Sunday, March 6, 2016

“Dead Gays for the Straight Gaze” (or "Death to the 'Dead Lesbian' Trope!")

I have a confession to make: I am an absolute sucker for any fictional show that will give me a female/female romantic pairing (and for some reason, they always come in the form of a blonde and brunette). That’s a really great way to get me to start a show. It’s great that today, I do have a handful of these pairings from which I can choose. Brittany and Santana on Glee, Clarke and Lexa on The 100, Callie and Arizona on Grey’s Anatomy, etc. It’s wonderful.

However, a persistent problem with these female/female pairings, and the stories of the characters as individuals, is that they often suffer one of two fates: bad writing or really gruesome endings. The latest tragedy comes from the popular CW show, The 100, where (spoiler alert!), queer lady Commander Lexa, leader of the 12 Grounder Clans, badass warrior, dies not valiantly in battle but because of a stray bullet. The Dead Lesbian trope strikes again!

Some argue that death and suffering are just the nature of whatever show these characters are on. That may be true, but it’s become so prominent that it’s been a trope (“Bury Your Gays”) for decades (the rationale decades ago being that if a book featured a queer character, the queer character had to die or somehow be punished at the end in order to sell or be deemed acceptable). To emphasize how pervasive this issue is, AfterEllen has articles titled “Please Stop Killing Us! The state of lesbians and bi women on TV” and “The 35 Most Horrifying Lesbian/Bi Character Deaths on Television” (the sad part is that the latter article was written about 2 years ago and even more women who love women [wlw] characters have been killed since then).

The fictional dead lesbian body count is really high and, if they live, oftentimes, they continue to live miserably or with confused and inconsistent writing. This treatment is often worse compared to how queer male couples are treated on the same shows (I could compare how, on Glee, Kurt and Blaine as queer men were treated better than Brittany and Santana, two queer women, but that’s a whole other topic for another blog post).

Media representation comes with a great weight of responsibility. Writers need to be more cognizant of the impact that their writing has. When I was growing up, I saw very little of myself as a queer female represented on television. Representation of underrepresented, oppressed minorities is so important. I have had the privilege of growing up in urban, progressive areas with supportive family so that coming out was not as much of an issue. But the queer girl in rural America who can’t come out to anyone is lonely and craves to see people like her, and sometimes television is the only thing that can reach her.

But what happens when television is just as glum as reality?

What kind of message does that send to queer women viewers? It signals to us that we’re unworthy of being represented in a mainstream narrative on the same level as heterosexuals and gay men. When we are represented, we die. The even more gruesome part of this when it comes to Lexa’s death is that the way the episode was edited, her death scene immediately followed a scene where we saw her happy and expressing her love for the show’s (female) protagonist, Clarke. Again, what kind of message does this send to queer women viewers? It signals to us that, sure, perhaps you find happiness one day as a queer woman. And then something terrible happens immediately after and you die. The high prevalence of depression and mental illness among queer women is not a shock in an atmosphere such as this one. Such a persistent mental and emotional crippling of queer women everywhere inhibits these women from thriving and making change in society at large.

All of this comes after queer female fans of show repeatedly made the writers of The 100 aware of the dead lesbian trope for several months, and yet the creator, Jason Rothenberg, insisted that queer female fans should keep tuning in because he intended to treat Clarke and Lexa differently than the tropes we were used to. One review of the show, titled, “The 100 let down a great character and a vulnerable queer audience,” sums up the issue perfectly:

Lexa’s intricate slow-burning relationship with Clarke was something that queer viewers — many of them young and seeing a queer relationship of this magnitude for the first time — latched onto as hope that maybe they had finally found the well-written, well-developed representation they were looking for. Maybe Clarke and Lexa, who were set up as two people destined to come together, would be one of a very small handful of engaging queer stories that didn’t end in tragedy. The more the writers discussed in interviews themes of love, hope, and forgiveness around Clarke and Lexa, the more it seemed a female/female couple would actually be the most prominent pairing on a show, and that it would receive the attention, care, and promotion that popular heterosexual couples regularly receive.

So much for that.
The sarcasm, defeat, and hopelessness in that last line perfectly captures the mood that queer women must carry with them every time the Dead Lesbian trope strikes. It happens often and yet it never gets easier.


Jenna said...

I love both The 100 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. While I have not watched the most recent episodes of The 100, I heard of the demise of Lexa as Tumblr imploded with yet another death of a lesbian character. While I was devastated by the death of Tara on Buffy (at sixteen I was probably too invested in the lives of fictional characters), I was unaware of the "Dead Lesbian" trope until very recently. Reading about the consistent deaths or murders of WLW characters has made me look back on other shows and other deaths in a new light. While TV and film has made great strides in the amount of gay characters it portrays, I agree with this blog post that these characters tend to be either inconsistently written or completely written off. I am not saying that writers should stop killing off their characters (often times it is necessary for the plot or if the actor/actress leaves the show) but I wish that they would actually give these characters deaths consistent with their fictional lives. Both Lexa and Tara were strong gay women. Lexa was a warrior and Tara was a witch and yet instead of either of them going out in a battle for something or someone they believed in, both of these characters met their demise from a bullet fired by a straight man which was intended to kill someone else. This does the writers, the characters, and the fans a disservice.

Ari Asher said...

I agree, I'm constantly searching for great female/female romantic pairings. I've even stooped to watching The Fosters on abc Family (which is as terrible as it sounds). I'm three seasons into the Good Wife and feeling hopeful, but no spoilers please. Movie characters often suffer the same fate and when the characters don't die, the movies aren't as critically acclaimed. I thought about writing a post about the movie Carol and reactions that men had to the movie. A recent Autostraddle post (link below) suggested that the reason it was snubbed at the Oscars was due to misandry -- the fact that a female/female pair could actually survive and thrive without the help of men was too off-putting for the Academy.

I know you touched on this, but gay male characters often have similar fates. I constantly argue with my friends over whether Brokeback Mountain was a "good" movie. Spoiler alert: Jake Gyllenhaal dies in the end.