We all have at least one character death that has changed our lives forever. Sometimes, it’s a quick and painless death that leaves us gasping for breath at the end of a season. Sometimes, it’s a long, drawn-out process that makes us grit our teeth and wish it was over already. And sometimes, it’s a meaningless death that enrages us to the point of action.
2016’s character death toll is rising, even just a few months in, but I think now more than ever we are recognizing WHO is dying, and the murky rationale behind their demise.
With the rise of fanfiction, social media, and online streaming options, the world of television has changed. It’s becoming more accessible and prone to criticism — especially when it comes to the treatment of characters outside the straight/white norm.
Recent character deaths in shows ranging from “Jane The Virgin,” “The Walking Dead,” “Vampire Diaries,” “The 100,” “The Magicians,” and “Sleepy Hollow” have all followed the same slimy pattern: ridding the storylines of minority (race and orientation) characters.
This follows a long-standing tradition of killing minority characters, and almost always comes with a sordid twist: the writers use these deaths to provide the backdrop for the (most often a straight, white male) main character’s pain and motivation for continuing his own story.
It’s such a standard practice that there’s an entire array of tropes including “Bury Your Gays,” in which a gay/bisexual character is killed off immediately or shortly after a happy event, as happened in “The 100” with Lexa; and “Magical Minority Person,” in which a minority character imparts wisdom/advice to the often white, male lead, sometimes before sacrificing themselves to save the lead, as happened in “Sleepy Hollow” with Abbie and Ichabod.
However, with the ability of fans to converse via Twitter, Tumblr, and fanfiction sites and the long reach this provides, TV writers and producers are beginning to recognize the power of their fans – some even offering apologies for the way in which a character has left the show.
So what’s the source of the problem? Might it be that the majority of producers and writers are white and straight? Not all straight, white people write about straight, white people, but most of humanity tends to tell stories about people like themselves. But If we continue to have straight, white people telling the majority of stories, they will continue to relegate people of color and the queer community to the minority roles, killing them off when they can’t figure out how to write them as real people.
It got so bad on “Sleepy Hollow” that Nicole Beharie, who played “Abbie” was rumored to have wanted off the show – and Orlando Jones alluded to the fact that he was asked to leave. Considering his strong stance on minorities in television, it’s no wonder the writers treated him like a threat.
After the mid-season finale, Jones tweeted:
Looks like Mr. Jones is woke.
It is disheartening, and frankly, infuriating that we’ve had to endure the deaths of so many minority characters. If we don’t see ourselves in stories, where does that leave us? Left out of the history books? Silenced?
We aren’t going to stay silent any longer. With social media at our fingertips, we finally get to say how this affects us, and be loud enough for those responsible to see it. With our fanfiction, we get to write about the characters we love, and continue their stories after their roles on TV have ended. And now that content is easier to produce, we may be able to start telling our own stories.
The lesson we can take from all this is that someone shouldn’t be included to fill a “diversity slot.” Instead we should strive for normalization and shy away from telling one-sided stories, because they won’t ring true.
We can also take to heart that character deaths should be few and far between. And honestly, I don’t think a character should die unless it completes their own personal character arc. The only great example I can think of is BBC’s Being Human and Mitchell’s death. Mitchell was the hot, straight, white guy, and he was the one who died. Not Annie. Not George. Mitchell. Because it completed his story arc. His past caught up with him, and it killed him. Like we always knew it would.
It remains to be seen whether television companies, producers, and writers will listen to the fans and cut back on character deaths – and begin to populate shows to reflect the fact that “minorities” aren’t really the minority anymore. 40 percent of America is non-white, and though the queer community cannot always be out in the open, we’re an ever-growing part of the population. And we all deserve to see our stories told.Image Credits: Syfy