Superstitions are a way we humans consciously or subconsciously try to attribute causality to events for which there is no natural link. For example, blaming opening an umbrella indoors for being late for work or finding a penny on the ground for a surprise promotion. Superstitious rituals, such as knocking on wood or throwing salt over your shoulder to avert attracting bad luck in America, are a way we try to actively exert control over things that are inherently beyond our control.
A tendency toward superstitiousness—called “magical thinking”—is a universal human trait. We cling to our own superstitions and superstitious rituals despite continuing evidence of their fraudulence because the illusion of control or of unseen causality is better than the knowledge of powerlessness and entropy. Always tying your shoes left foot, right foot before a sports game doesn’t make you more or less likely to win—that will depend on the skill of the two teams and a host of other minute but tangible factors—but it is likely to give you peace of mind.
Even knowing that superstitions are a byproduct of the brain’s natural neural circuitry and superstitious rituals are a psychological crutch shaped by the partial reinforcement effect (whether or not the desired outcome happens after a superstitious ritual, the individual will continue to believe the ritual “works” because of the few times when the desired outcome does happen, despite this being a coincidence), it’s hard not to attribute events in our lives to some sort of supernatural cause.
I myself have a superstitious belief: I’m cursed when it comes to liking TV lesbian pairings. About half the time when I like a couple, one of the pair is killed. I don’t know if I’ve been walking under a lot of ladders or inadvertently breaking mirrors or what, but I feel like I’ve just got disproportionately lousy luck. Are other people’s favorite couples dying off at the same rate? I literally just started watching Wentworth again to check out Ballie and already Bea has almost been killed. And Allie? Well, if she makes it out of this season alive, all bets are off for both of them next season. Is it too much to just want all my couples to have happy endings? How many four-leaf clovers do I need to gather to ensure my couples live?
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These questions are not rhetorical (well okay, the clover one is). Hollywood would answer that yes, it is too much to ask for happy endings because the breaking apart of couples creates the bursts of emotions that drive shows forward. If characters were happy all the time, no one would watch; the show would be boring.
But there is a difference between death and breaking up: both create emotional anguish, but one is permanent and the other is temporary. People break up and move on in the real world all the time, so why does it feel like death is more often the default relationship ender for lesbian couples on TV? Can writers really think of no other way, like a job transfer or a slow emotional fizzle? None of Callie’s female exes have died on Grey’s Anatomy, so it’s proof it can be done. This leads to two questions: 1) to what extent are lesbian couples broken up through death more often than their heterosexual counterparts, and 2) would lesbians be just as happy if almost all their couples did have happy endings, or must a certain percentage of couples have unhappy endings to maintain a sense of realism?
To the first question, it would be difficult and, depending on the data set, next to impossible to calculate the extent to which TV lesbian couples have a higher likelihood of dissolution through death than heterosexual couples. Although it would be possible to calculate the death odds for lesbian versus straight couples on the same show (for example, on Skins, where the death toll was 100% for lesbian couples (Naomi/Emily) but a fraction of that for the straight couples, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s 50% lesbian death toll) or the general lesbian pairing death toll across all shows since the 1990s, there are so many straight couples that it would be impossible to calculate their odds for comparison, even if the scope was limited to deaths in a single television season. Even without hard numbers, however, it’s easy to see that lesbian couples have a higher death toll by orders of magnitude.
So my favorite pairings aren’t being killed because I didn’t forward on enough online chain letters in 1996; they’re being killed because queer characters have a painfully high casualty rate. Bury Your Gays also buries your OTP (one true pair). This begs the question of why shows think it’s more emotionally traumatic to kill off the lesbian pairing (Tara/Willow) while allowing straight people to be traumatized by just a regular breakup (Buffy/Angel), but that’s for another article.
Now for a trickier question: would queer women want all happy endings if given the choice? If the answer is no, what is the optimal happy to sad ending ratio? It’s unclear whether this question has been posed in any thorough way to moviegoers or TV watchers, but when it comes to books, a survey found that 41% of people like books with happy endings and only 2.2% like sad endings (the remainder prefer ambiguous endings). Asked to elaborate, 37% said happy endings gave them a sense of satisfaction and put them in a good mood for the day. Women are 13% more likely than men to want happy endings. Assuming that these numbers also roughly apply to the screen, then the current happy to sad ratio needs to be massively adjusted, with more happy endings and with a much larger number of ambiguous endings as well.
I started this article by talking about superstitions and our search for control as individuals over events in our lives. The queer female community historically has often been powerless to “save” its favorite lesbian pairings even while heterosexual viewers demonstrated much greater influence over the outcomes of their favorite pairs. Heterosexuals worried about their OTP breaking up and fought to keep them together. We worried about ours dying.
Luckily, our ability to influence a pair’s storyline toward a happy or sad ending is changing rapidly due to social media. We lost Lexa on The 100, but perhaps if Waverly and Nicole break up on Wynonna Earp it will just be an awkward splitting of household effects and custody of the cats. Superstitious rituals or behaviors or mantras won’t change OTP outcomes, but Hollywood listening to its fans may. We might not win all the battles, but at least we are increasingly better positioned to argue in favor of the Russian fairytale ending for our pairs: “They lived long and happily, and died together on the same day“…uh, like, after the show ends when they’re really old.