By Kenneth George
Trigger Warning: This article analyzes homophobic sentiment and includes a brief mention of homophobic slurs. If either of these topics are triggering for you, it is recommended that you do not continue reading this article.
In recent years, propelled by a wave of feminism whose central dogma stresses intersectionality and inclusivity, queer representation in media has become increasingly common. Shows and movies from every genre have begun to include a token gay character: Connor in How To Get Away With Murder, Kevin in Riverdale, Rosa in Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Other media has made queer storylines the center of their narratives, such as Netflix’s Heartstopper and Single All The Way, both of which focus on the relationships of two queer men.
Many, predominantly heterosexual, viewers may believe that this representation is positive: a step towards total acceptance of queer peoples. This is untrue for several reasons. Firstly, their perceived goal of queer representation is irrational: a society without homophobia has yet to be developed in the modern world (even Iceland, the champion of queer rights, has some homophobic sentiment in their population). Secondly, the belief that constant depiction of queer characters will result in acceptance is false. While depictions are necessary for acceptance, they can also breed further disgust and resentment from non-queer people. Moreso, these depictions must be positive, which leads to the final reason that the aforementioned philosophy is untrue: queer depictions are often purposely flawed.
The Queer Tragedy trope permeates all levels of media that features queer characters. This trope insists that queer characters can never achieve happiness within the presented narrative. Facets of this trope include the Bury Your Gays sub-trope, which focuses on killing of a queer love interest, leaving the survivor desolate. Queer Tragedy often presents itself in visual media in the suffering of queer characters: the positive HIV test, the cheating boyfriend, the homophobic dad, the homeless crossdresser–a motif that occurs almost chiefly in Black male-presenting characters, indicative of the continuity of the Brute and Minstrelsy complexes.
In these examples, it is evident that the vast majority of Queer Tragedy is seen in the depiction of queer male characters. This is because queer men are depicted much more than queer women. Writers depict queer men more than women because queer men are viewed as trivial. Dynamics like that known as the Fag Hag and the Gay Best Friend show that women, especially White women, view queer men as objects that can be exploited for attention. Because of this tokenism, queer women especially are not depicted in media aimed at non-queer women. The opposite is true for men. To non-queer men, queer women are a fantasy: the Butch caricature depicts queer women as “one of the guys” but the Token Bisexual suggests that men have a chance for a threesome with two queer women. Even when queer women are depicted in media aimed towards female audiences, they are often only supporting characters to a queer man–who himself is often not the protagonist–as depicted in the Beard caricature and, to an extent, the Smurfette trope, in which exactly one female is interspersed in a group of men as a form of comic relief.
No matter the gender of the presented queer characters, Queer Tragedy permeates all levels of media because it is the child of homophobia. When queer characters are suffering tokens, they are interesting enough to be cared about by viewers and helpful enough to the narrative to be accepted. They are also easy brownie-points for writers and show-runners. However Queer Tragedy ensures that queer characters are not the center of the narrative, in order to appeal to homophobic audiences. If the depictions of queer characters were truly as progressive as they are made out to be, writers would not have to use the crutch of tokenism to ensure viewership.
But even media that goes against some of the prescribed tokenism of queer characters features Queer Tragedy as the central point of their narrative. The extremely popular Call Me By Your Name is one example. The catharsis of this film occurs when the queer couple is forced to split up. Distance between the protagonists does not create tragedy, though; Oliver's, the older of the two men, engagement to a woman does. The film ends with a scene of a seventeen-year-old Elio crying after hearing the news; the film ends with Queer Tragedy. It is worth noting that Call Me By Your Name has a very large fanbase of heterosexual women. This suggests that Queer Tragedy has a sensational quality that attracts non-queer viewers at the expense of queer happiness. Brokeback Mountain follows a similar vein, ending with the tragedy of the murder of Jack, one of two queer protagonists, at the hands of homophobic bigots. In other media, queer characters must sacrifice themselves for their love interests, as seen in The Haunting of Bly Manor, when the Sapphic protagonist Dani kills herself to protect her lover Jamie, with whom she had a developed relationship, making the tragedy deeper. These past two examples have been epitomes of the Bury Your Gays sub-trope of Queer Tragedy.
But Bury Your Gays is not always the precedent of the narrative set by the author. Some media is seemingly free of Queer Tragedy, such as Heartstopper, which depicts the synthesis of a relationship between two British schoolboys, Nick and Charlie. A large amount of the Queer youth relate to Heartstopper: sentiments like “Just trying to find the Nick to my Charlie” are common on youth dating apps like Yubo. However, noting this, Heartstopper is not free of Queer Tragedy: rather, it microdoses it. The most evident example is, of course, scenes that depict homophobia. In another scene, Charlie is almost sexually assaulted by his obsessive ex-boyfriend–Nick is, of course, there to save the innocent Charlie. Additionally, Nick’s struggle to label his sexuality is indicative of Queer Tragic undertones, as Nick feels trapped in his queerness, compared to which heterosexuality is suggested to be a utopia. In these examples, the pervasiveness of Queer Tragedy is exemplified: even in queer shows, queer characters must suffer.
This omnipresent depiction of queer suffering, even in queer media, is extremely detrimental to queer viewers. They begin to take on these homophobic sentiments: that they are side characters unworthy of love whose only job is to support their straight friends and suffer. Queer people especially adopt the idea that love is unattainable, as seen in the hookup culture of apps like Grindr. By suggesting that queer people are undeserving of love, non-queer authors, artists, and show-runners are able to ensure that their queer neighbors remain subservient side characters: Gay Best Friends and threesome intermediates.
Queer Tragedy has the same taste as the historical erasure of queer figures–often epitomized with the phrase, “They were just friends!” They are dissimilar in several ways, but they promote the same sentiment. It is the sentiment that tells consumers that queer people ought to stay in the background, that queer people should be quiet, that queer people need to be buried, that queer people are unworthy of love, that queer people deserve to suffer, suffer, suffer. Ultimately, both of these motifs of our society have to do with queer people accepting a position of subservience to the deified straight. That is precisely why we need more queer authors, poets, directors, and artists: to curb Queer Tragedy. Because, ultimately, queerness is not tragic, it is not some scarlet letter Q whose weight breaks your breastplate and throws shards of your ribs straight to the center of your heart. And since it is not, what queer people truly ought to do, no matter what Queer Tragedy says, is feel joy.
Please note that the thoughts and sentiments expressed in this article are not necessarily indicative of those held by The Playful Porpoise or their other writers. This is an opinion article with original thread. Additionally, the author welcomes discourse and other perspectives; you may reach him at KennethGeorgeWriter@Gmail.com.