Dead Lesbian Syndrome: How tragic tropes continue to misrepresent queer women
It could be argued that queer representation in media and entertainment is at an all time high. However, despite the rising number of queer characters on our screens, there are only a handful who get to experience the privilege of a happy ending. Many of the queer ladies in media that I personally have identified with have met unfortunate demises — most notably Leslie Shay from Chicago Fire, a lesbian killed to further the storyline of a heterosexual male; Maya St. Germain from Pretty Little Liars, a bisexual woman of colour killed for shock value; and most recently Lexa from The 100, killed by a stray bullet meant for her female lover.
While these deaths may seem unrelated, they have one unfortunate thing in common — they all play into the “bury your gays” trope which has been overused in media for decades. TV Tropes summarizes this stereotypical theme by stating: “Often…gay characters just aren’t allowed happy endings. Even if they do end up having some kind of relationship, at least one half of the couple, often the one who was more aggressive in pursuing a relationship, thus “perverting” the other one, has to die at the end.”
Although this trope is rooted in historical homophobia, it is sadly still used much too frequently and continues to reinforce prejudiced views of queer lives and relationships. Liron Cohen explains the origins of this trope, stating: “Homophobic writers used to do it in the name of restoring social order, or as punishment for a sinful lifestyle. Then they did it to teach a homophobic society a lesson, to show them how miserable gay lives are and make them feel bad about it.” Throughout history, the “bury your gays” trope has been used to advocate for a privileged and prejudiced agenda while ignoring or distorting the reality of queer experiences. This theme of queer death is not an accurate or healthy portrayal of LGBTQ+ lives, and needs to be examined closely before being labelled as honest representation.
My first personal experience with this ugly trope was when watching Chicago Fire in late 2014. I had only come to terms with my sexuality fully in 2012, and after moving out of home a couple of years later and having the freedom to watch whatever I pleased, I devoured every movie and show I found that contained a lesbian character. Leslie Shay was a woman who was unapologetically sassy, witty, caring and gay. I admired her bravery in her job, her loyalty to her friends, and her acceptance of the mess that was her love life. I became deeply invested in Shay’s storyline, and was crushed when she died. I continued watching the show for 1 or 2 episodes after her death, but soon gave up. Shay had brought life to the show for me and made it something I could relate to. When it became clear that her death had done nothing to contribute to the show’s overall plot, I became discouraged and disinterested. Furthermore, the only purpose I could see in her death was the angst and heartache it created for her best friend, the show’s main heterosexual male character. As much as I loved him and many of the other characters on the show, Leslie Shay was the reason I watched. A part of me died along with her character, and that was the part that trusted the media to ever represent me well.
A few months after that experience, I was introduced to another show that seemed to have good queer representation — Pretty Little Liars. One of the main characters, Emily Fields, spends the first season of the show struggling to come to terms with her sexuality. She falls in love with the new girl in town, bisexual woman of colour Maya St. Germain. Their relationship goes through many ups and downs, culminating in Maya running away from home and being discovered dead in Emily’s backyard some time later. In a show with 12 deaths and counting, Maya’s demise is not entirely shocking. It should be noted that “…sometimes gay characters die in fiction because in fiction sometimes people die…; this isn’t an if-then correlation, and it’s not always meant to “teach us something” or indicative of some prejudice on the part of the creator ...The problem isn’t when gay characters are killed off: the problem is when gay characters are killed off far more often than straight characters, or when they’re killed off because they are gay.” (TV Tropes) Maya’s death is later revealed to have had no link to the main mystery of the show. She was killed by a jealous ex-boyfriend who could not accept the end of their brief relationship, or her relationship with Emily. Her death serves no significant purpose other than shock value and I suspect she would not have died had she been a male love interest. None of the leading male love interests on the show have ever been killed, although they have all had near death encounters. It is also interesting to note that while the other three main women on the show have been with the same men for most of the series, Emily has been involved with 6 women over the course of 6 seasons. While Emily is usually presented as a well-rounded, stable and healthy queer person, her relationships have been treated with very different standards to the heterosexual relationships on the show. As a queer woman it hurts to see heterosexual romance paraded while a queer woman’s love life is pushed to the side or painted in a negative light time and again.
Most recently, fans of The 100 (myself included) have been outraged by the death of Commander Lexa. I personally do not have an issue with Lexa’s death in theory, as The 100 has always made it clear that this is a show in which anyone can die. The protagonist of the show, Clarke Griffin, had to mercy kill her previous male love interest. It therefore came as no surprise to me when Clarke’s new love interest, Commander Lexa, was killed. Her death revealed many mysteries and tied together several key plot lines, so it was not in any way pointless. There are also other queer characters on the show, so Lexa’s death does not leave our community without any representation. Despite all of these positives however, I believe Lexa’s death still played into the “bury your gays” trope. This is due to the manner in which she died — killed by a stray bullet meant for Clarke. Above all else, Lexa was a warrior and commander of most of the remaining inhabitants of earth. She could have died in any number of heroic ways, but instead was shot by one of her own people as she walked through Clarke’s door. Furthermore, Lexa’s death came immediately after the consummation of her relationship with Clarke. The message came across loud and clear: her death was the consequence of her love for Clarke. Lexa’s downfall, while not pointless, was disappointing. I believe that the “bury your gays” trope could easily have been avoided in this circumstance with more creative writing. Lexa deserved to die in a way more fitting to her character, and queer viewers of the show deserve more than the message that their love will end in death.
As a queer woman consuming this media in the 21st century, I have to wonder if I will ever find a happy ending. Not only in love, but in life. The media consistently tells me that most women like me do not end up happy — we end up dead. We do not get to marry the person of our dreams and grow old together as many heterosexual couples do. In fact, we do not get to grow old at all. We struggle through life battling our identities and social prejudices only to meet tragic, often pointless deaths.
Logically, I know that this is not the reality of my own life. While we as LGBTQ+ people still have a long way to go to achieve equal rights, respect and representation, I believe we are slowly moving towards a better future. I do not expect to die at a young age from a stray bullet meant for someone else, but that does not stop me waking regularly from dreams about my young, tragic, queer death. The “bury your gays” trope that is employed so frequently in mainstream media is culpable for these nightmares of mine. Isn’t it time we moved past this painful reminder of history and began presenting queer characters as real people whose lives and deaths matter?
As Virginia DeBolt so eloquently explains: “Taking the route of killing off yet another gay character teaches us that gay people are expendable and not worth keeping around. It’s a plot device that needs to be examined by every creative person who writes for TV, film or any other medium. It matters how LGBT characters are handled in the media. Representation matters.”