It was earlier this year that progress looked like a reality. Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Carol was released, and critics and moviegoers alike pondered the singularity of its optimistic ending. A queer couple’s story ending happily? It was unheard of in 1952, and still rare in 2016. Could it be possible that queer stories were at last finding their way out of tragedy, in line with progress off the screen?
For a moment, it looked possible. But then the harsh reality was delivered. There was Rose on Jane the Virgin, Denise on The Walking Dead, and, of course, Lexa on The 100, just to name some of the twelve (at the time of writing) queer female characters killed on television this year. It’s 2016. Why is television still, to use the name that’s been coined for the trope, ‘burying’ its gays?
It started in 1930 in the US, when nervous studio executives brought in Presbyterian elder named Will Hays, tasked with restoring an unregulated film industry to inoffensive entertainment. Hays devised the Code, a list of “Don’t and Be Carefuls” that covered everything from kissing to relationships that were outside what was socially acceptable.
In both literature and film, if there was a queer couple, creators had to communicate that they were socially unacceptable. This meant that their narrative had to end with some form of punishment, whether that was marriage to the opposite sex, conversion therapy, or death. Films went to great lengths to serve their queer characters brutal endings, with everything from house fires (Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, a plot point absent from the novel) to cannibalism (Suddenly Last Summer). The idea that living an ‘alternative lifestyle’ (or any of the other euphemisms used at the time), could only end badly was born.
The code ended in 1968, when a rating system was introduced. But nearly 40 years of the code combined with the fact that the US was the centre of film and television production had left its damage, ingraining itself into narratives told about queer characters. In an interview with Marc Maron in January, Todd Haynes described this single-minded expectation of either forced marriage or violence as the “obligatory heterosexual closure”.
Even though there was no longer a set of rules prohibiting the portrayal of queer relationships as anything but something that ends in tragedy, the attitude learned from the code persisted, seen in everything from Lost and Delirious to Four Weddings and a Funeral to Mulholland Drive. The practice had existed for so long without challenge that no one simply considered the possibility of anything else.
By the 1990s, where the internet was bringing fans of television shows like Xena the Warrior Princess, Dark Angel, and Babylon 5 together, this pervasive trope of violence and punishment was, as is well known, named "Bury Your Gays". In the 2000s, even as more open conversations were beginning to be had off screen about sexuality and gender, television still was mostly lagging back in the previous century. In 2002, in an incident still talked about today, Tara Maclay on the Joss Whedon show Buffy the Vampire Slayer was killed by a stray bullet. Tragedy continued across popular television shows, on everything from E.R. to Charmed to The Wire, and The O.C., and in more recent times, Orphan Black, House of Cards, and Supernatural, to name just a handful.
When conversations about the persisting expendability of queer characters and shows on television (as was the case with HBO’s Looking) occur, there are of course people quick to decry the trend. They argue that showrunners are only following the best options for the narratives on their respective shows, and that it’s unreasonable to expect queer characters to be invincible, thus giving them special treatment. In the wake of the recent controversy, some critics have said that the criticism of The 100 series creator Jason Rothenberg and the show’s writers have been a case of overreaction, arguing that the show is built around an unprecious and realistic approach to the death of its characters in the battlefield, queer or not, and that the deaths are meaningful. They argue that anything else is quite simply unrealistic.
But it’s reductive to call this a simple matter of outrage culture. No, this is pure disappointment and anger at a lack of progress. There is arguably more representation on screen than ever, but it’s in a Catch-22, still suffering through 20th century constraints of tragedy and punishment. Change starts off screen, but it’s continued through these narratives, which have the power to instill a sense of belonging and change cultural perceptions at large. They carry an all-important legacy, of the possibility for acceptance and love. But if this tragedy and punishment continues, where is progress, exactly? It’s undoubtedly stuck in the 1950s.