Feminist Fridays: “The Dead Lesbian Trope” by Brynne Rebele-Henry

” A Shrill Majesty”  by W. Jack Savage (Adroit Journal, Issue 14)

Lesbian representation in television could at best be compared to one of the reality shows (Naked and Afraid, Out of the Wild, and so on) in which normal civilian people face near death experiences for the gratification of the viewers, only, in this analogy, the lesbians don’t survive, however the civilians in such shows do.

A count recently released by Autostraddle lists the number of all 155 LGBT women on various television programs (dating back to 1976) who have been killed, and their various causes of death (car accident, toxic envelope glue, self inflicted stabbing, beheading, electrocuted in a bathtub, breast cancer, mall bombing, various supernaturally sustained injuries, angry men, mentally unbalanced exes, and so on). The often seemingly random or punish-killing of LGBT women on popular programs has become a trope, or a plot device, that is used by TV writers to the point that it seems that gay women are either strangely susceptible to ridiculously bad luck, or that their writers view them as less important than their deaths.

Such tropes raise the following questions: Why, in television as well as the real world, is it so hard for gay women to stay alive, or at least remain not grievously injured by either angry men, cruel chance, as if in some sort of biblical punishment? Why are queer women’s lives valued less in both spheres? Is this representation (the constant murdering of LGBT women or prominent LGBT women’s partners in popular TV programs) supposed to be a glimpse into the lives of many queer women through out various time periods and areas, or is it merely a homophobic plot device?

I’ve watched almost every title in lesbian Netflix, and the only two pieces that have relatively happy endings are Jenny’s Wedding (a nauseatingly confectionary story of a closeted woman with extremely homophobic family members who may or may not come to her wedding after finding out that—surprise she’s not marrying a man). And The L Word, (an offensive soapy mess of a television show that is difficult to look away from, though even this piece ends with a murder, albeit of a character so supremely unlikable it is difficult to feel anything but relief at her demise). It often seems as if Hollywood is stating that if you are a queer women, specifically, if you are a queer woman who does not fit into the steadily supplied tropes of what a lesbian or bisexual woman should be like, you will be punished, often by some formerly improbable deadly fluke.

Lesbians in film have barely evolved since the fifties pulp novel and, later, movie mandated representation: either you’re a woman so beautiful that a man could never be near her, a woman who has been hurt by a man so beautifully that she can never be near them, a villainous, hyper masculine, often predatory woman, or, a woman so undesirable that the only person who could conceivably desire her would be a similarly unfit for the male gaze woman.

Since this time, lesbian sexuality seems to take three forms: either, an asexual, almost sisterly relationship, in which most of their time is spent knitting, adopting rescue cats, fulfilling various stereotypes, and so on. Or, alternately, their sex is violent, flashy, usually femme/butch, or, alternately, two extremely beautiful women who are so beautiful they are relegated to lesbianism as men cannot handle them, their beauty makes them grotesque, or, maybe they’re just being punished (a maddeningly and unfortunately realistically disproportionate amount of women in the Autostraddle count were killed by angry men).

Alternately, a large number of lesbians portrayed in the media or in literature identify as gay because of trauma, which in itself is perfectly valid, but which is contorted by the media to make the woman in question a martyr, beautiful in her blood and suffering, the general homophobia in regards to her queerness is washed away by her martyrdom, how delicately and almost holy her suffering seems. As standards for conventionally attractive actresses have evolved, it seems almost like the queer woman who are being killed are being punished for their beauty, for being inaccessible to men. Every beautiful woman in the world can recount being compared to Helen of Troy at least once or twice within her life (beauty as suffering, war, casualties, deception, punishment).

The question I keep coming back to, is, why are queer women’s lives and characters seemingly so disposable, both in the real world and in television, and what would it take to change both?

Brynne Rebele-Henry

Brynne Rebele-Henry’s fiction, and poetry have appeared in such journals as The Volta, So to Speak, Denver Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, and Fiction International, among other publications. In 2015, she was named the runner-up for the 2015 Adroit Prize for Poetry by judge Tarfia Faizullah. Her debut book Fleshgraphs is forthcoming from Nightboat Books later this year. She was born in 1999 and currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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