By Eleni Tzikas
Many might feel confident in proclaiming that the representation of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender and queer / questioning (LGBTQ) characters has become more prevalent than ever before. While there have been advancements on the inclusion of LGBTQ characters in corporate media, disparities are still present when looking at the number of LGBTQ characters on screen. Out of a staggering 895 series regular characters on broadcast primetime programming in 2016, only 43, or 4.8%, of series regular characters identified as LGBTQ (Townsend, 2017). Across media genres and platforms, LGBTQ characters are few and far between, and their representations are usually accompanied by harmful tropes that don’t accurately represent LGBTQ people.
During the 2016-2017 television season, there was a spike in the use of a LGBTQ trope called ‘bury your gays,’ with over 25 lesbian and bisexual female characters serving as victims of this trend (Townsend, 2017). ‘Bury your gays’ is problematic because it depicts a systematic pattern in mainstream media of LGBTQ characters dying after a LGBTQ couple is together for a short period of time, or only to serve as a way to further advance a storyline, usually a heterosexual character’s storyline.
A popular television series on the CW Network, The 100, was what initially started the reemergence of the ‘bury your gays’ trope. On The 100, the main character of the show, Clarke, a female who identifies as bisexual, has a romantic relationship with Lexa, a female who identifies as queer. However, this romance is short-lived when Lexa gets hit with a stray bullet intended for Clarke, an event that occurs immediately after they consummate their relationship. Many fans of The 100 were quick to point out that the showrunner, Jason Rothenberg, is a white male. More often than not, showrunners, producers, directors, writers, and CEO’s of entertainment tend to reproduce the same worn out tropes that promote the ideals and voices of majority groups, especially when they profit off of these harmful representations.
Narratives within television that encompass LGBTQ characters are usually constructed by heterosexual men. The CW and The 100 prove this statement to be truthful. The president of the CW, and the CEOs of the CW’s parent organizations, (Warner Brothers, CBS Corporation, and Time Warner), are all straight males. Looking at season 3, episode 19 of The 100, entitled ‘Thirteen,’ or more known as the episode where Lexa meets her demise, the writer, director, showrunner, and 4 out of the 6 executive producers, are all straight males. The hegemonic ideologies of these men enable the same worn out plot devices, especially LGBTQ ones, to occur on their television shows, while also creating content that will appeal to a underrepresented audience in order to garner more viewership and make a profit off of LGBTQ representation. Viewers who tune in to such programming as a means of feeling a sense of representation and acceptance are usually faced with ill feelings towards showrunners and producers of the television show in question when an LGBTQ character is stereotyped, or is another variable in the same formula of a trope. As a result of white hegemonic media ownership, creators of stories narrating experiences of LGBTQ characters are, “drawing on their own experiences while telling stories about those who are different from them” (Campbell, Jensen, Gomery, Fabos, & Frechette, 2014, p. 232).
Producers and showrunners who are subject to a backlash for portraying their characters, in this case queer women, in negative ways, should “question the reason for a character’s demise and what they are really communicating to the audience” (Townsend, 2017). Rothenberg should understand the power that he wields when it comes to presenting stories about LGBTQ characters on The 100, by being careful not to reinforce sexuality stereotypes and tropes. Instead, Rothenberg has failed to thoroughly acknowledge the repercussions of his fateful decision to kill off the popular LGBTQ relationship between Clarke and Lexa.
Clarke and Lexa’s short-lived romance came to a halt through the use of the ‘bury your gays trope.’ To preface, the world and people of The 100 are separated into different clans. Clarke is the commander of her people called Skaikru, and Lexa is the commander of her people called Trikru. Lexa also has an advisor called Titus, a heterosexual male, who wants Lexa to focus on protecting her people. One season prior to Lexa’s death, Lexa confides in Clarke about a past girlfriend that was killed. In this scene, Lexa doesn’t outright label her sexuality, nor does Clarke question it. Lexa then goes on to state that love is weakness.
Fast forward a season later, where Clarke and Lexa’s relationship is at its peak, and tensions are heated between the Skaikru and Trikru clans. Titus is unconvinced that Lexa is able to lead her people when she is so preoccupied with her relationship with Clarke. Titus does not think that Lexa can separate her feelings for Clarke and the duty she owes her people. His opinion correlates with Lexa’s statement that “love is weakness”.
Immediately after Clarke and Lexa consummate their relationship, Titus attempts to kill Clarke by shooting her, but misses, and Lexa ends up being killed by the stray bullet that Titus shot. In this scenario, The 100 maintains the status quo through the use of the ‘bury your gays’ trope, feeding into the notion that heterosexual males’ ideals and beliefs take precedence over the those of other marginalized sexualities and genders.
The 100 is a television show that is set in a post-apocalyptic world. Since the main concern in this new world is to survive, labels and stereotypical gender roles have seemed to diminish. Showrunner Jason Rothenberg confirms this by tweeting, “In #The100, they don’t label themselves. If Clarke is attracted to someone, gender isn’t a factor. Some things improve post-apocalypse.” Rothenberg then sends out another tweet saying, “Clarke is a bisexual character. Remember that in this society, no one’s worried about it. They’re worried about spears to the chest.” It is important to note that Clarke is the first lead LGBT character on the CW network, and is also the first lead bisexual lead character on network television.
Ironically, Rothenberg takes pride in having a television show that is progressive and aims to break away from marginalization and stereotypical gender and sexuality roles. However, many interpretations of the show’s representation questions the idea that Earth must be destroyed in order for society to be accepting and not fixate on gender and sexuality. Although The 100 doesn’t want to focus on the labeling of its characters, it has a lead bisexual character that is not only groundbreaking, but provides an underrepresented group a voice they have lacked for so long.
Rothenberg adds fuel to this problematic fire when he tweeted pictures of the actresses who portray Clarke and Lexa, hyping up fans about their relationship. After Lexa’s death, Rothenberg responded to the backlash stating, “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… Despite my reasons, I still write and produce television for the real world where negative and hurtful tropes exist” (Rothenberg, 2016).
As a straight male, Rothenberg has probably never faced a day of adversity in his life based on his gender or sexuality. Careful consideration of what Lexa’s character and representation meant to his audience could have completely altered the outcome of her fate while avoiding alienating LGBTQ women. Rothenberg’s dismissive comments regarding Clarke’s sexuality translates to him treating all characters equal, meaning that all characters are subject to the same deadly fate. Yet the portrayal of Clarke and Lexa’s relationship shows how LGBTQ characters are ‘disposable’ and are mostly used by creators of television shows to gain viewership and ratings, which ends up equating to a profit.
For so long, LGBTQ representation has been taboo, having a “love that dare not speak its name.” But now, LGBTQ representation shares a “commercialized love that never shuts up” (Skover & Testy, 2002). LGBTQ characters are often seen as commodities to television networks that give the illusion that they are providing a commendable representation to LGBTQ characters. However, if Lexa and Clarke’s relationship was only mediated to make a profit, queer viewers who were convinced that they were finally being represented have been duped again, and reminded that they aren’t worthy of an accurate and positive representation. Television networks also try to “attract the largest and most heterogeneous audience, often reproducing what has already proven to be profitable” (Gerbner, 1998, p. 178). The CW knew that introducing Lexa on the show in season 2 would help them gain more viewership. In the 2015-2016 television season ratings, The 100 was rated number one in Vulture’s chart with the highest percentage of a ratings increase out of 83 other returning shows of the season (Adalian & Shapiro, 2016). After Lexa died, viewership started to decline quickly in episode 7 of season 3, and all the way into season 4. Producing stereotypical, trope-filled, token LGBTQ character narratives for the sake of monetary value and not for representational purposes reveals just how problematic television media can be.
The CW network states that their target audience are viewers ages 18-34, a demographic that is highly sought after by advertisers (“About,” n.d.). Young adults, especially ones who fit within the ages of 18-early 20s, are very impressionable. By viewing The 100 or other programs on the CW, and seeing their sexual identities reflected on screen, LGBTQ members are offered a sense of validation that they may not feel they have in their own personal lives. When advertisers target young adults by showcasing a LGBTQ couple or characters within its promotional content, they persuade young viewers into believing that they will have representations that they can look up to. But if the network owners and television showrunners of the CW represent a majority of straight males, viewers are only receiving the hegemonic ideologies of the ruling sex, thereby silencing minority groups relating to sexuality and gender. The hegemonic male elites who produce and curate content for the CW television programs should think twice about providing proper representation to marginalized groups since straight white males have never lacked a presence on television. To these men, “what exists on the screen may seem inconsequential or insignificant. In reality, however, representation is a matter of tremendous effect that ripples to all corners of society; it both changes the way that people perceive others, and provides validation to those it represents” (Harris, 2017). It is unfortunate that LGBTQ representation within television is so marginalized. If people who identify as LGBTQ want to see themselves represented in corporate media, their choices are usually reduced to stereotypes and tropes, which the LGBTQ community has grown tired of, especially given “the signification that there will be no happy endings for same-sex relationships” (Löf, 2016). As cultivation theory indicates, the more a viewer consumes television content with LGBTQ stereotypes and tropes as demeaning and consequential as ‘bury your gays,’ the more likely they’ll believe that LGBTQ relationships in real life are destined to a fate of unrelenting unhappiness.
In real life, there are approximately 9 million Americans who identify as LGBTQ, 4,007,834 of whom are women (Gates, 2011). This begs the question, how are 43 series regulars who identify as LGBTQ supposed to give viewers a variety of representations that are positive? How are these 4 million LGBTQ women supposed to relate to television shows when 25 LGBTQ female characters have died through the use of the tragic ‘bury your gays’ plot device? In total, approximately 195 openly lesbian and bisexual characters on television have died since 1976 (Bernard, 2018). What progress has been made since then?
The stagnant progress in LGBTQ representation is due to the power of the hegemonic elite in controlling most aspects of cultural production. Within corporate media programming, “most of the variety we observe comes from novelty effects of styles, stars, and plots rather than from changes in program structure and perspective” (Gerbner, 1998, pg. 179). The power in the television industry is held in the hands of straight men who play an integral role in promoting their own agendas or those of their program advertisers over diversity and inclusive representation. For change to occur, LGBTQ characters should be playing out narratives that LGBTQ producers and writers have sought out for them. Stereotypes and tropes would diminish, allowing marginalized groups to finally have dominance over the hegemonic elite’s biased and profitable ideologies.
Student Author: Eleni Tzikas
Faculty Evaluator & Editor: Julie Frechette, Ph.D., Professor & Chair, Department of Communication, Worcester State University
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