Invisible or tragically dead… reflections on representation
I was catching up on some podcasts last week, specifically going back through episodes that I had started but not finished. I was listening to Cabbages & Kings, which is a sci fi/fantasy podcast that focuses on books and other written stories, with a focus on the things readers love about the experience of reading. In that specific episode the host, Jonah Sutton-Moore, was discussing queer romance in sf/f with Carl Engle-Laird who is an editor at Tor Books and is bisexual. It was a good episode, but I was shocked when Engle-Laird said that he had only recently learned about the Tragic Queer Trope/Cliché, and specifically that he had learned about it after he had already selected two books for publication in which the only queer character in the story dies. He says something along the lines, “I had just learned about this cliché and the pain it causes so many people, and I was about to publish two books that fit it and realize there’s trouble coming my way.”
The host of the podcast shared a similar story, about how he had reviewed a book in which the two main characters, who happen to be lesbian, overcome the obstacles of the plot and apparently live happily ever after. In the review he had expressed some surprise at how many rave reviews he’d read of the book before reading it himself. Not because the book wasn’t good, he didn’t see that it was a breakout book as so many reviews described. People reading his blog had to tell him that what felt groundbreaking about the book was the fact that the queer characters not only lived to the end of the book, but actually got a happy ending.
I’m not shocked that the straight host of a sci fi podcast was unaware of the prevalence of the phenomena described at TV Tropes as Bury Your Gays and Gayngst, or a bit more
honestly explicitly at places like Another Dead Lesbian or The Curse of the Tragic Lesbian Ending and so on. I was disappointed, but not shocked.
It was the queer editor not knowing about this cliché that shocked me.
And I want to be clear, this isn’t meant to be a slam at either the podcast host nor his interviewee. I’ve been listening to this podcast for months, I like it (heck, I nominated it in the fancast category for the Hugos this year!), I listened to several more episodes after the shocking moment (and I’m all caught up again!), and will continue to recommend it.
But I’m still always disappointed when people in the business are unaware of just how unwelcoming to queer people most pop culture is in general, and sci fi/fantasy is in particular.
I realize that it is hard for non-queer people to grasp this, since they are so used to seeing themselves reflected in every show. Any time I’ve talked about a specific instance of “Bury Your Gays” with non-queer friends, their first reaction is always to explain to me that other people die in the book/movie/series. It isn’t that queer characters should never die. The problem is that nearly every queer character depicted in a relationship in pop culture either dies, or is left alone, bereft, and grieving over the death of the only other queer character in the story at the end.
All. The. Time.
That’s on the rare occasions that queer characters in relationships are included at all. Most often, queer characters simply aren’t in the stories. In those rare cases where queers are included, they are unattached romantically without any plot line other than to be the funny/eccentric sidekick to a straight character, or they die. And quite often it is a senseless death that exists for no reason other than to shock the viewer and give one of the surviving characters a reason to grieve and motivation to accomplish their goal.If you think I’m exaggerating, here’s a couple of statistics for you. According to GLAAD, out of the 881 regular characters appearing in all of the primetime network shows during the fall of 2015, 35 of them were lesbian or bisexual women. We are now just a bit over 80 days into 2016, and since January 1, eight of those fictional women who love women have been killed on screen. That’s nearly one quarter (22.85%) of all the women who love women that have been allowed to appear on television screens this year killed.
Imagine, for a moment, if in the last three months 22% of all the regular characters on every single show on network TV had been killed off on screen. That’s 194 characters, almost 2.5 a night. Seriously, if regular characters were being killed off on every television show at that rate, people would be up in arms. They would be sending angry messages to networks executives asking why there is so much more violence in every show. The Daily Show and/or John Oliver would have some epic comedic rants about the murderous spree that all of the network producers had gone on, and those rants would be viral on Youtube.
If one quarter of all regular characters on network television shows were killed off every 80 days, then every show would have effectively a complete cast turnover every television season. And that makes no sense for a continuing story over multiple seasons, so no show-runners in their right minds would do that.
Fictional murders, senseless deaths on screen, et cetera are not random acts of violence. They are decisions that show runners and writers and network executives make. People are making the decision to kill off queer characters at a much higher rate than any other category of fictional character. Just as a lot of us have called bullshit on writers, producers, and executives who claim they can’t add a queer character to an existing series or franchise until the “right story” comes along, it is at best self-delusion when the decision-makers try to claim that it is just a coincidence that they kill off queer characters at such a high rate.
It is sometimes argued that the only reason that we notice when queer characters are killed off is because there are so few of them to begin with, therefore each loss is especially keenly felt. But that ignores the disproportionate rate of the deaths. Yes, if a quarter of all characters appearing in regular recurring roles in all shows were killed every 80 days, we could argue that the only problem is how few queer characters there are. Even if that were the only reason, the lack of representation itself would still be a problem, as I’ve argued before: Invisible no more: rooting out exclusion as a storyteller.
The truth is that both the lack of representation, and the excessive rate of disposal of the few examples of representation we ever get are symptoms of a deeper problem. Author Junot Diaz summed up the real issue best:
You guys know about vampires? You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist?”
There is an agenda to deny us representation—to pretend we don’t exist at all if possible, or to make certain we are perceived as monsters, freaks, or tragedies if we must be acknowledged. Whether a particular storyteller consciously agrees with that agenda or not, whenever you leave us out, or kill us off without thinking about the message it sends, or sit by silently while someone else does those things, you are serving that agenda.
Maybe you should think about that for a bit.