On the surface, it was not a completely inappropriate conclusion for a bloody British spy thriller known for his fierce pleasures. But for viewers who are too familiar with the pain of watching a queer character encounter a tragic ending – a trope referred to as “Burying / Bury Your Gays” – it felt like a shot in the back.
Another queer character, dead and gone. Another queer romance that was extinguished the moment it began properly.
Not all gay deaths are an example of this trope. But given the recent advances in entertainment and inclusion in entertainment and growing existential threats to LGBTQ + people in real life, it feels particularly old-fashioned. It feels especially dangerous.
It feels like we deserve better.
“how” and “who”
There is a difference between a typical death and a death that follows harmful “Bury Your Gays” stories. Although there are no strict rules, but the themes are easy to choose from.
In the most infamous examples, the fateful characters tend to be fan favorites. They tend to have a fan base, in part because of the relativity of their queerity or queer coding (an expression when a character is not overtly queer, but is presented in a way that sends signals to the queer seere). They tend to be part of a couple, a “ship”, in phantom terms (short for “relationship”) that people emotionally invest in and mess with. And just like in “Killing Eve,” it’s not uncommon for their death to happen shortly after a big, queer romantic revelation.
The feelings of betrayal would be easy for creators to ignore with a simple, “You can not please everyone,” if not for the parable buried in the subtitle: Love – queer love – should be punished immediately with suffering.
“What’s detrimental about this is not necessarily the isolated incidents, but rather how many there are,” Raina Deerwater, head of entertainment research and analysis at GLAAD, told CNN. “Whether consciously or not, recent moments are reminiscent of a deeply homophobic story and pass on the idea that queerness is punishable.”
These deadly patterns were once the legal norm in the field of entertainment.
There were some exceptions. The code dictated that “the sympathy of the spectators must never be thrown on the side of crime, injustice, evil or sin.” So characters could be gay, but only if they were portrayed negatively and given some form of punishment.
In fiction, then, being queer and otherwise marginalized is suffering on several fronts.
Queer characters are already rare in popular media. Queer characters who are also colored people or another underrepresented identity – fat, disabled, neurodivergent, trans – are few and far between.
When such a representation is a treasured rarity, it is unpleasant to see them suffer. It can be demoralizing to see them suffer unnecessarily, as a result of the very identity that connects them to people.
The solution, Deerwater argues, is not to collect queer characters in bubble wrap or limit their stories to rainbows and sunshine. Complex stories that end up somewhere on the vast spectrum between perfect happiness and tragedy are also part of reality.
“This is not to say that queer people cannot die or that there can be no nuanced queer tragedies,” she says. “But many queer people want less tragic stories. We want happy queer stories. We want the same complexity as our straight counterparts.”
To write the future
A number of recent shows, many aimed at a young adult audience, show a fresher side of queer storytelling. The CW’s “Batwoman”, Showtime’s “Yellowjackets”, Netflix’s “She-Ra: Princesses of Power” and HBO Max’s “Our Flag Means Death” all portray queer romances in ways that feel satisfying and unconstructed. The characters torment, they fight, they meet, they fall apart. In the long run, their queerness may be one of the most imperceptible things about them.
“Queer people, especially queer women, are a very vocal fan community. They really want a representation that feels authentic and deserved,” Deerwater says.
Fiction can shape the future, and every time a popular queer character is eliminated in a way that feels inexorably tied to their queerness (even though they are a murderous psychopath), it reflects the dangerous promises of systemic prejudice and oppression.
If the people who create our fiction can not imagine a world beyond that, what chance does reality have then?