No Happy Endings: Lesbian and Bisexual Characters on TV

TV has a problem with the disproportionate number of lesbian and bisexual characters killed off on screen...

This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

Contains spoilers for Buffy, The 100, Pretty Little Liars, Skins, Sleepy Hollow, Torchwood, ER, Carol and Last Tango In Halifax.

The phenomenon of lesbian and bisexual women characters being killed off disproportionately on screen is not new.

Back in the 1930s, the Hays Motion Picture Production Code established that “immoral acts” in Hollywood films had to be followed by appropriately punishing consequences, and this idea that “perversion” should never be rewarded spread to other modes of storytelling, to the extent that Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price Of Salt – recently adapted as the critically acclaimed movie Carol – was considered game-changing for including a happy ending for Carol and Therese.

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Satisfying conclusions for romances between women shouldn’t still be a surprise, but when Carol was released in cinemas last winter, lesbians and bisexual women flocked to see it, many of them multiple times, encouraged and delighted by the fact that both women – and their relationship – made it to the end of the film.

Happy endings for us are just as scarce in TV. Violent deaths and sad ends were still the norm when Tara Maclay was shot on Buffy The Vampire Slayer in 2002, when Sandy Lopez died fighting a fire on ER in 2004, when Toshiko Sato was shot on Torchwood in 2008, when Maya St. Germain was bludgeoned to death in Pretty Little Liars in 2012, when Naomi Campbell died of cancer on Skins in 2013, when Kate McKenzie was hit by a car in Last Tango In Halifax in 2015. These aren’t even close to being the only examples.

This all came to a head recently when The 100 killed off Lexa, just as her relationship with Clarke Griffin was beginning to develop. Fans who had been deeply invested in the pairing reacted with sadness, anger, and disbelief, and responded in a variety of ways – some with angry blog posts, thousands by unfollowing showrunner Jason Rothenberg on Twitter, and many by discussing their feelings on Tumblr and other venues. Some fans tried to turn a negative into a positive, using their furious energy to raise thousands of pounds for charities supporting LGBT youth. The one thing all these fans had in common was that Lexa’s death hit them hard in a way that was more personal, more hurtful than other character deaths on TV.

The thing is, people aren’t really asking for no more lesbians or bisexual women to be killed off on TV ever, ever again. While it would be a balm to our souls to have even a few weeks without a character that we were rooting for dying, the end goal here isn’t an army of invincible lesbians, terrorizing the rest of TV (well, for some people it is, I won’t say we’re not a broad church). What we’re mostly hoping for is an end to the disproportionate killing of these characters, especially in tragic, senseless ways, and especially to further the stories of others. These deaths aren’t even shocking any more. For those of us who’ve been watching this unfold for decades, it’s just exhausting. Lexa and Clarke feels like Willow and Tara all over again.

In some ways, the TV landscape is very different now than it was when Buffy was on the air. Part of the reason Lexa’s death caused such a stir was that the production team had so actively courted fans of the Clexa pairing on social media, reassuring them that the characters and relationship would be handled with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, with writer Kim Shumway outright saying that Lexa was the queer representation fans were hoping for. As recently as December 2015, Jason Rothenberg tweeted that there would “always” be hope for Clexa shippers. Writer Shawna Benson suggested that fans who still didn’t believe the production team would handle Lexa’s story appropriately should seek counselling for their trust issues.

In the wake of Lexa’s death, members of the production team have apologised for the situation and engaged with fans, but it’s too little too late for those who allowed themselves to become invested in the character and her relationship with Clarke.

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The trouble is that, even when they’ve heard of this prevalent phenomenon, no showrunner or production team thinks they’re the ones playing into these tired tropes – they are convinced they’re doing something new and interesting. Anyone on their show might be killed off. It just so happens that this time it’s the lesbian or bisexual character. And if it were happening in isolation each time, then that might be a satisfactory explanation. No one showrunner or writer is entirely to blame, but each one is yet another point on an increasingly disheartening graph.

Lesbian and bisexual women characters make up a tiny proportion of all characters on TV, and the proportion of those that are leads is even smaller. According to Autostraddle’s comprehensive infographic on this phenomenon, out of 383 total lesbian and bisexual women regular or recurring characters on American scripted TV from 1976 to 2016, 95 died, and only 30 had happy endings. That’s a 25% death rate (31% if we only count shows that have finished airing), with only 8% getting a genuinely satisfying end to their stories. These numbers seem like more than mere chance. And that’s without even looking at TV elsewhere in the world, which has many of the same problems.

This phenomenon isn’t harmless – it’s not just TV. All of this has a knock-on effect on how people perceive us, and how we perceive ourselves. It’s difficult to imagine a happy future for yourself when everyone like you on TV ends up dead or miserable. And it makes it harder for other people to understand that our lives can be just as happy and fulfilling as straight people’s.

We’re not the only community suffering this way. Plenty of the lesbians and bisexual women characters killed off in recent years have also been people of color – another group that comes in for a disproportionate number of violent TV deaths, the most recent egregious example being the demise of Sleepy Hollow’s African-American female lead, Abbie Mills, to further the storyline of her white male co-lead. From a marginalized perspective, it often seems like everyone else’s stories are subordinate in importance to the ones told about straight, white, able-bodied men.

I don’t know what proportion of straight white male regular and recurring characters on TV are killed off. But even if it were 31%, or even 50%, it wouldn’t necessarily matter. There are enough of them on TV that, if your favorite one gets killed off, you’ll have plenty more to choose from. Straight white male characters come from an endless grab bag that refills itself every time. You might feel sadness and loss, the death might even be ill-considered and pointless, but if you’re a straight, white, able-bodied man watching, the chances are good that you won’t have to think: “Now where can I turn to see myself reflected?”

Lesbians and bisexual women who want to see characters like themselves on the small screen have a limited choice to begin with, and an even narrower one if we want to also watch our preferred genres. Plenty of lesbians and bisexual women are watching shows that would never normally be to our tastes, in the hope of finding stories that speak to us – stories that either explore the struggles of our real lives or portray escapist fantasy worlds where we’re welcomed.

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There are glimmers of hope – for starters, the upcoming Xena: Warrior Princess reboot looks like it won’t shy away from exploring the romance between Xena and Gabrielle, which was confined to subtext in the original series – but when lesbian or bisexual woman characters are being killed at an average rate of almost one a week, as they have been been so far in 2016, hope isn’t enough. This rate isn’t sustainable, either in terms of the numbers of these characters remaining or in terms of the emotions of the lesbians and bisexual women watching.

Regardless of the good intentions of showrunners, the message we’re hearing is that our stories are less important, and that we don’t deserve happy endings. That’s a message you can only hear for so long before you switch off entirely.