‘Empire’ Showrunner Ilene Chaiken Responds to TV’s Lesbian Death Trope

Empire Lesbian Death
Jim Smeal/BEI/REX Shutterstock

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read ahead, if you have not watched the April 6 episode of “Empire.”

TV deaths are always a sore subject for fans, but lately, a slew of characters being killed off have struck an especially emotional chord — because the grim reaper has visited many fan-favorite characters who happen to be lesbians.

“The 100” faced much backlash from passionate viewers of the CW show who were enraged when a key character was killed off, just after she consummated her relationship with her female lover. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” also killed off a lesbian, as did Syfy’s “The Magicians,” “The Expanse,” CBS medical drama “Code Black” and CW’s “Jane the Virgin.”


What TV Can Learn From ‘The 100’ Mess

Tonight, Fox’s “Empire” killed off a lesbian couple, played by Naomi Campbell and Marisa Tomei.

Though the pattern of television deaths has become a recent trend, “Empire” showrunner Ilene Chaiken — who co-created Showtime’s “The L Word” prior to the Fox hit, and has been outspoken about her own identity as a lesbian — says her series’ shocking double death does not fall into the same category.

“I think that we aren’t a part of that phenomenon or conversation,” Chaiken tells Variety, adding that she’s been following the social reaction to other shows “very closely.”


Empire Lesbian Death

‘Empire’ Showrunner Breaks Down Shocking Double Death (SPOILERS)

Speaking about Campbell’s character (who had sex with a man, Bryshere Gray’s Hakeem Lyon, in the scene prior to her death), Chaiken explains: “I would say that Camilla is not a lesbian character. Camilla was, if anything, an opportunist, which is quite different from being a lesbian. If anything, the lesbians should wish for a character like Camilla to be killed off since she just preyed on a powerful lesbian in order to fulfill her heterosexual ambitions.”

“Empire” has always been a show inclusive of LGBTQ relationships, primarily with a series-long storyline revolving around one of the main characters Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) publicly embracing his sexuality and becoming a role model for gay fans in the hip-hop community.

So, are there any plans to introduce a loving lesbian couple on “Empire?”

“No plans at the moment, but it’s always in my thoughts,” Chaiken says. “I don’t know whether anybody else shares my wish for that, but I’m always looking for that story.”

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  1. Lauren says:

    Why do they still let Irene Chakien anywhere near a TV show?!

  2. Arrok says:

    What else did you expect from hollywood pricks? They’re enjoying killing female characters in general do you really think they’re going to make an exception for a lesbian women? Please. The problem is much bigger than everyone thinks. Notice that even in Empire, there are less women than men. Look at EVERY damn show(except for Orphan Black or OITNB) and you’ll see that there’s usually a gazillions of male characters and only few females. And who’s most likely to die on ANY show? A female character of course. To make a main male question himself and heroically suffer heroic sufferings.

    It’s not about these characters being lesbians it’s about them being women.

  3. C. Young says:

    Camilla was definitely not a gay character. She’s a gold digger, a lesbian marriage of convenience to a rich powerful lesbian woman which she completely used. It’s the same for some younger men or women that marries a older wealthy men or women. Your life is made forever. Although Luscious is ruthless and cold hearted individual but he’s ruthless for all the right reasons.

  4. Charles G. says:

    I didn’t believe it at first, but now I see what all this gay-gestapo, gay-bullying stuff is all about. This is insane. Gays want to be in your show but you can’t kill them even if it is good for the show? That is pure and utter BS. This gay stuff, Hollywood, is officially out of control and you have no one but yourself to blame for your current miseries. While you are at it, don’t kill off any women, any fat people, any black people, any Latinos, or any people of Faith. If so, you are being a bigot. In fact, you are now ONLY allowed to kill straight white males or I repeat, YOU ARE A BIGOT!

  5. Matt says:

    THIS is why you don’t use gays and lesbians in TV. For 1.8 percent of the population, why even bother when the perpetually-offended scream when one is killed off as if they’re supposed to live forever.? It’s pointless. DON’T USE THEM. Duh!

  6. mappingbones says:

    literally duck off

  7. Seems like Ilene Chaiken has a problem with this

  8. preta4 says:

    Janet, you’ve hit the nail square on the head, one MAIN reason why I’ve just about given up on t.v. as a whole myself. While there are some who applaud this crazy mess, in the so-called name of growth and change personally I say “NOT so”. Moved on a while ago myself. Still smhatcs.

  9. Janet says:

    It’s funny how they all kill off the lesbians and all say them killing off the lesbians doesn’t fit the Bury the Gay Dead Lesbian Syndrome trope.

    Whatever. They did the same thing on Arrow.

    Minorities are expendable in the white male supremacy that governs American story telling, including Empire. So I’m not watching anymore.

    • hp says:

      “Minorities are expendable in the white male supremacy that governs American story telling, including Empire.”

      A show created by and has a cast of pm all minorities????? this show did fit the trope but that comment is ignorant minorities are not just lgbt.

    • Deej says:

      All I can say to your comment is LOL… There will always be that one person. Always.

      • CutTheBS says:

        I’m so tired of this BS every minority is offended by everything! I have gay, lesbian, black, foreign friends and they ARE ALL TIRED OF THIS RIDICULOUS COMPLAINTS! It’s just a TV show! It’s not a political agenda! You should be worried as I am about what’s going on NOW in Mississippi! Fight against it! Not a f*cking TV show! Fight against what’s happening everyday to the refugees, not a TV show! Fight against injustice and corruption, not a TV show! People are ridiculous nowadays

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  11. Briony says:

    Firstly, Variety get your act together, this is not a “recent phenomonon”, this has been happening to lesbian characters since the very first. If you’d like to pop over to Autostraddle’s article on the subject, they’d be happy to educate you.
    Secondly, Ilene goddamn Chaikin has been crapping on her own community from a great height since The L Word, and if you were to ask any lesbian outside of herself they would tell you how much she does not represent the lesbian community’s views ever.
    In fact, she doesn’t count as a lesbian in this scenario, she counts as a show runner, and as we’ve all seen, every show runner that ever includes a lesbian character thinks that they’re a special goddamn snowflake and their ideas are SO ORIGINAL because they came up with the idea on their own (ie. because they’re too busy congratulating themselves to do any actual research) that they don’t realise that the author is dead, and a text means exactly what the reader/viewer feels that it means.
    If anyone’s an opportunist here it’s her, because she’s queer baiting her own community for the ratings.

  12. Dex says:

    Swirledwood’s ignorance is astounding. Lexa’s popularity was based around the fact that the focus WASN’T on her sexuality. She was an amazing character who happened to be a lesbian. Educate yourself.

  13. swirledwood says:

    Wrongdoing? What vitriol of some of the comments here is astounding. If a lesbian storyline doesn’t get the ratings then the lesbian dies. It amazes me to hear some of the people here say “stop killing off fake, fictional, lesbian characters! It’s enough wrongdoing” just incredible. This idea lesbians are getting killed off because of these allegedly archaic laws that forced lesbian storylines to end in deat? Really? Maybe people don’t like watching tripe about lesbians because the individual becomes uninteresting since so much of their focus Simon becomes about who they enjoy doing intimate acts with. A character must have more going for him or here if their entire purpose is who they prefer to be intimate with. No show runner has any duty to include any lesbian stories. None. The
    Vast majority of people aren’t lesbian or gay and so cannot relate to any intimate aspect the character has and since that character seems to be written more for political reasons then creative plot driven story reasons, people lose interest fast. When that interest fades, the character dies. Give these characters more depth than this obsession with the fact they’re gay. No one cares anymore except a minority that no one cares about enough to hold their attention in the privacy of their own homes when they’d one have to be PC anymore. Maybe make them interesting with a personality outside of their gayness and people may actually become vested in these characters and care whether they live or die.

    • Janet says:

      Your ignorance is astonishing. I don’t know what’s more amazing, your belief this is about politics rather than decency, or that people should tolerate someone crapping on their faces.

      • At one point you are right, the bisexual character was absokutely flat, but because of what? Because she was as tropey as she could be. An opportunist as Ilene called her. She was the epitome of the not trustworthy bisexual who cheats and sleeps around w/ men & women and it doesn’t mean anything to her. She’s the bad bi who can’t/shouldn’t be trusted. I bet bisexuel women will find it offensive af. In addition she was a woc, because poc are the bad guys, right?

        Her partner wasn’t the most likeable either. Question is why a lesbian herself isn’t interested to give lesbian and bisexual women some see worthy and positive, interesting representation.
        Lexa was a very intriguing character, loved not only by LGBT people but the general audience. She was a layered and interesting. Her character wasn’t a trope in itself, but her death was.
        Ilene Chaiken characters are as characters tropes and adding to this she used the lesbian death trope.

        ALL writers say, that no, THEY didn’t use the trope, it was a writing/story decision. So as everyone says that, I guess the trope actually doesn’t exist at all! ;)

      • swirledwood says:

        Or as you claim, it does exist all the time. Maybe you’re wrong here

  14. dioxinblues says:

    Whatever, Ilene. Spin it so it makes you feel better but the cold facts are that’s about 12 to 14 lesbian/bisexual female characters killed in 2016 and it’s not even mid-April. Heck, we’ve had 4 this week alone – The Vampire Diaries killed 2 and now Empire killed 2. What a banner year for the trope.

  15. Facts & opinions says:

    The fact is most LGBT characters were added to shows to show solidarity with the LGBT community. Suddenly almost every single show had one or more LGBT characters and it was a phase so now we get back to regular programming

    • Bree says:

      And they have to tragically die versus every other option in the world for departure why? The death trope has been buried in the culture since (and probably even before) the Hays code that required all so called deviants to have their stories end in death, mental institutionalism or a return to secular values of the time (go straight/back to men). We can do better now. We should do better. We deserve better.

      • Charles G. says:

        because characters die on TV. If it is “equality” that you want, then die like everyone else. Believe it or not, gay people are not immortal or superheroes.

  16. What kind of biphobic load of cr*p. But sadly coming from Ilene Chaiken I’m not even surprised.

  17. Candace says:

    Sorry, just like every other show that tries to claim some reason their dead lesbians don’t count, you still do. You did the most obvious, boring, and least creative thing possible with your women who love women (supposedly anyway). You count. That you try to disclaim this by saying one of the women wasn’t even interested in other women except for some retcon soap plot ambition nonsense makes it even worse. Now you not only killed, but also erased, a woman who loves other women from the tv landscape. You are not helping. Rethink your choices and how damaging they are.

  18. Jacques Strappe says:

    “It’s Wabbit season” “it’s Duck season” “No, it’s Wesbian season”

  19. apres says:

    It used to be blacks/browns were killed off early on. Then the dumb blondes. Now, it’s gay/lesbians.

    At some point, someone will write a show where these characters aren’t killed off.

  20. F says:

    “I think that we aren’t a part of that phenomenon or conversation,”

    no. you don’t get to decide that you’re not a part of the problem when that’s exactly what you are. 12 queer women have been killed on TV this year, 4 within the last week alone – It’s enough.

    • Queen m says:

      What are u talking about Hakeem is Gay and has been in the story since the beginning! People just like talking to be heard!

    • Aoife says:

      ^ this.

      We’re dangerously close to an average of 1 death per week since the start of 2016. For a community that was already under represented before any of those characters died, that’s devastating.

      This is a really clear and worrying pattern The writers of each individual show can spout all the excuses they want, but it can’t and won’t clear them of any wrongdoing here. If one (or more, in some cases!!!) of your characters are on that list, then you are part of the problem, whether you like it or not!

  21. Kirby says:

    I’ve noticed, every single one of these showrunners seems to think that for some reason or other they are exempt from this trope. Either “everyone can die” which is blatantly skewed. Or this disgusting “not actually a lesbian” thing, which I can’t put into words how much it disgusts me. Bisexual people exist and are real. There is so little representation for us in media that ANY lesbian or bisexual character that gets killed off is part of this trope. We are starving for representation. They bait us, use us and kill us off for dramatic effect. But we are not going to let them get away with it anymore.

    • swirledwood says:

      What are you going to do about it Kirby? You are not entitled to be represented in anything. Doesn’t matter though because you’ll still let people know you’re angry and….no one will care

  22. Edmund says:

    yes, gays are lesbians are so very special that they cannot be killed off in TV shows. Only the rest of humankind. Seems like a great reason to not include gays and lesbians in one’s work. Why even have the headache?

    • Blue says:

      It seems like you are missing a big part of the conversation. LGBT characters are often sidelined and basically exist as plot devices. It’s not equality when like 75% of them keep getting killed.

      • swirledwood says:

        They should be sidelined as most people aren’t gay or lesbian. Women seem to drift in and out of lesbian consciousness every few years depending on what sex their last partner was in which the relationship failed spectacularly. No one is missing the point- you are missing some sanity. People don’t care about gays or lesbians anymore. They don’t hate them- they simply don’t care about them. Just like no one cares what toothpaste I use. When you invest millions in a TV show and need to deliver, the facts of your audience start to matter. Trust me, many of these Hollywood PC drones would love nothing more than for everyone to be a black lesbian single mom- but then no one would watch as no one is interested in that or in the misrepresentation that will occur.

        For example- I’d like to see more serious gay/lesbian real meaningful villains that aren’t called bull queers in The Shawshank Redemption. Oh, that’s right, we can’t have gay or lesbian villains because then we are doing something or other (insert newest liberal nonsense oppression here) whereby we are gay/lesbian shaming. Due to the constant PC pressure folks like the maniac commenters here are- gays and lesbians are constantly forces into typecast roles whereby they’re the kindest, sweetest or most badass hero that fights oppression. All typecast drivel no one wants to see. And even Hollywood can’t support PC drivel without eyeballs and advertisers. Won’t work. So if you want more gays and lesbians to stay alive, open up their acting ranges and roles. Make gays real villains- but when they do, don’t come whine on Variety that not they’re gay bashing by portraying a gay or lesbian as mean. You guys have all these rules for how you want gays and lesbians served up in fictional universes based upon your own PC directives which results in such boring stories.

    • Eero says:

      I think you mean that they exits currently in shows only to be killed off for dramatic effect

      • Jessie says:

        First world problems of this nature are still problems. If we can’t solve them, nobody else stands a chance of making any progress. I read about women who love women in countries even less enlightened than mine all the time and thank every God anybody might ever pray to that I only have to worry about civil rights, workplace discrimination, and whatever that law Mississippi just passed might mean for me and mine. We can do better. That many others do ever worse does not change that nor does it make our efforts to strive to do better have any less meaning or value.

        Why do you put your efforts into silencing those who are trying to improve tolerance and representation? That’s the more interesting question. Are you doing anything to help those less advantaged than those with “first world problems” or are you just tearing down any attempts at improving things for anybody with straw man arguments that others have it worse? Somebody always has it worse. That doesn’t make any cause unjustified in seeking progress.

      • Felicia Hardy says:

        First World problems. Go to Saudi Arabia and make your series with unkillable bisexual characters that never die. Let me know how that works out for you.

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