The Spectrum: Television writers need to stop killing their LGBTQ characters

Jesseca Rodgers, Op-Ed Contributor

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

A friend texted me a few weeks ago raving about a TV show she’d started watching called “Supergirl.” I’m not really one for stories about superheroes, and my friend knows this. But,she exclaimed via iMessage, this superhero show is different from most because one of the main female characters is gay. As a gay person, it’s always thrilling for me to see new representation on television and in other media, so I Googled this new show for more information.

My excitement was short-lived: “Supergirl” is aired on the CW, a television network notorious for queerbaiting its audiences and then killing off queer characters without warning. This is an unfortunately common practice that has become more and more popular in recent years — and it is a practice that needs to be changed. Creators of visual media need to stop killing their LGBTQ characters. Besides being predictable and lazy where good writing is concerned, it is one of numerous ways that marginalized people are erased in popular culture.

The death of LGBTQ characters in visual media has a history long enough that the phenomenon has its own name: the “Bury Your Gays” trope. It was more specifically known as “Dead Lesbian Syndrome” when the first LGBTQ character death occurred on the 1976 soap opera “Executive Suite.” Today, the trope applies to all characters on the queer spectrum, and it is still a disturbingly prevalent element of television writing.

As of early 2018, 194 lesbian and bisexual characters have died on television, and only 29 have survived. This normalization of violence against queer characters has real-world impact on real people. As of mid-2016, LGBTQ people are more likely to be victims of a hate crime than any other minority group. This susceptibility to hate-fueled violence is compounded for people with multiple marginalized identities: Black transgender women face the most violence of anyone in the LGBTQ community. When writers and other media creators choose to enact violence against marginalized people in their work, it often serves to justify real-world violence in the minds of those who already want to hurt queer people. As people with wide-reaching cultural influence, it is important that they use this power responsibly so that innocent people are not harmed by the carelessness of others.

Instead of clinging to this trite and damaging trope, creators could choose to make their LGBTQ characters more real and essential to the overall storylines of their work. The Canadian web series “Carmilla” and the Netflix original sitcom “One Day At A Time” feature queer female lead characters with meaningful relationships to other characters — both platonic and romantic. Creators could also use LGBTQ characters’ plotlines to subvert the “Bury Your Gays” trope in interesting and impactful ways. “Black Mirror,” a science fiction anthology series on Netflix, used this concept in an episode titled “San Junipero.” “San Junipero” won multiple awards, including two Primetime Emmy Awards, and it is now one of the show’s most well-received and critically celebrated episodes to date.

Creators of visual media have to stop killing their LGBTQ characters. It is an exceptionally callous and insensitive example of how marginalized people are consistently erased in popular culture. The “Bury Your Gays” trope feeds on queer audiences’ desire for any sort of representation, and perhaps most dangerously, it normalizes violence against real LGBTQ people. Taking care in the crafting of queer characters’ storylines and their relationships with other characters would benefit both creators and audiences, and it would serve as an important step toward equal treatment of the LGBTQ community in modern society.

Jesseca Rodgers is a Communication senior. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.