Imagine this, if you will.
A popular mainstream actor — let’s say Chris Evans — is going to be in a movie with an age-appropriate, popular mainstream actress — let’s say Jennifer Lawrence. The plot is pretty similar to a thousand other movies you’ve seen but you’re going to watch it anyway because, well, you’re desperate to finally have a mainstream film produced by a major motion picture company that will play in more than just one indie movie theatre that’s over an hour away from your home. So, this plot involves adversity, drama, a love that dare not speak its name, steamy love scenes, and for the fun of it some good ol’ fashioned heterophobia (because let’s face it, there’s got to be at least one character who is disgusted by the budding romance between two attractive straight people). After an hour and thirteen minutes of will-they-won’t-they, you begin to wonder if this movie will be just like all of the others that you’ve seen without a happy ending but then, to your astonishment, they get together! They’ll be happy and live ever after and maybe now you’ve finally found a feel-good romance where someone doesn’t —
— And then it happens: a tell-tale cough, a swell of dramatic music, a blurred image coming into focus of a medicine cabinet filled with prescription bottles. Chris Evans and Jennifer Lawrence have finally overcome the odds to be together but, well, Jennifer Lawrence has a fatal illness and is going to be dead within the remaining twenty minutes of the film. At least they got to have this brief love affair, right? At least Chris Evans was taught how to love in the face of loss, right? At least your sixteen dollar movie ticket went toward a movie that was just so worth the overpriced popcorn and the tissues you keep in your purse for such an occasion, right?
It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it? If you’re straight and looking to movies and television for some reflection of your life with characters similar to how you identify, you’re in luck: you’ve got enough material to last you multiple lifetimes of Netflix binge-watching.
However, if you identify as queer, you’re lucky if you’ve got a handful of decent films to choose from, and even luckier if one or two of those films don’t end with the protagonist dying, going to jail, or ending up alone. I can’t tell you how many lesbian romances I’ve watched that have ended with one of the female characters meeting some awful fate.
Imagine being a teenager coming to terms with your sexual identity and turning to the comfort of films and television to find some mirror of yourself, some minor representation of someone like you who can save the world, be the hero, get the girl/guy/enby, and turn out just fine. Now, imagine what it’s like to watch stuff like ER, The L Word, Last Tango in Halifax, Loving Annabelle, A Perfect Ending, Lost & Delirious, High Art, Lip Service,The Children’s Hour, Heavenly Creatures, Blue is the Warmest Color, The Hunger…
Seriously, if I keep listing movies and tv shows depicting the Tragic Lesbian Ending, we’ll be here all day. I can’t do it. It’s too depressing.
What I want to know is why. Why do filmmakers and television writers look to the same tired, depressing cliche to tell a story about queer folks? Is it just blatant sexism, the implication that queer women don’t deserve a happy ending? I could understand it of a male filmmaker, but did Sally Wainwright, writer of the BBC drama Last Tango in Halifax, have to kill off a black lesbian character right after she had a baby and married her partner? Is it too difficult, time consuming, or boring to change the story just a little? Writing really isn’t THAT hard, so I’m flummoxed that writer/director Nicole Conn (A Perfect Ending) had the audacity to have the less-than-perfect ending of a later-in-life lesbian finding her true love and then promptly kicking the bucket.
The Tragic Lesbian Ending can certainly serve a purpose: the LGBTQ community is rife with homophobia, hate crimes, and high suicide rates. Telling these stories is important because it reflects an all-too common fate for queer women and also can show the harsh realism that women commit crimes and suffer from mental illness too. The Tragic Lesbian Ending: True Events Edition (see: Gia and Freeheld) serves a purpose too in showing viewers that queer women exist in history and have lives worth depicting, whether they are about fighting for civil rights or battling drug addiction.
What we need is more to choose from. I want to know that I can scroll through the Gay & Lesbian category in Netflix and have options that aren’t just movies filmed with a handheld camera starring people who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag or films with depressing as hell endings. Yeah, we do still need the movies about the brave bisexual woman fighting cancer and the show about the lesbian firefighter dying in the line of duty. That’s life. But we also need to see that queer women can also survive, save the day, get the girl, and ride off into the sunset.
29-year-old me could use more movies like this for the purpose of having a cheesy, feel-good film to watch after a bad day at work. But, more importantly, 15-year-old me could have used more movies and shows like this to make it a little easier to come out without wondering if I might end up with some fatal disease or become so anguished that I succumbed to suicide.
I’m so over the Tragic Lesbian Ending. Are you?