I was 19 in the early 2000s, and at the peak of my obsession with Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Of course I had loved the show and its kick-ass female protagonist since the beginning, but let’s be real – my obsession reached frenzied heights because of the relationship between Buffy’s best friend Willow and new witch-in-town Tara. It was the first accurate and longstanding relationship between queer women that I had seen portrayed on television, and really the first that had ever existed on television up to that point. Because there had been so few precursors, Willow and Tara’s relationship somehow became the most understated and realistic lesbian relationship on TV – even though it was between two witches in a world where vampires existed and men had names like Xander and Spike and Angel. (Coincidentally, the song ‘Nineteen’ by Tegan and Sara has just started playing as I write this; accidentally making this the most lesbian paragraph in history.)
I was a young, closeted lesbian living in the regional city of Toowoomba in Queensland. I felt desperately excited in the lead-up to 10.30pm each Monday night, partly because I would get to watch a great show, but more importantly, because perhaps I’d get to see scenes featuring two women in a relationship. To give you an idea of how much this meant: I taped (kids, taping is kind of like a long Snapchat story) each episode during Tara’s seasons, so that I could re-watch those specific scenes.
As a member of the LGBTQI community experiencing queerness in pop culture, implications and inferences and subtext are often all you have to grasp on to.
But in a moment, my Monday nights were changed forever. I’m about to spoil Buffy for you, but unless you’ve been in a coma for the past 14 years, you have no right to be upset. If you have been in a coma for 14 years, welcome back, things have changed; have someone explain Snapchat to you. It was an episode from season 6 called ‘Seeing Red’, and Tara and Willow had just reconciled. It was implied that part of that reconciliation included sexy witch times, and I was so happy because it meant I might get to see two ladies in love chastely kissing every ten episodes. As a member of the LGBTQI community experiencing queerness in pop culture, implications and inferences and subtext are often all you have to grasp on to. And you never want to let them go.
Then, a stray bullet meant for Buffy crashed through a window, into the bedroom and through Tara’s heart. She died in Willow’s arms. Not to sound melodramatic, but that bullet felt like it went through my heart. Not to sound hyperbolic, but that bullet pierced the hearts of every queer fan watching. Not to sound overemotional, but in that moment I hated Joss Whedon with a scorching passion. I really did withdraw from Buffy after that point, only going back to watch the remainder of the show much later. It slayed me.
Over a decade after Tara’s death, these kinds of intense feelings have yet again surfaced in the queer community, with the simultaneous untimely deaths of several queer female characters on TV shows. At the time of writing, there have been approximately twelve queer female characters killed off in 2016. In fact, fans of The 100 recently experienced the death of a character in a very similar ‘punished by death after lesbian sex’ fashion to Tara’s demise, and they are furious.
Nobody is saying that you can’t kill off a queer character, but it is important to recognise that the decision to do so doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
This is not a sign that queer women are constantly angry for no reason. Rather, it’s a sign that there has not been enough progress in representation. Nobody is saying that you can’t kill off a queer character, but it is important to recognise that the decision to do so doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Autostraddle, a website for queer women, delved into stats after the fans’ mighty and uncompromising reaction to the death in The 100. They found that from 1976–2016 there were over 18,000 straight characters on American scripted television. There have been 383 lesbian or bisexual characters. 95 of them, so far, have died. Something that makes for depressing reading is this list of 150 queer female TV characters (not just from American shows) that have died, and the awful ways in which they did so. It is many more times likely that a queer female character will die than have a happy ending. Not that they will leave the show, or have a breakup, but that they will literally die.
But even if they do not die, queer women have historically not been allowed to flourish. Since 1976, 30 lesbian or bisexual characters have had a happy ending. Thirty. 3-0. In all of American television, over the past thirty years. AfterEllen listed the 16 shows they could think of where a same-sex female couple existed and got a happy ending. Sixteen couples. And the numbers are similarly low in film. If you asked me to think of well-made movies where a queer woman couple exists and has a happy ending, I can maybe come up with maybe five to ten examples. I can think of more movies about dogs playing basketball.
Even if they do not die, queer women have historically not been allowed to flourish.
It’s hard to explain exactly why I felt so hurt and angry when Tara died, and why others still feel that pain when similar fictional deaths occur. But those numbers go some way towards rationalising it – when a heterosexual character you bond with dies, you can switch to the next show. You have almost limitless access to characters that you can relate to. You can find story after story that you can connect with; that resembles a narrative in your own life. Humans need stories that we can project ourselves onto. That includes queer humans, trans people, people of colour, and people with disabilities. We need to see ourselves reflected back in stories on television and in films. It alleviates the isolation that these factors can bring upon you. When the queer characters who represent you most closely are almost never protagonists, when they are so disposable that their deaths seem arbitrary and gratuitous and only there to further the stories of straight characters, it becomes emotionally exhausting. It leaves us with only stories of loss and tragedy to connect with. It denies us positive representation. And it feels personal.
The queers are angry, and they are not going to take it anymore. Thanks to the Internet, fans have far greater recourse to voice their displeasure – and they are doing so. Nobody is saying that you can’t kill off a queer person from a show. What is being demanded is more thought, and recognition that we still do not have sufficient representation for it to be okay that queer characters suffer the constantly awful and careless fates they always have. It’s time to consider that our stories as underrepresented people matter – and by extension, that we do too.