It hasn’t been a good year for queer women on television. The infamous Bury Your Gays trope has been particularly brutal in 2016, felling lesbian and bisexual characters left and right — and pushback against the practice has recently reached fever pitch.
After a beloved character, Lexa, died on the CW’s futuristic sci-fi series The 100 last March, an army of fans rose up and demanded better of mainstream entertainment: They forced an apology from the show’s creator and raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Trevor Project in Lexa’s name. In the aftermath, Autostraddle compiled a comprehensive list and infographic of 166 regular or recurring lesbian or bisexual female characters who have been killed in television history. “We comprise such a teeny-tiny fraction of characters on television to begin with that killing us off so haphazardly feels especially cruel,” wrote Editor-in-Chief Riese Bernard.
Against this grim backdrop, two recent episodes streaming on Netflix involving queer female characters — from Easy and Black Mirror, respectively — shine like happy gay lights in the darkness. (Warning: Lots of spoilers ahead.)
Writer, director, and executive producer Joe Swanberg’s Easy is a series of eight stand-alone episodes set in Chicago, all of which loosely explore some element of sex or love. One vignette, titled “Vegan Cinderella,” is devoted to a relationship between Chase (Kiersey Clemons) and Jo (Jacqueline Toboni), who meet each other’s gaze at a concert before going home together. The sex scene, which kicks off a mere minute into the episode, is one of television’s best involving two women: The few little awkward moments that accompany peeling off socks and unfolding the pesky futon are buoyed by laughter and levity; nervous excitement gives way to ardent abandonment. It’s fun and sexy and natural. After Jo and Chase wake up the next morning, they aren’t cloaked in queer shame or wracked with identity crises — they discuss veganism, go get diner breakfast, and casually kiss goodbye.
Easy’s partially improvised, dialogue-heavy realism is worlds away from the twisted (and very scripted) sci-fi future of Black Mirror. In an episode written by creator Charlie Brooker and directed by Owen Harris, another set of queer women — Kelly (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Yorkie (Mackenzie Davis) — have fleeting meetups in different decades until they fall for each other somewhere in the swirls of time. It turns out both characters are avatars for elderly women, each having her consciousness wired into a gigantic server; in this programmed universe, they’re able to relive their young womanhood in a beachside party town called San Junipero. As long as their bodies are alive in the real world, Kelly and Yorkie can only sample San Junipero’s wonders, but after death — “passing over” — they have the option to live there forever.
After a few twists that defy Black Mirror’s typical fatalism, Yorkie and Kelly literally drive off into the sunset, seemingly to live together in eternal sapphic happiness. (Technically their bodies do die, but their souls or their minds or whatever live on forever. That counts!) LGBT fans went crazy for the episode, as they did for “Vegan Cinderella” — finally, here were two fully realized plotlines for queer women on TV that didn’t end in homophobic meltdowns, heartbreak, or death.
Both “San Junipero” and “Vegan Cinderella” are stand-alone episodes within anthology series, and function as their own self-contained worlds. When it comes to longer-running plotlines on more traditional television series, actors’ schedules, financial constraints, or pressure for high-stakes drama in the writer’s room can (and do) lead to plenty of queer and non-queer characters getting killed off. The beauty of vignettes like these is that we don’t get to watch relationships for long enough to see something go terribly, terribly wrong.
In an era of peak TV, when there are a million different things to watch in any given moment, there’s also something glorious about being able to dip into a show at the exact moment when some lesbian activity is going down. “San Junipero” is the only episode of Black Mirror I have any intention of watching, while “Vegan Cinderella” and a different episode involving a threesome with two women and Orlando Bloom (lol) were all I needed to get out of Easy. If these were shows I truly cared about in other contexts, I might have been disappointed that the characters don’t get to stick around for longer arcs. But I didn't feel compelled to keep watching – I’m cynical enough about technology on my own, and I’ve seen enough focus on straight people’s sex lives to last me a lifetime.
Like basically every other queer consumer, I’ve watched hours upon hours of television and film, tugged along by the allure of queer subtext — looking at you and a few of your most recent queer baity roles, Kristen Stewart — only to have my hopes dashed by the introduction of a boyfriend, or some other enforcement of heteronormative gender roles. And I’ve watched plenty of stuff with actual queer characters who are only ever punished, again and again, for their queerness. (The 100 truly did start sucking after Lexa died.) It’s no wonder, then, that these episodes of Easy and Black Mirror have been so well received. Many TV critics have singled out “Vegan Cinderella” and, especially, “San Junipero” as standout episodes of their respective series. I’m not saying that queer people necessarily make for more emotionally complex and provocative stories, but — you know what? Fuck it. I am saying that.
Both episodes went beyond tossing in queer storylines in a half-hearted attempt at inclusion (or worse, tokenism). “Vegan Cinderella” in particular feels refreshingly genuine. When’s the last time you saw a sex scene on television involving a woman who has both armpit and pubic hair? I practically cheered while watching the episode alone in my apartment. Lesbians and bisexual women, of course, are not a monolith, but a few classic queer signifiers that don’t dip into lazy stereotypes can make a character seem that much more real. Jo (femininely androgynous, a vegan, a bike rider, an activist) seems like plenty of queer women I’ve met in real life. So does Chase, who is also a queer woman of color — the kind of character that’s still maddeningly rare. When masculine-leaning women are practically nonexistent on television, and the few queer characters we do manage to get on TV are mostly white and male, people like Jo and Chase actually reflect the realities of queer diversity. Plus, their plotline is a funny, simple story about how we try to impress others, rather than some agonizing drama about coming out, or wrestling with internalized homophobia.
“San Junipero” succeeds in similar ways, but does fall prey to uninspired writing in others. Kelly (another queer woman of color!) is bright, extroverted, and unabashedly open about her bisexuality. Yorkie rocks some amazingly dykey high-waisted shorts, but she’s the least satisfying character of the bunch: Her real-life self has been fully paralyzed for decades, following a fight with her homophobic parents. Many of her personality traits stem from her tragic brush with anti-gay hate — she’s completely preoccupied with her sexual orientation, afraid, at first, of liking women. We don’t see Kelly and Yorkie having sex, but we do get pillow talk of the “when did you know you liked girls” variety, which feels overdone and cheap. Even in such a fantastical setting, the characters in “San Junipero” are limited by tropes: the bisexual woman who’s only interested in casual sex; the gay woman who’s fearful of being punished for her gayness again. Luckily, giving them both a happy ending manages to upend both of those stereotypes. (Some Debbie Downers think the end might have meant something far darker, but let’s just not listen to them.)
After years of seeing female queerness relegated to subtext — or, arguably worse, watching queer women become psycho killers, if not the victims of psycho killers themselves — these two Netflix episodes are heartening examples of what the future might hold for queer media. But it doesn’t seem to be an accident that some of the best lesbian representation streaming right now is confined to stand-alone episodes. Hopefully, we’ll start to see similar nuance more often in onscreen queer relationships that last beyond one 27-minute or hourlong stretch. Because even though it’s gratifying to skip right to the gay stuff in self-contained vignettes, there’s an altogether deeper satisfaction to be gained from investing emotional energy in characters we get to watch develop over time. The real test will come when queer women can keep doing their thing, episode after episode, season after season — and all the better if those arcs are written and directed by women. (Both “Vegan Cinderella” and “San Junipero,” like most of TV right now, were helmed by men.)
It’s telling that the platform where you can find Orange Is the New Black, the crown jewel of contemporary queer lady content (albeit an imperfect one), has followed up with quality lesbian one-offs. Meanwhile, Amazon, another streaming service, is stepping up with prestige offerings like Transparent. There are even network shows breaking new ground in queer storytelling — particularly a bunch of stuff on Shondaland. And just this week, things look like they’re heading in a very gay direction for two women on Supergirl. Flirting might actually, for real this time, evolve into something more. And maybe — who could have imagined! — those characters will get a happy ending, too.