GLAAD’s announcement that 2015’s Network Responsibility Index would be its last was surprising and surprisingly encouraging. As Riese noted when she reported it on it last September, LGBTQ representation on TV had evolved to the point that quality was becoming more important than quantity. “We are there,” Riese said. “We are in the picture.” And of course she was right. Riese and I both keep spreadsheets in our head (and a literal one on Google Drive) detailing every single lesbian, bisexual, and trans woman in TVs history; we could see that what GLAAD president Sarah Ellis was telling us was true: “LGBT representation has increased to the point that we can be found in the programming of nearly every major network.” Behind the scenes, we even decided that it was okay to stop trying to cover everything and to focus only on what was good.
Then Lexa happened. But not just Lexa. Zora from The Shannara Chronicles. Carla from Code Black. Julie Mao from The Expanse. Ash from Janet King. Kira from The Magicians. Denise from The Walking Dead. Nora and Mary Louise from The Vampire Diaries. Mimi and Camilla from Empire. Cara Thomas from Marcella. Pamela Clayborne from Saints & Sinners. Felicity, Bridey, Mayfair, Root, Poussey, Bea, Sara Harvey, Julia, Helen. 25 lesbian and bisexual characters have died on TV since GLAAD retired its Network Responsibility Index a year ago, bringing the grand total of queer women’s deaths on TV to 166. (For now. Our list gets an update almost every other week.)
Today, GLAAD released its other annual TV report, the Where We Are on TV report, and while there are some encouraging things to talk about, statistically, GLAAD is also feeling the frustration.
While much improvement has been made and TV remains incredibly far ahead of film in terms of LGBTQ representation, it must be made clear that television – and broadcast series more specifically – failed queer women this year as character after character was killed. This is especially disappointing as this very report just last year called on broadcast content creators to do better by lesbian and bisexual women after superfluous deaths on Chicago Fire and Supernatural. This continues a decades-long trend of killing LGBTQ characters – often solely to further a straight, cisgender character’s plotline – which sends a dangerous message to audiences. It is important that creators do not reinvigorate harmful tropes, which exploit an already marginalized community.
The year between this year’s Where We Are On TV report and last year’s has been, without question, the most frustrating year ever for queer women who love television. Yes, there have been years where we had hardly any TV representation at all, but the trend since 2006 had been consistently encouraging. Every year for the last ten years, we have seen more queer women on TV and we have seen better portrayals of queer women on TV. I think one of the reasons Lexa’s death caused so much outrage is that she seemed like the ultimate symbol of queer women having arrived. She hadn’t come onto The 100 as a Queer Character; her relationship with Clarke evolved naturally, the way it would between any straight characters. She was complicated and layered and beloved. Her death, and the landslide of lesbian/bi deaths that came after it, were crushing because they shook the hope out of us.
And it was more than just a feeling. One of the bleakest things about this year’s Where We Are On TV report is the acknowledgement that lesbian representation on broadcast TV dropped 16% since last year and lesbians on cable are down 2%. On cable! This is the first year since The L Word began that lesbian representation has gone down on cable TV. While bisexual women are getting a small boost in visibility, it’s often coming at the cost of damaging cliches. (Looking straight at you,Gotham!) And women, in general, are still trailing behind men on TV. We only make up 44% of regular characters, but we make up 51% of the population.
But GLAAD’s Where We Are on TV report is a shot of optimism in two ways.
1) The statistics as a whole are promising.
+ 43 of 853 series regulars on broadcast TV are LGBTQ, the highest percentage (4.8%) ever. Plus 28 recurring characters. When you juxtapose this stat with the one about lesbian representation, you can see that this increase of LGBTQ characters is because of gay men.
+ There are 142 LGBTQ characters on primetime cable TV.
+ Streaming platforms boast 65 LGBTQ characters (the highest percentage compared to straight characters of any way to watch TV).
+ There are 12 trans women on TV, and 16 trans people total, which is double the number of trans characters from last year. (Though, of course, the most prominent and critically acclaimed trans woman — Maura from Transparent — is played by a cis man.
+ The number of bisexual women on TV is up on broadcast and streaming TV.
+ Black series regulars are at an all-time high (but Black women only make up 38% of those characters).
+ Racial diversity, in general, is on the rise. 36% of broadcast TV characters are people of color.
2) This is the first time GLAAD has ever specifically mentioned the Bury Your Gays trope in their Where We Are On TV report, and they gave it both a prominent place and used strong language to call on TV creators to cut it out. That GLAAD took this step is a direct result of the activism that sprang out of Lexa’s death of The 100. Not only did fans raise a significant amount of money for The Trevor Project and start their own convention, they forced mainstream media to pay attention to Bury Your Gays for the first time in history. Riese and I gave at least a dozen interviews to big, well-respected mainstream magazines and newspapers about Lexa’s death and where it fits into queer TV history. Variety wrote about, Entertainment Weekly wrote about it, The Hollywood Reporter wrote about it. Y’all, The Washington Post and The New York Times wrote about it. That matters.
It also matters that GLAAD called it out specifically and prominently in this year’s Where We Are on TV. GLAAD has been releasing this study for 11 years and by providing cold, hard stats they’ve forced networks and showrunners to pay attention and to change things for the better. It has not been a good year for queer women on TV, and GLAAD knows it, and now so does everyone else.