Television has a problem with queer women.
That’s the most obvious conclusion that can be drawn from the continued mistreatment of lesbian and bisexual female characters in the media. Denise Cloyd’s (Merritt Wever) death on The Walking Dead is just the latest casualty in a string of deaths of LGBT characters on television; bringing us to a total of eight lesbian and bisexual women killed on television in 2016 so far.
Whilst few shows are immune to character death when you consider how few LGBT characters there are on television to begin with and the historical context of the Bury Your Gays trope, the frequency of these deaths looks a little more insidious.
The Bury Your Gays trope describes the phenomenon by which few LGBT characters have a happy ending. As the name of the trope suggests, this not-so-happy ending frequently manifests in the death of said characters, and those left alive are often mistreated or miserable.
It seems LGBT women fall at the intersection of both the Bury Your Gays and Women in Refrigerators tropes, with a death toll to match. GLAAD’s most recent “Where We Are In TV” report showed that out of the total 881 regular characters on a 118 shows of the 2015-16 television season, only 70 were LGBT. That’s around 8%.
Of that 8%, there were 23 lesbians and 12 bisexual women, 33 gay men and 2 bisexual men. Bringing us to a total of just 35 regular lesbian and bisexual female characters at the beginning of the current television season.
We’re now eight queer women down. The equivalent of almost a quarter.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t seem to simply be an unnerving coincidence, but a historical trend. Autostraddle maintains a list of all the lesbian and bisexual female characters who have been killed on television – at the time of this writing, there are 147 names on that list.
Of course, this list doesn’t intersect perfectly with GLAAD’s numbers, which focused primarily on regular characters of scripted, primetime shows on the broadcast networks of American television. Autostraddle’s list comprises both regulars and multi-episode guests, and characters from international shows too. But the fact remains that the sheer number of deaths for a group that makes up such a small percentage of regular television characters doesn’t quite add up.
The genesis of this end can be traced back to a time where queer romance wasn’t allowed to be portrayed positively in the media. It was a warning to audiences that ‘this way lies pain and death’. Given its gruesome history, the continued invocation of this trope and disproportionate killing off LGBT characters compared to their straight peers carries the same grim message to its LGBT fans.
This has led to many ffans approaching the introduction of new LGBT characters with caution, left wondering how many episodes it will be before the inevitable happens. It has also fuelled the creation of projects such as the They Don’t Die blog – a collection of media in which wlw (women who love women) characters don’t meet a grisly end.
Television creators need to take note of the recent backlash to this string of deaths. An outpouring of social media activity and numerous critical articles across various outlets is not always an indication you are doing something right. Not all emotional reactions are created equal, and when that reaction is pain, hurt or anger, something is very clearly wrong.
Let’s be clear: This is not a plea for special treatment, but simply an ask that creators will consider how the stories they tell impact their audience. If you introduce a queer character only to kill them off later on, that defeats the purpose of that representation entirely.
Excusing this behaviour as unintentional is not good enough, especially by those who have received praise and prestige for their LGBT representation in the past. It’s clear these creators know how to resolve a character arc or conclude a relationship without killing said party.
By: Jen Taylor (@avgrrl)