Fourteen years ago, on May 7, 2002, Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Tara Maclay finally earned a moment of happiness after a season of relationship angst. She had long awaited reconciliatory sex with her girlfriend—but just after it happened, she was shot through the heart by a stray bullet. The full story, of course, is not quite so simple—lined with plot details and extenuating circumstances—but the death was also part of a not-so-complicated pattern.
Tara’s death, while by itself perhaps unremarkable, is one in a long line of violent ends for queer female characters. In fact, LGBT characters die so frequently on television that the Internet has coined the trope “Bury Your Gays.”
Commander Lexa’s recent death on The 100 has generated significant media attention for its brutality: A publicized cast photo led fans to believe that Lexa would be alive in the finale—until she, much like Tara, was shot by a stray bullet immediately after finally having sex with her love interest, Clarke. Though heartening, the heightened media buzz seems to imply that Lexa’s death is an unusual tragedy, worse than the typical fare—an implication that could not be further from the truth.
Just last May, on The CW’s Supernatural, the popular lesbian character Charlie Bradbury was killed by a neo-Nazi and dumped in a bathtub—only to give the male protagonist, Dean Winchester, reason to go on a murder spree and catalyze the action of the season finale. A month later, Orphan Black’s Delphine Cormier was shot in a parking garage having just kissed Cosima after a season of estrangement. Though Delphine’s fate remains up in the air, a semi-humorous “In Memoriam” promo released in January suggests that she is, in fact, dead; the comedic tone of the video felt like a slap in the face to fans who cared about the character.
Naturally, people die on television. The aforementioned shows are all dramas; Supernatural, in particular, is known for killing off everyone other than its four central characters. But the trend of queer female deaths is unusual in its cruelty and frequency. GLAAD, an LGBT media advocate, reported that in 2015, just 35 lesbian and bisexual female characters appeared on network television. Three months into 2016, eight of those characters had already been killed. Autostraddle compiled a list of every dead lesbian or bisexual television character as well as another documenting those who experienced happy endings—152 appear on the first list, while just 29 appear on the second. About 64 percent of those dead were murdered.
In a world in which only 4 percent of broadcast television characters are gay, lesbian, and bisexual, the exorbitant death rate hurts. In order to have the same proportional impact as those eight deaths, a staggering 186 straight characters would have had to die in 3 months. But even if that had happened, the 625 remaining straight characters could easily fill the gap. Lesbian and bisexual women tune into shows that promise to give us representation because we are starving for stories that speak to us. But too often such serials embrace our presence, feed off of our support, and then kill off the characters that compelled us in the first place. For a population that is constantly reminded of the fact that we do not quite belong—by everything from nosy family friends to gendered pop songs—there is legitimate excitement in seeing characters like us on television; it feels like an acknowledgement of the fact that we have stories, too. But almost half of the time, we watch ourselves die, and a quarter of the time, we see ourselves get murdered. We are told that we are not welcome, even on our favorite shows.
Fan frustration is met with confusion and misguided defensiveness from the people responsible. Television writers—who are 71 percent male and 86 percent white, according to the Writer’s Guild of America—do not understand what it feels like to watch nearly every portrayal of oneself suffer or die. Supernatural show-runner Jeremy Carver, when openly confronted about Charlie’s death, commented, “When we’re in the writers’ room, we have to go where the story takes us.” Carver fails to note that the story is not a sentient being; surely the writers had options other than killing off a character widely regarded by an overwhelmingly queer and female core fandom as a representation of itself.
For his part, Orphan Black co-diector John Fawcett told Entertainment Weekly, shortly after Delphine’s murder:
Uhhhhhhhhhh…well, you know, I know this will be upsetting to many fans but [Cosima and Delphine’s] story in our minds has always been a tragic love story. Listen, I didn’t want to say one way or the other. For us, I believe this is a horrible thing that had to happen. And I know that it’s hard and I know that it’s emotional and I know there are going to be a lot of people out there going, “WHY?!?” But trust me, this was a necessary move to make. And it’s necessary in Cosima’s story, and it’s necessary going forward in subsequent seasons—in season 4 and season 5.
Fawcett’s words about this “necessary move” echo Carver’s suggestion of inevitability. But his words reveal a fundamental lack of understanding of the overarching pattern: Not only Cosima and Delphine’s love story “[had] always been” tragic—so many more queer love stories end similarly.
It is not unlikely that writers find their own stories to be poignant and heartbreaking and beautiful. The problem is that these plots hinge upon a tired trope. The problem is that Fawcett and Graeme Mason, his screenwriter, had embraced a profile as an LGBT-friendly, feminist TV show, encouraging wary fans to trust their handling of the program’s storyline. And when fans felt betrayed, Fawcett failed to grasp why they found it so insulting, saying, “It’s great—I love that you’re all up in arms about it.”
The 100 executive producer Jason Rothenberg’s comments are exasperating echoes of such remarks. “But the truth is that Clarke is now going to be in mourning over the loss of this woman who meant so much to her, and that’s going to really hang over the rest of the season,” he explained in a Variety interview. Rothenberg admitted to “aggressively” promoting the relationship and the episode, believing that the sex scene and the love between the women would console and not anger fans.
He was wrong.
Sadly, Rothenberg, Carver, Fawcett, and Mason sound remarkably like another show-runner 14 years ago. Buffy’s Joss Whedon’s response to fan outrage over Tara’s death was mostly surprise. His defense was that the episode “Seeing Red,” in which she died, “was clearly about male violence and dominance.” Whedon’s failure to understand that his LGBT viewers—the viewers who were delighted to see a rare depiction of themselves onscreen—lived in a world in which the thematic seamlessness of the episode did not quite excuse the decimation of their representation in television. This fundamental misunderstanding plagues writers who believe that their stories somehow exist in a creative vacuum.
While some fans stopped watching Buffy after Tara’s death, they did not have the power of the Internet in 2002. In contrast, Lexa’s death in 2016 triggered an online outrage. Ratings for the next episode dropped to a series low, while “LGBT fans deserve better” trended on Twitter for hours. Over $115,000 has been raised for the Trevor Project, a charity aimed at helping LGBTQ teens, in honor of Lexa’s death. Rothenberg eventually issued an apology letter, acknowledging that “the audience takes the ride in the real world” and that his handling of Lexa’s death was hurtful and insensitive. His apology was far from perfect: he did not seem to explicitly recognize that the character’s death itself was problematic; he said only that “Lexa’s death would have played out differently” had he understood beforehand the impact it would have on LGBT fans. But despite its imperfections, it was certainly a start.
While the lasting impact of the backlash against Lexa’s death remains to be seen, Orphan Black’s fourth season will presumably confirm whether Delphine is alive or dead, though its April 14 premiere brought no answers regarding her fate. The anger of fans in June was muted by the hope that Delphine had not died of her gunshot wound, but surely the revelation of her death after almost a year of suspense could push fans—who overwhelmingly trusted the writers who had given them three different lesbian or bisexual women and a trans clone—off the edge. A response matching that of The 100’s fans would certainly suggest a growing refusal to accept the use of old tropes and tired gimmicks.
On March 3, 2016, Lexa had sex with the woman she loved, walked into a room, and died from a shot by a stray bullet. Unfortunately, the story isn’t much more complicated than that.
Note: This article was edited on April 20, 2016.
Image Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore