Talk Tropes To Me: Bury Your Gays
In these days of online discourse and international fandom, the terminology bandied about can lose its meaning, removed from the context and mindset that inspired its use with regard to a particular thing which demanded nuance. That is to say, a word used without discrimination or real comprehension starts to get fuzzy around the edges like a photograph captured again and again, mise en abyme.
This phenomena is not in and of itself cause for concern. Language evolves, branches out dynamically, and yet retains its etymological roots. The changes in language are natural, unavoidable, and often pretty funny. It is when a fundamentally misunderstood term is used as ammunition to make potshots in the creative media world that folks need to step back and reevaluate what is actually being presented. Bury your gays (BYG) is one such abused phrase.
To clarify a couple key points, this article will examine the meaning and uses of BYG from a creator’s perspective. That perspective isn’t a disguise for the devil’s advocate. This trope is a legitimate problem and has been for many decades. However, the death of a homosexual character in a story is not always a rearing of said trope, and analyzing a couple examples in modern stories will help clarify how to tell if a character death is biased laziness or a natural casualty of the plot.
With that said, BYG is a pretty self-evident trope. A story has a homosexual character, then they are killed off. Wait, you might think, characters are killed off all the time. Conflict drives story, and people die. That is true. With this and similar tropes, though, the crux is not in what happens but in why.
A common argument is BYG stems from the assumption or decision on the writer’s part that a given character—a gay character in this case—is less critical to the plot than their straight counterparts. That is a bit of an oversimplification, though it often sufficed in earlier decades. These days, consider there to be two broad categories of BYG: main character and side character. The latter is where the “less critical” argument comes from, and perpetuates a trend of minority characters biting the bullet before straight cis white counterparts. Think of The Walking Dead’s “Black Man Problem,” another self-explanatory trend emerging from the deaths of every single black man on the show except popular character Morgan. TWD also has problems with its LGBT characters, killing recurring character Aaron’s husband and lesbian couple Denise and Tara.
Minority characters are often added as sidekicks, comedic relief, and love interests as a clutch for diversity points. Seen as less critical to the plot, by virtue of being a side character who may or may not have garnered some affection from fans, when the plot demands a death, these side characters are easy pickings. Lazy writing, plain and simple, plus underlying biases, and the most common form of BYG.
Main character BYG is more often about angst and for obvious reasons most frequently takes place at the end of a story. It is different from side character BYG in that it is difficult to kill a main character in a throw away action, but it may be done because:
1) The writers don’t know what to do with this character and need them out of the way
2) A death for shock value is required
3) The main crew needs some kind of shared trauma/motivation
They escape the main pitfalls by virtue of their main character plot armor, right up until they must sacrifice themselves to save the world or a loved one, lose their memory, fail in their quest, fall to the dark side, etc. Many see this as a legacy of the Hays Code, effective from 1930 to 1968 in the United States, which prohibited depictions of the taboo—including homosexuality—unless the characters engaging in the taboo are shown as suitably punished/reformed. Others view the lack of happy endings for LGBT characters as an unimaginative continuation of historical oppression and violence against the community. Both can and are true… and are not.
The Haunting of Bly Manor released in October 2020 as another entry in the paranormal anthology of series Netflix began with The Haunting of Hill House. Adapted from the iconic paranormal classic The Turn of the Screw, the show follows lead character Dani who has accepted an au pair position taking care of two children who recently lost their parents and first nanny to unrelated misfortunes. Over the course of the season, Dani gradually develops a relationship with the gardener, Jamie. Toward the end, they live together, form a civil union due to being unable to marry, and enjoy many happy years together. Unfortunately, to end the haunting which plagued Bly Manor and it’s residents, Dani merged with the enraged spirit, the Lady of the Lake. It allowed her to live, but when the spirit’s influence began to threaten Jamie’s life, Dani knew her time was up. She returned to the lake and died.
Many were disappointed Dani missed out on her happy ending, but the ending holds up for a number of reasons beginning with how the ending could have been happy had the framing of the narrative not forced them to a resolution. To be believable, the Lady of the Lake would not politely recede to nothingness, Dani could not have avoided her to the end. More crucially, Dani and Jamie’s relationship is mirrored at the start of the series by that of Dani and her male fiancé, who, after a rocky breakup, was killed. His death was not Dani’s responsibility. Nevertheless, she feels a great deal of guilt, and her coming to terms with his violent end, the part she played in it, and her sexuality is a subplot lovingly rendered and allowed to breathe throughout the narrative. Her inability to prevent what befell her ex-fiancé heavily influences her choice at the end of Bly when she does have the ability to protect her loved one. Her character is fully fledged, her motivations are clear and well-founded, and the end is not the result of random happenstance.
Some will still claim Dani’s fate to be an example of BYG, and truthfully it is an arguable position. Although I personally love to argue, the discussion will have to wait, so may I offer a less ambiguous example of BYG to sate the palates of the so-inclined?
Long running CW show Supernatural aired its third-to-last episode in November 2020 as the series wraps. At the end of the episode, character Castiel is sent to hell. The angel made a huge entrance in Season 4 and quickly became a fan-favorite, leading to what was meant to be a passing support character stepping into a main-stage role. In his first appearance, he had just returned one of the lead brothers—Dean—from hell. Over the course of the following nine seasons, viewers came to regard hell as a sort of gag. Death meant little to the main characters who found ways out of heaven, hell, and purgatory as shoppers might escape IKEA. As a result, writers crafted “superhell” essentially, as fans have dubbed it, for Castiel to be sent to. What sparked his descent? He confessed he loved the character he dragged up from hell. Having made a bargain that forbade him from being happy, the confession brought him enough happiness that he was immediately punished and dragged to superhell, permanently.
This death, unlike Dani’s, is a prime example of BYG. Although Castiel and the brothers enjoyed a long though fraught friendship as he became a mainstay in their lives, any romantic relationship between the two men existed in the minds of audience members who supported the “ship” alone. The writers and cast, aside from Castiel’s actor Misha Collins, did not support Dean and Cas having a romantic relationship, but in a concession to longtime fans, the ship was confirmed in the second to last episode. Some were thrilled to have the canonization, but nobody denies how awkward and forced the scene played out. The sudden development, followed immediately by horrible death, speaks to lazy writing which sought cheap validation from the fanbase while conveniently getting rid of the character so they didn’t have to deal with him in the finale. However, it must be noted that since the finale has not yet been released, Supernatural has the chance to claw respect back from superhell, but given Misha Collins does not have credits for the episode on IMDB, such redemption is dubious.
So—where do we go from here? Is every LGBT+ fictional death an example of BYG? The name might suggest yes, but here’s the rub—more LGBT characters are finding the spotlight in stories these days, and that is great, but that also means more LGBT character deaths are going to occur. For some, that will always be a turn-off and tragedy, and anyone is welcome to curate their media consumption accordingly. Like the Damsel in distress and amnesia tropes, what matters is how and why a deed is done. While nothing is full proof, here is a guide of questions to ask yourself to determine whether a character death is BYG or not.
1) Did they die for no reason but shock?
2) Was their death a catalyst for the main character’s arc?
3) Was their death justified by the story outside of the angst potential?
4) Are there surviving LGBT characters who are not the deceased’s partner?
5) Was the character a nameless, faceless extra who was introduced then instantly killed?
6) Did they contribute to the plot before and after death?
7) Was the death a result of the character’s role in the story or purely circumstantial?
Creators cannot satisfy the entirety of their audiences, regardless of how attuned to said audience the production team behind a project may be. To a degree, pandered satisfaction would hardly merit the feeling, as modern media as shown in recent years that hollow gestures toward inclusivity without real substance are better likened to condescension than applause. However, it is relatively safe to say when it comes to favored and meaningful characters, audiences prefer them, well—alive.