Last summer, Atomic Blonde was easily my most anticipated movie. The moment I first saw a trailer for it, I slipped it to the top of my list, and my excitement became a punchline for some of my friends.
Having seen it now and having had some time to process it, I view it as a rare example of a movie that delivered exactly what I expected from the trailer and marketing campaign and left me completely satisfied.
On the one hand, Atomic Blonde gave me the kind of kickass spy thriller I grew up watching, but with a tough-as-hell woman like Charlize Theron in the lead of Lorraine Broughton. The movie goes a step further though by adding the extra layer of making her a queer woman, and giving her a “Bond girl” of her own. I was amazed sitting in the theater that the romance subplot between Lorraine and Sofia Boutella’s Delphine wasn’t just eye candy, but actually had a few moments of tenderness, of at least faux-vulnerability on the part of Lorraine, a rarity across the entire film or the spy genre as a whole.
Some of that, of course, is darkened by the fact that Delphine is murdered in the third act. Almost immediately following the release of the film, and even when some sneak previews were happening, I began to see some voices on Twitter piping up to mark it down on your list as yet another example of "Bury Your Gays." For those not in the know, the trope in question refers to the disproportionate amount of LGBTQ characters, especially queer women, killed off in TV shows and movies, often as a cheap-seeming plot device. It’s a legit trope, and the lesbian and bisexual mothership outlet Autostraddle has catalogued every queer female death on television, only to see their numbers grow from double to triple digits after the piece was initially published.
Now, before I go any further: full disclosure that I’m a survivor of a targeted anti-LGBTQ hate crime, and have dealt with my own degree of PTSD as a result of that for several years now. So, I get it. If a scene like Delphine’s fairly graphic murder scene in Atomic Blonde is flat out traumatizing for you, or painful given your own experiences, I totally think that’s valid and am not judging you in any way for your distaste for it being sprung on you in an escapist spy film.
What I am talking about here today is the trope itself, and the way we address it when it occurs in pop culture. All too often, the conversation ends up coming down to one simple point: whether or not every single LGBTQ character in a story lives or dies. Atomic Blonde is just one example. Another can be found in Game of Thrones, in which a few popular queer women were either captured or killed following an extended fight sequence.
But as a queer woman who loves herself some nerdy stuff, I feel more and more like the discussion around this trope has moved far too much towards the insistence that we simply never, ever kill off any queer character—especially queer, female characters—in film or television. While I do think "Bury Your Gays" is a problem, this solution is impractical at best, unsustainable and reductive at worst.
Let’s start with that worst. To be blunt, queer ladies deserve to be in cool stuff, and sometimes in cool stuff, characters we like die. Even in the Autostraddle list, there were examples of characters whose deaths were some of the most impactful moments of an entire series, an aspect the site acknowledged as well. Cataloging deaths serves plainly as a way of showing how common it is, not an indictment on the characterizations of every single lesbian or bisexual female character.
I’m talking about women who matter, who have an impact. The Autostraddle list was very important, but as the criticism moves forward, consistently reducing our stories into binary tallies of whether we live or die does a complete disservice to the potential for three-dimensional, nuanced characters within genre storytelling that we yearn to see more of ourselves in.
To bring this back to Delphine in Atomic Blonde, perhaps this was just my experience with this particular genre of filmmaking talking, but I knew she wasn’t going to survive the film even from the trailer. The movie all but telegraphs her eventual demise by having her be read by Lorraine as tailing her the moment she arrives in Berlin, and her clear role as the out-of-her-depth spy representing a fourth player too many on the board. And yet, as mentioned above, she is the only character who can draw some humanity out of our hero. More importantly, she serves up the key piece of evidence that brings Lorraine’s entire mission together, even after her death. Despite her inexperience, her death is in the line of duty as an effective spy, and is afforded a much higher degree of power and importance than any of the male characters who die in the film, save for James McAvoy’s double agent David Percival.
In any previous version of this movie with a male lead, Delphine’s plot would have played out exactly the same way, and would have avoided the "Bury Your Gays" trope by being a heterosexual story diversion. There was no lesbian subplot in the film’s graphic novel source material, so the filmmakers could have simply left her out or they could have swapped her gender, making Lorraine a seasoned spy seducing an inexperienced novice male. This certainly would have been a twist on the traditional spy film narrative, but all also would have missed out on the very earned queer subplot in a mainstream summer action film: a loss the film would have suffered greatly for.
In the case of Atomic Blonde, trying to avoid "Bury Your Gays" would have meant erasing the LGBTQ voice from the film entirely, which would have been far worse than the trope itself. The solution to "Bury Your Gays" isn’t bulletproof vests and unused graves for every gay character we ever encounter, it’s pushing for more queer characters across a broader spectrum of storylines. The reason members of our community feel so impacted when one of our characters is killed off is that there’s so few to begin with that it legit feels like we’ve lost a significant portion of our representation.
Instead of turning our pitchforks towards the few filmmakers and production teams that are actually making an effort to include queer characters in genre works, we should look outward. We should tell slow-moving stalwarts like Marvel that it’s time to include LGBTQ superheroes in their blockbuster films, where even when someone does die they show up revived on an ABC series less than a year later, or are re-inserted into the time stream by sending a man back in time to save the future. We should be demanding that Disney include real LGBTQ characters in their films beyond nods, winks, and villain coding.
We've seen what this can be like. Black Mirror received Emmy nominations for the blissfully romantic "San Junipero" episode in Season 3. (Okay, yes, technically both characters did die but, shush, heaven is a place on earth!) Star Trek: Discovery is boldly going where the franchise has never gone before, and SYFY's own Battlestar Galactica was groundbreaking in treating sexuality as a complete non-issue within Colonial society.
Hopefully soon, we'll be in a world where the whole of representation sits not on a few unstable shoulders—one where we don't judge queer characters on simply whether they live or die, but with what they do with their time while they have it.