“Bury your gays” – How media affects the LGBTQI+ community
WARNING: This post contains spoilers.
I just finished watching Wentworth last night and I am livid, heartbroken, and enraged. At first glance, Bea Smith’s death just seems like the termination of a main protagonist, but for anyone emotionally invested in the show, they know it was much more than that. I get it – main characters have to die occasionally. Whether it’s merely for added drama or because of an actress’s obligations with another show, some good things must come to an end. I can accept that. What I can’t accept though, is the overrepresentation of deaths to openly gay or bisexual protagonists who are already underrepresented in the media.
Some of you might be rolling your eyes at my last sentence and responding with, “Get over it,” or “It’s just a television series, don’t take it so seriously,” but how can we not? (And by we, I’m referring specifically to the LGBTQI+ community). Media, specifically television, has an undeniably powerful influence on our beliefs of the world. How many of you believe in a “happily ever after” with specific reference to relationships? Almost everyone does on some subconscious level. Have you ever wondered where this concept originated from? Probably from those Disney movies you adored when you were a child - the hero always got the girl and it was always a happily ever after. It’s not unreasonable to suggest we have all been brainwashed into adopting this same unrealistic expectation of relationships. Except for gays. What have they learned from television? That there is no happily ever after.
This statement might seem like an exaggeration, but it’s not. Ever since 1976, there have been 166 recurring and open lesbian and bisexual characters that have died in television series (See: Autostraddle). Although that number might not initially seem like a lot, take into consideration that gays represent less than 4% of total characters on screen (which is a gross underrepresentation of reality). Not only is it an issue that these characters are being killed off, but it’s the manner in which they are being killed. Frequently their deaths proceed a long-awaited exchange of intimacy or an extremely joyous occasion, all of which heightens the heartbreak of their death.
All of this was first brought to my attention earlier this year when I was watching The 100, a television series on the CW. Part of my motivation for watching this series was because of the “ship” (relationship) between Clarke and Lexa, an openly gay female protagonist in power. Their first exchange of intimacy occurred in Season 2, Episode 14 and the media world went crazy. Individuals from all over the world started to ship these two characters and the director, Jason Rothenberg, capitalised on this. He continued to build suspense and sexual tension until Season 3, Episode 7 when Clarke and Lexa became intimate. FINALLY! Nearly nine episodes after their first kiss they finally solidified their connection in a highly anticipated sex scene. Everyone, particularly the LGBTQI+ community, was relieved. Excited. Joyous. Ahhh all the feels! But that ended less than two minutes later when Lexa died. And not heroically either. She died by a stray bullet.
The same situation rings true for Bea Smith in Wentworth. For numerous episodes, the directors built the sexual tension and excitement of something new and foreign between Bea and Allie Novak. This consequently created audience members to start “shipping” their relationship, i.e. rooting for them to be together. And in Episode 11, Season 4, they were finally open about their relationship. In Episode 12, we saw a beautifully sensual and romantically intimate exchange between these two characters; Bea’s first time. Less than five minutes later though, and Allie was fighting for her life after Ferguson (the Freak) gave her a “hot shot” (drug overdose). When Bea received news from Maxine (a prominent transsexual character who is dying of cancer) that Allie would never breathe by herself again, Bea was shattered and distraught. She took it upon herself to attempt to kill Ferguson which ultimately led to her own demise. And the demise of her and Allie’s relationship. After countless episodes of impatiently agonising over their ship, we were granted a measly few moments of pleasure. Seems reasonable right?
So why is this all a big deal? Well, when we are constantly being influenced the images we see on television, how is the LGBTQI+ community ever supposed to believe in a happy ending for themselves when it doesn’t even exist in a fictional world? When these significant deaths occur, moments after very passionate, intimate exchanges, it subconsciously communicates that sex between two women is “bad”. Again, you might be rolling your eyes at this statement, but this is easily explained through trace conditioning. When the neutral stimulus (NS) is proceeded by an unconditioned stimulus (UCS), and the interstimulus interval (ISI) is extremely short, the UCS will then become associated with the NS. In this example, sex is the neutral stimulus and death is the unconditioned stimulus. Because the time lapse (ISI) between the two is extremely short, the UCS, death, becomes associated to the NS, sex. The audience, specifically the LGBTQI+ community who is invariably significantly invested in one or both characters, will associate lesbian or bisexual sex with death, or at the very least, with something “bad”.
After the death of Lexa in The 100, the fans revolted. There are also claims that some fans were driven to harm themselves and even consider suicide. For many, this might seem extreme. But Lexa’s death was not an isolated incident; this demise of openly gay and bisexual protagonists has been occurring since 1976. And just recently, between June 1, 2015 and May 31, 2016, there have been 26 lesbian and bisexual women killed off. These include, but are not limited to, Sara Harvey from Pretty Little Liars, Poussey Washington from Orange is the New Black, and Helen from Masters of Sex (See: LGBT Fans Deserve Better).
When members of the LGBTQI+ community so heavily identify with other like-minded characters in television series, the characters’ deaths can not only be heartbreaking, but can also be emotionally traumatising. Because they see themselves in and live vicariously through these characters, they begin to mirror their emotions and feel what their screen counterparts feel. So when a character has just had sex, the elation experienced is not isolated to those on the screen, it overflows to its audience. But to proceed such a liberating, sensual, and positive experience with a death? Yeah, that might fuck a few people up.
For many who are not yet open about their sexuality, witnessing LGBTQI+ protagonists offers a sense of community and belongingness, albeit fictional. Additionally, the LGBTQI+ community is grossly underrepresented in the media so whenever an openly gay or bisexual character is a protagonist, individuals latch on because, well, they don’t have a lot to choose from. Another reason individuals of the LGBTQI+ community readily identify with LGBTQI+ protagonists is because of this “Bury Your Gays” trope. Because maybe, just maybe, this time will be different. Maybe there will be a happy ending. Maybe there is hope for all of us after all. But, that maybe is still yet to become a reality.
So what effect does killing off gay and bisexual protagonists have on individuals in the LGBTQI+ community? Well I cannot speak for anyone else, but I can speak for myself. Bea Smith’s death was not just about a protagonist dying; the hope of her relationship with Allie died with her too. The hope of any kind of enduring lesbian relationship in this show was terminated along with her death. People might argue, well there’s still Franky Doyle and Bridget Westfall, but they are no longer main protagonists. Nor is their relationship a primary focus. I was devastated last night upon watching the series finale. The heaviness in my chest was not just isolated to this fictional event; it brought back feelings of former personal relationships that have ended. I found myself saying things like, “Fuck love,” and, “What’s the point in loving if there’s never a happy ending, even in a fictional world?” Some might argue that I’m too attached to characters in this fictional world, but our subconscious uncontrollably projects our beliefs about reality from this world. Although I can consciously remind myself that television is not an accurate representation of reality, subconsciously I internalise all of these emotions; the heartbreak, the disappointment, and the emotionally shattering realisation that there is and might never be, a happy ending for characters I so heavily identify with. This leads me to question; what chance do I have?
LGBTQI+ Fans Deserve Better.
LGBT Fans Deserve Better: http://lgbtfansdeservebetter.com/blog/2016/06/01/all-dead-lesbian-and-bisexual-women-on-tv-2016-2017/