I’ve been watching a show called Supernatural which, despite having several levels of problematics (super white washed, heteronormative, misogynistic, etc.), has managed to keep me engaged, which is a rare thing for me in a TV show. Part of the reason I’d been committed to continuing to watch was that I’d grown attached to a number of the characters (as one does on TV shows). Particularly, a super cool badass hacker woman named Charlie was introduced as a character in a later season, and I was promptly drawn in by her spunky and (shockingly, for the female characters of this show) well-rounded character. She was intelligent, funny, and all kinds of things that female characters are often not allowed to be. She was also a lesbian, which thrilled me even more because I was like, “Wow, this show finally has some semblance of diversity!”
Seeing as how this is a show called Supernatural, people die on a pretty regular basis due to demons, ghosts, the whole shebang. But (small spoiler alert) the main characters seem to keep miraculously coming back to life despite having died a literal million times. Anyways, I kind of expected Charlie to die a tragic death the minute she mentioned her lesbianism because of that nasty bury your gays trope in media. To my surprise, Charlie made it a lot longer than anticipated, to the point where I was starting to think maybe she’d make it through the whole show. But (spoiler alert again) I was wrong, and she died a really brutal and tragic death in an episode I recently watched. And not only was it brutal and tragic, it seemed to be one of the most permanent deaths on the show.
Meanwhile, while Charlie has just died (spoiler alert one more time), the two main characters on the show literally kill Death (who is, in fact, a character on this show) so that they can continue to live. The two main characters are, as you may have guessed, two classic white, cishet, very traditionally (and frequently toxically) masculine men. So they get to escape death in the most literal way possible time and time again, while Charlie is dead. Killing the queer character(s) on a show is not unique to Supernatural in any way; it’s so common that it’s a named trope. And it’s not like queer characters are abundant in the media, so to have such a large portion of them die, and often tragically, sends an important message about what society thinks of queer people. It feels especially drastic here, where the cishet men get to escape death time and time again. They’ve become invincible, and it’s clear that they’re intended to have some sort of happier resolution. And Charlie was not.
Think about what kind of message this sends to queer people watching this media, particularly queer children: it tells them from a young age that the quintessential “happy ending” isn’t for them, and it doesn’t give them a character who’s like them and has positive life experiences that they can connect with. When our media kills its queer characters, it’s telling queer folks young and old that their lives are not valued by society. Imagine being a young child, or someone of any age, and finding that every character who is like you is dying. Our media is, often very subconsciously, reinforcing the societal messages that demonize queerness. And that needs to change.
It’s not enough to simply have representation of a specific demographic, it has to be good representation. That is to say, it is not enough to simply place a queer character in a show, that character needs to be helping destigmatize queerness for it to be positive representation, not dying or falling into every socially constructed negative stereotype about queer people. According to The Trevor Project, queer kids are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight kids. This clearly isn’t coincidence: society feeds queer folks so many negative images of themselves, demonizes them, oppresses them, and expends a lot of energy telling them that they are wrong. Creating poor or nonexistent representations of queer characters in the media we consume contributes to this. We can, and we have to, do better. It is not enough to support queer folks during pride month, it’s not enough to wave a rainbow flag one day/week/month out of the year. We have to actively work to undo negative representations, stereotypes, and stigmas surrounding queerness, and that starts with our everyday perceptions of queerness.
From watching how we portray queerness in our speech (i.e. not using “that’s gay” as an insult), to being intentional with the media we consume and the media we create, fostering a more positive image of queerness starts small. We have a long and nasty history of hatred here, and undoing that is an active and constant process because the hate runs deep. And this does not just apply to queerness, it applies to any type of marginalization. People of color, women, and other marginalized groups along with queer folks need to see more positive representation in the media and deserve to be seen and portrayed as more than just a stereotype or trope. TV shows and movies may be fictional, but that does not mean they’re free from our very nonfictional biases. And working towards undoing hate and discrimination starts at the level of acknowledging and undoing biases.
So, yes, I’m sad and angry that my favorite character on my show is dead. But more than that, I’m angry that the one queer character on this show did not get the life and portrayal she deserved. And I’m angry that this is commonplace. Queer folks and other marginalized folks deserve to see themselves positively portrayed, and they deserve so much better than the way society treats them. Maybe a good way to start is by making more positive characters, watching the ways in which we talk about queerness and other oppressed people, and actively uplifting these people in our communities, and not just on days that are designated for this. Like I said before, it’s not enough to uplift queer folks on Pride Parade and to step out of the fight for the rest of the year. You don’t just get to be a part of the movement when it’s a celebration; for some people this is life or death and it’s time we stepped up to the plate and did better for them.
For a great podcast on the bury your gays trope, see here. I would also recommend Stuff Mom Never Told You as a podcast to listen to in general, for all your feminist podcast needs.
For some shows that have done better at representing queer characters, I would recommend Sense8 (despite the fact that Netflix has, frustratingly, cancelled it), and Black Mirror (warning: spoilers in link!).