(Dead) Girls on TV: An Analysis of the Treatment of Queer Women on Television
Television is certainly one of the most prevalent visual cultural forms in the lives of most individuals, and it is because of that fact that it holds significant responsibilities. Unfortunately, these are responsibilities that show runners, producers, and writers often do not consider. Perhaps the most import of these is the proper depiction of underrepresented minority groups, which can be done simply by telling stories about, and from the perspectives of, characters in those groups. A group that has historically faced particularly insensitive treatment on television is the LGBTQ community.
Much of their mistreatment stems from the fact that queer characters are largely invisible. GLAAD’s Where We Are On TV study, covering the 2016 season, found that of all the characters on North American scripted prime time television, only 43 characters, that is 4.8%, are identified as LGBTQ (4). The figures remain similar across the findings for network and cable programming, as well as in shows on streaming services. On top of this lack of visibility, of the queer characters that do exist are often made subjects of queer bating or the “bury your gays” or “dead lesbian syndrome” tropes. Queer bating is generally defined as the instance in which a piece of media, visual or otherwise, uses a character’s queerness, or supposed queerness, as a tool that can be exploited to bring in more viewers. Essentially, a show will present a queer character to fans, often in promotional materials, to draw them in, and are then careless in their treatment of the character. It is this carelessness that is often the catalyst for what becomes the shows eventual perpetuation of the harmful “bury your gays” or “dead lesbian syndrome” tropes. These tropes assert the idea that same-sex relationships always end tragically. Within the “bury your gays” trope, if a queer female character is “afforded a relationship, at least half of the couple often dies,” and that it is generally “the more aggressive woman [who] must die in order to be punished for ‘perverting’ her partner.” (Lof 20)
In an effort to expose these conventions explicitly, and to a potentially wider audience, I created project, through an Instagram account called “Sapphic Television”, that aims to look at these harmful tropes, with a special focus on lesbian and bisexual characters in television shows that have audiences that are predominantly young and female. The name, of course, is derived from the Greek poet Sappho, known for her romantic poems. Today, Sappho is a symbol and an icon for queer women, and several queer women will identify themselves as Sapphic. I chose this as it is not only a good “umbrella” term for the different sexualities that I would be presenting, but it also suggests a certain softness and romanticism that directly juxtaposes the rather dark content that much of the project focuses on.
In order to provide a clear critique of the tropes that I am exploring, I chose to feature on the account images of lesbian and bisexual characters on television, from their introduction to their death, or current state on their show. This required reviewing select scenes and episodes from the shows featured in the project to collect images, in this case screen captures, to represent the characters. I had previously viewed all of the shows currently featured as a fan, so my familiarity allowed me to choose images that truly show off many of these character’s nuances in subtle ways that even unfamiliar eyes would recognize. This was important to me as it could give a viewer on the account a sense of connection to the character. While the format of an Instagram feed is appropriate as it is one of the forms of social media that is used the most by the target audience of the shows that I am studying, it is generally quite impersonal and fast paced. Instagram users tend to mindlessly scroll through images, the way they may watch a show they are not engaged with.
Through this account, one would find themselves scrolling through images of different women on television, viewing a glimpse into their story, to then be bombarded by images of death and loss, with only occasional breaks of happiness and positivity for those characters that have been allowed that fate. This would, ideally, allow them to put themselves in the positon of a young lesbian or bisexual woman who is watching these shows, growing attached to these characters, only for them to be abruptly killed off. Instagram’s new slideshow feature, in which one post can include a sequence of images and videos, was particularly helpful in this sense. I used the feature to, in many cases, create a sense of false security and contentment for a viewer. They would see images from the beginning of a relationship, perhaps grow a small attachment, only to get to a point where it ends. In the relatively short time it would take someone to view a few images in a post, they may be able to empathize with the way a young lesbian or bisexual woman would react to watching the same characters and relationships, and appreciate the struggle to find good representation.
This project could also be considered a resource, that can and will continue to grow. It could be a location where, potentially, young queer women would go to discover what representation is out there. Often, the argument is made that minority and marginalized groups should be happy with any representation that they get, but, as this project has hopefully made incredibly clear, not all representation is good representation. To be able to discover which shows treat their queer characters with care, and which do not, could lead to a more positive television watching experience for young queer women.
There are quite a few shows that continue to participate in the “bury your gays” trope that I explore, but there is one specifically that originally affected me, and peaked my interest in this subject. It is The CW’s The 100. In its run it has had four queer women, three of which have now been killed. The most recent death of Lexa sparked mass outrage, particularly because it immediately followed a scene in which she finally opened up to Clarke, her romantic interest, about her feelings and their relationship. There was an incredibly vocal response from fans, which lead to, among other efforts, the creation of the “Lexa Pledge”, by the LGBT Fans Deserve Better movement. It, simply, asks television writers and producers to recognize the harm that the “bury your gays” trope causes and to pledge to avoid making story decision that perpetuate the trope.
The work that directly inspired the creation of this project is the Tumblr blog, “Another Dead Lesbian”, which seeks to create a list of every dead queer woman on television. In my project I intended to expand on that idea, further exploring the specific tropes at work and that response to them for the community.
Carbone, Noelle, et al. “The Lexa Pledge.” LGBT Fans Deserve Better, LGBT Fans Deserve Better, 2016, lgbtfansdeservebetter.com/pledge/.
Lof, Cajsa. “Love Is Ours Only In Death: An Analysis Of How Lesbian And Bisexual Relationships Are Stereotyped On Western Television Shows Through The Use Of Tropes”. Hogskolan Vast: School of Business, Economics and IT International programme in Politics and Economics. 2016.
Tash. Another Dead Lesbian. A comprehensive list of dead queer women in tv & film. http://anotherdeadlesbian.tumblr.com/.
Where We Are On TV: GLAAD’s Annual Report On LGBTQ Inclusion. 1st ed., GLAAD, 2016, http://glaad.org/files/WWAT/WWAT_GLAAD_2016-2017.pdf.