While the following article uses the term “queer” as an overarching descriptor, the primary focus is on the representation of gay and lesbian identities.
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Tragic representation has long plagued LGBTQ+ narratives in media, casting queerness in a negative light. Queer characters often endure tragedy-based storylines that stem from the assumption that being gay is inherently tragic; likewise, they face homophobia, death, suicide, and other hardships more than their heterosexual counterparts. This phenomenon — the queer tragedy trope — maintains the harmful idea that queer love is bound to be punished by suffering and keeps damaging beliefs about queerness alive.
This trope traces back to the Hays Code, which prohibited positive depictions of queerness in film and TV. It was in effect from 1934 to 1968 and aimed to preserve heteronormativity by preventing sympathy for queer-coded characters. Remnants of discrimination still linger in tragic queer representation post-Hays Code, and the nature of tragedy often differs between gay men and sapphic women. In particular, queer men are portrayed as autonomous in performing predatory and violent actions whereas sapphic women are portrayed as powerless and punished.
Gay Men Presented as a Psychological Disorder
One notable aspect of the queer tragedy trope involves the pathologization of homosexuality. In the mid-1900s, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Its classification was based on American social and cultural biases against same-sex relationships, which still affects how Western popular media portrays LGBTQ+ individuals.
An example of this is Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a popular biographical Netflix miniseries. Dahmer, a notorious American serial killer and sex offender, killed and dismembered men with whom he initiated sexual relations. The show portrayed Dahmer’s sexuality and psychological drive to murder as “historically accurate” but represented these distinct aspects as interconnected. For example, after Dahmer kills a gay man in the show, he engages in his sexual fantasies with the corpse and experiments with it, preserving their parts to prevent them from “leaving” him. These scenes illustrate a duality of psychological disorder and “deviant” sexual behaviour in Dahmer’s actions. To the audience, it seemed as if Dahmer’s homosexuality was why he wanted to murder.
The show sparked more controversy when Netflix labelled it as “LGBTQ+” content rather than simply categorizing it as “True Crime” like similar shows. Many people raised concerns about classifying a series that primarily depicts the brutal murders of gay men under the “LGBTQ+” category. The main issue was that it appeared to prioritize Dahmer and the victims’ sexual orientation over the horrific nature of the crimes committed against them, potentially making the crimes themselves seem less significant. More so, it connected one’s sexual orientation to a theme of tragedy and violence, implicitly claiming that queerness is a dangerous space to occupy.
How Queerness Is Portrayed to Involve Sexual Predation
Film and television portrayals of gay men have also depicted their relationships as involving grooming or sexual predation. For example, in Call Me By Your Name, Oliver, a 24-year-old graduate student approaches Elio, a 17-year-old, and forms a romantic and sexual relationship with him. Critics argued that the depiction of this relationship bordered on sexual predation due to the large age gap and the lack of understanding by Elio, a minor, of what the relationship fully constitutes. There were unanswered questions regarding the portrayal of the relationship: Were there problematic power dynamics behind it? Was the sex safe and consensual? Was Elio in control of the relationship, and did he fully understand the ramifications of engaging in the relationship?
The main issue that arose from this was how the film introduces the concept of potential grooming and sexual predation as something “dreamy” and pursuable. This phenomenon contributes to the intensification of the daddy-baby fetish, which is when gay youth try to pursue relationships, romantic or sexual, with much older men because they desire domination and lack of control. While fetishization can be safe and healthy with appropriate age gaps, media that portray relationships with drastic age differences may incite underage gay youth to seek out potentially dangerous relationships with grown men.
Both Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story and Call Me By Your Name depict gay characters as fully autonomous, creating a problematic duality by portraying perpetrators as autonomous and victims as lacking control. This misrepresentation emphasizes the perceived harmful impact of queerness on youth, which conveys an incorrect message. Dahmer actively murders his mostly young or underage victims, while Oliver engages in a questionable relationship with the underage Elio. It reinforces the unfounded notion that gay men are inherently dangerous because they exercise complete control over their decisions and actions, thereby perpetuating harmful stereotypes suggesting a “gay agenda” involving grooming or criminal behaviour.
Powerless and Punished Sapphics in Film and Television
While tragedy is a recurrent theme in queer representation, what queer women face often suggests a lack of autonomy and a form of punishment.
In 2016, four iconic lesbian and bisexual women characters were killed off on popular television shows within a month. Notably among these characters was Lexa from The 100, who got shot by a bullet intended for Clarke, a woman she had slept with minutes before her death after two seasons of build-up. Lexa’s death outraged fans who argued it was needless and unfitting of a beloved character whose final scene deserved more nuance. Show writers got criticized further, considering how much positive publicity the show gained from introducing queer characters, motivated by their encouragement to fans of the couple.
Around 230 queer women have been killed on television, contributing to what some have termed dead lesbian syndrome. Much like Lexa in The 100, victims of dead lesbian syndrome are often killed after affirming their sexuality, which almost seems a cruel punishment for their attraction to women. Lexa’s death closely mirrors Tara’s death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who also gets killed by a stray bullet after sharing her first kiss with Willow. We see this again in the recent finale of Killing Eve when Villanelle and Eve kiss after four seasons of build-up, only for the episode to close with Villanelle being shot dead. Julie from Executive Suite (1976), considered the first instance of this trope, is hit by a car moments after she accepts her love for her best friend.
The dead lesbian trope often occurs in similar ways: the character is usually the only, or one of the only queer women on a show, with a loyal fanbase often related to their queerness. Shortly after affirming their sexuality or finally coming together with their partner after a long build-up, she gets killed in ways that feel senseless and abrupt, and surprisingly often in the arms of her partner.
Repeatedly, lesbian and bisexual women are represented as victims, tragic figures who die due to circumstance. Like Lexa, they die in ways that seem unreflective of their otherwise established strength and complexity, stripped of autonomy and power as they bleed out.
Intersections of Queerness and Gendered Expectation
Media critics have pointed out instances of the women in refrigerators trope for years, where women get brutally killed to be found by men, driving their revenge or grief-laden character arcs. Fridging has been rightly called out by media critics for lazy writing that diminishes women into plotlines for men.
Fridging and dead lesbian syndrome come together interestingly for Charlie in Supernatural, a fan-favourite lesbian character. Supernatural has a long history of queer-baiting between two of their male leads and a longer history of violently killing their women characters to move along the plot. The show has been criticized for using extreme depictions of violence against women to motivate the brothers out of revenge or sorrow.
Charlie was written as passionate and fierce, especially resonating with fans as a rare hyper-nerdy lesbian character. Her fan-favourite status did not save her from violent death, with one of the male protagonists finding her brutally stabbed corpse in a bathtub. Her death was abrupt and off-screen, taking away from Supernatural’s very-limited positive queer representation and finishing the storyline of a beloved character. Ultimately, she dies to push the character who found her corpse into a path of revenge — as a plot device.
Dead lesbian syndrome demonstrates how internal biases impact film. Persistent ideas of queer folks as inevitably tragic or punishable, and women as weak, lacking autonomy, and being side figures to male protagonists produce depictions of tragically-dead queer women.
Impacts of the Queer Tragedy Trope
As much as intersecting oppressions shape the queer tragedy trope, it also shapes the world around us. When popular stories surrounding queer people exist just as tragedies, queer youth and those still in the closet are led to believe queerness is incompatible with joy or acceptance. Although queer representation in media is something to celebrate, we must demand quality representation through diverse storytelling and non-disposable characters.
Mainstream media must recognize that queer people have complex narratives beyond tragedy. According to The Trevor Project’s 2022 survey, an overwhelming 89 percent of respondents found that positive portrayals of queer characters in media boosted their confidence in their own identities. However, persistent negative representation can have adverse effects on mental health. Another survey by The Trevor Project revealed that 45 percent of queer youth contemplated suicide due to lack of support for their identities. Positive media representation can counteract this trend by fostering self-worth and acceptance.
Furthermore, we must demand diverse representation as media impacts people’s conceptions of gender and queerness. Making conscious efforts to move beyond only tragic queer representation is an important part of addressing the real-world reasons why we see queer people as tragic, lesbian women as disposable, and gay men as predatory. While representing the real trauma queer people are often subject to is necessary, it is essential to highlight the also joyous experiences that come with queerness.