Backlash over Dead Lesbian Syndrome

Alycia Debnam-Carey as Alicia Clark in Fear The Walking Dead. PHOTO: AMC

There have been so many instances of movies and television shows prematurely killing their homosexual characters that the trope even has a name: Bury Your Gays or the Dead Lesbian Syndrome.

Several popular series have come under fire recently for perpetuating this cliche (spoiler alert), among them the zombie hit The Walking Dead, teenage post-apocalyptic drama The 100 and the comedy Jane The Virgin.

The biggest outcry came when Lexa, a beloved recurring character on American series The 100 - which has yet to air in Singapore - was unexpectedly killed last month after a romantic relationship had developed between her and one of the key female protagonists.

The actress who plays Lexa, Australian star Alycia Debnam-Carey, spoke to The Straits Times and other reporters about the controversy at a press event for her role in Fear The Walking Dead, a companion series to The Walking Dead.

The 22-year-old says the backlash - which saw angry fans taking to social media to voice their disapproval, forcing The 100's showrunner and executive producer Jason Rothenberg to apologise - took the cast and crew by surprise.

"It was an unexpected turn of events. I didn't expect that character to become quite an icon. I mean, what an incredible sort of power that has for groups of people and storytelling.

"And I think I have a newfound respect for storytelling... and how a true collaboration can bring to life an incredible character."

What many fans took issue with was the way The 100 had built up Lexa and her romance with Clarke (Eliza Taylor). Via social media, Rothenberg had even encouraged and interacted with viewers who were enthusiastic about the coupling.

Then in an episode that aired on March 3 in the United States, Lexa was killed by a stray bullet meant for someone else.

This fulfilled two key elements of the Dead Lesbian Syndrome cliche that have been identified - namely, that such characters are frequently bumped off unceremoniously and just as they have found or are about to find romance or happiness.

Like similar tropes - including the one where black and other ethnic minorities are often the first to be killed in horror or action stories - this has been well-documented by fans and critics.

Several websites keep a running tally of what they say are 150 or so cases of lesbian or bisexual characters being killed on TV shows such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer - in which the death of the character Tara provoked a similar enraged response to Lexa's demise.

Fans and critics point out that this is a disproportionately high number compared with the overall representation of such characters on screen.

And the last month or so has been a particularly deadly time for major lesbian characters on TV: Besides The 100, a recent episode of The Walking Dead eliminated Denise (Merritt Wever) with an arrow through the eye. This happened before she could express her love for her girlfriend and despite the fact that in the comic books the series is based on, it is another character - a man - who meets this gruesome fate.

On Jane The Virgin, the character Rose (played by Bridget Regan) is murdered, while on the new fantasy series The Magicians, a black lesbian character named Kira (Yaani King) dies.

Debnam-Carey says the reaction from outspoken fans to developments such as these has been instructive for the creators of these characters as well as the actors who play them. "One thing that has been a little confronting is the realisation that you don't own a character. It does become other people's and it's hard because your face is on it and you are part of it, portraying it.

"But at some point, there is a line where it stops being yours, where other people create fan fiction or dress up themselves," she says. "So you are attached to it and they see you as that character, but it's not completely yours."

This knowledge has spurred her to work harder at her job.

"Knowing how much that can mean, I have put a lot more focus into developing my character. Especially for someone like Lexa and seeing that reaction."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 13, 2016, with the headline Backlash over Dead Lesbian Syndrome. Subscribe