The Short Life of TV Lesbians
(Spoilers for The Walking Dead, The 100)
I really liked Denise. I did. The Walking Dead had so far done well with their resident nurse, a smart, insecure but compelling side character. And, when she got into a relationship with the show’s resident lesbian Tara, I was pleased. After Tara’s last girlfriend had scored a bullet through the brain earlier in the series, it was good to see the show’s only queer female character getting an actual love interest.
And then Denise got shot through the eye with a crossbow bolt.
Let’s ignore the fact for a minute that this whole plot was clumsily set up and poorly executed and entirely there to service the story of a straight male character. Let’s talk about dead lesbians on TV, and the fact that, even in 2016, TV writers struggle to keep their queer women characters alive.
We’ve had a couple of high-profile pieces of lesbian extermination in the last couple of months- both The Walking Dead’s dispatching of Denise, and The 100’s openly gay Lexa catching a stray bullet in the same episode she consummated her relationship with the show’s lead character, Clarke. I could list off fifty other examples off the top of my head- Naomi in Skins, Tara in Buffy, Sara Lance in Arrow (killed to make way for a straight woman to take up the mantel of her superhero alter-ego, no less)- but you get the idea. TV writers seems to have trouble not killing off their queer ladies, and that’s clearly a problem.
Why? After all, aren’t these shows in which people die- straight people, gay people, anything in between? Well, yes, and this is the excuse fans and writers alike will give when there’s a backlash over the killing of LGBT characters, but it’s not quite as simple as “anyone can die, so you can’t get mad that your favourite queer character gets it”. The number of queer characters on TV is still at a surprising low, so watching an LGBT character get unceremoniously bumped off the show isn’t the same as seeing your favourite straight character die. Yes, the latter might suck, but bluntly, there’s plenty more straight characters to choose from. Even the most progressive shows might only have one or two non-straight characters, so when we lose one, it matters in terms of representation. Sure, anyone can die, but the fact that it just so happens to be this show’s only openly gay/lesbian/bisexual/trans character is just a coincidence, right? God forbid we don’t hit our quotas for straight representation, after all.
There’s also the question of why queer characters are so often chosen to be the ones killed off. After all, with whole casts to choose from, it seems odd that TV writers keep indulging this particular trope. Take the example from The 100 I quoted above- the openly gay character dies after sleeping with Clarke, who’s heterosexuality had been assumed till she’d met Lexa. In fact, Lexa dies taking a stray bullet for her. It’s one of a bunch of examples in which queer characters die in order to service the stories of their straight (or straight-passing, or previously straight) counterparts. The people behind Smash confirmed that they killed one of their only openly gay characters, Kyle, so that his straight scriptwriting partner could learn a lesson. Boardwalk Empire kills off it’s only regular queer character to further the plot of her husband. Denise buys it in The Walking Dead so Daryl can get a quick blast of emotional development. Introducing queer female characters- often hastily shacking them up with another character to create some semblance of happiness- only to kill them off to service a non-gay characters arc suggests that they’re only there as accessories to the stories of straight people, unworthy of an independent story of their own.
There are a huge number of unfortunate implications whenever a writer kills off a queer character, whether or not their intentions might be innocent, because it plays into this trope. And TV’s habit of ploughing through it’s female LGBT characters with reckless abandon just further sidelines real, meaningful LGBT stories getting shared in the mainstream media. In short, this trope needs to die faster than your new favourite lesbian character inevitably will.