dead. That didn’t turn out so well. And so it’s onto the next one, and the pickings are slim.
That’s why these deaths always matter to the LGBT community: Representation is vital to our understanding of ourselves, of our world and of others, and meaningful, compelling LGBT representation is rare. When you grow up in a society that tries to tell you that you’re somehow wrong or other, representation that feels real and layered and doesn’t end in being shot accidentally is vitally important.
We’re a part of this world, even when we’re not a part of its TV shows. We’re not invisible, expendable, or, as the backlash shows, willing to be quiet. It’s time that TV recognized that.