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Why Is TV Killing Its Queer Women?

Why Is TV Killing Its Queer Women?

Why Is TV Killing Its Queer Women?

We get attached to lesbian and bi TV characters just in time to see them offed -- and in an almost predictable pattern. And viewers have had enough of it. 

Bettina Strauss/The CW, (c) 2016 The CW Network, LLC.

In March 2016, a plot twist on a little-watched TV show sparked what might be the biggest fan uprising of the social media era -- a protest that could revolutionize the way LGBT characters are presented on television.

The 100 is the kind of show that's charitably described as a "cult hit." Since it began its run on the CW in 2014, only a couple of episodes have attracted more than 2 million viewers, but the people who tune in are a passionate bunch. As one of those enthusiastic viewers, I understand the fan fervor: The story of the struggle to survive on Earth nearly a century after a nuclear disaster supposedly made the planet uninhabitable is inventive and fast-moving, and the kickass young characters are inspiringly capable.

For many viewers, the fighting, scheming, and constantly shifting alliances are secondary to the many relationships. Love triangles, frustrated passions, a Romeo-and-Juliet love affair -- apocalypse is apparently a great aphrodisiac. Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor), a young woman who quickly emerged as the show's most charismatic leader, had a male lover in season 1, and she slept with a woman early in season 3, but her most significant connection began in season 2, when she developed mad chemistry with Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), the openly lesbian commander of a rival faction, thus launching #Clexa, the slow-burn "ship" that may end up transforming television.

In the March 3, 2016, episode, "Thirteen," Clarke and Lexa finally got together. The camera captured several seconds of increasingly passionate kissing, drawing away only when Lexa pulled Clarke onto her bed. Then, 64 seconds after Clarke exited the bedchamber, Lexa was struck by a stray bullet her consigliere had aimed at Clarke. Five minutes later, she was dead.

To be a lesbian watching television is to see yourself annihilated on a regular basis. And lately it has felt as if the increasing presence of LGBT TV characters serves only to provide more dead bodies. As Autostraddle's Heather Hogan calculated in an impressively researched article, only 30 lesbian or bisexual TV characters of the 383 who have appeared on American television since 1976 have been permitted happy endings, while 95 have died.

Why does this matter? Because it's natural for viewers to project themselves onto the people they spend time with every week. It's downright depressing when a particular type of character -- one who's like you in a fundamental way -- keeps meeting the same miserable fate. If fictional lesbians are doomed to die, you can't blame real women for wondering if they can ever be happy. And in the case of The 100, which attracts a young audience, some isolated viewers with unsupportive families said the show was the only place they saw positive presentations of women together.

Of course, TV characters die -- and on some shows, making it to the "next week on..." teaser is a major achievement. But the lesbian mortality rate is almost as high on cozy dramas as it is in postapocalyptic thrillers. As Hogan's Autostraddle colleague Riese proved when compiling a list of more than 150 dead lesbian or bisexual TV characters from around the world, no one is safe. Queer women die in comedies (Seinfeld's Susan Ross, poisoned by toxic envelope glue), sci-fi sagas (Battlestar Galactica's Helena Cain, shot by an ex-lover), medical dramas (Private Practice's Bizzy Forbes, who committed suicide after her cancer-stricken wife collapsed and died at their wedding), first-responder procedurals (Chicago Fire's Leslie Shay, felled in the line of duty), and murder mysteries (The Killing's Bullet, slaughtered by a serial killer).

And all too often their deaths serve to prove that lesbian and bisexual characters are less important to their creators than the heterosexuals who surround them. Take, for example, Last Tango in Halifax, a British drama that airs on PBS. In
theory, the show is about the relationship between Celia and Alan, two septuagenarians who revived their relationship after 60 years apart, but the sassy seniors were quickly overshadowed by the love affair between Celia's daughter, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), and Kate (Nina Sosanya), one of the teachers at the school where she is headmistress. The saga of Caroline's coming out dominated the first two seasons, but by season 3, the couple was blissfully happy: They were married, and Kate had a baby. So, naturally, right after the wedding, Kate was killed in a car accident.

Last Tango's creator, Sally Wainwright, was refreshingly candid about her motivations for getting rid of Kate: She did it to reconcile Caroline with her estranged mother. Wainwright told British lesbian magazine Diva, "It was more about the relationship between Celia and Caroline, and what that gave us." In other words, the lesbian -- the only person of color on the show, as it happens -- was disposable.

My response to the death of The 100's Lexa was a sad sigh of recognition. The way she died -- an accidental shooting right after sex -- was oddly similar to the killing of Willow's lover Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer 14 years earlier. Still, I was surprised that the show had summarily divided a couple who were such a key part of its publicity campaign; sad that an erotically charged same-sex relationship had come to a sudden end; and annoyed that yet another lesbian TV character had been prematurely offed.

But #Clexa fans didn't just sigh and mourn. They protested The 100's queerbaiting, claiming the show had exploited the women's relationship to attract viewers and then casually slaughtered one half of the couple. They confronted showrunner Jason Rothenberg on social media about what they saw as his manipulation of the fandom. They raised nearly $130,000 for the Trevor Project, which provides suicide-prevention services to LGBTQ youth. And they encouraged TV writers to sign the Lexa Pledge, promising, among other things, not to kill queer characters "solely to
further the plot of a straight one" and "never to bait or mislead fans."

Shortly after "Thirteen" aired, Rothenberg justified Lexa's death on story grounds -- since the season was exploring reincarnation, she needed to die so that she could be reborn -- and offered a practical explanation: Debnam-Carey is a regular on Fear the Walking Dead and wasn't available to film The 100. But weeks later, in the wake of furious fan protests, he was forced to concede that, whatever his intentions, damage had been done: "I...write and produce television for the real world where negative and hurtful tropes exist. And I am very sorry for not recognizing this as fully as I should have."

By the beginning of August, the Lexa Pledge had attracted only a handful of signatories, but that doesn't mean the campaign has failed. The fan protests drove extensive press coverage -- including stories in trade publications such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter -- which means writers can no longer claim ignorance about TV's "Bury Your Gays" trope. Showrunners will always find creative rationalizations for killing queer characters. (Last summer, Neal Baer told me he had killed one half of a lesbian couple on Under the Dome "because I wanted to explore an African-American mother with a white child; I wanted to see that on TV for the first time.") Now, though, they are on notice that they will have to justify their choices. The days of queerbaiting without consequences are over.

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June Thomas