Consider, for example, Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003), which introduced a lesbian couple only to kill one of the pair to trigger the emotional breakdown of the other. Or The 100 (2014-present), in which an eagerly-anticipated lesbian pairing became canon, only to have one of the women die within ten episodes of showrunners making the relationship official. Or Brokeback Mountain (2005), a film about gay men in which one of the pair is murdered in a hate crime. Even though the number of LGBTQ+ representative characters has improved, a viewer could be forgiven for thinking that, overall, mainstream media is not in favour of long, happy lives for LGBTQ+ characters.
It is arguable that the genre of these texts makes death or harm likely – if there was no danger for the characters, then there may be no suspense for the audience. But LGBTQ+ character are less well-represented and therefore disproportionately killed in these texts, which is perhaps why audiences resist this narrative technique even when it is genre appropriate.
In cases like these, fans may react negatively to the content or the creator. Sometimes these reactions are meant to be educational and stimulate a dialogue, sometimes they can come across as aggressive towards the creators behind the content. Some creators tend to get a bit defensive when they perceive fandom reactions as an attempt to police content rather than open a dialogue.
There was a very interesting example of a course-corrected Bury Your Gays storyline from The Adventure Zone (2014-present), which is a fairly well-known actual play Dungeons and Dragons podcast. The Adventure Zone (TAZ) is performed by brothers Griffin, Justin, and Travis, and their father Clint, recording remotely from their homes in various cities in the USA. Griffin acts as the Dungeon Master (DM) and is responsible for guiding the narrative and playing non-player characters (NPCs), while the others perform player characters (PCs) who react to Griffin’s storytelling prompts. In one of the mini-arcs of the series, Griffin included a storyline where two queer women, Hurley and Sloane, enter a relationship and die by the conclusion of the arc.
Fans were initially quite vocal about this representation. They took to twitter (the preferred platform for engagement with the McElroys) and explained that they considered this an extension of the Bury Your Gays trope. Griffin actually took the time to educate himself about the trope and talked about it in a meta-episode later in the year:
“… when I was writing that, I was like, “Oh, it’s the first, like, romance in the show, and I’ll give it a tragic ending,” without knowing that there was whole fucking like— that’s how most, uh, like, gay and lesbian relationships in media end, is with tragic endings, which I didn’t realize. And so I’ve stepped in that a lot” (The The Adventure Zone Zone 2017).
During the second-last episode of the first season, Griffin used his power as the Dungeon Master to revive the pairing by turning them into dryads. They went on to lead the armies of Earth against an alien invasion. In this case, once the Bury Your Gays trope was pointed out to the creator, not only did he learn from the experience but he took steps to fix his error in-fiction by creating what has affectionately been styled in the TAZ fandom as the ‘Unbury Your Gays’ trope. I have not come across another situation like this in fandom, but I would be very interested to hear about it.
One now infamous example of a use of the BYG trope in fiction which led to a huge fan backlash was how The 100 handled the death of fan-favorite Lexa, a lesbian character. The industrial and PR context, along with the narrative one, played a huge part in this. Actually, Jason Rothenberg, the showrunner of The 100, and his team, with the help of The CW, queerbaited a part of the audience by promoting the character and the couple she formed with Clarke. For example, Jason Rothenberg tweeted directly to the fans, using their own language (the hashtag #Clexa) that the “couple was seaworthy”. He also posted a picture taken during the filming of the last episode of the season showing the actresses playing Clarke and Lexa together, leading fans to believe Lexa would survive the season. Members of his team infiltrated message boards with aliases and started dialogues with fans, orienting the conversations towards the character of Lexa and the couple. Finally, The CW used Lexa as the poster girl for season 3, implying she was one of the lead character in the show.
When Lexa died in episode 7 of Season 3 hit by a stray bullet shot by her father figure that was meant for Clarke, just after having sex with her girlfriend for the first time, fans felt betrayed and angered by the issues of negative LGBTQ representations. Fans gather in their online community to seek or give support, to tell their own stories and how Lexa helped them accept who they are. The community was a safe heaven where fans could find the help they needed after the episode. But what is interesting in this example is how fans turn their rage into something positive for the fandom and for bringing awareness around good LGBTQ representation in fictions. Fans decided to create an online movement called LGBT fans Deserved Better, to raise funds for The Trevor Project and help fight against suicide among LGBTQIA teenagers. To do so, they brought visibility to their actions using the hashtag #WeDerservedBetter on social media. They also paid for giant rainbow billboards displaying the same hashtags which were located near the Hollywood offices of The CW network. Then, they created a website explaining their purpose and what they wanted from the entertainment industry. They collected all the evidence (tweets from Jason Rothenberg and The CW network) as a database to explain why they felt abused. They also collectively wrote the Lexa Pledge, a document directed at industry’s leaders (producers, showrunners, network executives) listing reasons why a positive representation of LGBTQIA characters is now fundamental on television and network channels, such as The CW. Finally, they created ClexaCon, a convention which gather actresses, showrunners and fans to discuss better representations of LGBTQ characters on TV.
This example is emblematic of PR gone wrong and a misunderstanding of the effects of the BYG trope on audiences and fans. But it was a lever for fan activism that emerged within the community. But there are also example of good representations which lead fans to talk about their own identity or issued they might face.
Sense 8 is one of the recent series that crystallizes the most conversations and interactions around its LGBTQ characters. Indeed, the couple formed by Nomi Marks, a transgender character and Amanita Caplan, her girlfriend, symbolize a positive LGBTQ representation in the contemporary serial landscape. On Tumblr, using the hashtags #Nomanita, fans talk about the importance of the couple in the fiction and beyond, in terms of gender representation. For example, a fan wrote following the announcement of the cancellation of the series: "I have never seen another lesbian couple described as precisely and as beautifully as Amanita and Nomi, and I have never seen another trans woman shown so positively and with so much life. " For this fan, the series marks a turning point in terms of positive representation of trans characters, and she points out that there is a before and after Sense 8. This assertion is reinforced by other comments on websites, such as The MarySue. For example, Renata Riveri posted this message three years ago, at the beginning of the series: "The first thing I liked about Nomi and Aminata is the fact that they are not just there for comedy or queerbaiting. They are a real couple, with real dramas, real problems (some maybe not so real), and yes, with funny moments. They are two characters very well written, they both have desires, joys, disappointments. I had never seen it on TV. " The novelty of the representation, both positive and almost banal, of a lesbian couple, one of whose two characters is transgender, denotes both audacious scriptwriting but also a concern for equity in terms of the representation of sexual minorities at the same time. Television.Moreover, character identification is of paramount importance to transgender fans who can finally see their lives and issues on screen, the character functioning as a mirror of their own life. That's what Kelly Taylor explains, again in The MarySue's comments: "I thought I was the only one thinking about looking at your own relationship on the screen. I am also a cis woman, who has mostly identified herself as a heterosexual a large part of her life until I go out with my girlfriend who is a gorgeous transgender Jewish woman. We decided to watch Sense 8 together, and seeing them was like seeing our own couple project on the screen. And that made me realize the importance of representation in modern media. ".
Representation Matters and has an impact, positive or negative, on fans, who then will gather in their fandoms to talk about issues with other fans, tell their own stories paralleling the ones of their favorites characters, and take actions to bring awareness and fan activism in the public sphere.
What I feel like is that there is also a new dynamic with production teams and actors and actresses, who are very vocals about their characters, defending them and thus the fandoms (I am thinking of Chyler Leigh from Supergirl, or Caity Lotz from Legends of Tomorrow or Dominique Provost Chalken and Kat Barell from Wynonna Earp) and become advocates for the community.
What do you think that all of this means for the future of fandom and fandom studies? Should we be focusing on creator/fan relationships, or should we be looking more to the textual evidence of creators’ intentions?
In terms of narrative works, we are witnessing the building of commun storyworld, what we coind Transtext with Benjamin Derhy Kurtz, when both fans and production create Transmedia tie-ins, mixing canon stories with fan-created one. Showrunners appeal to fans to save their shows when they are threatened of cancellation. For example, Eric Kripke asked fans of Timeless to support the show and be vocal to save it from cancellation. For the first time ever, the show was de-cancel by NBC. Fans of Sense 8, after the cancellation by Netflix, went online, on social media, and on changes.org to ask for a renewal of the show. They got a 2-hour film to get closure.
With social media and showrunners, and actors of TV series being social media savvy, a new form of dialogue is forming with fans, around TV series and characters and representations.
The dialogue between fans and showrunners and actors/actresses strengthen the way representations are dealt with in fictions. For example, at ClexaCon, issues of representations of LGBTQ characters and oh the harms of the BYG trope are discussed between fans and people from the industry in a constructive ways. This year for example, fans created a tool to measure representations in fictions, being positive or negative, and on their website (https://lgbtfansdeservebetter.com/tv/) they compile databases of lesbian characters and their fate on TV. On the other hand, people from the industry are more and more aware of the trope and listen to advice from the community (Emily Andras from Wynonna Earp, Greg Berlanti for Legends of Tomorrow or for Supergirl when he said they didn’t want to kill off Maggie). So for me, these interactions, being on social media or at special conventions, between activist and vocal fans and people of the industry is one of the future path to bring awareness to the representation of minorities (sexual or racial) on TV and to build characters that could reflect those minorities.
I think that, when it comes to future of fan studies, watching the media to see whether there is a measurable difference between portrayals of the BYG trope and other LGBTQ+ issues will be the best way to tell if creators are listening to their audiences.
If there is a clear course correction - as was the case in the Adventure Zone - then that would be fairly telling about what kind of relationship the fans have with their creators. At the same time, I’m not sure that it would be wise to judge a creator’s decision not to go with what their fans want to be an indication that the creator doesn’t care about them. I have seen a lot of creators get accused of not caring about their fans because they won’t change their stories to accommodate fans’ desires, and I’m not sure that I entirely agree with that. Especially since some of the fan reactions to certain narratives could be considered on par with harassment. The idea that fans should be rewarded for filling their favourite shows’ creators’ newsfeeds with demands isn’t one that I endorse. But if there is a dialogue - one that shows respect on all sides - then that seems to me to be the healthiest way for fans and creators to interact; a way for fans to be able to voice concerns without making creators feel as though they must sacrifice their artistic vision to avoid potential backlash.
In the case of the McElroys and The Adventure Zone, I think the dialogue between fans and creators has been quite positive; the McElroys actually reached out to LGBTQ+ activists when they were considering adding a trans character to the series because they wanted to present the character in a way that would be respectful to the community, while the fans are less likely to be provoked because they recognise that the creators are coming to the series in good faith. This course correction demonstrates that the creators of the show cared enough about their fans to make the change but it does not seem to be something that they were pressured into - if it were, then I do not think that the narrative itself would have supported it. That is, if they had gone into the change without really caring about it, then I imagine this would have been clear in the way that the trans character was presented. Instead, she was approached with thoughtfulness and a clear desire to get it right. This level of attention, to my mind, demonstrates the relationship between the creators and the fans quite clearly.