This is not new. Nor is it news.
The last two weeks have been filled with not only two more lesbians dying on TV (Empire), but the brutal execution of a chained black man (The 100), followed by self-harm on prime time (The 100), and a man being raped (The 100 …). The PoC female lead of a TV show was killed off so the actor could leave (Sleepy Hollow). And then there was the release of the first trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which resulted in a lot of idiots complaining about how a woman was the star and how they didn’t get Star Wars movies with male leads anymore.
Whichever works for you.
We’re Only Getting Louder
It’s 2016 and while maybe The CW would have hoped people would shut up about the Bury Your Queers trope, it’s actually gotten louder and broader.
You see, Sleepy Hollow killed off their lead character. A black woman.
Yes, the actor was leaving the show, but any writer with an ounce of innovation can think of a hundred ways to let her leave the show without killing her. And yet we repeat the drama from Person of Interest, who killed off their PoC female lead so the actor could go to another show a few years ago. Why did she have to die? For manpain.
Look. I’m not saying that people don’t die. On a show like Person of Interest, death is expected for all the characters (except maybe Bear and even then I wouldn’t hold my breath). And yes, The 100 is a brutal show where characters die left, right, and center. You expect about 30% of the patients of the week on ER and Grey’s Anatomy to kick the bucket. Simply, you cannot just threaten characters and have viewers believe their lives are in peril if you constantly and consistently deliver us their success and survival.
That’s why no one worries when someone raises a gun at, say, Miss Marple. She’s not going to die like that. But that’s also why shows like Downton Abbey had to be free to kill off Sybil and Matthew. Without their deaths, the show lacks authenticity. Even on shows that are not about the horrors of the world, it’s impossible to show life without death. All in the Family handled death.
The issue is not, and never has been, the fact that lesbians die, or that minorities die. The issue is in their frequency, when compared to non-minorities, and the manner of their death.
Look At The Numbers
As of April 10th, 309 characters on this site have been flagged as being a ‘main’ character. Of those, 84 are dead. That’s 27.2% of all main characters, dead.
Over on Reddit, empress-of-blandings did the math for The Walking Dead seven months ago and sorted out that 60% of all white characters on the show die, but so do 60% of all black characters. The trick of that is there were 28 white characters and 10 black.
Last year, Fusion crunched numbers and determined of of 800 main cast members on 100 network TV shows, just 52 (6%) are of Asian descent.
The obvious answer to fixing this is to make TV reflect the real world, not the world of TV producers. We know that representation in writers’ rooms is problematic at best. We know that Aaron Sorkin kicked a female writer out of the room for arguing about a plot on Newsroom. We know that Jason Rothenberg was informed about the Bury Your Queers trope before that episode of The 100 was finished (though he claims otherwise, multiple writers have said Tara’s death was specifically mentioned).
Don’t bother trying to figure out how many people of color are in writers’ rooms. It’s probably about the same as PoCs on the Oscars’ nomination board.
And don’t bother trying to math out how many of those deaths were horrific murders, or ‘oops, you’re in the way’ deaths like Tara. Even if we only count main characters, it’s distressingly high.
I’m not trying to pick on The 100, but they’ve set themselves up for this. Lead actor Bob Morley is half-Fillipno. His character, Bellamy, was played by a white actor when portrayed as a child. They have, effectively, whitewashed him. And this is horrible when you realize Morely talked about his issues as a child, growing up as mixed race and the torment he received.
And then you look over at Empire and Ilene Chaiken, the showrunner, outright said she didn’t think her show fell into the Bury Your Queers trope:
“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.”
She also said lesbians should be glad Camilla was dead. No, really. She said those words:
“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.”
Same interview. Direct quote. Cue hands being thrown in the air.
She erased a characters sexuality (Camilla was bisexual) because she was opportunistic and had “heterosexual ambitions.” What, pray tell, does sexuality have to do with ambition? Could Camilla not be an evil bisexual with ambitions who was opportunistic and used her wife? The only answer I have is that perhaps Chaiken was trying to suppress people’s ire by only killing off one queer female instead of two?
Gotta tell you, that works about as well as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. cutting out mention of two characters’ sexuality (they’re openly gay in the comics) because they didn’t want to be known as the show who killed off two lesbians.
Guess what? They still are.
Parity Does Not Mean Pandering
No one is asking for shows to pander and give us happy endings all the time!
Emily Andras, showrunner for the new Wynonna Earp, was interviewed and spoke about this issue directly.
It’s pretty gratifying that audiences are recognizing where we are falling short, and demanding that they see themselves on screen and have their own stories be told. Because honestly, at this point, how many more glossy shows about a middle-aged white anti-hero and the wife (slash mistress) who love him do we need anyway?
You can argue that this is a complicated issue. As a creator, showrunner and writer, my number one job is to keep the audience titillated and engrossed. To manipulate your emotions so that you stay engaged with my show. In short: I have to bring the drama. As much as fans might think they want to watch their favourite couple, whether straight or gay or other, end up happily holding hands on a couch eating cookies forever and ever amen, trust me…that is not compelling television.
On the other hand, and this is not complicated: minorities are not expendable. Queer baiting continues to be a phenomenon that erodes trust with the very audience we as creators are hoping to engage. I don’t necessarily feel I ‘owe’ the fans anything, but I damn well hope I can deliver them a story that doesn’t rely on hackneyed tropes like “Bury Your Gays!” Do I promise to never kill a character who happens to be gay? Absolutely not. I write genre and all my characters have to be up for some seriously crazy shit. But I simply refuse to punish an LGBT character because of their sexuality. It’s not only hackneyed and boring, it’s verging on irresponsible. I believe we can do better, and by better, I merely mean “deliver more original storylines.”
Credit: The TV Junkies
And that is exactly the point.
Tell Good Stories
They owe us one thing: Tell good stories.
Of course it’s okay to kill minorities and queers. It’s not okay to dispose of them. And that is exactly what happened on Arrow when they killed Laurel Lance for the agony it would cause another character. It’s what happened on The 100 when Lincoln was executed. It happened on Empire when Mimi was killed by her opportunistic wife. It happened on Sleepy Hollow.
Start telling us better stories.