When The Old Guard premiered on Netflix this July, it became the top streamed film on the site. It has stayed in the top ten most successful original launches on Netflix since. Focusing on a group of immortal warriors, The Old Guard hits just about everything a movie needs to make a splash in the golden age of fandom. It features found family, snappy dialogue, a diverse cast, and canonically queer characters. And it has an utter lack of any appearance of the age-old “bury your gays” trope. The film’s most prominent couple, Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli), met on opposite sides of the Crusades in 1099. They spent the next 900 years inventing romance. They’re immortal, and fandom immediately took note. Tumblr flooded with posts celebrating the new world order—and for good reason.
“Bury your gays” has been an industry standard trope going back decades. It’s been around long enough to get scholarly attention and an academic definition. “Bury Your Gays is a literary trope that has appeared in media across genre since the end of the 19th century. Works using the trope will feature a same-gender couple and with one of the lovers dying [or] the other realizing they were never actually gay, often running into the arms of a heterosexual partner.”
While it may have originally been a way for queer authors to write their own stories (such as Marijane Meaker’s 1952 novel Spring Fire, an origin of the lesbian pulp fiction genre), its more recent prevalence in television carries a different weight. Autostraddle, the home of queer feminist commentary, ran a list of all 65 dead lesbian and bisexual characters on television in 2016 going back to 1976. That list grew to over 200 characters in 2020, and that doesn’t include queer men or transmasculine characters.
Fans started pushing back against the increasing trend. Reactions to queer deaths, especially those done for shock value or taking place immediately post-coitus, started shifting from grief to outrage. Outcry came to a head in 2016 with the death of Lexa on The 100. A stray bullet killed Lexa right after a long-expected love scene—an all-too-familiar sight for fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Tara. The latter series had an almost identical scene in 2005 (which show producers have since apologized for).
Lexa was the eighth queer woman killed on television in 2016 alone, and her death received immediate backlash. Showrunner Jason Rothenberg (who lost about 15,000 Twitter followers in the days after the episode aired), responded with radio silence for several weeks. He ultimately apologized for the way the episode panned out. Thousands of fans pledged to never watch the show again. Autostraddle went on the offensive with a tongue-in-cheek list of “100 storylines we brainstormed in five minutes that don’t involve dead lesbians.” A month after Lexa’s death, a group of television writers and producers collaborated with the non-profit LGBT Fans Deserve Better to create The Lexa Pledge, acknowledging the damage the bury your gays trope caused and listing a series of commitments to avoid it in the future.
In the years since, showrunners killing queer characters—especially those in genre television—have had an explanation ready. In 2018, when Star Trek: Discovery killed half of the first canon gay couple in Star Trek history, they promised fans they were not having a “bury your gays” moment. They later resurrected the character, but they had to earn that trust back.
With fans on high alert for the “bury your gays” storyline, showrunners in the last few years have been going in the opposite direction. They’ve been keeping queer characters alive at all costs. Book adaptations have provided immortal or near-immortal queer characters from Shadowhunters’ Magnus Bane to Good Omens‘ Crowley and Aziraphale. Wynonna Earp teased and avoided the death of a few central queer characters many times. That happened so much that showrunner Emily Andras played into it, nicknaming them the “unkillable gay squad.”
It continues. Doctor Who spent an entire episode hinting at the deaths of a cameo gay couple; then it veered into a victorious romance. Fan pushback went in the opposite direction. Some pointed out that by not killing queer characters, media was continuing to other them, just in a different way. The frustration is understandable. Queer characters and storylines are more common in speculative and genre fiction than mainstream media, which comes with a layer of separation between queer fiction and real life. Adding another factor to separate queer characters perpetuates a feeling of otherness. When do queer characters get to just be normal?
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Pushback or not, queer outlets and reviewers greeted the premiere of The Old Guard with absolute delight. “When you’ve got functionally immortal queer people, that’s a big welcome sign to queer viewers who’re tired of the mainstream trend of queer characters who don’t live to see their happy ending,” Susana Polo wrote in Polygon. The Queer Review gave it four stars, and Mel magazine threw subtlety to the wind with their headline: “Sorry, Straights. ‘The Old Guard’ Proves Only Queer People Are Immortal.”
It’s possible to kill The Old Guard‘s immortals. However, Greg Rucka, writer of the original comic, said he had no interest in taking Joe or Nicky out: “I wasn’t gonna turn around and be like, ‘Well now I’m going to ruin my one happy couple,’” he told Polygon. In an interview with Fangirlish, he elaborated on the importance of representation to the story: “Joe and Nicky are gay. They are not experimenting with each other after a thousand years. And they’re unquestionably tied to each other.”
Director Gina Prince-Bythewood agreed. Asked about what’s become one of the most gif-ed scenes of the film, the Big Damn Kiss moment between Joe and Nicky, she said, “I didn’t actually know, but I guess there is a trope out there where when you have a—often when there’s a gay character in the film or a film like this…they die or their partner dies. And I just—again, I had no idea that that was a thing. And so many have spoke out about how happy they were—and surprised—that these two characters got to have a happy existence and a happy relationship and live to tell another day.”
If fandom response is any indication, Joe and Nicky’s unkillable romance is just the start of The Old Guard’s staying power. Charlize Theron’s character, Andy, is queer in the comics. The potential for a sequel paves the way for even more representation. That includes a canon queer woman of color (Veronica Ngo’s Quyhn).
Whatever comes next, fans have already found a way of keeping The Old Guard relevant. It’s now one side of a bury your gays trope scale, running from Lexa to Joe and Nicky. With a possible sequel, The Old Guard has a chance to weave Joe and Nicky’s immortality with Andy’s new mortality. That gives potential for a welcome exploration for those pushing back against the immortal gays pendulum swing. Hopefully, we’ll see even more of the Guards and a space for more of the queer action heroes we deserve.
Featured Image: Netflix