Let’s play a game.
- Think of a lesbian character on TV or in film.
- Did she get to live?
- If yes, did her partner get to live?
- If yes, did they get a happy ending?
I doubt you got as far as 4. If you did, can you name another?
Let’s try this, then.
- Think of a straight character on TV or in film.
- Did they get to live?
- If yes, did their partner get to live?
- If yes, did they get a happy ending?
I doubt you’ll find it difficult to think of one. I can think of ten very easily, without even trying.
I’m bored of it. I’m bored of getting texts from my friends telling me that another character they loved – that they watched a show for, because we have to do that – had been killed. I’m bored of no happy endings. I’m bored of it being such a pervasive issue that someone has felt the need to make a list of media in which the lesbians don’t die. It’s in its infancy, prompted by a recent plot development on a popular show (clue: a dead lesbian, again), but it looks to be an important and positive thing. I just wish it wasn’t necessary. I’m bored of writers like Sally Wainwright adding to it, then telling us it’s a myth. The most common argument that I hear is “straight characters get killed off too” and “it’s important for the narrative”, but that just isn’t good enough. Each character exists within the wider culture, and the wider culture is littered with our bodies. I want writers to acknowledge this, to be aware of the communities they are representing and to do something about it. It doesn’t take much to find examples of storylines that have prompted people coming out to their families, and to themselves. It normalises us. It makes us acceptable. It must feel so good to create that. It must feel so good to keep going.
Interestingly, it’s not even a myth at all. American film production from 1934 to 1968 was regulated by the Production Code Administration, known as The Code, which censored the film industry. This is a very interesting article about it. The Code states that “impure love, the love which society has always regarded as wrong and which has been banned by divine law … must not be presented as attractive and beautiful“: in other words, it may be shown, but not positively. Sure, The Code was replaced in 1968 with the familiar G-NC-17 ratings system, but films about gay people are habitually rated R without what many see as just cause, so I’m not sure it’s really changed all that much. And it would be naive to suggest that British ratings are unaffected by American ones.
Carol was so groundbreaking because of this trope: before Patricia Highsmith wrote it, there were never any happy endings for lesbians, and theirs is barely even that happy. Last Tango In Halifax was pretty groundbreaking, too, until Sally Wainwright couldn’t work out how to get out of the corner she’d painted herself into so, instead of dealing with Celia’s homophobia and racism, she took the easy way out and just took away the problem. Apparently, Caroline will not have another love interest: she has been made sexless, which is apparently the only way we can be acceptable. I, and countless others like me, feel used and ignored.
The single, solitary glimmer of hope right now seems to be Call The Midwife – who would’ve thought?! But that’s just one story line that hasn’t ended in horror. I want mainstream lesbians. I want to be in mainstream media. I want to be seen. And I want your romantic happy endings. I want teenage girls to see themselves on the television. I want those storylines to be woven into mainstream programmes, for the girls like I was who didn’t accept themselves, who wouldn’t dare watch A Lesbian Show, for fear of being found out. I want them to see storylines that give them something to aspire to, like the countless romances that their heterosexual counterparts have. I want them to see that they have happiness in their future as women who love women.
I want to be seen by straight people so that they don’t hate us.
When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you, whether you are dark-skinned, old, disabled, female, or speak with a different accent or dialect than theirs, when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing – Adrienne Rich
And when those with the power to name and socially construct reality choose to kill you off, there comes a moment of understanding: the only way we are acceptable is in isolation, grieving, or dead. The only way we are acceptable, if we exist at all, is to be lesser.
Ultimately, being visible in the media makes us acceptable. If we are acceptable on our screens, perhaps we won’t keep dying in real life. I went to school with someone who is now serving time for taking part in kicking a man to death for being gay. This is not abstract. This is not history. This is now, and the endless stream of dead lesbians on the television is really not helping.
Note: as a bisexual woman, I use ‘lesbian’ to group together characters who are women-loving-women, because it is easiest. This isn’t ideal.