In a bizarre twist to a plot that didn’t exist, the hospital soap Holby City decided to “bury a gay” it had already written out months ago. In the 30 July episode “Things My Mother Told Me”, a group of mostly strangers bid farewell to the immensely popular lesbian character, the ex-army trauma surgeon Bernie Wolfe, played by Jemma Redgrave.
Bernie, during her on-off stint on the series, had befriended and fallen in love with fellow surgeon Serena Campbell (Catherine Russell), and this middle-aged lesbian romance was once hailed as the groundbreaking fairy tale that lesbian viewers had always wanted. But it is always dangerous to be a fairy tale in the land of soaps – and if you are a gay couple, anywhere on television, since you have a disproportionately higher likelihood of either breaking up, one of you dying, or having to sacrifice your relationship for the greater good.
This statistic has given rise to a particular trope called “Bury Your Gays”, which comes with a slew of sub-tropes wearily noted by those of us who pay attention, including “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”, “Gays Die First”, and “Out of the Closet, into the Fire”.
The problem isn’t that gay characters experience death and drama just like everyone else; the problem is that stories tend to see queer characters as more dispensable compared to straight characters.
Sure enough, Holby City didn’t just split up Bernie and Serena – seven months later, Bernie was dead, killed in an explosion. It made me wonder whether there was a message in the manner of death, given that there wasn’t a body to identify, of how inconsequential a 54-year-old lesbian was?
I have an awful, sinking feeling that contemporary television might be inching back in time and ideas. In some ways, even though there are definitely more LGBT+ characters on television now, show runners appear unable to look beyond a handful of story arcs for them – cheating, accidental pregnancies, and, of course, death. These stereotypes imply that gay characters don’t deserve happy endings or have committed relationships.
This is especially the case in stories like we have seen in Holby City, which did not need a plot device about a queer person dying because said character was no longer in the story. (Bernie’s death also provides “drama” for another character, her son Cameron, a straight man, which is a trope by itself.)
What has cut even deeper with lesbian fans was that the BBC, and Holby City’s production team in particular, instead of engaging with the fans, has used platforms for queer women to state its position. One of these is Diva magazine. Heather Peace, a lesbian icon who also had a guest appearance in Holby City as a former lover of Bernie Wolfe, perhaps delivered the unkindest cut of all.
A little more than a month before the episode in question aired, she told Radio Diva, that Holby had “put more lesbian characters on TV than any other … and I want to thank [the producer]”. She did so with full knowledge that the story arc was leading up to a death.
This results in a dangerous precedent – the banding together of powerful people in the media to define the narrative around queer representation. And so we get lazy representation, apologist defences, awards handed out to shows that end up harming lesbians, and the lauding of producers whose shows cause pain to hundreds around the world, all of which effectively drown out the voices of the marginalised, minority, queer women who are clamouring to be heard.
Like any other creative work, LGBT+ stories on television don’t exist in a vacuum. Recently, Netflix released a statement about a contentious suicide scene in their television rendering of the young adult book 13 Reasons Why: “As we prepare to launch Season 3 later this summer,” it said, “we’ve been mindful about the ongoing debate [regarding suicide and depression among teens] around the show. So on the advice of medical experts … we’ve decided … to edit the scene in which Hannah takes her own life from Season 1.”
Even though this comes after numerous protests, it remains an example of producers taking responsibility for their content and showing that they care about minimising harm to vulnerable watchers.
Another soap, Eastenders, is set to introduce its first Muslim lesbian character, Iqra Ahmed, played by Priya Davdra. Lesbian viewers – and others eager for good representation – will certainly hope that Iqra benefits from the mistakes of the past. Unfortunately, we won’t be surprised if she doesn’t.
There is a solution to this rinse-and-repeat cycle of rarely giving LGBT+ characters much to celebrate. And it’s a simple one: queer women need to write their own stories. Queer media needs to amplify the voices of their own people. And allies need to check their privilege.
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