We are seeing a tug of war of sorts in the film and TV industry with the handling of queer characters. The sudden death of the series character Lexa, immediately following her proclamation of love for the female protagonist and love interest, Clark, in the apocalyptic CW show, “The 100,” ignited outrage online. Fans launched petitions to end the all-too-familiar trope that this character’s death represented: Bury Your Gays. Unlike “The 100,” the 2021 Netflix horror trilogy “Fear Street” refused to kill off its two queer lead characters. These two shows represent both the persistence of, and resistance to, this trope—a common plot device where a queer character in a TV show, film, or other media is unceremoniously killed off, often to further the story in service to the heterosexual characters. Spoiler Alerts ahead for many famous films and TV shows. The term “queer” will also be used as an umbrella term for all sexualities and gender identities other than straight and/or cisgender.
The Bury Your Gays Trope encapsulates a larger issue of how queer characters are poorly treated in popular media. This trope is also part of the even larger issue of how minorities are often given storylines that end with abrupt deaths with people of color also being common casualties in TV and film.
Queer characters across mediums are often given storylines that center on pain, rejection, and discrimination for being who they are. The portrayal of these common shared experiences among queer people is important, but having this trope become so common has sparked criticism by the queer community as they argue that the characters are reduced to their sexualities and/or gender identities in their stories. The objections to the trope are also about how representation of the lives of queer people mostly revolve around the pain many go through, which yield few storylines in media that actually have happy endings. The happy ending for a queer character is often elusive.
Bury Your Gays describes when this focus on pain and hardships is taken to extremes by having the characters die. Whether by suicide over being rejected, dying as the victims of hate crimes, or dying from everyday, hasty causes, characters disappear in ways that opponents argue only seems to further the plot and take away queer characters’ chances to develop into well-rounded characters within their storylines. The all-too-common depiction of suicide by queer characters has raised particular concern as some fear it could inspire young queer people to do the same when they see characters they connect with.
Recent examples of the Bury Your Gays trope can be found, for example, in “It: Chapter 2,” released in 2019. The movie opens with the introduction of a gay couple, who are then brutally beaten in a hate crime, with one being murdered just as quickly as they are introduced. The death of this character is the event that ultimately sparks the rest of the story. This seems to embody the trend of a queer character being introduced only to then be killed off and have their death act as a plot device for the rest of the story.
The debate surrounding the Bury Your Gays Trope isn’t centered on whether queer characters should ever suffer and/or die in TV and film, but rather on the push to give queer characters complex stories that go beyond their sexuality and gender, and to treat their stories as more than plot devices meant to affect or support the other, heterosexual characters. Those critical of the common trope are calling for more complex storytelling for queer characters and if these characters do die, to present their deaths respectfully and with purpose. Also, opponents of the trope would like for characters’ personalities to not be reduced wholly to their sexuality and/or gender identity. However, this has faced some pushback by screenwriters as they argue that these demands put restrictions on their storytelling. The conversation around this issue will surely remain hotly debated.
Although this trope still persists, there have been series and movies that have recently tried to defy it. Recently, the 2021 sequel in the Halloween franchise, “Halloween Kills,” had a more debatable death. In the movie, a gay couple moves into the old Myers house. When Michael Myers returns for another killing spree, he murders the couple. It’s a sequence that is something to ponder on as the couple weren’t killed for being gay, they were just in the wrong place, at the wrong time. However, they were still queer characters that we didn’t get to know and were introduced only to be killed.
We have seen great defiance and complex writing recently for queer characters in TV and film with an ever increasing drive away from Bury Your Gays. One recent example is the new Netflix trilogy, “Fear Street,” which has two queer leads: Deena and Sam. Each episode doesn’t shy away from blood and gore with youngsters dying left and right. However, through it all the show seemingly refuses to kill off their queer leads who share a positive romantic relationship and have happy endings.
While queer characters will certainly have times of pain and even die in future TV shows and films, we are seeing more encouraging signs of writers giving them the chance to come into their own. Hopefully, with more complex stories that show that these characters are their own people and not just plot devices for others, they can also have happy endings and show that queer people are not destined for a life of rejection and despair. They may still die, but more importantly, they will tell their own story. It will be interesting to see this across all mediums for queer people going forward.