How Charlie Brooker’s ‘Black Mirror’ Saved TV From The ‘Bury Your Gays’ Trope
Let's be real, 2016 has not been the best of years for many, many reasons. While film and television are very far down on the list of important things in life, this year has been particularly brutal in terms of LGBT deaths on the small screen.
From the widely reported fury felt by fans of The 100 when warrior chief Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) was killed off just after she and Clarke (Eliza Taylor) had got together, and similarly those who had to watch the likes of Poussey in Orange is the New Black, Denise in The Walking Dead and many more get killed off for pure shock value.
Understandably the LGBT community were dismayed that their beloved characters were being killed off trivially in a society that is only just starting to properly integrate gay and lesbian storylines in film and television.
So along comes Charlie Brooker, writer and creator of Black Mirror, and manages to make one episode that not only takes an insightful (if bleak) look at the future of euthanasia, but also creates one of the most beautiful love stories of 2016.
'San Junipero' and its time travelling queer couple
"San Junipero" was the fourth episode of the third series that premiered on Netflix on 21 October 2016. Written by Brooker and directed by Owen Harris, the episode centred on a nostalgic, seaside party town filled with 80s music and people who had sent their consciousness there after they've died.
Focussing on the painfully shy Yorkie (Halt and Catch Fire's Mackenzie Davis) who visits the town and falls head over heels for the vivacious Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the episode combines love, death, dance routines and 'time travel'. What more could you ask for?
Along with its truly stellar soundtrack, that will have you over-analysing Belinda Carlisle's "Heaven is a Place on Earth" for hours, Yorkie and Kelly's romance is the only real thing in the fictional world of San Junipero.
Bury your gays: 2016's queer casualties
Despite essentially being about euthanasia, "San Junipero" had a pretty happy ending for an episode of Black Mirror. Something which despite some people arguing that it was kind of uncharacteristically cheesy, this only proves Charlie Brooker's genius.
In a television landscape that has killed off 18 lesbian/bisexual female characters this year alone, Brooker has not only been able to surprise his fans by having a happy ending but also subvert a dangerous trope.
"Bury your gays" as the trope is known refers to shows creating queer characters, perhaps to 'spice up' a storyline and then killing them off with next to no explanation or relation to the plot.
In GLAAD's annual Where We Are On TV survey it was noted that 2016 has been particularly bad for lesbian and bisexual characters.
"This continues a decadeslong trend of killing LGBTQ characters – often solely to further a straight, cisgender character’s plot – which sends a dangerous message to audiences. It is important that creators do not reinvigorate harmful tropes, which exploit an already marginalised community."
"San Junipero" was successful at avoiding this trope because despite being about death, the story allowed its queer characters to be fully formed and not killed off to further another straight character's storyline.
Representation and why Black Mirror makes a difference
Despite repeated calls from viewers for writers and showrunners to stop perpetuating this trope, it's continued to to be prevalent in television. That's why shows like Black Mirror can be trailblazers.
Charlie Brooker, a straight white male, has proved that you don't have to be gay to write good LGBT storylines. Instead he's managed to create a interracial couple featuring a lesbian and a bisexual woman AND not kill them off gratuitously.
Brooker then goes one step further and has his characters die but then send their consciousnesses to San Junipero where they can 'live' together forever.
Obviously most shows don't have the luxury of being about an alternate reality that lets its characters be young and live forever. However, in a sea of unnecessary queer deaths, "San Junipero" is a lifeboat to fans and an example to shows who kill characters for shock value.
LGBT-friendly shows that saved 2016
Black Mirror isn't the only show to give viewers a happy ending. Two series in particular have stood out this year for laying out nuanced romantic story arcs, CBS' Supergirl and Syfy's Wynona Earp.
Both shows have garnered praise from fans and critics alike for their refreshing positivity to their lesbian and bisexual female characters and presenting their storylines with creativity and heart.
Currently in its sophomore season, Supergirl has most recently been in the spotlight for its touching coming out arc that defied tropes in a number of ways.
Supergirl's adoptive sister Alex Danvers (played by the excellent Chyler Leigh) finally opened up about her sexuality this season and instead of playing it down the writers have created an interracial queer relationship to root for.
Syfy's Wynona Earp even takes piss out of the trope, having its out lesbian shot in front of her girlfriend, only to survive thanks to a bulletproof vest.
Both shows do a stand up job with their coming out arcs predominantly because the characters considering their sexuality are surrounded by a supportive environment of family, friends, as well as established characters who are comfortable with their sexuality.
So here's to 2017, may there be more happy endings for television's queer characters!
By Kate Lismore, published on 17/12/2016