TV Club

When will TV finally stop killing off its lesbian characters?

When will TV finally stop killing off its lesbian characters?

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo stills by The CW and Netflix.
Poussey in Orange Is The New Black and Lexa in The 100.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo stills by The CW and Netflix.

Lad and lasses,

I’m glad I get to go fourth, and that Todd and Pilot have done such a good job of responding to Willa’s question about the five fashionable shows of 2016, because it means I don’t have to.

I wolfed down Making a Murderer like the episodes were tater tots, but I soured on it once people started to write about the facts of the Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey cases. After learning what Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos had left out in the interests of emotional manipulation, I was mad as hell. I’m still in awe of Ricciardi and Demos’ commitment to telling this story, and I’m grateful they got millions of people to look at the faces of working-class Wisconsinites and care about their lives, but no one likes to be played—and they made a chump out of me. My bad for forgetting that documentary moviemaking isn’t the same thing as journalism.

Now I must make a terrible confession: I have a really hard time with Sunday night prestige dramas. I’m not a total hater. I enjoy Game of Thrones’ dragons, homeless-teen torture, and ruminations on the nature of faith and power as much as the next nerd, and I’m tingling with anticipation to see which version of Carrie Mathison we’ll get when Homeland returns in January. (Will she be vulnerable and relatable or back to being so annoying I pray for my cable to cut out?) My problem isn’t so much with the shows themselves as with the way normals respond to them. HBO on Sunday night is like an Italian restaurant on Feb. 14 or a bar on Dec. 31: amateur hour. When people who only watch Sabbath prestige, college football, and Magnum reruns start talking about “the best show on television,” I reach for my remote. Yes, this is my roundabout way of admitting that I haven’t watched Westworld yet. I was so bored halfway through the first episode that I changed the channel and watched Madam Secretary instead.

Not to reveal myself as an anti-intellectual “relax, it’s just entertainment”–spouting dolt, but I hate all that masturbatory research that fuels fan theories and supercharged subreddits. As Butthead said to Beavis, “If I wanted to read, I’d go to school.” Besides, spending time rooting about in public records to chase information that could be found by, oh, I don’t know, watching the show feels like betting on a horse race that’s already been run. Maybe my tastes were shaped by the official companion volumes that I read as a wee lass. While Todd was boning up on Buffy and, um, Party of Five, I was begging my mom for a hardback book about the making of Edward the Seventh. (So many dope crowns!)

I really enjoyed Stranger Things, but when I try to remember what it was about, I just have a vague memory of Millie Bobby Brown’s 10-mile stare and the world looking as though a pillow fight had just concluded. I got caught up in the story, but what I most responded to was how the Duffer brothers made so much of so little. I was reminded of the first season of Orange Is the New Black, before we knew how talented those actors were: It’s more thrilling, somehow, to have your attention captivated by a bunch of unknowns, especially if they happen to be oddball teenagers.

I suspect that spirit of “who is that guy I can’t look away from—is he even an actor?” animates my love of Halt and Catch Fire. It’s not like Lee Pace, Scoot McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, and Kerry Bishé have never worked in television before—but I like the show more because they’re its stars. This season, when the characters retreated into their own separate worlds and the plot fell apart, was my favorite, and not because of what I learned about the origins of the commercial internet. I am a sucker for “television realness,” by which I mean those times when shows capture something that’s very familiar in the real world but rarely makes it to the screen. (One example: In Season 1 of Last Tango in Halifax, a cat wandered through the living room when a husband and wife were fighting, and suddenly the scene felt like something I’d lived through.) When Joe learned that an ex-lover had tested HIV-positive, the shock, sadness, fear, and eventual relief were utterly convincing. It was a minor storyline in an episode about something else altogether, but I was glad the show knew this would be something a man who sometimes slept with men and lived in San Francisco in the 1980s would go through and understood it was important to include it.

Speaking of important things, Orange Is the New Black is the TV show I least want to see canceled—may the inmates’ sentences last forever—but Season 4’s “Black Lives Matter” storyline fell flat for me, too. It didn’t matter to me that the in-over-his-head doofus who killed Poussey had been put in that position by private-prison profiteering, I’m not going to blame capitalism and say “he’s a victim too.” I didn’t need to see another black woman, another lesbian, die on television.

This brings us to the other big “issue” of the TV year—the fan backlash to the endless slaughter of lesbian characters set off by the murder of Lexa on The 100. I had only recently caught up with The 100 when this happened in March. Some bananas fan tweets about the show’s TCA panel aroused my curiosity (even though critics like Mo Ryan had been talking about it for years), and I binged the entire series so far over the course of two or three glorious weeks. God, what a show: Battlestar Galactica–style ethical dilemmas, Game of Thrones–ish battles (albeit sans dragons), and so many romances, including one between Clarke, the young bisexual who’s our “entry character”—like Piper on OITNB, but less annoying—and Lexa, the openly lesbian commander of a rival faction. The slow-burn ship was tirelessly stoked by the CW’s promotional department, but mere minutes after they finally slept together, Lexa was killed by a stray bullet intended for Clarke.

The fans revolted, protesting the way the network exploited the women’s relationship to attract viewers then casually slaughtered one half of the couple. Fandoms are often entitled and whiny, but in this case they were absolutely right. In the days that followed, Autostraddle’s Heather Hogan pointed out that of the 383 lesbian or bisexual TV characters who have appeared on U.S. television since 1976, only 30 have been permitted happy endings while 95 have died. And the problem isn’t limited to America: Hogan’s colleague Riese compiled a list of 172 dead lesbian or bisexual TV characters from around the world and how they died. It was depressing.

TV characters die, and on some shows, making it to the “next time on” teaser is a major achievement. But seeing people with whom you share a fundamental trait get killed off over and over and over again—all too often to service a straight character’s arc—is wearing. To be a lesbian watching television is to see yourself annihilated on a regular basis—and that’s not healthy. The 100 fan revolt won’t stop showrunners from killing off lesbian characters, and it shouldn’t, but the coverage it drove in outlets like Variety and the Hollywood Reporter mean execs can no longer claim ignorance of the “Bury Your Gays” trope. They know that someone will be asking why they decided to kill off Sappho Smith, and they need a better explanation than that they sacrificed the lesbian for the sake of a straight character. (I’m looking at you, Sally Wainwright.) Of course, Jenji Kohan is the last person in the world who would respond to a fan campaign—and in this case, at least, that’s a damned shame.

Must run, my stories are on,