Queer Female Characters in Television
Recently, an article on The Erasure and Hypersexualization of Lesbians in Cinema was written by Claire Jullian (it is a fantastic and insightful capture—go read it if you haven’t yet) here on Control Forever, and how the representation of Queer female characters in movies have been hypersexualized, have complete erasure, and/or audiences have been queerbaited. Just like in movies, television with Queer female characters have been guilty of showcasing these clichés and possibly even more. While I do believe that television shows have been more progressive in representing female sexuality and Queerness than movies have, they are also more susceptible to falling into tropes that come off as bad writing and/or a cheap ploy to gain more ratings.
When The L Word came out, the tides were shifted as it became one of the first television shows to feature Lesbian protagonists and storylines that wasn’t trying to queerbait the audience. Before The L Word, Lesbian relationships and characters were shown as side characters or just simply passing through. For instance, Carol and Susan in the popular sitcom Friends. They were the only Lesbian characters in the show, but they were only written to support the storyline of the lead character, Ross, and were hardly present in the later seasons (like seriously, what happened to Ben?). So, when The L Word was released with all Lesbian protagonists in 2004, it was a game changer. However, The L Word was also problematic in itself with its characters, writing, and lack of diversity and representation—as with most shows with leading Queer female characters. The show had a dominant White cast, and the writing was all over the place (Jenny…just dammit, Jenny). The writing for Queer female characters have always been problematic with confusing character decisions to an untimely and unnecessary death.
According to GLAAD‘s report for 2017-2018 (so far), “Gay men still represent the majority of LGBTQ regular and recurring cable characters of 42%,” and “lesbian representation is up on cable to 27% (47) an increase of seven percentage points from the previous report.” When it comes to streaming, the report states that “Lesbian characters make up the majority of LGBTQ representation in streaming series at 36% (25 characters); this is down seven percentage points from last year. This remains a far higher percentage than is found either broadcast or cable.” While these statistics are significant and should be celebrated, it should also be noted that these characters are not noted as protagonists.
Just as movies are guilty of queerbaiting, so are television shows. In the first episode of the teen favorite show Riverdale, Veronica and Betty shared a kiss in order to be “impressive” during a cheer tryout. Neither characters identified as Queer, and it was evident that both, while soon to be best friends, were pining over the redhead jock Archie—just like the comics. The kiss enraged some fans of Riverdale early on, as fans accused the series of queerbaiting and the use of the trope “Sweeps Week Lesbian Kiss.” This trope is a kiss between two girls who have no intention of becoming anything, and they are straight, which was used in an attempt to gain ratings. Granted, the show now has “Choni” (the fandom name for Cheryl and Toni), but that didn’t happen until season two, and the lead heterosexual characters and relationships overpower their relationship.
A major trend, however, that has been seen in a television show regarding Lesbians and Bisexuals is the “Bury the Gay” trope. This was particularly sparked a few years ago with The 100 when fan favorite Lexa died by a stray bullet right after a passionate night with the main protagonist, Clarke. The movement “Lexa Deserves Better” was spurred in response to her death. Still, while Lexa’s death in The 100 ignited the discussion on the representation of Queer female characters in television and the harmful representation through the “Bury the Gays” trope, it was actually Joss Whedon who first created this awful cliché with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When Willow and Tara got together, it was groundbreaking for teens in the ’90s. You had two Lesbian characters in a loving relationship, not marred by sex and drama, in a show that was complex and unique with its magical and supernatural elements. However, then came season six when Tara was shot by a stray bullet in what appeared to be a loving post-coital morning between her and Willow. The response from fans was just as livid at Joss Whedon as they were with Jason Rothenberg after Lexa’s death in The 100.
This trope has been so apparent that it was even mocked in order to show that Queer characters can face peril, but also avert the “Bury the Gays” trope. In the SyFy series Wynonna Earp, Waverly Earp and Nicole Haught are in a committed relationship halfway through season one, and suddenly in the series finale, it shows Nicole getting shot. For a hot minute, fans are screaming “Not again!,” but let out a sigh of relief when Nicole reveals a bulletproof vest to Waverly to show that she has not been killed off—a much-needed reassurance to fans who have been traumatized by the “Bury the Gays” trope for far too long.
Here is an extensive list of all Lesbian and Bisexual characters that have died on TV. (This list shows all that have been killed, but this does not imply that all the characters that are listed had significant roles, or that all show writers and creators were careless. The list only means to emphasize the “Bury the Gays” trope.)
Autostraddle also released an infographic in regards to this trend of Lesbian and Bisexual characters dying in television shows:
The Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black, with its diverse cast and storylines, has been one of the only shows streaming that has a dominant cast of Lesbian and Bisexual protagonists post-L Word. The series has been known for its representation of sexuality, gender, race, and addressing sociopolitical issues. As the series is set in prison, the abuse and the possible death of characters is expected. However, the death of Samira Wiley’s character, Poussey, was one that truly broke all of fan’s hearts. Even though Poussey’s death was more of a political statement than a trope, her death was still added to the list of Queer female characters that died on television.
Yet, with the exception of Orange Is the New Black, Queer female characters and shows continue to battle for representation in television, and fight to be seen as more than just “that one Lesbian/Bisexual character;” battling for lead roles and storylines centered on Queer female characters—genuine representation. Television series have so much more flexibility than movies with the ability to craft and develop a story through a handful of seasons, instead of just a few hours. So, why is it so hard to create a compelling television series in the generation of “20GayTeen” (from the words of our Lesbian Jesus: Hayley Kiyoko) that features a Queer female protagonist that doesn’t fall into these cliches and tropes? Why is it so hard to make a television series with a Queer female character and not kill her off?
Therefore, screenwriters out there, start brainstorming and start writing because the female Queer community deserves better.