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The Queer Television Graveyard of the 2020s

by Camil Piperni


Three months ago was the first time I saw a queer character who I could identify with: Roberta Colindrez’s portrayal of Nico from the tv show Vida on Starz. Nico was the first complicated and deep portrayal of a Latine lesbian that I’d ever encountered in any type of media: a character that was written with the care, bitterness, and love that leads them to feel like someone deeply human. The show was canceled by the network after two and a half seasons.


Too often, the queer representation shown on-screen is limited to superficial characters added as an afterthought - ones that appear to be defined only by one aspect of their identities, written without care and depth, for instance, Kurt from Glee, a character whose problem derives from the fact that he’s not given any flaws, no rounded or full personality.) Complex queer representation is rare. What is especially concerning is the TV lifespan of characters embodying meaningful and kind representation.


In what LGBTQ nation called a “purge of queer TV”, dozens of television shows featuring queer characters, more specifically queer women of color, were canceled one after the other. In the same article, LGBTQ nation writes: “Some critics refer to this trend as a business-minded version of the “Bury Your Gays” trope or “Dead Lesbian Syndrome”.


The “Bury Your Gays” or “Dead Lesbian syndrome” trope creates harm in many ways, but one message it gives is simple: to be happy and queer and in love is only possible if it ends in pain. Vida’s cancellation was a reminder of this: representation can only exist if it is temporary, if it ends.


I scroll, again, through Netflix. I watch Warrior Nun - and in a moment where the main character, a queer girl who is given the kindness and care of good writing, almost dies. I hesitate and hope that they won’t kill her this time. They don’t - and I breathe a sigh of relief. Out of the hundreds of queer women who are killed without kindness or care, she lives.


Two weeks later, the show is cancelled. Too many of these shows create these beginnings and endings: these moments of hope and joy at representation that don’t have a death sentence, only to be followed by a network cancellation.


Shows are often canceled when they aren’t successful, when they’re written badly, or when they aren’t reaching a target audience. First Kill is a television show centering on a black queer vampire hunter who falls in love with her classmate, a vampire struggling to maintain her morals who begins to need more human blood to survive. It rose to Netflix's top 5 after a month of release, and logged a massive amount of viewership (a total of 97.66 million according to NetflixLife.com). Heartstopper, a lovely show that centers on queer high school boys, had less views and was ranked lower that First Kill on Netflix’s top 10 list for some time. Heartstopper was renewed, and First Kill was canceled.


The reasons given by networks for cancellations are often vague or disproportionate. Mentioned in the lower half of the article, NetflixLife quotes a mentioned reason for cancellation being First Kill “did not have the staying power of most Netflix hits, still did not meet thresholds for viewing and completion of episodes,” despite the overwhelming number of viewers (much more than other renewed shows such as Heartstopper). This is unspecific, unclear, and does not make sense in the context of the sheer amount of viewing time in comparison to other renewed shows with much less viewers.


Vida itself was deemed “one of the top 10 new shows of 2018” by Deadline, awarded Outstanding Comedy series at the GLAAD media awards in 2019, given the Imagen award for Best Director, nominated for 2 Dorian awards and received a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. These shows are not getting canceled because they are bad shows. Are they getting canceled because they are queer? Because they showcase queer women, and often queer women of color? These are the clearest connecting threads between each of these shows - and it is dangerously easy to connect queerness with cancelation, erasure, and even deaths characteristic of the bury your gays trope.


Arguably the most disastrous effect of these cancellations is their impacts on younger queer people, closeted teens, and those who have yet to understand that to thrive as a queer person is possible. Not only The lack of recognition and education is painful and apparent, be it recognizing and learning to respect those different from you, or seeing yourself on screen.


It is not just the cancellation of the shows that is harmful: it is what they represent. It’s the price tag of queer representation, especially the representation of queer people who are given the care to be written as whole, complicated people. It’s the understanding, the assumption that representation can never last.


I want a world where these shows last. Let them last and let them be loved for years. Let them run for the length of Grey’s Anatomy and let them be renewed and rebooted for years until people are exhausted of them. Let there be hundreds of characters with names no one can remember. Let there be hundreds of Vidas and hundreds of people seeing themselves in hundreds of Nicos.


This world is not as far as it seems: while most were canceled, 2022 showed a significant increase in TV showcasing queer characters. Let’s hope more survive past the first season.

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