This summer, overall, was pretty good for women. We saw Wonder Woman deliver family-friendly superhero entertainment; The Handmaid’s Tale‘s first season wrapped up with a satisfying, if oddly scored, last shot; and, of course, we saw Atomic Blonde garner a lot of buzz as featuring the perfect female counterpart to our classic male spy heroes. Warning: Major spoilers for the film ahead.
Adapted from the graphic novel The Coldest City, Atomic Blonde follows M16 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) as she infiltrates a divided Berlin looking for a flash drive that reportedly contains the names of every enemy agent in the city, including the double-agent code-named Satchel. Her only contact is the eccentric and Berlin-savvy David Percival (James McAvoy). The film has so far garnered $48 million at the box office and has a freshness rating of 75% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics have praised it for it’s aesthetic quality, viscerally affecting action sequences, and genre-bending gender switches, while also noting that the first half was too dry and the plot was a little convoluted by the the time the final reveal hit us. (Spoiler: They’re right.)
Told in part through flashback and through a post-mission interview where the directors of the M16 and the CIA press Lorraine with questions, Atomic Blonde features a number of fascinating new twists on the classic spy film. Most obviously revolutionary, our hero is a woman, played by an actor with a penchant for doing her own stunts, so the action really hits (no doubt with an added touch from director and former stunt coordinator David Leitch).
But more than simply being a woman, Lorraine is, at least in this iteration of her story, a queer woman. Throughout the film her bisexuality is heavily implied, and she has relations with an innocently charming French spy named Delphine (Sophia Boutella). This is never made out to be a big deal, either, and that was kind of the goal–Charlize Theron has long had a place in recreating LGBT portrayals in film (see her lesbian serial killer work with Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins in Monster). She revealed to Variety that this was yet another case of her trying to change the way the community is shown on screen. The fact that Lorraine’s relationship with Delphine was hardly referenced by any other character and the two never had to deal with homophobia is remarkable in and of itself.
What isn’t so remarkable is that one out of two of our queer characters–and the only one who could reasonably be considered a lesbian–dies during the course of the movie. Delphine, a photographer with damning photo evidence that points to Percival being Satchel, is strangled to death by the very man, who has gone rogue and doesn’t want the M16 to find him. Lorraine finds her just too late.
Swaths of LGBT audiences have posted warnings on sites like Tumblr to avoid seeing the movie because it follows what’s known as the Bury Your Gays trope, which gives name to the phenomenon by which queer characters are killed off on screen at a vastly higher rate than their straight counterparts. While nobody is advocating a total boycott of Atomic Blonde, Tumblr users in the sapphic community have been warning each other to avoid the movie if they don’t want to be subject to the on-screen violence.
For some context: Over the course of the past few years, the Bury Your Gays trope has been brought under the spotlight by many a queer fan after The 100 writers killed off Lexa, the bisexual lead’s romantic love interest, at which point queer fans virtually revolted. A pledge was started in her name. Websites were created. Hashtags sprung up and donation projects for queer youth gained steam.
Lexa wasn’t the only queer woman killed on screen in 2016, but the outcry around her was the loudest. The 100‘s ratings and viewership suffered tremendously as a result. Other shows notable for mishandled queer deaths include Orange Is The New Black, whose fan-favorite Poussey was killed in a questionable (at best) homage to victims of police brutality at the end of season four. Orange continually sustained buzz every season prior, but next to nobody is talking about it now. There are lists abound that detail just how many lesbian and bisexual women have been killed on screen, some tallies going up to 184 and counting. Meanwhile, we have seen a distinct shortage of happy queer couples–the Hollywood Reporter estimates 18 in all of TV. If you do the math, that’s >10 dead queer people for every 1 happy couple. Yikes.
These examples relate specifically to TV, but have their hold on movies as well. As of 2013, the Guardian estimated that since 1993, approximately 16.5% of all Academy Award nominated movies featuring heterosexual leads contained a heterosexual character who died. By contrast: 56.5% of LGBT characters in film died, and of the remaining a little less than half got happy endings to their films (that would be 4–in total–got happy endings). Everyone wants a happy ending for the characters they relate to, but Bury Your Gays suggests that this is impossible for queer viewers.
Given this context, it’s understandable why a lesbian or bisexual woman might skip the movie. After all, enjoying a woman’s badassery and action sequences can be vastly undercut when someone who shares your identity is brutally murdered, and it’s already the seventh time you’ve seen this happen in one month.
Spy movies, as many have pointed out, just have assassinations in them. It’s part of the genre. Which is true, I guess–but many of those deaths include specifically women the lead loves or has slept with. Bond Girls have around a 30% chance of dying, which is, in itself, misogynistic. Delphine’s death certainly fit the genre, but it fits an already-misogynistic genre and fits into the overall dismal statistics that hang over queer women in film, so that argument holds little weight against the trope.
The trope still stands even considering that Lorraine, another queer woman, walks away alive. When there are several queer women–say, five or six–on screen, one death can be offset as the natural part of life, which it is. But when it’s just two queer women and one of them dies and the other is left to grieve? Well, as one tumblr user noted, “Literally part of the bury your gays trope is a lover being left behind to mourn their death so people saying ‘but Lorraine lived [sic]’ are blatantly fucking ignoring that so did [S]oso, [W]illow, [C]larke, and basically one of every other wlw pair that’s been given this bullshit treatment.” A living lover doesn’t negate that grief and death are still the only options for the queer storylines.
Delphine was also killed in a particularly insulting way for lesbians. She was killed in her underwear, on a bed, with a man on top of her. Her face was left suspiciously un-purpled–in fact, it remained relatively beautiful and alive-looking, despite the movie’s total willingness to show the actual effects of violence on human flesh in every other circumstance. Would it have been “better” if Delphine had been killed fully clothed and with her eyes popping out and her face bulging? “Yes” seems unlikely given the trope at hand, but the fact that she remained sexually available and beautiful in death, arguably for a presumed male audience, is pretty damning. For a lesbian viewing, this circumstance is the worst of every world.
The coverage around the movie has been suspiciously silent on the trope’s reality, context, and why some lesbian and bisexual women are deciding to abstain. Most are hailing it for portraying a female spy in unfettered likeness to Bond or Bourne. She’s sexy, but a kind of sexy that lends itself to sophistication, intellect, and strength, which parallels the male spy’s character profile. She sleeps with a woman, yes, and the scene is borderline objectifying and, ahem, a little unrealistic–but it thankfully included no scissoring and ended with one of the more emotionally rewarding scenes of the film, where the usually cold Lorraine lets Delphine cuddle into her arm as she reveals her inability to trust in their line of work. (This remains my favorite scene in the film.) Despite all of this, any coverage mentioning the lesbianism on screen focuses on the sexy parts, not on the trope–and it’s real damage on real women–at hand.
This could result from a number of reasons, least of all that “Charlize Theron Loved Going Bisexual for ‘Atomic Blonde'” is a cash-grab headline whereas “‘Atomic Blonde’ Counts Yet Another Dead Lesbian And LGBT Fans Are Let Down Once Again” doesn’t quite have the same pull. You’ll notice in this piece I have hardly talked about my opinion of the movie; I generally agree with the common sentiments that this movie pushed boundaries for women (and, yes, queer women) in the action film genre, but that it also unnerved myself and other queer fans when the death of the lesbian love interest got so little coverage even though the movie makers clearly thought they were reaching out to that particular audience.
It’s hard to say if the movie would have been better–less offensive, maybe–if the character Delphine had been a man the way the character was in the comics. We would miss out on that tender and unquestioned queer relationship, which is a rarity and should not be overlooked, but the death scene would have been something new, instead of the same old trope where the lesbian dies. In some ways, I think men need to be comfortable seeing major characters that share their gender dying the way female love interests usually die for the benefit of the lead–it would, at the very least, be a change of pace in the spirit this movie sought to achieve. I’m very attached to the early vision of Delphine and Lorraine as curious and cautious spy lovers because it represented something I would love to see more of in movies, but no amount of, “But they tried,” can ease the pain of a community’s injuries when they have suffered so much already.