By Laila Winters
We’ve all experienced that heart-stopping, gut-wrenching feeling of watching our favorite character be killed off on television. Several weeks following the show’s epic series finale, Game of Thrones fans are still reeling from Daenerys Targaryen’s death after Jon Snow, her lover-turned-nephew, ran her through with his sword.
Dany’s death appeared to be the final straw, and fans soon took to an online forum petitioning that HBO reshoot the final season in its entirety. As of the writing of this article on June 9th, 2019, the petition has more than 1.5 million signatures of a 3 million signature goal.
Their frustration is understandable. Daenerys Targaryen was part of a world that, throughout the show’s eight-season run, served as a sense of community for fans of the show. It brought people together in a way that I’ve only seen rivaled by the release of Pokémon Go, a smartphone app where users can interact with one another in real time.
But not every character is written with a happy ending in mind, much like Daenerys Targaryen or those who ended up on Arya Stark’s hit list. Some more than others, namely those meant to appeal to the LGBTQ+ community, are even less likely to make it to a show’s series finale.
Representation and Queerbaiting
When a television show introduces a queer character meant to appeal to the LGBTQ+ community, it’s called representation. Most of us who identify as LGBTQ+ crave it, and we’re far more likely to watch a show if there’s even a slim chance of seeing ourselves represented on screen. But when our beloved queer characters miss their shot at happiness by a large, harrowing margin, we call that queerbaiting, a tactic used by showrunners to draw in the community for the sole purpose of boosting the show’s ratings.
Bury Your Gays
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Even worse than queerbaiting, when a writer decides to kill off their show’s LGBTQ+ representation, we refer to it as the ‘bury your gays’ trope. Made famous by the CW’s hit show The 100, the ‘bury your gays’ trope refers to any LGBTQ+ character that is killed on screen due to the showrunner’s implication that they’re far more expendable than their straight or straight-passing counterparts.
In an episode entitled “Thirteen” (season 3, episode 7), CW’s The 100 shocked fans around the world when Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), one of five confirmed LBGTQ+ characters on the show, was killed on screen from an accidental gunshot wound to the stomach. Lexa, reverently referred to as ‘The Commander’, was a woman of power and a fierce warrior on the battlefield. Prior to her relationship with the show’s leading lady, Lexa’s sexuality was brought to the forefront of her character arc when she confided in Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor) that her last lover, a woman named Costia, was tortured, killed, and beheaded by a rivaling clan’s Queen.
Lexa’s untimely death came shortly after she and Clarke finally fall into bed, a passionate scene where the emotionally guarded Commander tenderly hushes Clarke, asking that they speak of anything else but Lexa’s troubled past. With a sly smile, Clarke informs her that they don’t have to speak at all, and with her first and last blissfully broad smile, Lexa kisses Clarke and the screen fades to black. Moments later, Lexa was lying in a new bed, blood gushing from her abdomen.
Outraged by Lexa’s death, which appeared to have served no other purpose than to write off Debnam-Carey’s character, fans took to online forums to express their grief and disappointment. Much like with Game of Thrones, members of the LGBTQ+ community started a campaign to bring back Lexa’s character in a spin-off show entitled ‘Grounders,’ a prequel to CW’s The 100. Unlike Game of Thrones, the petition died with only 21,000 of a 25,000-signature goal.
But not only did the petition call for the creation of a prequel series featuring Lexa and her people, it also demanded that The 100’s leading showrunner, Jason Rothenberg, have no hand in its production. Rothenberg, who had previously partaken in the constant queerbaiting of the LGBTQ+ community, took a month-long social media break following the airing of Lexa’s death.
Plagued by their cries of frustration, Rothenberg posted a public apology to the LGBTQ+ community on March 24th, 2016.
“The thinking behind having the ultimate tragedy follow the ultimate joy was to heighten the drama and underscore the universal fragility of life.”
While Rothenberg’s apology was not widely accepted by the LGBTQ+ community, he stood by his stance that the manner of Lexa’s death was to ramp up tension on the show. To pacify fans who didn’t feel any sense of closure from Lexa and Clarke’s final moments together, he reassured LGBTQ+ viewers that the two loved one another, though he never allowed for Lexa to say the words on screen due to her murderer’s imposed mantra of “love is weakness.”
Other LGBTQ+ Casualties
Lexa is one of many LGBTQ+ characters who died before their time.
In Netflix’s animated series Voltron: Legendary Defender, main character Takeshi “Shiro” Shirogane (Josh Keaton) is revealed to be a gay man in season 7. To drum up excitement and ultimately queerbait the LGBTQ+ community before the season aired on August 10th, showrunners released the clip confirming Shiro’s sexuality during San Diego Comic Con in July 2018.
During an interview featuring lead showrunner Joaquim Dos Santos, when asked about Shiro’s character and how long his sexuality had been in development, Santos states, “Well, it’s something that’s been in Shiro’s character basically from the start. We had to kind of shift things around with how we rolled out the backstories, just due to scheduling things.”
However, following Shiro’s flashback scene with then-boyfriend Adam (Isaac Robinson-Smith), his sexuality is swept under the rug, and Adam is killed off later in season 7. To pacify fans who were outraged that Legendary Defender fell victim to the ‘bury your gays’ trope, Santos and his fellow writers gave Shiro his “happy ending” in a post-credits scene in the series finale. Shiro, dressed in a tux, is seen happily kissing his new husband, Curtis (Blake Michael).
Like Lexa, Shiro’s late ex-boyfriend, Adam, is only one of the many buried gays.
Dead Lesbian Syndrome
Drastically skewed in favor of women, 204 lesbian and bisexual women have been killed off on-screen since 1976, with an additional 62 lesbian and bisexual women killed off in the 2016-2017 television season alone. Referred to as Dead Lesbian Syndrome, the targeted killing of lesbian and bisexual women on television is a sub-category of the ‘bury your gays’ trope.
In an annual study released by GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) in 2018, statistics show that of the 901 series-regular characters on broadcast television, only 58 were confirmed to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Additionally, 28 reoccurring characters also identified as LGBTQ+. On cable television, there was a record number of 173 LGBTQ+ characters, and on digital streaming services, there were 65 total LGBTQ+ identifying characters.
President and CEO of GLAAD, Sarah Kate Ellis, states in the introduction to the report, “While we have seen some great changes, in this current culture of divisiveness our need from Hollywood is greater. When the Administration in Washington, D.C. is actively working to roll back the rights of all marginalized communities and using fear to divide us, entertainment has the unparalleled opportunity to connect with people in their living rooms.”