My main question entering into this project was about discussing the effects of a lesbian character’s death on viewers, especially viewers who identify as lesbians or bisexual. In finding articles, I did not necessarily find much about the effects of lesbian character death on viewers. What I did find were numerous articles on the general topic of LGB representation in entertainment media.
Researching the history of Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual (LGB) inclusion in television and movies has unearthed an interesting history. In particular, The Production Code of 1930 also called the Hays Code, made it voluntary for the exclusion of LGB characters. Specifically, the document said “Sex Perversion or any inference to it is forbidden”. This seemed a subtle way for people who considered same gender romantic relationships as deviant, to exclude the perspectives in their works. Though the guidelines were specifically made for movies, the same rules were adhered to when it came to television production. Fortunately, these restrictions have not been strictly adhered to since the 1960s, but the ideals behind them are still perpetuated.
It could be assumed that because of the limitations such rules reinforced, strategic characterization was used to portray LGB characters. Specifically, this is called queer coding. This is where creators hint that a character is queer*. This is a heavily used strategy especially among villainous characters in works. In an article by Samantha Allen*, Allen noted how Disney as a media enterprise has created villains that represent otherness in American society. In turn, many of the villains are queer coded as a means of comedy and a warning for children to not behave the way villains do and to be wary of those who do behave or look similarly. So either viewers do not see LGB characters or they see them as bad people. Furthermore, the reach Disney has with young children and their families illustrates how effective media can be in people’s formative years as a means of learning morals and empathy for instance. If children who are viewers and the few who grow up to be creators of their own media works, have these ideas as the foundations about LGB people, they will just continue perpetuate potentially harmful stereotypes.
Recently many works have counteracted the tradition of negative representations of LGB characters by including more dynamic LGB subjects. In turn we now have more engaging LGB characters of which some are even heroes. The reactions to the inclusion of lesbian relationships in popular shows just reinforces how impactful positive inclusion can be. For instance, the reaction to the lesbian characters Nomi and Amanita from the Netflix original series Sense8. Though their relationship is just one aspect of each of their dynamic and intersecting identities, them as a couple expressing their intense love throughout the show has garnered much appreciation from fans. Their fondness was shown through articles, fan based works* and blog posts. In addition to that, other television series have created such a following for their woman loving characters (wlw)* characters that they have popular songs dedicated to them.
Creators of similarly inclusive works weigh in on how their own works have helped them in understanding/coming to terms with various identities and on their effects on viewers. Creator of Steven Universe; Rebecca Sugar has noted how affective her work can be on young viewers. Sugar said in an interview, “you can’t wait until kids have grown up to let them know that queer people exist… If you wait to tell queer youth that it matters how they feel or that they are even a person, then it’s going to be too late!”. In her work for Cartoon Network, Sugar portrays the subtleties of the romantic and platonic relationships women can have with each other. Her work is especially significant because of the audience it draws being an animated work. Some think portraying gay and lesbian issues to children is inappropriate because people think they have to explain how gay and lesbian people have sex with each other. This idea is ridiculous because a child does not need such explanations to understand relationships. Just like they do not need to know that to enjoy any Disney film for instance when they portray heterosexual romances. Sugar realized how important it is to see these portrayals as young children so that it creates a foundation of understanding and inclusion.
Other creators share Sugar’s sentiments about the importance of showing positive portrayals of wlw in children’s media. Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartino, producers of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra (LoK) show this well in the relationship between Korra and Asami in LoK. In response to negative reception of the final episode DiMartino wrote “we did it for all our queer friends, family, and colleagues. It is long overdue that our media (including children’s media) stops treating non-heterosexual people as nonexistent, or as something merely to be mocked”. In LoK’s finale, Korra and Asami shared an intimate look as they left for the spirit world. To clarify, that is not a euphemism for them dying, the shows canon includes the spirit world as a destination one can visit. Anyway, the reception from viewers who liked the shows finale were filled with resounding praise to the writers and animators for their work. The development of Korra and Asami’s relationship exemplifies how growth and change can be positive. It is essential that young children understand that these stages are not to be feared (especially young people discovering aspects of their sexuality).
As more creators include these perspectives in their works (whole and dynamic LGB characters, not just plot points) the more reflective it will be of actual people’s real lives. Thus providing esteem for people (when seeing themselves reflected in media), understanding for others and finally a step forward in unlearning prejudices we all hold that were reinforced by harmful representations.
*Queer: I use this word not only as a part of the definition of the tactics used but as a word to be more inclusive of identities. But I understand the history of the words usage and I’m sorry if it offensive to someone (sorry again).
*Samantha Allen article: Allen talks about how Ursula from The Little Mermaid is relevant and important to lesbians, so it’s worth a read.
*WLW (women loving women): I use this to be inclusive of bisexual women. But I understand everyone deserves their own space. Also, I’m not sure if the creators have specifically said the orientation of the characters but they have said that the characters are/have been in romantic relationships with other female characters.
Last semester I chose to research in depth about the issue of how lesbian and bisexual women were treated in television shows. I chose this topic because of the frequency of deaths or unhappy exits those characters faced that spring. I noted the issue because my Tumblr dash and Twitter time line were flooded with angry posts from viewers of various shows. Upon research I found out that this unsettling occurrence was a trope and has been consistent in media productions. It is called “Bury your Gays”. According to tvtropes.com, “gay characters just aren’t allowed happy endings. Even if they do end up having some kind of relationship, at least one half of the couple…has to die at the end”. These include characters that are coded as LGB (many being villains), not just ones that expressly say they are interested in the same sex. It is the frequency and degree to which these characters are killed that really leaves a toll on viewers. Their narratives are removed thus excluding knowledge of their experience besides stereotypes. Continue reading “#LetLesbiansLive”