A Book Review by Gary M. Kramer.
Killing Off the Lesbians by Liz Millward, Janice G. Dodd and Irene Fubara-Manuel (McFarland, 2017) addresses the unfortunate trope in film and television in which women who love women are killed off (or in some cases sacrifice themselves for their lovers). The authors, all academics, argue collaboratively that seeing lesbian and bisexual characters in film and television offers a “possibility” for viewers who are becoming aware of – or need to see – images that reflect their sexual identity. Moreover, visible queer role models can help youth with acceptance and identity formation, and older viewers to appreciate the struggles for equality over discrimination. Having these lesbian and bisexual characters killed off is harmful as it fails to provide positive images of same-sex relationships, reinforcing negative stereotypes that queer characters are bad, dangerous, and/or deserve to die for their sexuality. In addition, when there is a surviving lesbian or bisexual character, the authors note, they generally remain single and lonely.
While the authors make a solid case for why it is critical for LGBTQ characters to thrive in movies and on television, their book’s message is stronger than their execution. Aside from some sloppy typos and an index that sadly lacks even key names cited in the text (e.g., B. Ruby Rich), the greatest concern stems from a repetitions of certain facts and the feeling that book was compiled as a series of unconnected chapters that dance around a common subject.
Arguably too much emphasis is placed on Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001), an admittedly groundbreaking TV show with a female lead who has an ambiguous relationship with her partner Gabrielle. The authors talk about the subtext of the Xena/Gabrielle dynamic, as well as how the death of one of the lead characters disappointed fans. Eventually, these fans wrote femslash stories that resurrected the characters and created romantic/sexual fiction that rejects the death narrative and empowered the fans. When the authors recount various examples of fan fiction about these television characters and programs in paragraph after paragraph in one chapter, it passes the point of diminishing returns.
Xena: Warrior Princess is important for providing clever “subtextual” lesbian references that fans could enjoy and eventually get creative with after the series ended, but this program overshadows many of the other examples of what the authors call “symbolic annihilation” of lesbian characters. Whether they were overt or covert, women who loved women on programs including Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and The 100 (2014- ) snuffed it on screen much to viewers’ dismay. An example like Lexa’s death in The 100 is raised, and repeated, several times, if only to emphasize its role in the creation of the “Lexa Pledge” which encouraged better representation of LGBTQ characters on TV. If or how networks are trying to honor the Lexa Pledge remains to be seen.
The section on dead lesbians in films is also underwhelming. While there is a brief discussion of the death of a lesbian character in The Children’s Hour (1961), as well as the erasing of same-sex desires in The Color Purple (1985) and Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), and an equally brief concern about the lesbian relationship in The Kids Are All Right (2010), the film portion of the book is so minimal, it does not seem to fit in with the larger discussion of Xena, femslash fiction, or how these images reflect symbolic annihilation. Even the expected nod to the classic lesbian film, Desert Hearts (1985), which features “a tentative happy ending,” seems shoehorned into the book.
Much more useful is the discussion of how actresses Crystal Chappell and Jessica Leccia from the daytime soap opera Guiding Light (1952-2009) continued to create lesbian content after their soap opera was cancelled. In their extending the association of the characters to other projects on the web and in films, these women provide a satisfying antidote to the death of characters, who live on only in fan fiction.
The authors do make some valid observations about how lesbians are portrayed on television. The lesbian kisses on TV series like L.A. Law (1986-1994, a landmark moment), Pretty Little Liars (2010-17), and even Guiding Light were used to boost ratings, but often these characters met with death as a form of punishment after kissing. This marked the same-sex kiss as something sensational or novelistic, rather than creating an emotional connection for the characters (or viewers). Killing Off cites the once-famous lesbian chic kiss between Madonna and Britney Spears at the MTV Music Video Awards to crystallize a point about “performative bisexuality” that characters (or people) can slip in and out of same-sex attraction if and when it’s convenient. The authors could have explored the issue further, along with how female character on TV “touch foreheads” as a signal of intimacy whereas the cable show, The L Word (2004-09), was more explicit, because the sex scenes where choreographed by a lesbian in an effort to be more authentic.
But Killing Off the Lesbians seems to be all over the place in trying to create international examples for multiple mediums that both emphasize the authors’ points and disprove them. It appears that the authors wanted to focus on Xena and used other programs, films, and femslash fiction to build out and reinforce their feelings about that influential show. If this is the case, then that is the book they should have written.
Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2.