The Diversity (and Unoriginality) of Death

The Diversity (and Unoriginality) of Death

The folks at Vox shared some rather amazing work. They documented all the deaths on TV in the 2015-16 season!

When you look at all the deaths in one chart, and someone should nominate Caroline Framke for sainthood for doing this, some things become a little galling. First of all, the chart can sort white vs nonwhite, LGBTQ or not, and gender. There are (currently) 241 dead on US TV alone.

  • 135 of the dead are males, which makes sense as more people on TV are men right now, making up 56% of the dead
  • 99 are straight white males, which is just over 41%
  • 58 are straight white females, giving us 24% of the dead
  • 29 of the dead are LGBTQ, which is 21%

Now at first you might say that it proves more straights die. And that would be correct. Where this slips is in representation. As Vox points out, it’s about proportions.

On this point of proportion, the statistics do back up those who cry foul on television killing off too many queer women. Unless we’re talking about Orange Is the New Black, shows aren’t likely to have more than one or two queer women characters recurring throughout a season; that certainly doesn’t hold true for straight white men, who still dominate cast breakdowns. So if this graph were to reflect the actual ratio of straight white male characters to queer women characters, that difference would almost definitely be far greater. A full 10 percent of deaths being queer women is astonishing given how few of them recur on shows in general.

The 10% is currently 9% but the point is still made.

Death is, in and of itself, quite overdone on TV these days. It’s no longer shocking and it doesn’t drive home the powerful message of costs or risks, since we rarely get to see the aftermath of the deaths. People on TV die and then they move on.

Of course, it’s not like that at all when we look at real life deaths. In reality, people are killed explicitly for being gay. Wouldn’t it be nice for some of us to get happy endings? Give us some hope, some safe places to retreat, just for a little while, and enjoy?

Sadly, in last month’s panel with SAG Writers, they seemed stumped as how to handle the trope. And at the ATX panel on “Bury Your Tropes” it was sad to see writers arguing that they should be able to tell a story, and that networks were now ‘scared’.

Should LGBT+ characters die on TV? Of course. That’s never been the point of this. It’s never been ‘stop killing queers!’ It’s always been ‘stop killing queers disproportionately in ways that only serve to further someone else’s character development.’ Dramas thrive on conflicts, and good writing has good conflict. And in some shows, you expect people to die all the time. It’s their nature and that’s okay.

But then you get people who say this:

“It is to sign a pledge that I will limit my storytelling, I promise I wont kill an LGBT character is going to limit my ability,” [Krista Vernoff] said. “There’s been huge progress and if we say, in the name of progress, we’re going to sign a pledge and limit our storytelling, we’re going to limit our progress.”

– THR: Bury Your Gays: TV Writers Tackle Trope, the Lexa Pledge and Offer Advice to Showrunners

She missed the points somehow… Here are the seven points on the Lexa Pledge:

  1. We will ensure that any significant or recurring LGBTQ characters we introduce, to a new or pre-existing series, will have significant storylines with meaningful arcs.
  2. When creating arcs for these significant or recurring characters we will consult with sources within the LGBTQ community, like queer writers or producers on staff, or members of queer advocacy groups like GLAAD, The Trevor Project, It Gets Better, Egale, The 519, etc.
  3. We recognise that the LGBTQ community is underrepresented on television and, as such, that the deaths of queer characters have deep psychosocial ramifications.
  4. We refuse to kill a queer character solely to further the plot of a straight one.
  5. We acknowledge that the Bury Your Gays trope is harmful to the greater LGBTQ community, especially to queer youth. As such, we will avoid making story choices that perpetuate that toxic trope.
  6. We promise never to bait or mislead fans via social media or any other outlet.
  7. We know there is a long road ahead of us to ensure that the queer community is properly and fairly represented on TV. We pledge to begin that journey today.

The only two that might be ‘limiting’ are the first and fourth.

But shouldn’t any significant or recurring character have significant storylines and meaningful arcs? Isn’t that the point of having a recurring character? That they have something about them that resonates a little with your viewers and makes them wonder “Why are they introducing Bob here?” And not killing any character solely to further someone else’s plot is, again, making good TV. If you introduce someone and their only point is to connect to a main character and die, in order to push the main character somewhere, you’ve taken a cheap and easy road which gets us exactly where we are today.

We’re too used to death and it’s lost it’s impact in fiction.

Worse today, it often reflects the worst of us when we see people who are queer killed for that. And we turn on the news and see it again.

Look, we understand the reality of television. The person you cast as an old friend may not be available in three seasons. Or the plot you think of in season four should have been hinted at in season one, and now you have to retro-fit with some flashbacks that actually they cared about this all along. Those things are conveniences we all accept in TV land.

We’re asking you to try a little harder.  Tell a story that isn’t just death. Make a character well rounded before you kill them. Have it impact everyone.

About Mika A. Epstein

Mika has been deep in fandom since she could say 'Trekkie.' With decades experience in running fansites, developing software, and organizing communities, she's taken on the challenge of delving into the recesses of television for queers long forgotten. Making this site with Tracy is nothing short of serendipity. Mika lives with her wife in Southern California. Of course she has a hybrid, but she'd rather ride her bicycle.
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