Queer Life and Death in Cartoons and TV Shows

The Internet has been abuzz lately regarding the “Bury Your Gays” trope, escalated by several popular TV shows killing off queer characters, particularly women, and adding to this larger idea that relationships between queer women are unstable at best and tragic at worst.

A lot of people are currently criticizing The 100 and Orphan Black for killing off major queer characters and making their partners suffer. I know nothing about The 100 except for what I’ve read about that one character’s death and how it’s angered many viewers. However, I will say that I was previously a bit interested in watching the show. Now, I probably won’t because I’m quite tired of queer female relationships–when they’re shown at all–being tragic, petty, or unstable. I’m not keen on getting into a show already knowing that that’s what’ll happen. I’m sure The 100 is phenomenal in many other ways, but this turn of events makes me hesitant. Orphan Black is a different story for me because I’ve been a fan of the show from the very beginning, so I didn’t know going into it that there would be queer representation at all nor did I know what would happen to Delphine at the end of season 3 (however, I don’t think she’s really dead). I’m invested in the story for many other reasons besides Cosima and Delphine, but I can completely understand why some people have dropped the show and others who maybe hadn’t seen it yet might not be interested anymore.

When I reflect on queer representation that I’ve come across, I find that there are more positive examples in cartoons (and maybe anime) than in live action TV shows or movies, especially mainstream ones. Part of this is certainly differences in the type of audience. Cartoons in the West are generally aimed at younger audiences and along with that comes particular ideas of what’s appropriate and not appropriate for kids. Queerness for a long time has been deemed “not appropriate,” hence why there are only a handful of recent cartoons that make queer relationships more explicit. On the flip side, tragic death, drugs, and excessive blood and violence are also generally deemed not appropriate for children’s media.

This could be why queerness, when it’s clearly presented in cartoons, is much more positive than it is in live action shows, including those that explore queerness in depth.

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I’m going to pick on The L Word, which for the longest time was touted as the quintessential lesbian show. Just about every queer woman under 40 has seen it or at least knows what it is. I watched the entire series several years ago and I enjoyed it, but all of the characters are so terrible to each other in their relationships. All of them. Every single one. They cheat on each other, they lie, they break promises, and some eventually set out to ruin others’ lives. All of this is the stuff of great drama, so The L Word is really just doing what its genre does best, but subsequent TV shows haven’t seemed to step away from this. Orange is the New Black is also pretty gay, but Alex and Piper, as cute as they are together, basically exhibit the same selfish toxicity that’s evident in The L Word. I had similar frustrations with the first season of Transparent. I generally liked the show, but hated every character except Ali and Maura. They’re all selfish, terrible people, including the token lesbian couple that comes into being through breaking up marriages.

I see almost the opposite in cartoons. I’ve discussed Korrasami at length on this blog and noted many ways in which they have a stable, supportive relationship. Marceline and Bubblegum from Adventure Time are also getting back to that level (though they have a lot to work through and Marceline is also the Angst Queen). Ruby and Sapphire from Steven Universe are a great example of a committed couple that works through their problems. Sure, they have conflict, but they would never cheat on each other or hurt each other in ways that I’ve seen queer women do in live action TV shows.

Of course, presenting cartoons as full of entirely positive queer representation and live action shows as full of entirely negative ones reduces the issue too much and is inaccurate. Carmilla mostly shows Hollstein as happy together, but even when they’re not, it’s not because Laura or Carmilla cheat or hurt each other on purpose. Their conflicts typically come from Laura’s hero complex and Carmilla’s survivalist instincts. On the other hand, most queerness I’ve seen in anime is subtle, stated but not explored much, or tragic (Kill la Kill and Revolutionary Girl Utena come to mind).

Why is any of this a problem? Isn’t drama and death just part of good storytelling? Of course it is, but we have to remember how influential media is. Someone who’s never met queer women before can watch all of these shows and come away with an ill-informed notion about how these relationships work in real life. I know so many people who live and love nothing like the women in The L Word or other shows (at the same time, I know people who relish in that exact sort of drama, which gets into a different issue of how much queer media affects our actual behavior).

Fiction is powerful. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a writer. Therefore, it’s always a good exercise to examine these sorts of tropes and trends and ask if the story must always play out this way. I don’t believe it does. I think there are so many other ways to tell stories about queer relationships, but it’s easy to get stuck in the same patterns.

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