What would you do if you could relate to only 4 percent of starring characters on primetime television? What if those characters faced continued hardship and often death?
A 2012 study by the University of Indiana found that television has a negative impact on the self-esteem of young black and white girls and black boys. In contrast, television offers white boys the ability to identify with heroes and strong characters.
White males “tend to be in positions of power,” said Nicole Martins, one of the researchers behind the study. “You have prestigious occupations, high education, glamorous houses, a beautiful wife, with very little portrayal of how hard you worked to get there.”
This study provides only a small window into the lasting effects of representation on TV. Other students of media representations say that finding characters to identify with can be critical for those in the LGBT community.
“The way that we see ourselves is basically based upon what we see around us,” said Trish Bendix, editor in chief of AfterEllen.com, a website dedicated to a queer female audience. “If you don’t live in a bubble like L.A. or something, you aren’t going to see LGBT people around you.”
“Having better depictions of the possibility of what our lives will be: that’s hope, that’s love, that’s what we want for ourselves, that’s what our parents want for us.”
Even as public visibility of LGBT issues increases, it can be difficult to find positive representation.
In the introduction to GLAAD’s 2016 “Where Are We On TV” report, CEO and President Sarah Katie Ellis writes, “As each lives at the intersection of many identities, it’s important that television characters reflect the full diversity of the LGBT community. It is not enough to just include LGBT characters; writers must craft those characters with thought and care.
“They must reject harmful, outdated stereotypes and avoid token characters that are burdened with representing an entire community through the view of one person.”
During the 2015-16 season, 4 percent of the characters on primetime scripted television were LGBT, GLAAD reported. There were no transgender characters. However, four transgender characters appeared among the 133 queer women when the report considered all television – including shows on cable and those that streamed online.
And when they do get screen time, queer female characters in particular are likely to miss out on a TV tradition: the happy ending.
1976 brought the first example of a queer woman dying on television. Julie, a guest character on “Executive Suite,” was hit by a car while chasing after her love interest, who had walked into traffic after realizing she was gay. Over the last 40 years, 162 queer women have been killed on television.
Show creators don’t see the characters beyond their sexuality, Bendix said. “They just really can’t see beyond what happens after we realize that she is a gay woman or bisexual woman.”
This disconnect has led to a disproportionate number of these characters facing death or stunted storylines.
Only one queer woman in 10 enjoyed a happy ending in four decades of television shows, according to statistics collected by LGBT Fans Deserve Better, an organization dedicated to gaining fair representation and treatment of LGBT characters on television.
In contrast, 31 percent of all LGBT+ female characters were killed off, and 38% were written off without resolution.
Despite the clear imbalance between the fates of queer and heterosexual women, neither organization had collected data on other groups.
“In terms of lesbian and bisexual women, there is of course the ‘bury your gays’ trope,” said Amaya Wolf, a spokesperson for LGBT Fans Deserve Better. “[It] has been cynically nicknamed ‘lesbian death trope’ since it seems to disproportionately affect lesbian and bisexual women.”
Themes of betrayal by a lesbian lover also recur, tending to tie into the “evil lesbian” cliché, she said.
The 2015-16 television season was especially hard on queer women, as 13 of the 31 LGBT+ female characters were killed off, according to statistics from LGBT Fans Deserve Better.
One of the most notable deaths occurred on the CW’s “The 100.” A cult favorite set in post-nuclear apocalypse America, the show’s lead is Clarke Griffin, a bisexual woman played by Eliza Taylor. Clarke develops chemistry with the leader of the native population, Lexa, played by Alycia Debnam Carey.
Speculation about the two led fans to name the couple “Clexa.” Fans interacted heavily with the cast and the creator, Jason Rothenburg, on social media.
The two finally connected romantically in the seventh episode of season three, on March 3. Moments later, Lexa was struck down by a stray bullet and dies in Clarke’s arms within minutes.
The death sent shockwaves through the fan base.
“Lexa’s death impacted [young fans] in a way that has perhaps never been seen before on that scale because in many ways she provided good visibility,” Wolf said. “She was looked up to as a strong, complex, well-rounded heroine, and one who just happened to like girls.
These contributed to the character’s strength, she said.
“She wasn’t written as a token lesbian. She was written as a character who happened to be a lesbian.”
This death opened the door to discussion about fair representation as fans reacted and took to social media. It led to the creation of LGBT Fans Deserve Better.
“At the time, we were all regulars on a message board that discussed the show,” Wolf said. “Everyone sort of banded together and organized spontaneously in reaction to what happened, creating a movement that focused on using social media as its primary weapon.”
During the next week, the show did not trend on Twitter, and the hashtag #LGBTFansDeserveBetter trended for nine hours worldwide. Several of the show’s sponsors pulled their sponsorship and support from their advertising slots, Wolf said.
LGBT Fans Deserve Better has become a strong advocate for change. The group began a fundraiser in Lexa’s name for the Trevor Project, a leading suicide prevention organization that focuses on LGBTQ youth in crisis, that has raised $137,832.
In partnership with executive producers from “Saving Hope,” the group created the Lexa Pledge, which calls on members of the entertainment industry to commit to more respectful and mindful treatment of LGBT characters. They have received 16 signatures from producers and writers.
“Artistic and creative freedom is one of the most oft-cited reasons to excuse the use of the [bury your gays] trope,” Wolf said. “But isn’t the very nature of a trope/cliché, the fact that it is no longer creative?”
By drawing attention to the negative effects of this kind of storyline, the group hopes to receive commitments from writers, showrunnersand other industry members to be more creative in their storylines.
The GLAAD survey notes that, although representation across every spectrum is still not at equitable levels, they have mostly improved since years past. With 16 shows pledging to improve their representation of LGBT characters, viewers and critics alike are looking to the future.
“Hopefully, this will challenge other TV writers and networks to move beyond easy, lazy stories, which is something we’ve seen and is also harmful,” Bendix said. ”It’s not a twist anymore.”
Encouraging diversity behind the scenes is also seen as a strategy to create more authentic representation.
“Ideally the people in charge will get more diverse staffs,” Bendix said. “The person in charge has to ask the LGBT person in the room for their opinion because they are the one living in the community, with that experience.”
About the Author
Daniele de Groot is a senior at Boston College. Learn more about her here.