why does tv keep killing its gay female characters?
Following serious fan backlash against a series of recent primetime queer slashings, we survey TV’s LGBT landscape.
In last night's episode of Empire (hold up, spoiler alerts abound) one of the show's most electrifying couples -- Mimi and her unfaithful wife, Camilla -- were killed off in a crazy double death by poison. The Fox series has never shied away from murderous revenge plots and cold-blooded power grabs, so why has this departure got so many people talking (besides the fact that the lovers in question were portrayed by Oscar winner Marisa Tomei and fan favorite Naomi Campbell)? Because this episode was another instance in a very long line of lesbian deaths on primetime television.
Queer characters in both films and television series -- if they are even given substantial enough plotlines -- almost always die (only two actors have ever been awarded Oscars for playing gay and living to see the credits). The Academy has something of, in AV Club writer Nico Lang's words, "a fetishistic relationship with queer misery and struggle" in which gay characters are either punished for their sexual sins or freed from a cruel straight world that just couldn't accept them. The small screen -- though arguably more progressive in terms of visibility and representation of LGBT narratives -- might be just as bad at burying its gays as the silver one, especially when it comes to lesbians.
By Autostraddle's math, the body count for openly lesbian or bisexual characters that have been killed off on TV since 1976 is now 152 -- 12 of these deaths have happened in 2016. This doesn't count one-episode gay flings, victims-of-the-week on crime series, nor patients-of-the-week in hospital dramas, but catalogues characters of relative importance who have appeared in multiple episodes. Of course, some of these characters died -- as heterosexual characters often do -- in keeping with the show's genre; people are always getting whacked on soap operas or during zombie invasions. Some of the characters listed had deaths relatively unrelated to their homosexuality, too. Marissa Cooper qualifies, but she'd long broken up with Olivia Wilde's version of a Hot Topic employee by the time her drunk ex-boyfriend ran her off the road in the heartbreaking finale of The O.C.'s third season. And yet, for very many of these departed characters, death and sexuality are fatally linked.
One of these characters was Lexa, an openly lesbian character on post-apocalyptic series The 100 whose exit last month sparked outrage among LGBT fans. Over the past two years, the show has developed something of a cult status, achieved chiefly by encouraging an active online relationship with its hardcore fans -- a practice common to its network, the CW, which gages popularity not simply by overnight ratings, but also by social media activity. According to the somber Tumblr Another Dead Lesbian, of the 11 scripted shows presently airing on the CW, six featured 13 different lesbian or bisexual characters, seven of whom are now dead and none of whom are involved in active relationships. So it stung extra bad when The 100's creator, Jason Rothenberg, touted what seemed to be Lexa's appearance in the show's finale on social media only to kill her off mid-season in a "slipshod and dismissive way" according to Variety's Chief TV Critic Maureen Ryan. "I feel like I'm being used to keep up their ratings," Ryan quoted one fan as saying on Twitter.
Apparently Lexa's death has become such a toxic issue that Rothenberg took the stage at a recent WonderCon panel to address the fans accusing him of perpetuating the dead lesbian trope. Explaining that he often watches fan reaction videos on YouTube following each episode, Rothenberg noted the videos posted following that one were unwatchable: "[the videos] were too intense … one after the next, [fans] were devastated by what they saw." The Washington Post reports that the writer of the episode reblogged numbers to self-help hotlines after anonymous Tumblr fans threatened to harm themselves. "[Lexa's death] touched something real," said Rothenberg, "it touched a nerve; it activated something in people who, their whole lives, have had to deal with things that me as a straight, white guy obviously couldn't relate to."
Someone who can relate, however, is Empire's showrunner Ilene Chaiken, the co-creator of the L-Word and herself an open and outspoken lesbian. Variety ran an interview with Chaiken an hour after last night's episode aired in which she denied being a part of "that phenomenon or conversation," calling Campbell's Camilla, "an opportunist, which is quite different from being a lesbian...she just preyed on a powerful lesbian in order to fulfill her heterosexual ambitions." And she's right; there's a difference between exploring homosexuality in a show that positions power at its center, as Empire has with a few of its characters, and writers actively rallying a largely teen LGBT fanbase around a particular relationship -- as fan reaction site We Deserved Better alleges The 100 team did -- over a ten-month period leading up to a (literal and figurative) botched killing.
In an op-ed published on Out this morning, writer Glenn Garner surveys the television landscape with a bit more positivity, reminding viewers that "How to Get Away With Murder features a (totally adorable) interracial gay couple, one of which lives a healthy HIV positive life," and that Sense8 -- a Netflix sci-fi series helmed by trans directors Lana and Lilly Wachowski -- features "a trans character that's actually played by a trans actress for once," who's also in an interracial lesbian relationship. "Maybe instead of worrying about how screenwriters treat fictional characters in an already violent story, let's focus that energy on the way actual LGBT people are being treated," Garner argues. "These same networks are currently boycotting states where they film these shows because of the government's treatment toward our community," he writes, recalling the various networks and studios that have threatened to relocate filming operations in states like Georgia, where a Draconian discrimination bill recently passed in both the House and Senate.
Garner's argument is certainly a compelling one; this blinding rage and call for action is far better directed to those responsible for the record number of transgender people killed in 2015 than to the writers offing fictional lesbians. But Garner's concluding thought on this TV lesbian purge -- "It's just a show" -- does seem a little reductive. "Minorities aren't disposable characters," We Deserved Better operator Chandler Meyer told the Washington Post. "We're not a focus group that you can pander to to use for ratings and then throw away the storylines." Perhaps the best solution is to combine these veins of thinking: strive for a greater respect for the lives and dignity of LGBT people off screen so that they might be better represented on it.
Text Emily Manning