Warning: this report is full of spoilers. And yes, one of the two women dies. It’s something that anyone who loves lesbian “shipping” in fiction has to get into their heads, to avoid disappointment.
Dead Lesbian Syndrome is, in reality, a variation of the narrative trend known as Bury your Gays, a cliché common in televised fiction that narrates a tragic ending that involves the death of LGBT characters.
Scriptwriters’ favourite deaths tend to be suicides, murders, accidents, incurable illnesses… in other words, an ending that is as dramatic as possible for the character.
In the case of women, it seems that this animadversion is even greater, to the point of creating its own specific term: Dead Lesbian Syndrom.
It’s true that the subterfuge of death to get rid of a character is overused in all series and affects all characters, whatever their sexual orientation. However, what has angered many lesbian and bisexual fans over these nearly 50 years of fiction infected with the syndrome is that the tragic ending comes just as the character reaffirms her identification as a lesbian or bisexual, the shipping finally becomes canon or when, after much coming and going, the couple finally seem to be heading for a happy ending.
It’s considered that the first “dead lesbian” in televised fiction is Julie, a character in CBS series Executive Suite (1973). After showing the woman’s doubts about her feelings, the moment arrived when Julie finally accepted that she was in love with her best friend. Moments later she was knocked down by a car.
Compilations of these DLS martyrs can be found on specialised websites, such as LGBT Fans Deserve Better or Bury Your Gays on the Autostraddle entertainment portal. Both count around 250 dead lesbians in series from Julie, in 1973, to present day. Here we’ll highlight those most memorable to the general public.
Xena | Xena, Warrior Princess | 2001
The legendary character played by Lucy Lawless was, most certainly, the best child and youth lesbian icon for LGBT millennials. The six seasons focus on the power, strength and leadership of Xena, to the point of rubbing shoulders with mythological gods, and the non-canon queerbaiting with the character Gabrielle was loaded with subtext.
In the final episode, Xena, who seemed invincible, is decapitated by a samurai. But there is hope; her ‘partenaire’ brings her round giving her sacred water mouth-to-mouth (here the production simulates the kiss anticipated by the audience for the entire series, without it being a real kiss), only to find that, in the end, Xena decides to return to the world of the dead. Possibly the best rejected kiss scene in the history of television.
Dana | The L Word | 2006
One of the most painful deaths for the fandom. The L Word was the first 100% lesbian series of fiction. For lesbians and bisexuals around the world the release of the series in 2004 was a huge event. Dana, a professional tennis player inside the closet, was one of the best loved characters for fans of the series and her tandem with Alice, initially best friends, was the best “ship”, and, what’s more, it was “canon”. Although their relationship ends, they meet up again and resume their friendship with an important twist: the tennis player has breast cancer. In hospital the couple spend Dana’s last moments of life together, but the tennis player dies just when Alice leaves the room, alone and unable to say goodbye. Fans’ response to this loss was so resonant that several events were held in the name of the leading character; in the ‘reboot’ of the production, The L Word: Generation Q, released in 2019, the bar where much of the characters’ socialising takes place is called Dana’s, in tribute to the tennis player.
Lexa | The 100 | 2016
And here we have the death that unleashed it all. Lexa was a character played by Alycia Debnam-Carey, who appeared in the second season of science fiction series The 100, showing leadership, power and charisma uncommon in female roles. The main character of the series, Clarke, whose leadership is also growing in her own group, manages to win her trust, and they start to work together. In the end they fall in love, but their respective responsibilities mean that they can’t share the love that their fandom would have liked to see. However, the long-awaited episode arrives in which they consummate their relationship. Minutes later Lexa is hit by a bullet that was really intended for Clarke, and dies in her arms. The character’s death was a turning point in the fandom’s protests against DLS: the script decision cost series creator Jason Rotherburg 12% of his followers; an annual convention was organised by and for fans to promote the positive representation of female LGBT characters in fiction, called ClexaCon, in honour of the “ship” name for Clarke and Lexa; and the LGBT Fans Deserve Better movement was created.
Academic papers have even been written on the subject, such as Dead Lesbian Syndome: LGBTQ fandom’s self-regulation mechanisms in fan-producer controversies around The 100, by researchers Mar Guerrero Pico and María José Establés.
“Representation is very important.You can’t send out the message that being homosexual means that something bad is going to happen. Not only is the representation negative in lesbian and bisexual women, but also in women who don’t have a required physical appearance,” explain the university lecturers who wrote the paper in collaboration with Rafael Ventura.
They refer, specifically, to LGBT character Denise in The Walking Dead, who was also killed by a stray bullet in the same week as Lexa. Both deaths, above all that of Lexa, caused anger among followers. Their fury “also leads to toxic fandom, with death threats and personal attacks on the producers”, the researchers, specialists in the fan phenomenon, write.
Villanelle | Killing Eve | 2022
It might have seemed that the Lexa effect had left its mark on fiction producers. But not so. The latest example we have is in Killing Eve, a series that released the last episode of its final season just over a month ago. And no, it wasn’t Eve, the character played by Sandra Oh, who they killed. That would have been almost comical, as the series would have provided its own spoiler in its title all the time.
The other main character, Villanelle, is an unscrupulous lesbian assassin, with an exquisite taste in fashion. The lesbian fandom fell in love with this antiheroine, but the character brilliantly played by Jodie Comer only has eyes for Eve, although the feeling isn’t mutual. Or that’s how it seems. After four seasons fuelling queerbaiting between the two, the anticipated romance arrives in the final episode, followed by the defeat of the baddies by an indestructible and all-powerful Villanelle. But in the final scene, the assassin is killed in a shower of bullets, while Eve, who is at her side, survives.
“It’s disappointing. it’s true that in this series a lot of people die, but we’d hoped for another ending for the couple,” said a representative of the site Hay una Lesbiana en mi Sopa (HULEMS - There’s a Lesbian in my Soup), a benchmark in Spanish lesbian content. If Killing Eve had just been one of many, this most recent DLS would not have hurt so much. But the production was not only orchestrated by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator of award-winning Fleabag, but it has also won several Emmys and Golden Globes.
“We had high expectations because the series is good,” said HULEMS, and the score was 55% for the final season on rottentomatoes.com, when the previous episodes never went below 80%. To make matters worse that much-hated final episode was titled, Hello, Losers.
Another death lesbian audiences remember well is that of Silvia, a character in the Spanish TV series Los Hombres de Paco (Paco’s Men), as the creators of HULEMS point out. It may seem surprising, but one of Spanish television’s most heterosexual series built up one of the best remembered lesbian “ships”. Not only did the Spanish fandom fall in love with Pepsi, the “ship” name of Pepa and Silvia, but the recognition was also international.
The characters played by Marián Aguilera (Silvia) and Laura Sánchez (Pepa) get married in the presence of all the people in the series. It was one of the first lesbian weddings on Spanish prime time television (Antena 3). During the celebration, gangsters open fire and several characters die, including Silvia.
While it hurts, these fictional characters belong to just that, fiction. But the LGBT fandom should be careful of the intensity with which it reacts to the collective's representation in series. Many of these productions are consumed by a teenage audience, many of them immersed in their own journey out of the closet.
“There are several empirical studies about how LGBT characters are represented in fiction, and the conclusions are all negative,” say researchers Guerrero Pico and Establés.
Fortunately there are initiatives like The Trevor Project, which help and offer support to LGBT teenagers and young people.
“This organisation analysed the rate of suicide and mental illness among LGBT teenagers and the influence of series, books or films on this. As well as raising funds to help prevent suicide among young people,” said the academics. “The message must not be that when you’re a lesbian and finally find happiness, you’ll be punished.”
And now it’s not a question of just calling for happy endings, it’s hoping that these fictional role models are not always killed off. Does this syndrome have a cure?
Spoiler The revelation of details of the plot of a work of fiction.
Shipping The desire by fans for two characters to be in a romantic and/or sexual relationship (derived from the word relationship).
Canon When the 'shipping' is confirmed in the plot of the fiction
Ship name The combination of the names of the characters involved in the shipping (Xebrielle, Clexa, Pepsi...)
Queerbaiting When writers hint at a possible same-sex romance between characters to attract an LGBT audience.
Fandom Group of fans of a particular cultural product.
DLS Stands for Dead Lesbian Syndrome.