You Need Help: Can I Kill Queer Characters As A Queer Writer?

Q:

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?


A:

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.

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Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 202 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Less eloquently: yes, bury those gays if: they’re not part of the only queer couple in the work AND you’re not blatantly fridging them to further someone else’s character development.

    Or you know, screw any rules, queer art is queer art

  2. 💯 this!! If we continually censor ourselves in order not to offend certain people – consider it the death of art. We might as well not create anything at all – since what ever you do, someone out there will not like what you have written or created.

    As Alan Burr says in Hamilton “Death doesn’t discriminate between the sinners and the saints. It takes and it takes.”
    Both gay and straight people die. Thats a basic fact. Even the best ones, sadly.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful take on this, Drew. I think this is the right advice to give queer creators, because ultimately no one who’s writing in good faith should stop themselves from writing what speaks to them.

    To the question-asker: even though I personally am tragedied-out at the moment, that doesn’t mean that I’d run you off twitter just because your art didn’t happen to be my cup of tea. In fact, I’ll go out of my way to see movies/shows from genres I don’t like if I hear they are really good.

    I’m sure you’ll find plenty of love and support from our fellow queers who are into tragedy (except for the few people on social media who’ll be mad at you no matter what you do). Hugs and best of luck to you!

  4. As a fellow writer, I think treating your characters and story with integrity is the biggest thing. If you do that (and like others have noted and you’ve already specified, they’re not the only gays yada yada), then any deaths will be earned and meaningful, and “ugh it’s another bury your gays story” will only be the reaction from people who didn’t read it closely (or at all). I’m also tragedied-out, but you do you(r best writing) and it will be fine. It’ll be better than fine!

  5. Wow Drew. You really summed all this up in a way I never really thought about. Thank you for that. The screenplay I was talking about-which I finished several months ago-(it’s not the one I sent you, it’s a different one.) did involve soem death and tragedy among come of the cast, but it didn’t exactly end the way I thought it would? They are going to die, but they also aren’t going to die? It’s complicated. You’ll just have to wait till it gets on the silver screen. However, even though they’re not exactly going to be permanently killed off, this essay was still really helpful and insightful to queer/trans creators. I’m wishing you luck on the film your working on!

  6. Also, the Bechdel Test only works when it’s not a good-or-bad, yes-or-no thing. Making it all about “passing” actually misses its point.

    And I don’t know if it’s a good place to say it, but thanks to you, Drew, I read Schrag’s Adam, a great book (and a huge discomfort for me as a queer cis woman!). And after reading too many comments on good reads, I’m waiting for the essay you will write about it one day (I hope). Take care!

    • “Is it that Willow and Tara couldn’t even kiss until the show switched networks?”

      Willow and Tara first kissed in S5, “The Body” (2-27-01), on the WB. [They switched networks later the following season]

  7. If you stop and think about whether you’re killing your queer characters for the right reasons, you almost certainly are.

    Not everyone will agree of course but the actual text of the *Bury your Gays* trope doesn’t read “the gays die” but that they die **because they’re queer**. There are some further nuances, but that’s the core of it.

    But if you’re telling a story where characters can be killed as part of the nature of the story – if you tell a queer version of “The Bourne Identity” say, and you keep everyone alive people will find that odd – most people will accept some of the queer characters are going to die. If you write something where no one in the core cast is expected to die, like a queer version of “Bridesmaids” and you kill off your queers there’s going to be more complaints!

  8. I think we, as queer writers, sometimes are thinking too much on ethical questions. We are allowed to do what we want with our characters. Just follow the story, if the story needs it just kill your character. I’m sure we can get out of stereotipes (even lesbian death on movies) in many ways.

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