“Bury Your Gays”: Queer Deaths on Screen

“Bury your gays” is the tendency within film and TV to kill off non-straight characters, particularly if those characters are in a queer relationship at the time of death. That is, as ‘TV tropes’ summarises: “gay characters just aren’t allowed happy endings”. Although over TV and film history undoubtedly more straight characters have been sacrificed by writers due to the fact that queer characters are already in the minority, there are innumerable instances of straight characters who get ‘happy endings’. Furthermore, it should be noted that arguing that the ‘bury your gays’ trope needs to stop does not mean that there may not be occasions when straight deaths are problematic, nor when queer deaths are justified.

Of course, these lives are fiction, and thus one might assume that they have no impact on real life. However, the significance of portrayals of the gay community in fiction is explained by queer theory, specifically here by academic McLelland, who states:“…homosexuals can never be adequately integrated into public discourse and culture because their differentiation and denigration is essential to the maintenance of a heteronormative public sphere.” That is, by perpetuating stereotypes, and in this case in consistently refusing to give queer people and/or couples happy endings, they are made separate in the public consciousness, and thus real people continue to be treated as outliers. Although it might therefore seem counter-intuitive for writers to exercise positive discrimination towards queer characters temporarily, or even for viewers to react differently when queer characters are killed in fiction, this is merely an effort to right an imbalance. When this imbalance is addressed, the ideal of course is to treat all character equally, regardless of sexuality, gender, race or class – as, ideally, these different groups of people should be.

TV tropes, in explaining the concept, outlines why some viewers get more upset about the deaths of queer characters on screen than they do straight deaths: “the death of a gay character has a different emotional weight, as there are unlikely to be many other gay characters in the piece of media”. To put this in context, in 2013/14, it was reported that of ‘series regulars’ across a wide range of analysed TV shows, only 3% were to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community (p5). To add to this, activist group ‘LGBT Fans Deserve Better’ have compiled statistics about the fate of queer characters on screen over the last 40 years, which goes some way to providing a picture of how small a proportion of queer characters make it out of TV and film alive:

  • Between 1976 and 2016, 31% of lesbian and bisexual characters were killed (on US scripted TV). Taken alongside Glaad’s statistics above, this means that less than 0.93% of characters left alive were lesbians or bisexuals (as part of this percentage would be made up of other non-straight groups).
  • 38% of the same group were just guest characters
  • 10% get the elusive ‘happy ending’ – meaning that lesbians and bisexuals make up less than 0.3% of on-screen happy endings.

Thus, while in theory queer deaths should not be considered any differently to straight deaths, the extreme disparity between straight happiness and queer happiness on screen indicates a need for change.

There are a few recent examples that should be examined in this light. The first, from TV show ‘The 100’ is the incident which sparked the creation of organisation ‘LGBT Fans Deserve Better’, the second is from ‘Orphan Black’ which has also caused much furore online. One analysis of the death of lesbian charater Lexa in ‘The 100’ not only makes similar observations to those above, but also notes how the incident was a direct parallel with another lesbian TV death in 2002 in ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’. Both, the author notes, are killed moments after consummating a relationship with a same-sex partner: ironically a moment which could have signalled the elusive ‘happy ending’. However, this same article also notes that enraged fans have raised over $57,000 for the Trevor Project, which works to prevent LGBTQ suicide. For those who might doubt the sincerity of protests over fictional characters, this surely is a demonstration that activists are concerned about real lives. The second notable example is that of Delphine’s death in BBC America’s ‘Orphan Black’, at the end of series three. The objections to this decision actually sparked a response from star and producer Tatiana Maslany, who said, of the character and the death: “She’s so much more than her sexuality and to make it about, ‘well, we killed off a lesbian character,’ that’s really reductive…There’s a trope too…But Delphine is only a victim because she made herself a hero. She was ultimately doing right by people.”. Of course, it is positive that Maslany recognises the trope, and of course the aim should be that TV writers treat queer and straight characters independently of their sexuality, but the trope being in existence shows that this is not the case, and as previously stated, writers and producers should be sensitive of this. TV Tropes does note that ‘Bury Your Gays’:“has been argued to not apply to a series where Anyone Can Die” and while Orphan Black could conceivably belong to this trope, it remains that in a show which frequently shows characters surviving implausibly dangerous situations, Delphine’s heroism could have been demonstrated without her (currently unconfirmed but probable) death.

So: there are certainly counter-arguments to solving the ‘bury your gays’ trope with positive discrimination, most notably the fact that characters should be treated equally and not reduced to their sexuality. However, while this is ideal, it is currently not a reality. Given that queer theorists and activists believe that it affects real lives, and that about 0.3% of happy endings on American TV include a queer character, it does not seem beyond the bounds of reason to accommodate a desire for a kinder treatment of queer characters in fiction.



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