The Dead Lesbian Rides Again!

Gertrude and Alice, Happy Together in 1934

Recently, Sarah, purveyor of all things sparkly and romantic for lesbian teens, got my attention with her revolt against so-called realism in young adult stories featuring queer characters. She points out two important things, one, that in this case “realism” means an unhappy ending and two, that only the queer characters (usually not the main characters, but their gay friends) are subject to this rule of the realistic.

It’s a bit of a reverse “It Gets Better” campaign I suppose. After all, in order for it to get better in the future, it has to be rotten now, right? Maybe. But not necessarily (especially, but not exclusively, in books that, as Sarah points out, are full of fantastical elements of all kinds).

To a certain extent, Sarah’s post reminded me of my own recent musings about why the coming-out story–though it will probably always be relevant–is not the only one that matters in young adult fiction featuring queer kids. But most of all, Sarah’s post got me thinking about the Trope of the Dead Lesbian.

For the past–oh–two hundred years, a lesbian in books, plays and film has pretty much been consigned to two possible endings: either she dies or her love interest leaves her for a man. There are variations on these endings of course. Maybe it’s a murder-suicide and both women die! Maybe she gives up her love interest willingly because she knows she’s not as good as a man. Maybe the man kills her and “rescues” her love interest from her debauchery.

When I began writing stories that featured women who were passionate about other women (“lesbian” being a bit of an anachronism in my historical fiction) I swore that none of my main characters would die tragically and they would all get happy endings. Perhaps that’s a bit of a give-away, but plenty of drama can occur without the whole story ending in some Jacobean bloodbath. After all, we know that the main characters in, say, Star Trek are not going to die (that’s what the nameless red shirts are for, right?) but we watch with rapt attention and bated breath anyway, right up to that last split-second when everyone is saved by tetrion particles. (By “we” of course, I mean, um, “I.”) There are undoubtedly good, artistic, educative, and interesting reasons to let your lesbian die in fiction, but someone else can have that job. Mine are going to be breathing on the last page.
Boardwalk Empire [spoiler alert]did this three episodes ago and crushed my hope that we had entered an era in which we could follow the story of a lesbian into territory that did not include blood and/or an utterly broken heart. Instead, a truly Jacobean bloodbath–two, mostly naked, dead lesbians–ended Angela’s subplot. (Last season, poor, long-suffering Angela got the “love interest leaves with a man” ending, but since the whys and wherefores of that leaving were left a bit hazy, I kept hoping HBO would turn her story around. Instead, Angela got both tragedies.) It would be one thing if this were only one of the many lesbian stories out there, but to me it was proof that HBO was only using the lesbians as a sensational motif to prove their edginess, rather than having any interest in telling a story about a lesbian in the 1920s.

I have said it before and I’ll say it again, “lesbian chic” means it’s cool to know a lesbian. It’s still not so cool to actually be a lesbian.

Was Angela’s demise “realistic?” I’d argue that it was less realistic than a considerably happier ending might have been. There are all kinds of ways it could have gone. She could have had an open agreement with Jimmy–whom she was coming to respect and treat with honesty, and he, her–and had her affairs on the side, just as he did. She could have left him, as planned in Season One, with less drama and fanfare and moved to a bigger city with her new girl friend as a “roommate” and lived as a typist or a magazine advertising illustrator and raised Tommy. She might have survived Jimmy’s death and inherited the Commodore’s money and started some very interesting combat with Jillian. In short, I can see all kinds of “realistic” dramatically interesting, lesbian plots for Angela that don’t require her bloody demise on the bedroom floor and maintain the show’s gritty realism and intense character relationships.

Hey, HBO, wanna hire me?

The fact is, most lesbians have the same basic life trajectories as anyone else. Some die tragically. Some commit suicide. Some have their hearts broken (well, probably nearly all have their hearts broken sometime, just like everyone else). But most just live a mundane life with its highs and lows, its conflicts and injustices, its triumphs and its long stretches of peaceful, uneventful contentment. Just because there is homophobia in the world (and in history, though over time, oppressive structures shift and change in their strategies and so are different, in different times and places) doesn’t mean it is unrealistic to show happy queers. After all, we are GAY, right? If anyone knows how to sparkle in the face of adversity, it is my people!

Not to mention, there is/was sexism, racism, rapacious Captialism and class oppression, ableism, etc. ad infinatum and yet, people oppressed by these things manage to still pull out some satisfaction in life. There’s no reason “realistic” has to mean “unhappy” in any kind of writing.

I’m a happy lesbian and I’m here to attest it.

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5 thoughts on “The Dead Lesbian Rides Again!

  1. This is a great post! Anytime I have a gay/lesbian character in my book who HAPPENS to do something cliche, I try to balance that with your average, just-like-any-other-human-being lesbian as well. I have one novel where, unfortunately, there is a lesbian character who ends up coming across as a man hater. This, however, really has NOTHING to do with her being a lesbian. But it bugged me so much that it might be read that way, that I wrote in a small part of a female character who is just a sweetheart with a female life partner. I hope this brings balance to my story, as I really see the small role character as a more true-to-life lesbian than the one who goes crazy.

  2. So…my partner and I just finished watching the t.v. series version of Pretty Little Liars and the four heroines all end up living happily ever after with their romantic interests–except the lesbian. Her romantic interest…DIES. Yep. The writers could resolve and make heroic the love between a high school teacher and his student but not two high school girls. That was just too much of a stretch, I guess.

  3. That’s HORRIBLE. 😦

    Makes me wants to write a lesbian romance with a happy ending. My uncle and his life partner have one of the best relationships I know and a great life together. Many people in the LGBT live happy lives and productive members of our society, just like everybody else. I look forward to the day (and hope it comes soon) when people can see the lifestyle as natural as anything else.

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