Hello beautiful badass and brave writers of autostraddle!
I’m working on a screenplay, and I’ve put a lot of time and work and effort in it. I won’t get too much into it cause then this paragraph will be a mile long, but case short, it’s a very queer story, it’s full of queer women, queer women are filling the entirety of the screen. It’s set in a different timeline, under vastly different circumstances. There are numerous queer lady characters, and not all of them have atrocious endings, but a couple of the main characters get killed off. I’ve always dreaded the “bury your gays trope” and I hate it when straight cis male directors use it. But how does it apply to me as a queer screenwriter? This isn’t my only screenplay, I have plenty of other ideas for films about queer people, and minorities in general that have happy and deserving and funny premises. My stuff isn’t all tragic.
Basically what I’m trying to ask is, as a queer filmmaker, am I allowed to kill off my queer characters?
I have a job on a movie right now that’s about a trans woman. It’s directed and co-written by a cis man. The other co-writer is also a cis man. When the movie comes out the community will have thoughts about it — as we always do — and these men will not care the way that you do.
It’s good that way we care. It’s good that we understand the history of queer film and television and want to avoid the missteps of the past. But so many of the missteps we concern ourselves with were not made by us. As queer creators, we have an obligation to be aware of our history, but we also have an obligation to not be defined by artists outside of our community.
For those of us who are very online, it can feel like we’re experiencing a wave of conservatism in queer art. Necessary conversations about representation have lost all nuance and been replaced with calls for moral perfectionism in queer characters and queer stories. But here’s the thing about a lot of this backlash: You can just ignore it. A handful of people on Twitter are not the community. And we would all be well-served to stop letting discourse get defined in this way. I guarantee the cis people and straight people making work about us are not concerned with these tweets.
Now it’s important to note that as a community we are often harsher on our own. It’s also important to note that many of us do not have the privilege to simply disconnect from the internet. For many of us the internet was the only way for us to build platforms and having those platforms was the only way for us to get opportunities. But we can be thoughtful about when to respond. We can choose when we want to share a tweet or a piece of criticism and when we want to shift the conversation elsewhere. I’m not saying this is always easy. Lives have been ruined by misguided internet backlash. But we can at least try be more thoughtful about the conversations we engage in and how this engagement manifests. Because the issue is usually far more nuanced than the conversations that occur.
For example, let’s take one of the most famous instances of the dead lesbian trope — Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Here we have an abusive cishet male creator killing half of the show’s only queer couple. But is the issue really Tara’s death? Or is it the lack of other queer characters? Is it that Willow and Tara had to be sweet and palatable? Is it that Willow and Tara couldn’t even kiss until the show switched networks? Is it that Buffy and Faith had the sexual tension of a thousand fanfics but the lead of the show could never be queer? Is it that the show as a whole had an incredibly toxic view of women and female sexuality? I would argue it’s not that Tara was killed. It’s all of these issues — and then that Tara was killed.
It can be helpful to discuss tropes. It can be helpful to come up with things like the Bechdel Test. But as queer creators, queer critics, and queer audiences, it’s equally as important that we acknowledge the limitations of these metrics. People want an easy way to judge if something is good or bad, but that’s not how art works. Art is not good or bad. Audiences — even audiences with the same identities and similar experiences — will not agree on what is good and bad or what is good and bad about any particular work.
If queer creators are so worried about backlash from the community that we begin to self-censor, then the only interesting queer work will be made by straight people. It might be bold, but it will be less interesting, less specific, and ultimately negative in the very ways queer people are seeking to avoid.
The history of queer media is not Joss Whedon. The history of queer media is John Waters. It’s Cheryl Dunye, it’s Pedro Almodóvar, it’s Shirley Wood. It’s underground, it’s pornographic, it’s free and dangerous and uncomfortable. Some of it, anyway. And more of it should be. Experiencing art through a cishet gaze is more dangerous than any work itself could ever be. We cannot watch and read and listen this way. And, most importantly, we cannot create for queer people who do.
So bury your gays. They’re yours after all.