Haasch: If a queer character dies, is it ‘bury your gays?’

Needlessly invoking negative tropes in representation is both unproductive and harmful.

Palmer Haasch

Cartoon fandom is a tumultuous place. Centralized on primarily Tumblr and Twitter, fans of series both new and old share fan art, fanfiction and comments about cartoon series. While fandom has long been a hotbed of collaboration and creation, fandom drama is inevitable. Most recently, cartoon fandoms have been plagued by fan accusations of the invocation of harmful tropes in LGBTQ representation, namely queerbaiting and “bury your gays.”

Both queerbaiting and “bury your gays” are legitimate, harmful tropes referencing the treatment of queer characters in entertainment media. For a quick rundown: queerbaiting is when a show strongly hints at the possibility of a queer relationship (think Dean and Castiel on “Supernatural”) without intending to fully realize it, thus “baiting” fans with potential of queer representation. “Bury your gays” references the killing of queer characters (like Lexa on “The 100”) for shock value and/or to further the development of another more central character.

However, fans of series — in particular of the Netflix’s “Voltron: Legendary Defender” and “The Dragon Prince” — occasionally accuse showrunners of playing into tropes when they don’t necessarily apply. “Voltron” sparked controversy this past summer during its seventh season when a recently revealed gay character was killed in a flashback. Fans also accused the staff of queerbaiting, citing their announcement at San Diego Comic-Con regarding the new character had baited them into continuing to watch the series. 

The incident, along with the “Volton” fandom’s reputation for being prone to vitriol, has left a mark on animation fandom. After Hypable hinted at a “bury your gays” moment in a pre-premiere review of “The Dragon Prince’s” second season, fans were quick to fear that “The Dragon Prince” had played into the same tropes as Volton

I don’t think calls for better representation should be trivialized (I’ve been writing about it for years). However, I don’t think either of these stories played into these particular tropes. There’s greater nuance in these tropes past queer characters dying. “Bury your gays” signifies queer death was played for shock value and necessitates existing investment in a character. Characters that we already know are dead, or characters that we barely know, don’t quite fit the mold. Similarly, queerbaiting is prolonged and typically narrative based — think a slow-burn romance that never quite bears fruit. Both “Voltron” and “The Dragon Prince” only gave viewers a short amount of time with queer characters before they died.

Calling “bury your gays” each time a queer character dies on screen is unproductive and encourages flat storytelling. Queer characters that aren’t allowed to die aren’t fully fleshed out characters and reducing them to “the [queer] rep” is gross simplification at best and tokenizing at worst. We should call for three-dimensional, well-developed queer characters. If they die in a way that makes sense contextually, that’s OK. Calling for their eternal life, however, is not.