Bury Your Gays: Why 'The 100,' 'Walking Dead' Deaths Are Problematic (Guest Column)

A wave of queer female character deaths has fans fighting to remake TV.
Courtesy of AMC; Courtesy of The CW
'Walking Dead's' Denise, 'The 100's' Lexa

LGBT fandom is having a definitive Howard Beale moment.

Queer TV watchers, particularly female fans, are simply mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore. But instead of merely ripping open the window and howling out into the inky darkness as in that iconic Network moment, LGBT fans are organizing and coordinating to use their might to shed light on an ongoing and damaging issue.

In the past 30 days, four lesbian or bisexual female characters have been killed off on their respective TV shows. It began Feb. 22 on The CW's Jane the Virgin with the murder of Rose (Bridget Regan). Then it continued with the high-profile killing of Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) on The CW's The 100. Next came Kira on Syfy's The Magicians, and Sunday night witnessed the pointed demise of Denise (Merritt Wever) on AMC's The Walking Dead.

This wave of queer female deaths follows a long-standing pop culture trope known as Bury Your Gays. The trend has seen a disproportionate number of LGBT characters killed off, often in the name of propping up and/or advancing a heterosexual leading character's storyline. But with these most recent deaths, fans have started a very vocal and active online campaign against the trope and its negative implications.

While LGBT fans have long demanded and fought for more and better stories, in both film and television, the impetus for and tenor of this most recent campaign is worth examining. While our current character death toll began in February, fan reaction to it reached critical mass at the beginning of March when cult hit The 100 killed off beloved queer female character Lexa. The postapocalyptic series follows different factions as they struggle for survival and superiority back on Earth. Lexa was the warrior commander of her clan in an on-again, off-again, on-again relationship with another female character, Clarke, the leader of her own band of people.

The house of Capulet and Montague analogies abound, but what many of its LGBT fans adored about the series was the fierce, unconventional portrayals of female strength, power and relationships. Fans of Clarke and Lexa, known as "Clexa," had been encouraged and engaged by series creator Jason Rothenberg and his staff, particularly leading up to the show's third season. So in retrospect many now feel the show misled them into hoping and believing they would see more positive representation.

As a result, after Lexa (played by Debnam-Carey, who was written out because of her starring role on AMC's Fear the Walking Dead) was shot randomly by a bullet meant for another, LGBT fans have staged a literal revolt. The anger over this death runs deep, deeper than just one character.

The history of the Bury Your Gays issue, and more specifically Dead Lesbian Syndrome, is a long one. It dates back to 1976 on the soap opera Executive Suite when a lesbian character chases her love interest into the street only to be run over by a truck. While it's true that death is one of the most common and convenient plot points on television, for LGBT fans this issue is one ultimately about equitable representation. It's not that lesbian and bisexual characters shouldn't ever die onscreen — far from it. But currently our tragic endings are shown at an inordinately higher rate than our happy ones. 

To date, we have seen some 146 lesbian or bisexual characters perish on TV shows. Yet, in the history of television, we have seen only around 18 couples (on some 16 TV shows) who have been granted happy endings. It doesn't take an advanced calculus degree to see that the math is clearly off here.

It is particularly galling when LGBT visibility continues to lag behind that of our straight counterparts on television. For sure we've made recent, needed and very welcome gains on that front. But also consider that there are currently more than 400 scripted TV shows on, between broadcast, cable, premium and streaming services. That we've seen fewer than 200 deadly or happy endings, period, should show how few-and-far-between our representatives remain.

So when you couple our low rate of representation with our high rate of death, you see why folks could get, well, mad as hell.

LGBT viewers long to see their own happy endings reflected back to them. Underrepresented groups — from people of color to people with disabilities to LGBT people — who are denied that kind of positive representation in our shared culture naturally have a harder time imagining it for their own lives. When death, sadness and despair are the predominant stories we're told, particularly for younger viewers, it can seem like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In particular, the seemingly arbitrary nature of these deaths — as plot devices meant to foster more character development for other, usually straight, characters — has irked fans. Lexa's death on The 100 this year in many ways mirrors that of Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer 14 years earlier, in 2002. Both characters were shown consummating their relationships with their female love interests mere minutes before being felled. Both were then hit by stray bullets meant for another. Both died in their lover's arms. Both have led to fandom outrage and activism.

What has made this particular campaign different is that it has grown well beyond a complaint about one fan favorite who got knocked off. It's about overall representation. It's about holding creators and writers accountable when they court our audience. It's about not being used for ratings without being given proper narratives onscreen.

While fans don't have a right to dictate what a storyteller writes, they can demand that what they write is done in good faith and an understanding of harmful representation in the past. They can demand that our representation be fair. They can demand that our onscreen lives, and happiness, matters as much as any other characters'. They can demand when being wooed by showrunners to watch that they keep their promises.

In response to Lexa's death and all the other LGBT character deaths, fans have come together in a remarkable way. Fans got the hashtag #LGBTFansDeserveBetter to trend for hours worldwide on Twitter the week after Lexa's death to coincide with the airing of The 100. They've created not one, but two websites (lgbtfansdeservebetter.com and wedeservedbetter.com) to rally support and explain their grievances. And perhaps most impressively, they have funneled their frustration and fury into raising money to support gay youth. A campaign by The 100 fans has so far raised more than $57,000 to donate to the Trevor Project, a nonprofit group focused on LGBTQ youth suicide prevention.

So the message from all of this is loud and clear. The intricate pas de deux that shows and fans play with each other is the new social capital that drives ratings. But LGBT fans will no longer be happy with the heartbreaking scraps we're too often fed. We're mad as hell, and we're doing something about it.

Dorothy Snarker is a contributor and columnist for AfterEllen and Women and Hollywood. Find more from her at dorothysurrenders.com or @dorothysnarker.

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