TV keeps killing off lesbian characters and the fans of one show have revolted

Alycia Debnam-Carey as Commander Lexa. Photo / Liane Hentscher, CW
Alycia Debnam-Carey as Commander Lexa. Photo / Liane Hentscher, CW

A few weeks ago, the CW's sci-fi teen dystopia show The 100 did something television shows do all of the time: It killed off a major character. The reaction to this particular onscreen death, however, was different.

Some fans were initially unable to sleep. An anonymous fan on Tumblr talked about wanting to hurt themselves, prompting the writer of the episode to reblog a list of self-help hotlines on Tumblr.

In addition to being a fan favorite, the character, Lexa, was openly gay. The show's typically passionate fans revolted, angry to see it resort to a longstanding television trope known as Bury Your Gays, in which LGBT characters are frequently killed off often in tragic ways, following a happy event. The 100 purported to be progressive in its treatment of LGBT characters, but that only fueled the feelings of betrayal.

The controversy reveals the pitfalls of a show misunderstanding its audience and the politics of minority representation onscreen.

Many fans have stopped watching the show and have redirected their energy to Twitter and Tumblr to vent their frustrations. During the episode following Lexa's death, fans tweeted with the trending topic LGBT Fans Deserve Better, which has since become an international fan-led initiative.

As the show returned Thursday after a two-week hiatus, fans tweeted with Bury Tropes Not Us, sending the topic trending nationally.

A fundraising effort has raised more than $113,000 for The Trevor Project, an organization that provides a 24-hour toll-free national suicide hotline and other services for LGBT and questioning youths in crisis.

"LGBT fans get so little quality representation in the form of complex characters," said Chandler Meyer, 22, who helps run the website for LGBT Fans Deserve Better.

"To see a character like that who was part of the show be taken away, that's especially hard."

Since Lexa's death, Autostraddle, a culture website geared toward lesbian and bisexual women, has compiled a list of 150 lesbian and bisexual characters in regular and recurring roles who have been killed on television shows, starting with the 1976 CBS show Executive Suite.

In 2016 alone, 10 characters identifying as lesbian or bisexual have been killed, on shows such as CW's Jane the Virgin, AMC's The Walking Dead and Syfy's The Magicians. CW's The Vampire Diaries added to the death count on Friday, killing off a lesbian couple in a fiery car crash.
GLAAD's 2015 Where We Are on TV report cited that 35 regular characters in the 2015-2016 television season identified as gay, lesbian or bisexual just 4 percent of a projected 881 characters.

Gay TV characters are important because "younger gay people don't necessarily know other gay people or have gay friends," said Autostraddle's founder Marie Lyn Bernard (who goes by Riese). "It's so instrumental it just ends up being a lifeline."

Part of the reason Lexa was killed is that the actress who plays Lexa, Alycia Debnam-Carey, had to leave to start filming Season 2 of Fear the Walking Dead, where she's a regular. And The 100 is a violent show many characters have been killed in the show's dystopian war.

But fans are decrying the show for the way Lexa was killed: by a stray bullet meant for the woman she loved, Clarke, right after they consummated their relationship. Part of the Bury Your Gays trope is that lesbians are often killed after joyous events declarations of love, and even marriage.

Alycia Debnam-Carey as Lexa, left, and Eliza Taylor as Clarke on CW's "The 100." Photo / Diyah Pera, CW
Alycia Debnam-Carey as Lexa, left, and Eliza Taylor as Clarke on CW's "The 100." Photo / Diyah Pera, CW

The shooter didn't target Clarke because of her sexual orientation, but wanted her relationship with Lexa to end because it distracted Lexa from her leadership duties in the war. Still, "The message there was pretty clear," Meyer said. "She was killed because of who she loves."

Some fans also felt especially betrayed since the writers actively sought to build an LGBT audience around Clexa, as the relationship was dubbed, and then pulled the rug out from under them.

"There was a lot of queer-baiting, something they established over a 10-month period," said Meyer. Some fans "assumed it was going to be a same place where they wouldn't see something like this, that they have seen so many times before."

CW has not commented on the controversy, but a number of the show writers have, on Twitter and Tumblr. Javier Grillo-Marxuach, the writer of the episode in question, has been particularly apologetic.

Creator and showrunner Jason Rothenberg, who was also unavailable for comment, apologized multiple times, each time falling flat with fans. In a letter posted two weeks ago, titled The Life and Death of Lexa, he wrote:

"For many fans of The 100, the relationship between Clarke and Lexa was a positive step of inclusion. I take enormous pride in that, as I do in the fact that our show is heading into its fourth season with a bisexual lead and a very diverse cast.

"The honesty, integrity and vulnerability Eliza Taylor and Alycia Debnam-Carey brought to their characters served as an inspiration for many of our fans. Their relationship held greater importance than even I realized. And that very important representation was taken away by one stray bullet.

"The thinking behind having the ultimate tragedy follow the ultimate joy was to heighten the drama and underscore the universal fragility of life. But the end result became something else entirely - the perpetuation of the disturbing Bury Your Gays trope. Our aggressive promotion of the episode, and of this relationship, only fueled a feeling of betrayal...

"I am very sorry for not recognizing this as fully as I should have. Knowing everything I know now, Lexa's death would have played out differently."

Debnam-Carey told the Daily Beast that she was proud her character's storyline had inspired activism. "Just to think that it had such an impact on people. It's kind of an honor," the actress said. "It became a positive thing, which is really the most important thing about it all."

On Thursday's episode, the show fueled more controversy by killing off one of its black characters, Lincoln. Like Debnam-Carey, the actor, Ricky Whittle, was expected to leave the show for another role. But the character's brutal, execution-style death has caused some fans to write the show off altogether.

LGBT Fans Deserve Better has already asked supporters to brainstorm another activist trending topic to circulate during this week's episode.

"Minorities aren't disposable characters. We don't accept marginalized storylines. We're not a focus group that you can pander to to use for ratings and then throw away the storylines," Meyer said, noting that LGBT characters, characters of color and disabled characters are often "given secondary or tertiary storylines that can be thrown away.

"We're getting to a point where we can't accept that anymore."

- Washington Post

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