Ask a group of queer, pop culture conscious women and they will tell you that the biggest trope to affect lesbians (after the ‘lesbians sleeps with a man’ trope) is that TV lesbians always seem to get killed off. It’s so regularly witnessed in the media that TV Tropes has dedicated an entire page to it, having dubbed it ‘Dead Lesbian Syndrome’. TV Tropes also notes that LGBTQ people are at a higher risk of suicide. However, many of the cases of dead lesbians that we see on television aren’t because the characters took their own lives and instead are down to common killers such as [SPOILER] Naomi Campbell in Skins who died of cancer.
Dead Lesbian Syndrome is one of the reasons why queer women instruct each other not to get suckered into a show based on its lesbian characters because they will most likely be bumped off in the name of a ‘hard-hitting emotional storyline’ or just because the show’s creator wants to further someone else’s character progression. It’s incredibly unfortunate that that needs to be said but given how often it occurs (American Horror Story, Pretty Little Liars and The L Word have all taken part in the trope) it probably makes sense.
The latest show to join the Dead Lesbian Syndrome Squad is Last Tango in Halifax. In an episode that aired just a few weeks ago, the show dramatically killed off pregnant lesbian Kate not long after she’d married her partner Caroline. Unaware of the trope but now suffering the backlash is Last Tango in Halifax writer Sally Wainwright who has now said the following to DIVA Magazine:
“I think that’s a myth! People get killed off all the time. I got an email from Russell T Davis the day after saying, “I once killed off a gay character and everyone was really upset.” I got an email from another friend saying, “Oh Sally, what have you done? There are few enough lesbians as it is!” I don’t think it’s…I don’t think people think, “I’ve got a lesbian character, I better kill her off.”
It was a really big decision and it was a decision that…I’m still not entirely sure I made the right decision over but… [pauses]. I implore people to see what happens next and see why we did make that decision. When you see what happens next, I think we did make the right decision. It becomes increasingly emotional, the performances with the people left behind become increasingly magnetic and extraordinary, actually.”
Wainwright also confirmed that it was for storyline purposes, “It was a narrative decision, it was a storyline decision”, which perhaps adds further insult to injury.
One problem that queer women have with the Dead Lesbian Trope is that it’s a case of ‘why us?’ Every TV viewer accepts that death is an inevitable storyline that’s going to crop up because that’s life, that’s what happens and that’s what TV shows are attempting to portray (albeit in an overly dramatized way) but it’s unfortunate that the victim of those deaths more often than not is a queer woman.
Many would also argue that using the Dead Lesbian Trope is ineffective because it’s just that – a trope. Tropes are eye-rolling, seen it all before things; they lose their emotional gravitas when you’ve used them over and over again. It’s like a fairy tale that always ends in ‘and then they lived happily ever after’ except we aren’t children anymore, there are no happily ever afters for TV lesbians and the fact that they keep getting killed off hurts LGBT representation.