Every season we celebrate the amount of queer female characters television has gifted us because it’s grown exponentially in the past 10 to 20 years. We’ve seen ourselves on-screen in a number of ways—butch, femme, in-between; all shapes and sizes and colors and ages. And while networks are getting better at putting LGBT women in more recurring and major roles instead of bit parts or very special episodes, one trend remains going strong: They keep getting killed off.
In the last two years alone we can count on two hands the number of gay women featured on shows that did not live to see the end of a season, and in the past three months we have said goodbye to three major characters whose very existences were our entry points into their otherwise quite hetero-driven shows. (OK, maybe not as true of True Blood but certainly for Chicago Fire and Arrow.)
These deaths, whether they are violent murders or inconceivable cancer diagnoses, continue to pain us years after we’ve had to endure them on TV. It’s also strange to see queer women are most often shot to death, though we are also not immune from more “creative” perils like parachute falls or getting our heads bashed in after an orgy in the town square. Perhaps the good (?) news is only one on the list was suicide, and it had nothing to do with her sexual orientation. Most of the reasons queer women are killed off shows, based on the below list, seems to be that writers/producers don’t know what to do with them anymore and they want to advance the plots of more central (aka straight) characters. That is not the case for every single show, but it certainly feels like it was for several, especially the more recent instances.
Of course, in some cases the actors want out or the death highlighted a new and important LGBT-themed story thereafter (ER), but the thing is, we’re getting really tired of this trend. While visibility has gotten better in recent years, we’re still craving more and better representations of our community. Sometimes it feels like we’re getting thrown a bone and being appeased until the powers that be are no longer interested in entertaining our very specific fanbase. (That’s their loss, quite honestly, because we are a passionate and strong crew.)
So because it’s that time of year, when things get morbid, and because TV is taking this trope and continuing to run with it, we’re paying tribute to our fallen Sapphic soldiers. R.I.P. these 35 lesbian and bi female characters that will remain forever in our hearts.
*Attention: Please be aware that these posts contain images of characters both alive and postmortem. We want to alert our readers who may be sensitive to these types of images.*
Tara Maclay, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2002)
At 19, I fell for Willow (Alyson Hannigan) and Tara (Amber Benson) the way I’d fallen for my own girlfriend—with an abandon born of inexperience; of trust. Their relationship seemed to reflect ours—not because I was a nerd-transformed by hippie skirts (though perhaps I was), not because my girlfriend stuttered or identified as a Wiccan but because, like theirs, our love felt pure in a way only first love can ever be. Unalloyed by the sort of life experiences that make you say things like, “I tend to attract passive underachievers,” and “I’ll never make that mistake again.” (Though you will, you will.) I look back on cards my girlfriend and I exchanged and I want to gather my previous self up and shield her. She’s just too innocent. She’ll never make it through this world.
Of course, Tara didn’t make it either. When Joss Whedon reunited her with Willow after they’d somehow weathered apocalypse, addiction, and—oh, right—a blonde God’s wrath, only to let a cold bullet steal her breath, I’m pretty sure I moaned aloud.
“Your shirt,” Tara told Willow, meaning something had stained it. That thing was a splotch of Tara’s blood. Shot from behind with a bullet meant for Buffy, Tara died looking into Willow’s eyes.
“No,” I said, watching. “No!” But what I really meant was, “Yes.” As a fan, I was devastated; but as a budding writer, I was thrilled.
It’s true that in western fiction’s long, male-dominated history bad women are penalized: Adulterers, whores, sexual deviants of all stripes. Traditionally their punishments come after a transgression. For example, in Into the Woods (which is likely itself a commentary), the Baker’s Wife cheats on her husband. Next thing you know, a giant has stomped her to death. A lesbian is transgression embodied, the personification of our deviant shadow-self. In conventional fiction, her very existence dictates her inevitable death.
But Joss Whedon isn’t conventional—or rather, his Buffyverse represents convention with a twist. Whedon wasn’t out to punish Tara for her lesbianism any more than the (sometimes literal) hell he put Buffy through was designed as comeuppance for her gender-norm-upending moves. Sure, maybe Joss Whedon—outspoken feminist, creator of a boundary-breaking female hero—was unconsciously influenced by literary convention (Who isn’t? Culture seeps into our sleeping bones.), but on a conscious level, he served only story. Not simply story, but realism. Joss Whedon, for all his vampires and cranky miniature fear demons, strove, always to create a world that feels like ours.
In Sunnydale, as in life, no one lives happily after. Xander was stalked by giant bugs and fucked demons and lost Cordelia then Anya (once to his fears, then finally to death). Buffy, for all her bluster and heroism couldn’t save her mother from cancer. If that weren’t enough, her romantic life was just like yours or mine: unworkable passion, tough choices, love-interests who used her for sex or access to eternal life, grey-area-coitus that obfuscated as much as it clarified and left her emotionally scarred and maybe even raped. (And this was long before the “On all Fours” episode of Girls.) And Giles? One word: Jenny.
Joss Whedon killed everyone I cared about and still I trust him, because he did it in a way not soap operatic, but swift and brutal. His characters’ deaths were meant to be unfair and illogical, just as in life. That’s why not despite how much it hurt, but because of it, I applaud Tara’s death. I love it because I hate it. My utter devotion to Willow and Tara as a couple may be a byproduct of my own youth and, let’s face it, college student-specific swath of free time; however, as a writer, I believe Tara’s death was not only necessary but profound. Though my romantic life may never again afford me the guileless ease of inexperience, I’ll always trust Joss Whedon’s intentions, his dedication to narrative arc. But making Kennedy Willow’s next love interest? I’ll never forgive him for that. —Sarah Terez Rosenblum
Sandy Lopez, ER (2002)
In my house growing up, there were three pieces of parentally approved television: World News Tonight, UNC basketball games and ER. My parents (a physician and a therapist) worked more or less constantly so Thursday nights at County General were some of my only guaranteed times with them, and I looked forward every week to watching and discussing the show (Abby and Carter forever, sorry Luka). ER was also the place where I met my first lesbian, Dr. Kerry Weaver (Laura Innes). One of the very first episodes of ER I watched took place in the aftermath of her hookup with Dr. Legaspi (Elizabeth Mitchell, who has come through for us so many times) and I remember timidly asking my parents, “Is that woman gay?” They told me she was confused, which was really great foreshadowing of what my own coming out experience would be like.
Dr. Legaspi was eventually sent to the parking lot of eternal torment to wander for a thousand years, but the next season she was replaced by Sandy Lopez (Lisa Vidal), a hot firefighter who commanded the attention and respect of everyone who met her. And that woman brought Kerry Weaver to life. Dr. Weaver was always brusque and driven and forced to take on the moral decisions she didn’t want other people to have to deal with, and for that she was never a particularly easy character to like. (If she had been a character on The L Word, she would have walked into The Planet and just started hitting random lesbians with her crutch until they became more productive members of society.)
And you know what? I liked that about her. But the picture of her wasn’t complete until Sandy showed up and you saw them laughing in bed, or fighting about the same stuff every other couple on that show fought about, or hardcore making out in front of the entire hospital with a degree of chemistry that some other lesbian couples on medical shows might take a lesson from. They dealt with the mechanics of conceiving a child before it became a tiresome trope. They were groundbreaking. I mean, before them we had Willow and Tara but not much else. And Buffy was this weird, cult teen show that no one paid much attention to. ER was the show par excellence for drama in the late ’90s and early 2000s. It was serious television and it asked its viewers to take this lesbian relationship seriously too.
We always knew that Sandy had a dangerous job. In fact, watching Kerry’s eyes shine with worry about it was one of the most relatable parts of their relationship. But fighting fires was what Sandy Lopez loved to do, and eventually it was what she died doing. And it was ER, so they didn’t spare you one second of the agony of hope and then watching that hope fade. Hardest of all, you watched Kerry watch it: taking the tubes out of Sandy’s mouth, sitting in the waiting room, clutching her helmet. (I personally just rewatched those scenes and was specifically told to “Stop crying so loud.”)
I like to believe that ER killed Sandy not because of lazy writing but because they had a bigger point to make (though whether there is any point bigger than love is debatable). After her death, Kerry had to battle for custody of their son with Sandy’s intolerant parents, which opened a lot of eyes to the struggle of gay couples in the legal system. At least, I hope it opened a lot of eyes. That’s the only thing that could justify breaking so many hearts. —Elaine Atwell
Maya Robertson, Hex (2005)
It’s tough out there for a lesbian ghost. Poor Maya (Laura Donnelly) has the dubious honor of being killed, even after she was already dead. Hex was a British show about the supernatural goings on at a university, including a witch named Cassie who falls for an evil angel Azazeal (played by Michael Fassender) and her lesbian best friend/roommate Thelma (Jemima Rooper), who is subsequently murdered by said angel. Thelma continues on as a ghost, who, of course, like many young lesbians, has a crush on her best friend. All hell breaks loose when Cassie is impregnated by Azazeal, unleashing pure evil into the world.
Cassie is eventually killed, breaking Thelma’s heart. Thelma finds solace and a chance at love with the darling Maya who, incidentally, was killed to create a distraction and hold power over Thelma, by Cassie’s now teenage son Malachi. (It’s a long story, but mystical kids grow really fast.) Maya and Thelma have an adorably undead romance, including snogging in the cafeteria right beside unsuspecting students.
Unfortunately, Maya is killed once again by a witch set out to destroy Azazeal and Malachi, and her body is beheaded so she can no longer hold any sway over Thelma. Poor Thelma and the world’s fate is left hanging when the series ended after its second season. —Dana Piccoli