This article contains mild spoilers for the third season of ‘Orphan Black’ and the most recent seasons of ‘The 100,’ ‘Game of Thrones,’ ‘The Walking Dead,’ ‘The Vampire Diaries,’ ‘The Magicians,’ and ‘Jane the Virgin.’
So, I’m not exactly sure what’s in the drinking water, but for some reason, it feels as though media creators met up and decided that this would be the year that they’d kill off all marginalized persons from their shows. And they’d do so in ways that were so baldly unmotivated, it borders on lazy. Bonus points if the character’s death had nothing to do with the character themselves!
This seems to be especially true for lesbian/bisexual characters. So far in 2016, we’ve had something like fourteen deaths in this department? Maybe fifteen? I’m actually losing track. This list includes Kira (The Magicians), Lexa (The 100), Nora & Mary Louise (The Vampire Diaries), Rose (Jane the Virgin), and Denise (The Walking Dead). Of course backing out of this year, dead lesbians and bisexual women for our viewing pleasure is nothing new, though the recent onslaught is finally holding a candle up to the use of the damaging trope, “Bury Your Gays.”
I’ve articulated my own thoughts about the harm that can come with its careless employ. However, where does this leave media creators? “LGBT fans deserve better.” Okay, but…what do we actually deserve? Living representation, right? So are we instructing media creators to keep every lesbian they write alive? Their gays should be kept in a special little untouchable box?
I have a lot of discomfort with this. Because it pushes into another problematic storytelling convention, that of “Gays so Special.”
I guess what I’m really talking about is some sort of amalgamation of two tropes: Men are Generic, Women are Special (just replace with “straights are generic”), and “Closer to Earth.” The former is what gives rise to stuff like Smurfettes, where the individual who is “special” (i.e. “not the norm”) for whatever reason—a woman, a bisexual, someone non-white—sort of becomes stripped down to nothing but that difference. If a woman ruler messes up, then it’s a commentary on women rulers; a man can do the same, but it’s not a universal condemnation. The latter trope refers to the tendency of media creators to portray marginalized characters in a more positive light, because they don’t want to pile on. The perfect example of this is how Game of Thrones’s Tyrion Lannister is basically the TvTropes definition of a “Mary Sue,” despite his book counterpart being a dark, dark grey character.
And yes, queer characters are not immune from this treatment. You can often see “Gays So Special” at play when gay relationships are presented as infallible. If two characters of the same gender fall in love, that’s it! There’s no breaking them up because they’re perfect! (Until one of them dies, of course.) Many times, the only queer representation comes from characters already in established relationships for this reason; there’s the lesbian moms of the side-character, and they’re really, really good moms with fights that are instantly resolved.
Even more, Gays So Special is something that’s often lived. Without getting too personal, the first relationship I was in with another woman had some pretty clear red flags. But none of my friends said a word against it, because they were Supportive™. Pro-tip: that is not how to be a good ally.
I know it comes from a good place, this form of positive discrimination. But it’s still discrimination. And the “X so special” trope…it’s infantilizing. I don’t want to be kept in a special little narrative box where nothing bad ever happens (and here’s a pat on the head!) simply because of my sexuality, because guess what?
Yet, how am I supposed to see what’s happening on our
laptop television screens this year without feeling like my sexuality is being targeted? That marginalized individuals in general are being targeted? And that can’t happen unless we are Special™, right? My head hurts.
What’s interesting is that most media creators who employ the Bury Your Gays trope seem to be aware of this “Gays So Special” criticism. In fact, that was the stock-defense out of Jason Rothenberg’s (of The 100) mouth about his decision to kill off Lexa: that she was a badass character who happened to date women, because her sexuality was not the totality of her character. And it’s now the defense we’re seeing from Tatiany Maslany, the star of Orphan Black, regarding their decision to kill off a bisexual character at the end of last season:
“There’s a bizarre focus on the fact that she’s bisexual or a lesbian and has been killed off, and that really reduces her to one thing in representing something, as opposed to being an individual. I find that to be a problematic complaint. She’s so much more than her sexuality and to make it about, ‘well, we killed off a lesbian character,’ that’s really reductive.”
Maslany is not wrong. And it’s also not wrong to acknowledge a difference between killing someone for being X and killing someone who happens to be X.
But I don’t think she’s entirely right either. For one, you really can’t ignore the cultural context, which to her credit, she tried to acknowledge:
“I understand because there’s such a lack of representation and 3D representation and you’re protective of those characters. There’s a trope too, a predictable storyline, which is that the LGBTQ characters get victimized somehow. But Delphine is only a victim because she made herself a hero. She was ultimately doing right by people.”
Again, it’s the defense, “oh yeah, we know about Bury Your Gays, but we had reasons X,Y, and Z to kill her, all of which were separate from her sexuality.” So case closed? If this is the attitude of the writers, then it becomes Okay™ to kill off their marginalized characters? I mean…sometimes. Not always. Seriously, get me Tylenol, because splitting this hair is so complex.
When a gay character dies, yes, it is an example of Bury Your Gays. Because all a trope refers to is a pattern found within media; it is not inherently negative. However, whether the use of the trope is justified in the context of narrative…there’s no hard and fast rule.
Frankly, I think a large part of the problem is the increase in Shock™ Deaths as a storytelling convention within our shows and movies today. There’s a certain [mystifyingly] popular, award-winning show that banks its entire success on it, so yeah, it makes sense that media creators might want to follow suit. However, to quote my main man George R.R. Martin:
“It’s easy to do things that are shocking or unexpected, but they have to grow out of characters. They have to grow out of situations.”
Sadly for him, the adapters of his books didn’t get the memo, and from what I can tell, neither did most storytellers seeking to emulate the Game of Thrones formula. I mean, yes, I personally don’t find Shock™ Deaths particularly deep or interesting in the first place, so perhaps that’s why I’m more critical of them. But I would argue that when the target of this Shock™ is a marginalized character—that is, a character belonging to a group that faces societal oppression and typically has limited representation on our screens—the unmotivated nature of these deaths become far less acceptable. Or at the least, its utter cheapness stands out more.
Ew, am I arguing that Gays So Special now? I’m just trying to point out that many of us cling to these characters because our own representation is not so great. Gays are “special” in the sense that it is still, literally, special to see them on our screens. So when they’re yoinked away from us, yeah, we’re going to be seriously analyzing the necessity of it.
It kind of sounds like I’m back around the circle, saying that we can’t kill off minorities, but I think there’s a more nuanced point to be made. Yes, if your show relies on Shock™ Deaths, I’m probably going to roll my eyes at it. Yet that doesn’t mean that I think death can’t be a consequence of a narrative. Plus, John Fawcett, the Orphan Black showrunner, also brought up a good point, even if the entire interview was a touch tone-deaf:
“If you did everything that the fans wanted, it wouldn’t be a drama anymore.”
Characters kind of have to suffer. The degree of it, and certainly the demographic spread of that suffering… Well, that’s the real trick, isn’t it? But without struggle, there is not a story.
The way I see it, though, there should be certain criteria showrunners think about before killing off any character, marginalized or not:
- Is this born out of the narrative? This goes back to Martin’s quote, but really, is it logical? Were there any in-verse rules defied to make this happen? Bonus points: was it seeded?
- Does it play out with respect to characterization/the character’s agency? Does this character have to suddenly act against their usual nature to bring about these events? If so, it’s probably not good storytelling. Perhaps more importantly, is this character’s death about them, or is it going to be used to further someone else’s story? Because seriously, if this is Manpain fuel…stahp it. Just stahp.
- Is there a story with this character’s death worth telling beyond ‘Character Y will now have to deal with it!’? To figure this out, you might want to think about the themes of your work. What is the point of this character’s death? Hint: “drama” is not a particularly wise answer.
- Is this character’s death depicted in a way that keeps audience sensitivities in mind? Could anything be triggering? Is it overly graphic? Did you just lure your audience into a false sense of security? Because the thing is, if you’ve put a good amount of energy into writing a character, the audience is still gonna be shocked at their death, even without cheap tricks.
- Are there any unfortunate implications with this death? Could the audience take away a really problematic message, like say…the character died because of their sexuality? Is this your only X character?
The last two points are particularly important to consider in the case of marginalized characters. It’s not that a straight, cisgendered, white man’s death can’t be triggering, nor that it can’t come with problematic implications. But understanding those implications becomes more difficult for media creators the more intersectional a character is. Add to that the lack of representation and how this is a character many marginalized individuals cling to for comfort, and you really have to start giving this death critical thought.
Now, it’s obviously quite subjective when a death is “done right,” and it’s often hard to articulate why. I hate the cop-out of “it just doesn’t feel exploitative” in these cases but…yeah. That’s how it is. In my view, the importance is in having this discussion at all.
Bringing it back to Orphan Black, though I have seen many argue that Delphine’s death at the end of last season was unacceptable (which is not made better by Maslany’s rather dismissive comments), I would say the opposite.
If we go through the criteria:
- It was most certainly born out of the narrative. It makes complete sense that actions would result in her death giving the institutions at play. Further, I don’t see Delphine behaving in any other way based on what we know of her.
- There was a clear focus on character agency, especially after she was threatened. She chose how she would leave things with Cosima, and her refusal to ask for help or explain what was happening was important in her own arc.
- “Is there a story to be told?” unfortunately is a wait-and-see situation, but given that the show centers around a complicated cloning trial that raises issues of intellectual property, eugenics, and control of this technology, the nefarious actions of these organizations involved is rather crucial to the story. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that there were strong parallels between her death and Paul’s death, the straight, white man who was involved on the military side of things. There’s moral ambiguity, and it plays to one of the central themes of the series: trust.
- Was its depiction with respect to audience sensitivities? This is certainly the most subjective point, but we were outright told by another character that her death was coming so it was hardly a “pull the rug out” kind of moment, and in my opinion, it was not overly graphic. Especially considering that Orphan Black does not shy away from gore (look no further than Paul’s death). Perhaps it’s a small consolation, but it’s not like she happily climbed out of bed, searched for her phone charger, and was hit with a Bullet of Plot Convenience.
- Lastly, the implications. Perhaps I’m being overly generous, but I am just not seeing any takeaway linked to Delphine’s sexuality. I guess her actions were fueled by her love for Cosima in some ways? That certainly wasn’t the focus in the last episode though, and again, the near perfect parallel with Paul (who outright told Sarah he loved her in the same episode he died to save her) rather mitigates this claim.
I am not saying Orphan Black did it perfectly, but you can certainly see the respect they allotted their character as opposed to, say, Lexa from The 100:
- Lexa was hit by a Stray Bullet of Plot Convenience. There was even never a reason that she wasn’t in the room in the first place, before she wanted into the crosshairs. Additionally, her death happened within two minutes despite a nonfatal wound location, despite other characters surviving far worse injuries, and despite a medic immediately applying pressure.
- Respect to character agency? This was a total badass fighter who survived multiple assassination attempts, and she died from a Stray Bullet of Plot Convenience. Does this really require an explanation?
- To The 100’s credit, there does seem to be a story to be told in her death, given the resurrection-esque thing established. Snaps for JRoth.
- There was no respect to audience sensitivities. The timing of the death (and utter random nature of it) was clearly done to provide the biggest Shock™, as it happened within five minutes of her and Clarke finally having sex. This is also on a show whose target demographic seems to be teenage and young adult viewers, many of whom are questioning. How was this remotely validating or constructive for them, especially in light of those on the show playing up their “strong LGBT representation” in their marketing materials?
- And then there’s the implications. Again, it was within minutes of her first on-screen love scene. That’s almost a Bury Your Gays record. Also, the guy who pulled the trigger had frequently spoken about how her feelings for Clarke were a mistake, and was actually trying to kill Clarke because their relationship was such a liability.
I mean, granted, Orphan Black is not really a “no one’s safe” story, or at least not to the degree The 100 seems to be. But how about we take another example from within the same show: Game of Thrones. Let’s consider the treatment of Renly vs. Loras. I should point out, Loras is not buried (yet), but he is certainly suffering in the story, and based on the second Season 6 trailer, brutalized by the Sparrows.
I won’t go through the criteria again, but back during Season 2, it was Renly’s ambition and pride that was his downfall. He refused to join his brother’s cause, which perhaps there was a point to be made for Stannis’s lack of charisma, but that choice played into one of the central themes of A Song of Ice and Fire (which in Season 2, Game of Thrones still seemed to be vaguely adapting): the intersection of the personal and the political. On the show, Renly’s sexuality may have been played for lols before his death (kissing Margaery is gross), but his death was completely unrelated. In fact, consummation issues or no, the fact that Renly secured such a strong alliance was one of the reasons Stannis felt he had to go to extremes to defeat his brother.
Yes, there’s a point to be made that Renly died from a Shadow Baby of Plot Convenience, but at least that was acknowledged in-verse as a “wtf” moment, and implications of Mel’s magical abilities were explored. And again, his sexuality was still entirely incidental to the manner of his death, as well as the context of and motivation for it.
Then we’ve got Loras. Loras, who since Renly’s death, has been stripped down to nothing but his sexuality. He likes fashion, guys! He can’t even be minimally polite when talking to the person who may be his future bride in a politically important match. Actually, all of his interactions with women have an air of bored obligation, because why would you want to talk to anyone unless sex is on the table? Loras is just so gay that he’ll hop into bed and start spilling family secrets to Olyver before Renly’s body is cold.
Season 5 upped this reduction of his character ten-fold with the decision to make the Sparrow movement seem primarily concerned about eradicating homosexuality, in stark contrast to the source material. Yet we’re supposed to accept that this strawman movement is a logical result of this setting, while also accepting that Loras is just so gay that he can’t bother being discrete with Olyver?
It’s ridiculously cheap and lazy, and yeah, the implications are off the charts. Though Loras has only been shown as being with two men, the ease and haste with which he jumped into bed with Olvyer (and how receptive he was to Oberyn’s flirting) plays right into the “Promiscuous Gay” stereotype. Then there’s the fact that Loras is explicitly being harmed because of his sexuality, and it was his gayness that landed his sister in jail, for her to suffer. Literally, she lied to try and keep him safe, and was immediately punished for it.
I guess the little solace we have is that Loras is still alive on the show, so Benioff and Weiss have yet to employ “Bury Your Gays” in his case. But their approach is a wonderful case study in what media creators shouldn’t do when it comes to the portrayal of marginalized characters. The worst part? We’re clearly supposed to hate the cartoonish Sparrows, so there’s actually people arguing that this is a progressive narrative.
Look. It’s not easy to write for marginalized characters, nor is it even realistic to tell a story that can be universally considered “unproblematic.” But I think we can all at least agree that having a basic self-awareness, as well as willingness to think through the decision to kill a character, goes a long way.
I’m not expecting the rest of 2016 to be free of lesbian deaths. Frankly, I don’t want a world where lesbians can’t die in media, because that’s hardly constructive. But with this outcry—with more and more media creators joining in on this Bury Your Gays dialogue—all I’m looking for is critical thought. For writers to ask themselves whether this death is truly the most interesting or necessary thing they can dream up. I’m willing to bet that a majority of the time, it’s not.
Images courtesy of Disney, BBC America, CBS Corporation, Warner Bros., and HBO.