The Dead Lesbian Trope Part 2- The Essay

Karly Morgan

For this week’s blog post, I’m going to share my essay I wrote for class.

The Dead Lesbian Trope

The Dead Lesbian Trope refers to a troubling recurring theme in American television in which lesbian characters are almost always killed, often in a horrific and socially symbolic manner, and often after achieving happiness, after consummating a relationship, or before something good was about to happen to them. There is also a painful absence of academia on The Dead Lesbian Trope. This is because the trope itself includes denial of the trope by directors, producers, and even actors in order to further silence the voice of the group of people they’ve symbolically annihilated. So, in the absence of resources and refusal to be silenced on this issue, I’ve collected a set of facts: television shows, lesbian characters, their deaths, and quotes in response to horrific deaths to prove the trope myself. While some media insiders try to sweep The Dead Lesbian Trope under the rug, media consumers assert that it exists after witnessing the trope in action time after time, and the emotional and social impacts of the trope are deeply troubling.

To understand why the manner in which lesbians are killed in television shows is socially significant, it’s imperative to first understand social issues relating to lesbians. Being a lesbian means that a woman is sexually and emotionally attracted to other women, so the heart and mind are powerful symbols because anti-LGBT people try to argue that homosexuality is unnatural, unholy, or impure.  Lesbians do not fit into the heteropatriarchal system, in which there is a male/female gender binary, men are superior to women, and the only recognized and accepted relationships are heterosexual. Thus, lesbians do not conform to the superiority of males. With those social issues in mind, The Dead Lesbian Trope can be seen more clearly when examining lesbian deaths in American television. Marie Lyn Bernard, Editor-in-Chief and CEO of Autostraddle, gathered a list of 147 lesbian characters and their deaths. First of all, when considering the already miniscule number of lesbian characters there are on television, 147 deaths is a heavy body count. Second is the way in which they were killed. These are some of the most troubling examples from across the decades and across genres of television. Julie from Executive Suite (1976) was killed when her lover realized her own lesbianism and walked out into traffic. Julie followed her and was struck by a car. In this instance, the death symbolizes her lover running into a much more dangerous world because she is a lesbian, and Julie being struck and killed as a result of following her in that dangerous path. Susan Roth from Seinfeld (1996) is especially offensive, because she died as a result of toxic envelope glue. That’s right, she died from licking too many envelopes, laced with toxins. This is a clear and unbelievably offensive allusion to oral sex. Flora from Deadwood (2004) was beaten into submission by a man, who then forced a woman to shoot her and kill her with his gun. Sophia from Skins (2010) took a drug from a girl she was in love with and jumped to her death by suicide. Gaia from Spartacus: Gods of the Arena (2011) rejected a man’s advances, and he bashed her head in. Pretty Little Liars (2013) has killed two lesbians. Emily from Teen Wolf (2013) was about to have sex with her girlfriend when she was kidnapped by a supernatural swarm of cockroaches, tied to a tree, beaten repeatedly, strangled, and had her throat slit. In American Horror Story: Freakshow (2014), lovers Lucy and Alice were killed by Lucy’s husband with an axe, because he was angry that they wouldn’t have a threesome with him. This sent the message that if they wouldn’t let a man into their sexual life, they were better off dead.  Rachel Posner from House of Cards (2015) was ran over with a car by a man who had an obsessive crush on her. Tituba from Salem (2015) had a man send crows to peck out her eyes and leave her for dead. This sent a message because it destroyed her eyes, the lenses through which she saw women as beautiful and desirable, the lenses through which she saw the world, and because the eyes are often referred to as “the windows of the soul”. Tosmin from Lost Girl (2015) died in childbirth, giving birth to a child as a result of a man raping her. Denise from The Walking Dead (2016) died with an arrow through her brain, a death that a different character had in the comic books. Lexa from The 100 (2016) died from a stray bullet to the chest a commercial break after consummating a relationship with a three-season buildup. This sent the message that while lesbians could struggle, both in life and toward being together, their happiness is not meant to last. It also declared that that fate is inevitable, no matter how powerful, important, or strong you are. So far, in less than three months, eight lesbian characters have already been killed in television shows this year, from television shows The 100, The Shannara Chronicles, Code Black, The Expanse, Jane the Virgin, Janet King, The Magicians, and The Walking Dead. This extensive, powerful, and symbolic list doesn’t even touch on all 147 lesbian deaths that Bernard listed, and there are more lesbian deaths on television than the ones Bernard provided as examples. The sheer number of deaths and the manner in which they died prove this trope to be true.

Another facet of the problem that proves The Dead Lesbian Trope to be true is denial of the trope, or at least denial of participating in the trope, by media producers. A very recent example of this is the death of Denise from The Walking Dead. The show is based on a comic book, and in the comics, a male character is killed with an arrow through his head, specifically through his eye. In the episode that aired recently, Denise was killed in that way. Viewers of the show were outraged, because the character was preparing to tell the woman she loved that she loved her, and was killed just before she could say it. Once again, it sent a message: lesbian relationships aren’t meant to be. The producers, directors, and actors of the show have kept with the trope by denying their involvement in the trope. Merrit Wever, the actress who played Denise, stated in an interview with The Mary Sue, “I hadn’t thought about it that way… I’m not sure that’s what was going on here.” Television shows love to make the case that “we know the trope, but that’s not what’s happening here”, in order to try to excuse themselves. Even worse, the lack of academia on the trope allows them to get away with it. The most recent and most prominent example of The Dead Lesbian Trope is Heda Lexa from The 100, which occurred within the past few weeks. Lexa’s death was textbook Dead Lesbian Trope: she was a main character, a powerful leader, an open lesbian, spent three seasons struggling and fighting to be with her lover, they finally consummated their relationship, and literally after the commercial break she was killed by a stray bullet. She was a fierce commander, but she didn’t die in war, she didn’t die fighting for her clan, she didn’t die with a purpose, she didn’t “die well” as her character often said in the show, she was killed by a pointless stray bullet. The only symbolic reasoning for her death was The Dead Lesbian Trope. Executive producer Jason Rothenburg has been vehemently denying The Dead Lesbian Trope since the episode aired. In an interview with TV Insider, he stated that, “I didn’t realize how deeply it would affect certain people”. But then, one question later in the same interview, he gave a response that I don’t know how to describe other than it made my stomach turn, “Yeah. Lexa’s death triggered real emotional trauma for some people, you know? It tapped into the real world, it tapped into their lives, and as a straight white male, I obviously didn’t anticipate how deeply it would affect certain people.” The real world? Rothenburg is telling us, the lesbian community, that killing a main lesbian character just after consummating a relationship is justified because that’s how it happens in the real world. Not only that, but he is excused from it all because he is a straight white male. A wise woman once told me that it’s okay to admit when you don’t know what to say, and in response to that statement, I am so disgusted, shocked, and hurt that I truly don’t know what to say.

The Dead Lesbian Trope happens because, as cultivation theory states, societal standards and attitudes demonstrated on television have an impact on society in reality. The Trevor Project’s database states that each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average. This means that every time an episode that adheres to The Dead Lesbian Trope airs, LGBT youth are 2.5 times more likely to participate in self-harming behavior. Their database also shows that suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among young people ages 10 to 24, LGB youth are 4 times more likely, and questioning youth are 3 times more likely, to attempt suicide as their straight peers, and suicide attempts by LGB youth and questioning youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or nurse, compared to their straight peers. Huffington Post’s Queer Voices section detailed that in 2015, there were an all-time record number of LGBT homicides in the United States. The Washington Blade reported that, “A report the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights released on Wednesday indicates anti-LGBT violence claimed the lives of at least 594 people in the Western Hemisphere between Jan. 1, 2013, and March 31 of this year [2014].” That’s 594 murders of LGBT people in 15 months.

The Dead Lesbian Trope is real. It is painful, and it has consequences. There are hundreds of deaths of lesbians in television shows that follow the exact same painful, symbolic, offensive, and detrimental trope. Media insiders can verbally deny it, but media consumers have witnessed the facts, and society is reflecting the impact of the media just as cultivation theory states. So, to the producers of media that have demonstrated The Dead Lesbian Trope: how many more innocent LGBT people have to be murdered, how many young girls have to watch their role models die, how many more women have to hurt themselves, before you let a lesbian live?

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