How the Trope of Queer Women Dying on Television Can (And Must) Be Stopped

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*Caution: Spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched Sunday night’s episode of The Walking Dead*

It’s only been in the last 26 years that lesbian and bisexual female characters have been fully integrated into television shows, with pivotal moments occurring on early adopters like L.A. Law, which boasts the first-ever lesbian kiss in 1991, Friends, with the first lesbian wedding, and E.R. with the first regular lesbian lead on a primetime network ensemble show with Dr. Kerry Weaver. While at first queer women were happy just to have any kind of representation on television, the only characters that were provided were largely white, feminine, and of a higher socioeconomic status. The same could be said for Ellen DeGeneres when she came out on her show in 1997, although after “The Puppy Episode” aired, her character followed her real-life trajectory of becoming more herself and her androgyny was more noticeable in manner and dress.

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It wasn’t until the early 2000s, though, that networks and showrunners began to embrace lesbians and bi women on a slightly larger scale, with All My Children‘s lesbian couple, Willow Rosenberg’s starring role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the premiere of The L Word in 2004. It doesn’t feel all too long ago, does it? And in the scheme of television history, queer women waited almost 70 years after the creation of television sets and their appearance in homes across the United States to see any kind of reflection of themselves, save for some unfortunate characters that appeared briefly and almost always as some kind of lesson about living an unnatural life. Like in pulp novels and cinema, lesbian characters may have been able to have a lesbian identity, but they were not able to go unpunished for it. That punishment was, more often than not, certain death.

Post-L Word, there has been a significant rise in the amount of LGB women on the small screen, but they are largely relegated to sidekicks, friends or co-workers of the leading heterosexuals. And although their queerness hasn’t always been the reason for some of their untimely deaths, it is certainly related, as showrunners and writers are still incapable of creating a lesbian or bisexual character that is fully-realized enough to be seen through to the end. 

Despite objections to the “bury your gays” or “lesbian death” trope in the last decade, this trend not only continues but has come to a head in the last few weeks as two major lesbian characters have been killed on two popular and highly-watched dramas, The 100 and The Walking Dead. There was also the death of a queer disabled woman of color on SyFy’s The Magicians, whose appearance was wholly a prop for the leading straight white character, as is the case for typical LGBT presence on procedurals like Law & Order.

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In 2016, there are more queer women characters on television than ever before, and some of them are leads on their respective shows (Clarke on The 100, Emily on Pretty Little Liars, Bo on Lost Girl, Piper on Orange is the New Black, etc.). But they are still anomalies if you consider how expansive the world of series television has become, and network TV, especially, lacks the kind of lesbian lead we are still yearning to see. So with the growing number of LGB women characters (still waiting for the T to catch up, sadly) regularly appearing on television, it would seem that the ratio of those who die vs. those who are allowed the chance to stay alive throughout the series (or, at least, most of it) would shift so that most would be forced into the same trope that has plagued them since the beginning. 

However, on many TV shows (especially in the more recent past) death, murder and violence is a large part of the landscape. Some of the most popular series on television are set in worlds where any character can die at any time, including leads. This is especially true in the sci-fi/horror/fantasy genres, which is where Lexa of The 100 and Denise of The Walking Dead live(d). So in order to discuss the ways in which these demises were handled, we have to decipher some very basic “Who? Why? Where? When? How?” components to each one, as it would be ridiculous to ask that every single lesbian/bi character who was ever created in a fictional setting stay alive. Because even though television is fiction, it is based on the realities of life, and that includes death. But that includes a balancing act that most showrunners and networks fail to address or consider, or possibly even just ignore when deciding that a lesbian/bi character could or should be killed off a show.

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