The BYG Trope (bury your gays) is tiring and not shocking anymore. Watch out this post contains spoilers for The 100, The Vampire Diaries, Blindspot, Orphan Black, and Orange is the New Black
2016 was a bad year for LGBT+ characters in television, lesbian/bisexual characters in particular. This past year viewers witnessed the deaths of a number of fan favorite lesbian/bisexual characters like Commander Lexa from The 100 (a show that has been the subject of much scrutiny over the last several months for a number of reasons), Nora and Mary Louise from The Vampire Diaries, Denise from the Walking Dead (bringing Scott Gimple’s lesbian/bisexual body count up to two), Mayfair from Blindspot, and a number of others. According to an article from autostraddle.com there have been a total of 172 lesbian/bisexual characters killed off of TV shows between 1976 and 2016; many of them shot (maybe it’s time to start handing out bullet proof vests to all the lesbian and bisexual ladies out there… just in case). 29 of those 172 were in 2016 and 25 were in 2015 (not counting Delphine from Orphan Black who is on the list despite the character being alive). Another article from autostraddle.com lists a total of only 29 lesbian/bisexual characters that have actually gotten happy endings so far.
It was the death of Commander Lexa from the CW’s The 100, which closely mirrored the brutal death of fan favorite Tara Maclay from Buffy the Vampire Slayer (another lesbian character on that list of 172), that seemed to finally spark outrage in response to the sickening overuse of a tired old trope that desperately needs to be retired. Fans took to the internet to express their outrage not only over the death of Lexa, but over the frequency with which lesbian/bisexual characters are killed off of TV shows. We’re a community already starving for what little representation we get. It’s easy to see how frustrating and disheartening it can be for LGBT+ viewers when what little representation we do manage to get is constantly ripped out from under us. We’re offered a glimmer of hope when we see ourselves, people like us, in our favorite TV shows only to have that hope quickly snuffed out by writers and producers who decide that the best way to work around a schedule conflict is by killing off the character played by an actor or actress with other obligations (no matter how unoriginal it may be), or who decide that the best way to add shock value to their show is to kill off a beloved minority character. What it seems these writers and producers have failed to realize is that killing off minority characters for shock value no longer works, in fact, it’s been done so much that many minority viewers have come to expect that the minority characters they identify with are doomed to the same fate as so many others the moment we see them on screen. The use of the bury your gays trope and others like it have undoubtedly become infuriating for viewers, but are now far from shocking.
Writers and producers have come up with a number of excuses to try to worm their way out of dealing with the backlash after using the BYG trope. Some insist that they kill straight or non minority characters off their shows all the time or that “anyone can die” on their show. However, this tired excuse doesn’t hold up when minority characters are killed off at a disproportionate rate compared to straight, white, usually male characters on those same shows (yes, we’re still looking at you Jason Rothenberg, among others). Actions speak louder than words. For writers and producers working on shows with more than one LGBT+ or other minority character, they’ll use the presence of those other characters to excuse the death of another. They forget that when dealing with a minority group that is already severely underrepresented, having other characters in that minority group doesn’t excuse killing off one or two. The death of every minority character viewers find themselves able to identify with counts and hits just as hard. Other writers and producers, apparently uneducated on what exactly the bury your gays trope is, will insist that they didn’t employ use of it because the LGBT+ character wasn’t killed off simply because they’re gay. They fail to realize that the BYG trope does not apply strictly to LGBT+ characters who are killed of only for being LGBT+ but rather to any LGBT+ character that is killed regardless of the reason for their death.
It’s not surprising that a minority group is grossly underrepresented and often misrepresented in television when the field, especially where writing positions and executive producer roles are concerned, are dominated by straight white males. According to the WGA’s 2015 TV Staffing Brief the employment of women writers declined from 30.5 percent during the 2011-12 television season down to only 29 percent during the 2013-14 season, and the employment of minority writers dropped from 15.6 percent to only 13.7 during the 2013-14 season. As for executive producer positions, women filled only 15.1 percent of available positions in the 2013-14 season, down from 18.6 percent during the 2011-12 season, while males, regardless of minority status, filled a whopping 84.9 percent of available executive producer positions. Overall minority share of available executive producer roles was a measly 5.5 percent during the 2013-14 season, a decline from 7.9 percent during the 2011-12 season. An investigation by Variety indicated that 90% of showrunners for the 2016-17 season are white and 80% are male. While both the WGA and Variety only looked at gender, and ethnic and racial minority groups, it’s safe to assume that other marginalized groups, such as those who are LGBT+, make up an even smaller percentage of television writers and executive producers, especially those who are LGBT+ individuals and also part of other marginalized groups.
In the 2015 Staffing Brief, the WGA also indicated that research has shown that the diverse storytelling that minority audiences are seeking is less likely to “hit the mark” when there is little to no diversity in key roles in the writer’s room and powerful roles such as that of executive producer. That is, of course, not to say that no straight white male is capable of writing a decent story with diverse characters that are given adequate attention and that appropriately represent minority groups. It is, however, safe to say that we are far less likely to receive those stories from a group that isn’t marginalized. That’s also not to say that minority writers and showrunners are going to hit the mark 100% of the time either, as we saw in the most recent season of Orange is the New Black when fan favorite lesbian POC character, Poussey Washington, was killed. However, with more women and minority writers and executive producers, we would no doubt be far more likely to see satisfying stories with a diverse cast of characters who are treated equal to their non minority counterparts and that appropriately represent minorities, then we are with television being dominated by straight white males.
The overuse of the BYG trope serves no purpose but to lead LGBT+ viewers to believe that they have little to no chance at happiness because of who they are. Regardless of whether or not that is the intent when it’s used by writers and producers, that’s the way viewers in these minority groups see it. Whether it should or not, there is no denying that television plays a big role in our lives and when we watch television, many of us are looking not only for an escape from the often brutal real world, but also to see ourselves, to see characters we can identify with. When we find those characters and they are given happy endings, it gives us hope that perhaps we can find the same; when they are killed off it’s a harsh reminder of what minorities are forced to deal with in the real world on a daily basis and takes away the hope we were given that perhaps it could be different for us and that perhaps things might change for the better. Finding that glimmer of hope and then having it ripped away over and over again has proven to have dire consequences, causing those who have managed to overcome depression and self-harming to relapse, and triggering depression in others when the hope they were seeking and finally managed to find is stolen away from them by writers and producers with unoriginal ideas and no sense of, or a lack of concern over the potential affects their use of these unoriginal ideas and overused tropes may have on their viewers. Perhaps, in the future, it would be better if writers and producers worked toward burying the BYG trope rather than continuing to bury their gays.
Despite how grim the past has been for LGBT+ representation in television, there is hope that perhaps the BYG trope will finally be buried. A number of writers and producers have taken a pledge to do better, both in the staffing department and on the screen. A few producers such as executive producer of Syfy’s Wynonna Earp, Emily Andras, and creators of the CW’s Supergirl, Ali Adler, Greg Berlanti, and Andrew Kreisberg have promised to work hard to ensure the LGBT+ community is given fair and proper representation in their shows. If they keep that promise, and if those who have signed the pledge make good on their word, then maybe we won’t need all those bullet proof vests after all.
Here’s hoping that writers and producers have learned a thing or two over the last several months and that 2017 is a better year for positive LGBT+ and other minority representation in television.