Bury Your Gays: TV Writers Tackle Trope, the Lexa Pledge and Offer Advice to Showrunners

The 100 Alycia Debnam Carey The Walking Dead Merritt Wever Split - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of AMC; Courtesy of The CW

The 100 Alycia Debnam Carey The Walking Dead Merritt Wever Split - Publicity - H 2016

It didn't take long for ATX Television Festival's "Bury Your Tropes" panel centered on the "Bury Your Gays" trope to come to the death that propelled the discussion to a national talking point: The 100's Lexa.

Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who wrote the fateful episode of The 100 that killed off Alycia Debnam Carey's beloved character, defended the decision storytelling-wise, but also hypothesized what went wrong.

"I don’t think that the failure here was to discuss it, the failure was to recognize the cultural impact it would have outside the show," he said. "…And to act accordingly outside of the show."

The trope — in which gay characters are routinely killed off — exploded after a massive fan backlash following the death of leading lady Lexa on The CW's The 100. Other shows this season followed suit, including The Walking Dead, The Magicians and Empire, among others.

The panel, moderated by THR's Lesley Goldberg, also included writers Krista Vernoff (Grey’s Anatomy), Carter Covington (Faking It), Carina MacKenzie (The Originals) and Megan Townsend from GLAAD, which presented the panel.

Covington came to Grillo-Marxuach's defense, and The 100's defense. "What's getting lost in The 100 is there was this amazing relationship that fans got invested in," Convington said of the lesbian relationship between Lexa and Clarke on the series. "There is so much good that The 100 is doing for the community."

The trope was first born in the '70s and '80s when characters were killed off in TV, as well as film and literature specifically of their sexuality. The 100 death is "very different to me than people getting killed off because they're gay," he said. "This is storytelling."

Convington recalled the criticism he received for Faking It, which centered on an LGBT relationship. "It was frustrating to hear that come back to me from the very community I was trying to help," he said. "I really wish we could change the conversation and become a glass-half-full fandom."

Convington worried that the deluge of negative responses specially to LGBT-related storylines would actually make studios and networks more apprehensive of including such characters. "Why would you say, 'I want to create a bisexual or lesbian character?' I'm really worried that its going to have the opposite effect of what fans want," Covington said. "Networks are terrified. They're completely scared right now. They will look for any reason not to do something. … I would hate for us to lose opportunities because of fear."

Despite the backlash to the death, Grillo-Marxuach did find a silver lining, pointing to the significance of activism for the LGBTQ community. "I am grateful for the tidal wave that came down on me," Grillo-Marxuach said. "The activism that goes on online is [very] important."

During the panel, the writers also pointed to the great progress LGBT characters have made on TV in the last several years. Vernoff recalled writing for Charmed, which was set in San Francisco. "If there was a gay character on that show he was killed in scene one," she recalled.

"What we really should be looking at, I think, is how LGBT characters are portrayed," Covington added. "We have so many now, which is wonderful. We need more."

One of the things that has come out of Lexa's death is the seven-part Lexa pledge that has been signed by numerous writers to "refuse to kill a queer character solely to further the plot of a straight one," avoid "story choices that perpetuate the toxic [Bury Your Gays] trope" and make other improvements to counter the long history of killing off gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters, often as punishment for their sexuality.

Although Vernoff said the pledge had helped educate her about the trope, and the larger issue at hand, she explained why she opted not to sign it. "It is to sign a pledge that I will limit my storytelling, I promise I wont kill an LGBT character is going to limit my ability," she said. "There's been huge progress and if we say, in the name of progress, we're going to sign a pledge and limit our storytelling, we're going to limit our progress."

Grillo-Marxuach also explained why he hasn't signed the pledge, particularly because he explained doesn't own the properties for which he is telling stories. "I don’t make promises I can't keep," he said. "I will not stand up in front of the world and promise to do this and then somehow become the scape goat on something that is not my property."

When asked for advice about how showrunners can be more sensitive to LGBT storylines and more cognizant of such tropes going forward, Grillo-Marxuach stressed the importance of being educated.

 "This isn't a fad; this isn't a fun thing to do. This is presenting something that is seen by millions people. if you don't have a personal connection to the story you’re telling… perhaps its not your story to tell," he said. 'You have to educate yourself before you jump over that threshold because you're dealing with people's lives."

He added: "You cannot create in a vacuum."

On a more positive note, Covington said the "Bury Your Gays" trope and the heated discussion surrounding it for the past several months, has already helped educate many in the industry. "The awareness of the trope is really the battle," he said. "Mission accomplished."