Okay, so the headline of this article is a little misleading: gay characters on television don’t always die. Plenty of gay and bisexual characters have lived long happy lives – and more are living that way all the time.
But let’s face it: sometimes it seems like the gay character always dies. And they almost certainly die more than their numbers would warrant.
The deaths of the two gay characters on Spartacus: Blood and Sand are only the most recent, but there are plenty of other examples:
- Dale Tomasson, Big Love: suicide (2010)
- Felix Gaeta, Battlestar Galactica: executed (2009)
- Eddie, True Blood: murdered (2008)
- Alex, In Treatment: suicide (2008)
- Ianto Jones, Torchwood: murdered by aliens (2009)
- 11-12, The Prisoner: suicide (2009)
- 909, The Prisoner: murdered (2009)
- Joseph, Kings: murdered (2009)
- Omar Little, The Wire: murdered (2008)
- Ray Fiske, Damages: suicide (2007)
- Steve, Reaper: casualty of demon war (2008)
- Vito, The Sopranos: murdered (2006)
- Salim, Sleeper Cell (2006)
- Cassady Casablancas, Veronica Mars: suicide (2006)
And these are just the dead regular, or at least featured, TV characters. Gay or bisexual men have frequently popped up as “guest” characters on shows like CSI, The Mentalist, Ghost Whisperer, Supernatural, and Law & Order – only to die, often before the opening credits.
Indeed, in addition to the dead gays on Spartacus and Big Love, the last few weeks have also seen gay victims on Law & Order: SVU and NCIS: Los Angeles.
What’s going on here? Does Hollywood have a gay death wish?
Let’s get one thing straight: a gay or bisexual character dying is not necessarily an indication of homophobia or bias. Characters die on television a lot. It’s called “drama” for a reason, and there’s no more classic a denouement for a character’s story arc, or inciting incident for another character’s subsequent emotional development, than the death of another character.
Sparatacus: Blood and Sand’s Spartacus finds Pietros’ hanging body
Sure enough, “character development” is usually how the writers justify these deaths: it’s how Joss Whedon justified the death of Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer; it’s how Russell T. Davies defended the death of Ianto on Torchwood; and it’s how Steven DeKnight most recently explained the deaths of Barca and Pietros on Spartacus: Blood and Sand.
And maybe it makes sense in certain ways that gay characters are more likely to die than straight characters. Shows like Cold Case and Grey’s Anatomy have featured extremely touching episodes where guest gay characters died, but the episodes themselves were dramatizing the bias that gay and bisexual people often still experience.
Still, what Hollywood writers never mention, and usually don’t even seem to be aware of, is the fact that the (often brutal) death of a gay character is a longstanding writers’ trope.
Next Page! The Dead Gay Guy cliche!
In 1989, film historian Vito Russo published a second edition of his now-landmark book The Celluloid Closet, analyzing the way gay and bisexual people had been stereotyped since the inception of cinema, including the frequency with which gay characters are killed off, often seemingly “punished” for violating social norms. He even included a “necrology” with a list of 39 deaths in major movies.
Russo ended the book with a now-famous rant: “It has become clear…that what we need is no more films about homosexuality … Gay visibility has never really been an issue in the movies. Gays have always been visible. It’s how they have been visible that has remained offensive for almost a century.”
Things have changed a lot for gay and bisexual men since Russo’s book was published, both on-screen and off.
But have they changed completely? Or has the cliché of the Dead Gay Guy simply mutated onto television in a more sophisticated form?
That might be part of it, but a more satisfying explanation is that gay characters are more likely to die simply because they’re far more likely to be supporting, not leading, characters.
Noticed a lot of African American police chiefs, doctors, and judges on TV over the years? Lately, there’s also the cliché of the Indian American doctor.
It’s not just that well-meaning producers and casting directors of television shows want to remind viewers that there are, in fact, plenty of minority police chiefs, judges, and doctors (especially in urban areas, where many of these shows are set).
It’s also the fact that leading characters on television are almost all white.
So responding to pressure from viewers and minority activists, networks and producers make their shows more racially diverse by casting peripheral characters like doctors, judges, and police chiefs with minority actors.
Hollywood could also make their shows more diverse by writing more minority leading characters, and there are hints in the new slate of pilots now in development that they may be making progress toward that. In the meantime, they do the next best thing.
In short, the status quo is the TV cliché where all the leading characters, the ones with the complicated, interesting and ongoing storylines, tend to be white, while many of the peripheral or supporting characters tend to be racial minorities.
Unfortunately, this reinforces another stereotype in which white people are powerful and active, while non-white people (even ones in positions of “authority”) are reactive and often ineffectual (to reinforce the main character’s “noble," positive qualities).
The same thing is true for gay characters on television: they play the supporting roles, not the leading ones.
In fact, the current number of leading gay characters on broadcast scripted American television is … zero. (Cameron and Mitchell on Modern Family, and Kevin on Brothers & Sisters may be leading characters, but only in ensemble casts.)
All the other most well-known gay characters – Kurt on Glee, Marc on Ugly Betty, Calvin on Greek, and so on, along with all the characters listed above – are secondary characters.
Leading characters almost never die (unless the actor demands a raise!).
Supporting characters, meanwhile, sometimes do. After all, dramatically speaking, it’s their job to support the leading character – to bolster his or her emotional journey in whichever way is the most interesting.
Next Page! How come we never get to be Spartacus?
On a show like Spartacus: Blood and Sand where the title character will obviously eventually become the outraged rebel slave of history, it makes perfect sense that Barca and Pietros, along with many other innocent people, have to die, in brutal, tragic ways. It’s what motivates Spartacus to become Spartacus.
On crimes shows like CSI and SVU that are about crime and murder, it also makes sense that any “guest” gay roles would be murder victims (or murderers, another potential gay cliche). These shows deserve credit for being at least somewhat inclusive.
But to all those writers who justify the deaths of their gay characters with the argument that “it’s all about character and story”: you yourself are not seeing the whole story.
Sure, in the particular storyline of any given show, the gay guy might have to die. But that show exists in a larger cultural context, one that includes this longstanding writers’ trope of the Dead Gay Guy, and one that includes almost no leading gay characters. Indeed, of the many various "crime" franchises, only a single show, Law & Order: SVU, has a regular gay character – a minor one who didn’t come out until eight years into the show’s run
The argument is often made that, “If gay viewers want gay characters to be treated equally on television, they have to accept that sometimes bad things will happen to them.”
But that’s precisely the point: as long as there are no leading gay characters, gay characters aren’t being treated equally. We’re getting all of the trauma and tragedy of the gay death (and the vitriol directed at the gay villain), but almost none of the pleasure of the gay leading man.
Ray Fiske decides to end it all on Damages
And just as with racial minorities, it’s making all gay people seem less powerful, more likely to be a “victim,” than straight people. We never get to be Spartacus, the guy who makes it to the end of the story, the guy who ends up changing the world.
There used to be a similar cliché in horror movies where it seemed like the black supporting character always had to die – for exactly the same reasons that gay characters now so often die. That’s changed somewhat – in part, because the cliché was so widely mocked.
Every show on television with a gay character probably deserves some measure of credit (assuming it’s not a blatant or offensive stereotype), because such characters are still controversial for some
So is it unfair or counterproductive for gay viewers to ask, like Oliver Twist, more of Hollywood?
If so, it’s also counter-productive for African Americans to look at all those minority judges and police chiefs and doctors, and say, “Thanks a lot for that, but you do realize that that’s not enough, right? Please tell me you’re aware that this isn’t ‘true’ equality or diversity!”
With no genune leading gay characters on television, and only a smattering of supporting gay ones, it also makes sense that we gay and bisexual viewers might become more emotionally attached to these characters than straight viewers do, and might experience them in a more personal way.
And when these characters die, often brutally, we might experience that in a more personal way too. Is it crazy to expect writers and producers to be a little sensitive to that?
Social progress probably always seems too slow to the minority who is eager for change, just as it probably always seems too fast for the greater culture.
But as nice as it is to see more gay characters on television, it would be nicer still to see more of them live.