According to TV Tropes, the “Bury Your Gays” trope (also known as the “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”) is “the presentation of deaths of LGBT characters where these characters are nominally able to be viewed as more expendable than their heterosexual counterparts”. Queer characters are more likely to die than straight characters, as they seem to have less of a purpose than the latter.
Spoilers ahead! The finale of Killing Eve will be thoroughly discussed in this article.
“Works using the trope will feature a same-gender couple and with one of the lovers dying and the other realizing they were never actually gay, often running into the arms of a heterosexual partner,” states Haley Hulan, a McNair Scholar.
This trope was originally used as a way for gay authors to write about gay characters without coming under fire for breaking laws and social mandates against the ‘endorsement’ of homosexuality”, says Hulan.
Oscar Wilde was put on trial after his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas was made public. His work, The Picture of Dorian Gray was used as part of the accusing statements. Wilde spent two years in prison, the maximum sentence for homosexuality back then.
“However, Bury Your Gays persists today in a time and social context in which it is no longer necessary to give gay characters and stories bad endings in order to be published”.
What really highlighted the problematic trope was Lexa’s death in CW’s The 100. The TV show faced massive backlash in 2016, when the episode in question aired. The lesbian character died trying to save her significant other, Clarke Griffin, right after they shared an intimate scene. Following the outrage, the Lexa pledge was created and signed by many writers who promised not to kill off an LGBTQ+ character exclusively for the sake of further pursuing the plot of a straight one. Jason Rothenberg, the creator of the series, affirmed in a blog post that he was not aware of the “disturbing” trope and that after seeing and reading the fans’ reactions, he would have had the death play out differently.
The trope is in-depth explained in a video made by Susannah McCullough and Debra Minoff, the hosts of the YouTube channel The Take. As seen in many movies and TV shows, the overall portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters is defined by suffering. “To be queer is to struggle”. We see stories of homophobia, abuse, depressed teenagers who long for acceptance, teens who are sent to gay conversion camps (But I’m a Cheerleader, The Miseducation of Cameron Post). What about happy stories? Stories filled with hope, that don’t make you spiral, that lift you up, that make you feel seen. Gay people can be happy, too, despite the oppression many have to face. Even movies that depict healthy representation fail to offer the audience a happy ending. One of my favorite gay movies, Imagine Me & You is one of the few exceptions. The women end up together and neither one of them dies (Atomic Blonde, I Care a Lot, Mulholland Drive), leaves the other (as seen in Tell It to the Bees, Disobedience, Carol, Portrait of a Lady on Fire), or massively manipulates and abuses their significant other (Gia). Certainly, religion and different plot settings are often at fault in these cases.
Most recently, BBC’s Killing Eve has faced backlash due to their artistic choices for the finale of the fourth and last season, which aired on April 20. The TV show premiered in 2018 and is based on Luke Jennings’ Villanelle novel series. Killing Eve is a British spy thriller television series that follows MI6 agent – Eve Polastri and Russian assassin – Villanelle in a cat-and-mouse game, as they both develop an obsession for the other. Season four brings a different perspective to their relationship. Unlike the previous season where they accepted each other, but somehow agreed to part ways for the time being, showrunner Laura Neal firstly makes Eve reject Villanelle, and afterwards vice versa; the last episode features the women in domestic settings, something that the audience could only dream of. They kiss (for real), share fries, indirectly talk about their future together, share really cute moments together, only for Villanelle to die trying to save Eve. Right after they hug and say that they “did it” (finally killed the organization that has been ordering hits on people and that has been after them, too), Villanelle is repeatedly shot on the boat they are both on, she covers Eve and they both jump in the water. For Villanelle, it is too late. The shot, arguably poetic, sees the two women struggling, Villanelle – in a literal pool of blood, floating still as she is shot at, Eve – desperately trying to reach her. Eve manages to swim to the surface and screams. Neal’s explanation for the painful scream was that it “signals Eve’s rebirth”, and that they “really wanted a sense of her washing off everything that had happened in the past four seasons and being able to begin again, but take everything that she has learnt and everything that Villanelle has given her into a new life”. She hopes the audience finds the scream to be a “raw scream of survival rather than anything else”.
So, what does the audience think?
For this, I reached out to Killing Eve fans who were willing to share their opinions with me.
Jennifer Vaughn, 45, is a public defendant (lawyer) for the Cook County. She told me Killing Eve has helped her during her coming out, but that the finale was rushed, awkward and shocking. When talking about the relationship between Eve and Villanelle, she said you could just feel it was going to end on a very negative note and that there were “overtones of doom on the horizon”. She has changed her mind and now believes the finale fits the Bury Your Gays trope, as “portraying a beloved queer character’s death mere moments after finally finding happiness smacks the queer community in the face”. She feels it tells the queer community that they cannot find happiness and if they do, it doesn’t last. A striking note she made was the following:
“If every straight relationship portrayed in the media and entertainment ended in death, just imagine the message this would send to society”.Jennifer Vaughn, Killing Eve fan
It’s not that gay characters cannot die, but the way they do and the timing. It’s as if Villanelle was only deserving of death, Jennifer affirms. Jennifer identifies as lesbian.
Jewell Francis, 47, from East Texas is of the same opinion. She feels that the characters were being “caricatured and not true to what made them Villanelle and Eve originally”. The two formed a connection, only for it to be destroyed by the finale. “Writers often hinge the lesbian storylines on tragedy and despair, never truly delving into a life centered around the hope of tomorrow…the promise of a long future together”. Yet another attempt at the destructive trope, she claims. Jewell believes Villanelle’s death was “completely unnecessary” and “overkill”, as if the writers just didn’t know what to do with her. We compared Dani Clayton’s death in The Haunting of Bly Manor to Villanelle’s and Jewell says Dani died a hero, unlike Villanelle whose death was “tragic” and “pointless”. Jewell identifies as lesbian.
Josephine Roy, 32, located in Bangladesh says Eve and Villanelle balanced each other out, and that Villanelle is too smart to have died like that. The writers “could have sent the positive message that queer people can have happy endings with their loved ones”. When asked about the type of representation Laura Neal offered, Josephine affirms the writer failed to highlight healthy LGBTQ+ representation. “She failed to understand that metaphorical death of Eve was the death of the old Eve and her rebirth was Villanelle, who need not die simply to put a shock of turns on the audience as a result of lazy writing”. She points out how the story could have followed the Christian symbolisms that were shown and go towards a resurrection arc for the assassin.
Jennifer Kirschberger, 23, currently living in the UK also believes the ending is definitely a Bury Your Gays trope, and that Eve and Villanelle got the bare minimum of time screen that highlighted their happy moments, after which Villanelle was killed off “in the last 2 minutes, without it making sense”. She says this case is the same as Clarke and Lexa’s. “Season 1-4 was all about Villanelle changing and becoming someone ‘better’ for Eve, and then letting her die this way and saying she was a killer and she deserved it (which the writer did say)”. She argues they shouldn’t have added the church plot, as so many LGBTQ+ people struggle with it and that they do not need a rebirth. Jennifer identifies as lesbian.
Another source told me that although she is at peace with Villanelle’s death, her ending could fit the trope. She says it’s ambiguous, as Villanelle could have simply died due to her psychopathic nature. Even though she doesn’t believe Neal succeeded in giving the viewer healthy LGBTQ+ representation, she states that Villanelle’s death is “punishment for upsetting the established social order and everything Villanelle symbolizes”.
Ellie, 66 and Chay were not surprised by the finale. “After many years of finally making some progress, it seems that we are going backwards again,” Ellie says. She blames and is saddened by “the current political climate in this country (the USA) for the resurgence of anti-gay behavior”. They both point out the harmful trope and the way it tells queer people that they do not deserve a happy ending. Ellie wishes someone had the courage to write a good story where the two women in love live happily ever after.
Circe Kohler, 25, from West Yorkshire, UK is of the opinion that Villanelle could’ve been happy with Eve. “After all, she just wanted to watch movies with someone – ‘normal stuff’”. The way the showrunner presented the relationship left her “torn”, though she did enjoy their slow journey, the gentleness, the cautiousness with which Villanelle did not want to make Eve uncomfortable, as well as the build-up that resulted in the kiss. Circe identifies as lesbian.
The author of the Villanelle novels was not satisfied with the ending, either. Luke Jennings has expressed his opinion, saying that “the season four ending was a bowing to convention”. He mentioned Lexa’s death and stated that a “truly subversive storyline” would have defied the Bury Your Gays trope. “How much more darkly satisfying, and true to Killing Eve’s original spirit, for the couple to walk off into the sunset together? Spoiler alert, but that’s how it seemed to me when writing the books”. Jennings promised the fans that Villanelle lives.
“And on the page, if not on the screen, she will be back”.Luke Jennings, author of the Villanelle novel series
Melissa Stablein, 46, says she is excited for Jennings to “fix the problem”, as she is “frustrated” with the “tired, overused ending to a beautiful queer relationship”. Melissa identifies as non-binary.
Sandra Oh (who plays Eve Polastri) has recently revealed in an interview that initially, they had a different ending on mind. Eve was supposed to die.
Even though on-screen LGBTQ+ representation has come a long way and (most) creators no longer have to deal with censorship, some still choose to brutally kill off said characters right after they get together and confess their love for each other, making it seem as if gay people simply don’t have the chance at a happy ending. They might share some joyful moments, but inevitably, their life ends in misery. “So many people in the queer community have almost come to expect and anticipate death and destruction as a by-product of their brief happiness,” as Jennifer Vaughn puts it. As a gay person, you’re so used to sad and tragic endings in the media, that happy ones take us by surprise. “If every straight relationship portrayed in the media and entertainment ended in death, just imagine the message this would send to society” is a statement that should not be regarded lightly and that, hopefully, will keep this conversation going.