Charité stands for compassion.
I am not really sure if that motto applied to the existence of Therese. Therese is a nurse at the hospital „Charité“ in Berlin at the time of 1888, who falls in love with the assisting nurse Ida. I am glad that she can exist in TV today. And I am glad that the author and production team have decided that Therese is not punished or outcast by Ida or the head nurse for her „inclinations“ as the series likes to call it. Instead she is well loved and nursed by Ida, „even though“ she is „different“ from the general worldview of back then. I am thankful for that. But for the end of her story I am not thankful. Because she dies. And that isn’t compassionate for everyone who is like Therese. But more to why that is later.
When my aunt recommended „Charité“ to me, due to both of our professions being in the health-system, I expected an interesting series about medicine and the history of it. I watched the accompanying documentation and immediately followed it up with the first two episodes, and I was positively surprised about the execution, the costumes, the set and the actors/actresses. I was ready for more and couldn’t wait.
But then something happened that I did not expect.
In episode 3, the head nurse says to Therese that she has noticed her „unnatural fondness toward nurse Ida“ long ago.
That sentence hit me completely by surprise and with a great force; although, you would expect that as a long time series junkie and part of the LGBT-Community, I should have noticed or suspected the build up of that relationship. But I didn’t. Because I did not expect a story like this from „ARD“ and this series. To be completely honest I was 100% sure to be watching a series that would not have me deal with that topic – and I was very relieved by that.
But to be able to understand that, I have to give you a bit of back-story.
What you – the production firm, the authors of „Charité“ and „ARD – probably have missed is a movement called „Lexa Deserved Better“. Perhaps you know „The 100“. In Germany, it is broadcasted by ProSieben. In that series appears a character called „Lexa“. She is the leader of the „Grounders“ – the people who survived a nuclear catastrophe circa 100 years ago. In the time of her reign she managed to form peace between 12 rivaling clans. She is brave, strong, smart, a visionary, practical, warm and yet so cold, when she needs to be. And incidentally she also happens to like women. She falls in love with „Clarke“ – the main character, and after a long subtle buildup of their relationship it is becoming apparent that they like each other, and that Clarke – who on-screen had been with men before – is at today’s definition of „bisexual.“ Subsequently the creators of „The 100“ let themselves be praised for „Clexa“ and the way they handled the topic of „free sexuality/love“, which the show addresses yet doesn’t question. Everyone loves who they love. That is it. There is nothing to discuss anymore about it in the year 2150. And Lexa quickly became a role model and an icon for that.
After Season 2, (which peaked on the betrayal of Lexa to Clarke by Lexa choosing her duty to her people over her love) and the announcement that Lexa would be back for Season 3, all fans knew that her life span could be short-lived due to her being the leader of her people and the general death toll of the series. The fans feared Lexa’s death especially since it became known that Alycia Debnam-Carey, the actress who plays Lexa, had also signed a contract for another show before she knew if she would be wanted to return for Season 3 of “The 100″. But she was, and during the filming and production the authors and producers kept reassuring the fans that they would treat Lexa and Clarke well. They talked fans down, who predicted the death of Lexa, and they promised that the story meant the same to them as it did to the fans. There still were enough people who doubted, but most hoped and believed – wanted to believe – that it was true that the person who they were looking up to would survive, and the authors would find a trick to let her disappear for a while before she might be able to return in Season 4 or to a point at which Alycia would be available again.
But why did fans make this prophecy? Why did they persistently believe – against all reassurances of it not being true – that Lexa would die?
The answer is, for us the death of Lexa wasn’t only likely because Lexa was in a vulnerable position or because the series didn’t hold back on killing characters, no. It especially was due to the fact that her character was not heterosexual. It was because she was a lesbian. This information may seem odd to people who are not exposed to the topic, but the death rate of LGBT characters in a series is very high (more info and sources on that at the bottom – attachment „1“), so that consciously or subconsciously, we all are already awaiting that the person with whom we identify is most likely not going out of the story with a positive end. If they do not die, their relationship might very well fail and they will be alone and without hope, or they won’t even have a relationship to begin with – ever.
Well, in the case of „The 100“ fans proved to be right. No matter what the creators promised and reassured, Lexa died and that in a most grotesque way. Not in a fight – a possibility that took place only 3 episodes before – not with pride or glory. Not as a hero. She just died. Because of a bullet that wasn’t meant for her. And that happened only a minute after she came together with Clarke. This means she was happy for a second only to die in the next: a more-than-tragic end to a meaningful character, which a big part of the fans had already seen in a similar way with Tara’s death on „Buffy“. And it wasn’t less, but more traumatizing to see it all happen in the same way again.
You might be inclined to think the following now: „So what? It is only a series. Only a character. What does it matter if she dies? It’s TV, not reality.“ But as an educated German person, you should have come across „Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers“ (The Sorrows of Young Werther) at some point and the effect the book had on the young generation of Goethe’s time. Werther ceases to exist on account of his heartache and kills himself. As a reaction to that, dozens of people in Germany committed suicide, because they saw themselves in Werther. That even had the consequence of Goethe revising his work to lessen the attraction of the model of suicide that his protagonist had chosen, to prevent more people from taking their lives. This example underlines that stories move people, because they identify with the characters within. And this is how the manner in which a character is portrayed can induce positive or negative inspiration – it can take or give hope.
The tasteless death of Lexa was in March 2016. It is said that at least in one case someone took their life due to Lexa’s death and thousands fell into depression. It was so bad that actors/actresses and authors of the series tweeted numbers to suicide hotlines, well-meant and comforting words and partly apologized for what happened. They didn’t only kill off a character. They killed off the hope of thousands of people – that this story would have a different end. That finally WE were allowed to be a part of the leading role, part of the acknowledged, part of a good relationship, part of everything. That we had a right to hope.
13 more women, who loved women, died in the following two months after Lexa’s death in series on American screens: a fact that shook everyone even more so and led to us becoming aware that we had to get up and stand up for ourselves. We had to be heard. This problem needed to be addressed.
Now, I do not want to attack you due to your decision to let Therese die. Before „Lexa Deserved Better“ I never consciously engaged with the thought that in most cases LGBT characters do not get a happy end. But since then I can rarely see anything else when it comes to LGBT representation on TV. Because I identify with these characters it obviously means a lot to me – and all the others who do, too – what I get told about myself. Precisely because stories touch and shape us. They let us believe and hope and they inspire us. But what exactly is so inspiring about seeing all of my role models die or staying unhappy?
This phenomenon has a name. It is called „Bury Your Gays“. It’s a trope – a cliché, an easy out. Like the blond always dying first in a horror movie. Or friends turning into lovers. There are many of those – positive and negative. And every one of them shapes our brain and our attitude, our expectations towards us and others, and the outcome of our life. I remember movies and series which impressed me when I was very young, in which I saw „me“ for the first time on a screen, and only now do I realize that none of those stories had a positive ending and what it might have done to me if it had. Would I have been more confident, more positive, more proud?
Imagine your favorite characters from back when you were young with whom you have identified yourself, or those who you identify with today when you come home after work and you turn on the TV to relax. And now imagine those – your – characters would all die. Imagine that evil wins. Superman, James Bond, Indiana Jones fall from the sky, get shot or are smashed by rocks. And they do not wake up again. Imagine every plain Jane would not become the most beautiful butterfly, but she’d sit on the cold tile floors of a bathroom – the blade of scissors piercing her skin and red blood dripping onto her dress. Strong women do not exist. Imagine you would see yourself die and be desperate and unhappy over and over. Would that do something to you? Would the suicide rate of real life „plain Janes“ be much higher if they weren’t told that there is something special inside of them? Would anyone still want to be a hero, if we would be continuously shown that evil shoots them our of the sky? Would that have an influence on all of us?
Yes! Thus it is not just a series, not just a character. Especially when there aren’t that many to begin with. This means that with every story and every character an author creates for an audience, he/she does take on an important fraction of responsibility. If they are aware of it or not.
Now, let me get back to Therese. Due to that background, I am very sensitized to the topic and good representation at the moment, and that I saw it as a relief to watch „Charite“ – a series in which I believed I did not have to think about that stuff. So, you can imagine how it hit me when the head nurse made it clear that Therese could be a lesbian. Because it was obvious what it would mean to her: 1888, she is very religious, the series is about illnesses that have let many people die. How big are the chances that this character will have a happy ending? Especially if she liked Ida – the main character, who already has two men worshipping at her feet? How high are the chances that the producer and the authors thought it to be a good idea that Therese would win Ida and they both would go to Zurich and be happy? How high?
In episode 3 the audience didn’t know yet that Therese would fall sick with tuberculosis, but I already wrote to friends about Therese and Charité and together we began waiting and speculating about how and when she might die over the next episodes. It was a morbid game. We knew where this story would go and I couldn’t enjoy „Charité“ anymore the same way I had before, because I was getting ready to see it happen again. One of „my people“ would die. And that is exactly what happened.
Like I said before, I do not mean to publicly ridicule and tear you up. I still do like Charité very much. And I do understand the reasons of why Therese died. Furthermore, I like to believe that you had good intentions in letting Therese exist in the first place. And that is the reason why I want to take this opportunity to make you become aware and conscious about what you do as authors and producers when you create an LGBT character (perhaps out of sheer glowing daring of wanting to be the “progressive series“ that wants and can represent this group of people – even if, or especially if, it is taking place in 1888), and you then allow this progressive character, of which you might also be so proud, to die. Because you – just like us – have only been taught that particular outcome.
So it must be said that there is nothing progressive about letting LGBT characters die. Especially when it is a fact that teens and young adults who are LGBT have a much higher suicide rate and suffer more often from depression than their heterosexual peers, and when we know that there is the Werther Effect, which says that there is a causal correlation of witnessed suicides and self-harm on TV and the ones that then occur in the real world.
I do not want to judge you. Instead I rather want you to become the people who will sit in the next production and propose: „Why isn’t our (main) character lesbian, gay, bi, asexual, pansexual, non-binary or transgender? And why don’t we give her/him/them a story that won’t only inspire the German LGBT community, but the whole world? Why don’t we give a minority the hope and recognition they deserve? Why aren’t we making their lives easier instead of harder? Why do we not let them feel happiness?“ I would like to open your eyes to these other possibilities and keep you from making mistakes which many before you have done – not out of bad intent, but out of blatant lack of knowledge what those mistakes cause collectively.
You might not know this, but shows that star LGBT characters and treat them well are never only watched in the country it was produced (examples attached at end „2“). Such a show will always be watched worldwide by the international LGBT community and be hyped. And those people are giving their all for those shows and their characters. It is morbid to write this now, but it is still true: We are dying for movies and shows that represent us. There is a big number of people in this world who thirst for those shows, and you could become one of the producers, channels and authors who give those people hope instead of taking it away. Your work can mean much more to people than just entertainment. Your work can mean their lives for some people. And I would like to believe that you as artists would like to produce such work. Work that inspires and saves lives. And that is not an overstatement to write it this way.
On the one hand I know it from my own experience and the experience of friends that they found themselves and a better life through representation on TV. On the other hand I have helped maintain http://www.jemmainternational.org for a long time, where we received letters of people from all around the world and from any age group – as well as young German girls – in which they told us how „Jemma“ (Jenny und Emma – a couple from the Soap „Hand aufs Herz“ by Sat1) has changed their lives. Or also that we had by translating all of the 234 episodes into English and creating subs for the show to live up to the international demand. We did it so that this positive story could be available for the whole world to see – for some girl, some woman, in Russia, the US, in Brasil, Mexico, Portugal, or Switzerland. Let us just think of Chechnya for a moment and the people who feel lonely in their life and being. In return for translations and other shenanigans the people told us stories of how „Jemma“ has given them hope and made them believe that one day they could find someone for themselves, when they felt helpless before. Or they related how they had seen themselves for the first time and had become brave enough to talk and confide in their friends and family. And that is what has meaning. That kind of power TV can have has meaning, and I do believe that you recognize that meaning and want to achieve it. Or why else did you create Therese?
You certainly did not sit together and think: „Now let’s make a lesbian unhappy and then kill her so that all of Germany understands that her life is hopeless and short. They are the ones who are disposable and dispensable in a story. Therefore, we choose her.“ I don’t want to believe that. I think you had the intention to promote something positive with Therese and make her visible to us. Just as you wanted to shed light on and promote a series about the history of medicine. Unfortunately, the advanced step for Therese would have been to attribute to her a different meaning in the series than the unsuccessfully-treated tuberculosis patient who dies. You were probably not even aware of this, and that is why I am writing you this post.
I have seen and read interviews with Sönke Wortmann, as well as by the actors, and I am convinced that, as they have read and inspired themselves in the subjects of medicine and history, they would also inform themselves on this subject. Just as I believe it is true that the writers have done that in order to write a moving, positive story for Ida as a „self-thinking woman“ in this case. Charité is already a step forward, because despite that the program is primarily about the doctors, Ida, a woman, is the leading role –the show is more than just the fame of, for example, Robert Koch. It is about society and the conditions of the time – an insight into the past. And why could there not be a figure like Therese in your next work, whose main reason for her story is not to die for a plot point? Whose way of thinking is not to be desperately in love nor to be ashamed, to hurt and to hate because of her sexuality. Why could she not be the person who breaks through this cliché and be a positive influence on today’s society and for the future? Why not make your next Therese lucky and happy?
I have the hope that soon a positive story with a happy ending for two women who love each other will be written and produced in Germany again. Or that another story like „The Teacher“ in which Paula is no longer Paula, but rather Felix, who he has always been, shows up. Because, as in the example of “Hand aufs Herz,” it is not as if this type of story has never happened. In addition, I am aware that UFA produces „GZSZ“ and that the storyline of Anni + Jasmin is also from you. And I would be proud if, either through production or purchase, the ARD would soon bring to the public a story with such a positive message.
A last comment before I close: The fan community around „Lexa Deserved Better“ has not given up through this incident. Instead, they raised over $ 170,000 in donations for the Trevor Project. This is a leading American organization in the field of crisis and suicide telephone care for LGBT youths. And they also have launched a convention called ClexaCon, which was held this year for the first time on the anniversary of Lexa’s death and attracted more than 2,000 visitors, including authors, actors and producers who are concerned with the subject of improvement for LGBT representation on television. (Representatives from: Person Of Interest, Wynonna Earp, Lost Girl, Bomb Girls, Fringe, etc.)
You see, we do not give up hope. You could be a part of this by being more than just compassionate and not just merely creating someone like Therese, but also letting her live and love next time.
Lied (Username/meaning song in German)
PS: Thank you for reading this post. I hope I could give you a new perspective.
PPS: To all of you who have read this long blog now and who agree, please help in letting ARD and UFA know that the continued death of LGBT characters is a real problem. You can tweet them @UFA_Gmbh, @UFAfiction, @DasErste, @ARD_Presse. One sentence is enough: „Please be considered when handling LGBT characters.“
To understand the emotions around Lexa, a depiction of the feelings that hang on such figures:
• A collection of live fan reactions to the love scene of Clarke and Lexa, and the immediate death of Lexa.
For more information on „Bury your Gays“ for lesbian and bisexual women, I recommend the following articles and links:
- Autostraddle’s Ultimate Infographic Guide to Dead Lesbian Characters on TV” by Heather Hogan at Autostraddle
(For all existing lesbian / bi women on American television (since 1976), there is a 16% happy ending, and a whopping 84% for not.)
(Don’t let the link name fool you, it is updated and currently sits at 175 cases – not including Therese)
- Recommended personal blog post about Lexa’s death and what that means – by Prof. Elizabeth Bridges.
(For further research on the topic of #BuryYourGays, please contact her.)
- One of the many answers from Javi Grillo-Marxuach (author of the episode with Lexa’s death, also known for shows Charmed and LOST), gave to the disgruntled and forlorn fans discussing the episode he wrote. (Although Lexa’s death was up to the producer Jason Rothenberg.)
- BLOG Post about women in German TV in 2016 by RosalieundCo (For English speaking fans: http://www.rosalieundco.de/english/)
- Official website of the movement „LGBTFansDeserveBetter„
List of examples of non-US shows that have been / are being followed internationally because of their lesbian storyline(s) (Please check the german post for links. I didn’t yet have time to do the links):
– Hand aufs Herz – Jenny + Emma (positive ending :))
– GZSZ – Anni + Jasmin (make final) / Paula + Franzi (Franzi dies)
– Skins – Naomi + Emily (Naomi dies)
– Sugar Rush – Kim + Saint (canceled but until then happy ending)
– Coronation Street – Sian + Sophie (close); Sian + Maddie (Maddie dies)
– Rookie Blue – Holly + Gail (broke up)
– Wynonna Earp – Wayhaught (positive, still running)
– Orphan Black – Cosima + Delphine (positive, still running) [Delphine“dies“. Later it turns out that she has survived]
– So Vejo Voce – Clara + Marina (happy ending) [Even today a video with such bad quality gets just under 100,000 clicks, due to the storyline]
– Vecinos en Guerra – Augustina + Valeria — [+ Subs] (happy ending)
– Los Hombres de Paco – Pepa + Silvia (Silvia dies)
– Tierra des Lobos – Isabel + Cristina (Cristina dies)