“In place of stray bullets and prison riots, we are losing our queer characters to the swinging axe of cancellation”

BY DANI INCHAURREGUI, ANGE HALL, JEMMA GABER & LISA STEINBERG, IMAGES VIA BBC PICTURES AND FREEFORM

For LGBTQIA+ audiences, our existence on television has always been a battleground. It is never felt comfortable, as though our presence alone is a privilege graciously given by those in power. We should sit quietly, content that we have characters who look like us at all. Do not ask for queer joy, do not ask for complexity. We are not there yet.

For many years, the echoes of the Catholic Church’s call for self-censorship in Hollywood – amidst calls from wider conservative groups – have plagued queer audiences. The Bury Your Gays trope was etched into Hollywood’s DNA by ignorance and fear, then reinforced as explicitly queer characters were introduced to our screens. With the 2016 death of The 100’s fan favourite Lexa came the first of several waves of uproar, demanding recognition of queer characters and, by extension, queer fans. Later on, queer characters became immortal, donning bulletproof vests as Nicole Haught did in Wynonna Earp or being made immortal by a fungus as was Raelle Collar in Motherland: Fort Salem. For a while, queer audiences could breathe. 

However, a new trend quickly arose – less explicit than Bury Your Gays but equally insidious – to strip LGBTQIA+ characters from our screens. In place of stray bullets and prison riots, we are losing our queer characters to the swinging axe of cancellation. Cancel Your Gays poses an ultimatum to fans: watch your characters die or don’t watch them at all. Killing Eve is a sad reminder that both trends can exist simultaneously, spelling out the same worrying message to queer fans: we don’t matter.

Killing Eve. Credit: BBC America, David Emery

What are the benefits of LGBTQIA+ representation on screen?

Television shows are an essential vehicle for promoting visibility and facilitating accurate, positive representation of our LGBTQIA+ community, and statistics show that it has profound influence over an audience’s self-image as well as its attitudes and perceptions of communities and cultures outside of its own. When harmful tropes and stereotypes are repeatedly used to depict our community on screen, marginalisation and misinformation are reinforced to our detriment, contributing to low self-esteem, diminished self-worth and feelings of isolation and exclusion. Time and time again, we are baited into watching a show that promises positive representation only to have the rug ripped from under our feet when the characters we relate to on screen are killed off or the show is cancelled prematurely. 

“Those who yield the influential power of media production have the responsibility to advocate for the demolition of harmful stereotypes”

When television becomes a source of positive dialogue and visibility for LGBTQIA+ identities, however, we see a movement towards the acceptance and normalization of queerness. Research shows that audiences can connect with onscreen characters, functioning as substitutes for exposure to and interaction with LGBTQIA+ individuals that they may lack in real life. More importantly, positive discussion and visibility of our community in media promotes self-acceptance of our queerness and a greater sense of belonging to a world that has historically erased and ostracised us.

How can the industry tackle the Cancel Your Gays trope?

It goes without saying that those who yield the influential power of media production have the responsibility to advocate for the demolition of harmful stereotypes and to push for normalisation of LGBTQIA+ characters on our screens.

The looming question remains: how does the industry move forward to chart a more positive path for representation while also making strides so that Cancel Your Gays does not become another industry epidemic? Having representation in the right places is a start, but it’s not enough to just have queer voices in writers rooms. They need to not only be fostered, but given a platform for their perspectives. 

Unfortunately, the reality remains queer writers and creatives do not receive enough chances and are treated as mostly spoken over or dismissed.

It is imperative that networks not only write these stories from a queer perspective but equally promote them. Freeform had several LGBTQIA+ programmes on its slate and callously canceled them, but for Pride Month it promoted itself as an ally and described the network as a “safe space.” An example of performative allyship, these networks need to stand behind their queer-centric content so it does not come off as fan service.

Avoiding queerbaiting with non-canon ships is highly essential. Ratings are important, but the audience and the stories they see and can invest themselves in should matter more. Every time a queer character is killed, a queer show is canceled, or queer audiences are baited, we feel the hit.

What can LGBTQIA+ people do to combat the Cancel Your Gays trope?

Over the past decade, our hearts have been beaten and bruised beyond measure. This uphill battle has been unyielding, the despair is palpable, and quite frankly, we are exhausted. But we cannot give up, and luckily, there are immediate actions that we can take.

The television industry is a money-making business at its core, but the audience matters, your voice matters, and we must demand to be heard. If you have been burned by a particular show, network, or show-runner: don’t continue to support them. Show ratings, network subscriptions, content views, and social media engagement via hashtags are all being tracked and analysed. Put your money and your voice where it matters.

“Advocating for your favourite queer actors and characters to attend conventions helps advertise the demand for queer stories in media”

Going public with your outrage is another viable option for shedding light on the mistreatment of queer shows, and fans have even created organisations such as killthetrope.org and lexadeservesbetter.com to help bring awareness to the devastation which our shows so frequently experience.

However, positive visibility is impactful and celebrating the queer characters we love and cherish is also important. Advocating for your favourite queer actors and characters to attend conventions helps advertise the demand for queer stories in media.

Motherland: Fort Salem. Credit: Freeform

What next?

The 100, Motherland: Fort Salem, Killing Eve, The Wilds, Euphoria, Skam France, Batwoman, Legacies, Legends of Tomorrow, Charmed, Gentleman Jack, First Kill: are you happy with how they have been handled? If not, then speak up! Passivity and silence are part of the problem and nothing will change unless we make our opinions known. Unfortunately, most cancellations are final, but there have been instances where a queer fandom’s dedication and perseverance have resulted in a story’s continuation after cancellation.

It is always open season on queer characters. In the past, our losses have been silent ones. Thanks to streaming and social media, audiences will not allow networks to perpetuate these narratives without facing backlash. We will not go quietly.

DIVA magazine celebrates 28 years in print in 2022. If you like what we do, then get behind LGBTQI media and keep us going for another generation. Your support is invaluable. 

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