I’m Selina, Awards Circuit’s queer Girl Friday for everything LGBTQIA+ on TV! The summer streaming season has arrived, with platforms releasing freshman shows and new seasons of their biggest crowdpleasers. For some, it’s the moment of truth as studios pray their babies make it in the big wide world. For established shows, it’s time to “take risks” and keep their audiences tweeting over the latest bombshells. And this “take risks” attitude, dear readers, has launched a new queer stereotype: the “Season Two Gay.”
What do I mean by “Season Two Gay”? Picture this: a show premieres and quickly draws a loyal audience and some good-to-middling reviews, earning itself a Season Two greenlight. When the next season comes out, there’s been some changes made in response to Season One’s reception: better lighting, spiffed-up sets and a fresh face to shake up the storyline. This new kid on the block just so happens to be the LGBTQIA+ representation critics dinged showrunners for forgetting, or worse, weren’t willing to include in Season One for fear of losing straight audiences. And thus we meet the Season Two Gay, a character with the fiercest of quips and major cooler-than-you vibes, here to give somebody a sexuality crisis or become a casualty In The Name of [Insert Here].
Netflix’s “GLOW,” the dramedy series about a 1980s womens’ wrestling show, is the latest to bring home a Season Two Gay. We meet Yolanda “Yo-Yo” Rivas (Shakira Barrera), a semi-retired stripper hired to take over Cherry Bang’s “Junk Chain” wrestling persona. Yo-Yo, who happens to be an out and proud Latinx lesbian, works her way into the cliqueish group of wrestlers with some sick dance moves and a frank, refreshing attitude. Don’t get me wrong here: I adore Yo-Yo. Barrera and “GLOW’s” writers have done an excellent job making Yo-Yo a fully-realized character with her own ideas about life and love, just like the other hilarious women in the series. But she’s still the Season Two Gay, evidenced in her snappy oral sex jokes and her burgeoning relationship with fellow Arthie Premkumar, aka “Beirut” (Sunita Mani). I’m torn between recognizing her trope-y reasons for joining “GLOW” and excitement over a queer romance that (so far) hasn’t ended in a funeral.
And then there’s “Luke Cage.” Another series in its second season, baddie Shades (Theo Rossi) reveals his romantic past with best friend Comanche (Thomas Q. Jones) in a story arc that starts with a Season Two Gay and ends in a murder. In a short but intense scene, the pair talk about their time together in prison, clueing the audience into the fact that 1) they were best friends-turned-lovers, 2) Comanche’s still in love with Shades, 3) Shades is the new Season Two Gay, here for an exciting queer subplot.
Others have explained the relationship’s significance better than I have, but Shades and Comanche are a queer couple that, at the end of the day, are complete people with their own motivations and feelings. Shades chalks their romantic connection up to a lack of human contact and trust in prison and explaining away their relationship. Comanche disagrees, and also admits he wants Shades to run Mariah’s business empire, driving him to leak information about Mariah to the police in an effort to unseat her. The plan backfires when Comanche’s caught in the act, and Shades shoots him for the betrayal. The gangster, though he murdered his friend, is obviously devastated by the death, with Shades visiting Comanche’s mother and promising to support her. Comanche’s death becomes a defining step to the dark side for Shades, rather than a stupid plot device (no Bury Your Gays trope here), but it’s still a dead queer character to break out the shovel for. Also: why not introduce Shades as a bisexual from the get-go? Was the plot deemed “too risky” to include in Season One?
I can poke and prod at “GLOW” and “Luke Cage,” but both of their queer storylines are direct evidence of better LGBTQIA+ storytelling in the television world. Yo-Yo may be the sexy lesbian, but she’s also a wrestler, a dancer, and a damn good friend to Ruth and the other girls; Shades’ lover may end up six feet under, but his death isn’t meaningless and isn’t remotely connected to his sexuality. Their identities as queer people do not hinder their stories with the more oppressive kinds of gay tropes, like queers of decades past. Remember Tara (Amber Benson), Willow’s first girlfriend from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”? Her death was a prime example of “Bury Your Gays” in action, a random killing meant to drive Willow over the edge of morality, only to be fixed when she’s brought back to the good side a few episodes later.
Many young 90s lesbians were crushed by Tara’s death, which added nothing to “Buffy” besides some excess angst and the message that being gay = death. Marti Noxon, one of the writers and producers on “Buffy” who hired Benson, recently admitted that she’s questioned the necessity of Tara’s death. She told Vulture:
There were parts of season six where I feel we went too far. We pushed into some categories that almost felt sadistic and that Buffy was volunteering for things that were beyond just “bad choices” and were almost irresponsible for the character. That may have to do with my own history. [Laughs.] The personal, right? It’s personal. And I think that killing Tara was — in retrospect, of all the people, did she have to die?
The answer is no, she did not. I’ll out myself as a queer girl who didn’t care much about Tara (she had the personality of a damp washcloth), but her death was awkward and unbelievable. A random shot from Warren mortally wounds an experienced witch? Nah. It’s nice to hear Noxon questioning that decision decades later, but it doesn’t undo the subconscious impact on young queer viewers. Comparing Tara’s story arc to Yo-Yo and Shades’ displays a more careful handling of LGBTQIA+ characters in 2018. But new tropes like the Season Two Gay are still popping up, making me wonder if queer characters are still seen as a controversial expense too costly for a show’s first season. We’re worth the time and money, but do producers feel the same?