The LGBTQ+ community has a history of tragic demises — in our own world and countless fictional ones.
On television, the deaths of gay, lesbian and bisexual characters in particular have become known as the “Bury Your Gays” trope. According to AutoStraddle’s list “All 162 Dead Lesbian and Bisexual Characters on TV and How They Died,” the trope began with the death of the character Julie on “Executive Suite” in 1976. Sidenote: the characters on the list die in their girlfriend’s arms a remarkable amount of time.
The trope, which has continued through the decades, received attention across the internet after the death of the beloved Commander Lexa on “The 100” in an early March episode sparked a major social media reaction.
Executive producer and creator of “The 100” Jason Rothenberg lost about 15,000 Twitter followers within a week of Lexa’s death. In March, he spoke to TV Insider about the reaction to Lexa’s death: “We would have told the same story. I stand behind the story … This is a show where characters die. That’s another reason we were so surprised … it’s a post-apocalyptic world set 100 years later in which anyone can die.”
As Rothenberg points out in his TV Insider interview, many people die on “The 100.” The self-explanatory “Anyone Can Die” trope applies to “The 100,” “Game of Thrones” and similarly violent shows. But does the existence of a catchall death trope actually negate how ingrained “Bury Your Gays” has become in our culture?
While many characters can die on a show like “Game of Thrones,” the initial problem with such a premise is that not many characters are LGBTQ+ in the first place.
In its “Where We Are On TV Report” for the 2015-2016 TV season, GLAAD found four percent — 35 out of 881 — of regular characters expected to premiere on broadcast primetime programming next year identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. The number of regular lesbian, gay and bisexual characters on cable increased from 64 to 84 over the past year. Counting characters from original streaming shows on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon for the first time, GLAAD found 43 recurring characters identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual across 23 series.
Yes, the numbers of LGBTQ+ characters has been increasing over the years, but it’s increasing slowly. With few canonically LGBTQ+ characters — especially fleshed out, recurring, regular characters — on television, the death of an LGBTQ+ character can be felt by the whole community.
While anyone can feel sad when one of their favorite characters, LGBTQ+ or not, dies on a television series, the death of a character that is part of a minority — the LGBTQ+ community, people of color, and people with disabilities — holds a certain weight.
When a character is revealed as openly non-heterosexual or non-cisgendered, members of the LGBTQ+ community see a part of themselves represented — a part that is continuously erased by heteronormativity and cisnormativity. They’re used to only reading “(s)he” on a paper, hearing heterosexual women refer to their friends as “girlfriends,” and so forth.
But once the wall is broken, they can imagine saving the newly reformed Air Nation, as Korra from “The Legend of Korra” did. They can be the helmsman of the U.S.S. Enterprise alongside Hikaru Sulu from “Star Trek Beyond,” or hack the NSA like Lisbeth Salander in the latest novel of the Millennium Series.
When you see no one like you — or when the characters you do see fall under harmful stereotypes — it’s like being told that you and people like you don’t matter and your stories don’t matter. Or it reinforces stereotypes, which is never a constructive part of connecting with audiences.
In the same interview with TV Insider, Rothenberg responded to the reporter’s comment that the show has a “non-discriminatory death toll.” “Another reason why I was surprised, to a certain extent, by the negativity in the reaction [to Lexa’s death] is that we’ve created this world where it doesn’t matter what color you are or whether you’re a male or a female or who you love, whether you’re gay or straight. It’s about survival, it’s about ‘Can you help me survive today?’ … In this world, it doesn’t matter. You can die if you’re gay or straight, you can die if you’re a series regular or not.”
Rothenberg’s answer begs the question: when a character dies in a world where sexuality, race, etc. “doesn’t matter,” then is the death of an LGBTQ+ character simply the death of a character, and should fans accept that?
But the fact is this story is being told to a world in which sexuality and race do still matter, and writers and directors should keep that in mind. The stories told on television are not told in a vacuum.
Representation — real, substantive representation — matters. Whoopi Goldberg wanted to act after seeing Nichelle Nichols in “Star Trek,” and Lupita Nyong’o wanted to act after seeing Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey in “The Color Purple.” Seeing people like you acting, navigating through the final frontier or leading a group can make you feel a boost of confidence to chase your dreams.
You can make the argument that writers want their fictional stories to reflect the tragedies of reality. Honestly, things get sticky for me here — I can understand how writers could want to make people more aware of the injustices and tragedies in reality by telling them through fictional characters.
But are fictional worlds obligated to show what could be? If we continuously see the injustices that are, will they seem unchangeable? Is striking a balance between reflecting the injustices of today’s reality and showing a hopeful future the solution? How would striking a balance between the two even work? And if there is hope on the writer’s end to teach people to empathize with real life issues through fictional characters, is there any hope for people if they can’t empathize with the real life tragedies to begin with?
Maybe the important thing, for now at least, is discussing the issue and digging deeper into it, so that we carefully consider what our stories mean to others when we tell them.
That’s not really much of a solution — but asking writers, fans and everyone to be more conscious of the effects that regularly killing LGBTQ+ characters, characters of color and characters with disabilities has on those communities is a start.
The “Bury Your Gays” trope brings up questions of subconscious homophobia, the meaning of representation and the relationship between reality and fiction: all conversations that need to continue.
At least in the real world, we still have a chance to change the narrative.