Why Are Lesbians On TV Always Killed Off?

Lesbians on screen are rare, so maybe we should let the ones that do exist live their lives.

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Nov 18 2016, 11:26am


Poussey Washington from Orange is the New Black. Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Who were your idols on TV as a child? The people you looked at and thought, I want their life. Their super power. Their job. Their girlfriend or boyfriend.

When I was 10 I felt alone. I knew I was gay but I didn't have any context or narrative. I didn't know any gay people and I didn't know how to imagine what my life would be like as a grown up. I looked to TV as a window onto the world and drew a blank. No characters, answers or role models. Fifteen years later, and we still aren't putting gay women on television.

Advocacy group Glaad recently released its annual survey of LGBT representation on TV and film. It found the number of LGBT characters had increased overall, but that the amount of lesbians set to appear on TV this year and next will drop by 16 per cent, making up just one per cent of the TV population. That's 12 characters out of 895.

The survey also highlighted the fact that more than 25 lesbian and bisexual female characters have been killed off since the start of 2016: take Poussey in Orange is the New Black, or Lexa in The 100, who was shot just after she kissed another female character. It's a long-standing trope commonly known as "bury your gays". According to the website Autostraddle, out of 383 lesbian or female bisexual characters on American television from 1976-2016, 25 per cent had been killed off and only 8 per cent (30 characters) had happy endings.

It's no different in the UK. Over the last few years, most of our meaningful lesbian characters have died on screen: on the BBC, the lead character in Lip Service, Cat (hit by a car); nurse Patsy in Call the Midwife (hit by a car); and literally-just-married-to-a-woman Kate in Last Tango in Halifax (car crash). Naomi died on Channel 4's Skins; Sarah on Hollyoaks (parachute sabotage); one half of a same-sex couple, Maddie, on Coronation Street (explosion). Are lesbians not entitled to a happy ending?

Of course characters need to be killed off from time to time. But too often a queer woman's role is a disposable plot device rather than a long-term lead.

Tricia Tuttle, Deputy Head of Festivals at the BFI (which encompasses LGBT film festival BFI Flare) points out that most film and TV is very commercial and relies heavily on the appeal of the cast.

"Many financiers are concerned that [an LBQ lead character] will put audiences off – either politically, or because it will somehow make them seem less 'available' to the implied male viewer," she says.

She suggests that while things are improving, "many LGBT people working in film don't come out for fear of being ghettoised or sidelined. And that this is especially true for actors. "It's likely there's concern that it would be a bad career move. You don't get the same coyness from heterosexual actors."

Siri Rødnes is a lesbian screenwriter and director. "Sexuality is never portrayed as a natural thing – it's generally a plot point; a story about the sexuality itself," she says. Is the "bury your gays" trope still a problem? "It's definitely still happening. There aren't many lesbians in lead roles, and it's always the leads who survive at the end of the day – "b" characters end up being the lesbians and they're always more likely to be killed off."

She believes that a gay lead character is less interesting to a straight audience – and that for lesbians as opposed to gay men there's an additional problem with sexism.

Tuttle believes there may be some unconscious bias in casting. "White straight men still overwhelmingly make decisions in the film and TV industry; they default to preferring to see themselves on screen and believe that this is what everyone else wants to see too."

Making a character's sexuality incidental to the plot seems to be an important place to start. Bryan Kirkwood, executive producer of Hollyoaks agrees: "It's the only way to make sure that LGBT characters become forthright in leading shows. We try to make sure that LGBT status is the fifth or sixth most interesting thing about them." Kirkwood hadn't heard of 'bury your gays' – "sounds horrendous". Nor had the BBC representative who I spoke to in trying to track down a lesbian actress to talk to from the channel, which wasn't possible.

I wonder whether the problem is that too few LGBT writers are getting jobs. But Kirkwood believes that a straight writer ought to have the skill to write the voice of an LGBT character, and vice versa. "I wouldn't want to ghettoise our writing team into writing only characters that share the same background," he says.

Kayleigh Llewellyn is a lesbian scriptwriter and actor for television and film. "As a writer I can see how losing characters such as Poussey in Orange is the New Black is a smart move story-wise – it throws up loads of conflict, which is great. But as a gay woman I feel the loss of those representations on screen."

Lesbians on TV are still being seen as something that's titillating; dispensable once they've served a purpose. Kayleigh Llewellyn.

Are the lesbian storylines that do make it onto television realistic? "I'd imagine the majority of female same sex relationships we see on screen have been written and presented to us by men", says Rødnes. "We're not necessarily getting an authentic experience."

"Perhaps 'bury your gays' has something to do with lesbianism still being seen as something that's titillating; dispensable once they've served a purpose," suggests Llewellyn – "and therefore not characters who we want to see outside of those confines: getting married, raising families."

Things are shifting in the real world though, as Rødnes points out: "there's definitely a new narrative regarding gender and sexuality – the young generations are rewriting that. It's a matter of us catching up with it and diversifying what we show on screen." Looking at the output in recent years, it seems that mainstream television is seriously struggling to keep up.

Kirkwood says one thing that shocks me: that he was "pleased to see that Coronation Street now doesn't turn the camera away when their LGBT characters kiss. It's a small but very important move in the right direction". That it is a sign of progress, in 2016, that a camera was turned away from a same-sex couple is pretty sobering.

A 2011 Stonewall report into young people's attitudes towards gay people on TV found that – just like I did – they look to their favourite programmes to learn about the real world. The same young people noted that they rarely saw lesbians on TV.

"Televisions are these amazing Trojan horses sat in everyone's lounge", says Llewellyn, "beaming out stories and subliminally telling people that what they watch there is normal and acceptable. It's incredibly important to make sure gay women are included in that."

The world is turbulent and frightening at the moment. It's critical that we celebrate a colourful selection of characters on prime time TV – rather than a narrow, unchallenging world with the power to echo and corroborate dangerous perspectives. Storytelling has the power to affect the world for the better. This gift certainly shouldn't favour any one story over another.

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