So, it’s probably happened to you. You have a show you like. There’s probably a character you really enjoy and with whom you identify. If you’re not a straight, white guy, that can be very exciting.
Then, usually during a season finale, that character gets axed. Often the worst way possible. Sometimes as a sacrifice for the protagonist. Sometimes because they’ve strayed from the path. Maybe they get a satisfying story arc by the end; maybe they don’t.
Let’s get our preliminary “it’s just a TV show” bullshit out of the way. Yes, you’re right, there are more important things happening in Syria. Feel free to talk about that wherever and whenever you want.
But here’s the other thing: representation matters.
It is important, not only for underrepresented people to see themselves in stories–it’s important for all of us to see them. Stories make us more empathetic. They allow us to identify with people who don’t look or act or sound like us. This is a good thing.
And it’s true, sometimes it is necessary or even satisfying for characters in a story to die. I’ve killed before as a writer and I will kill again. But I try not to do it 1) casually, 2) stupidly, or 3) lazily.
Writers of popular entertainment, you are not reading this, but: THERE ARE WAYS TO CREATE TENSION, DRAMA, AND HEARTBREAK WITHOUT MURDERING YOUR CHARACTERS.
(That goes double for sexual assault, by the way.)
Seriously, has no one heard of people straight up leaving before? We’re mobile creatures, I promise.
Agents of Shield actually just did a lovely example of this, by the way–for a white, heterosexual couple, mind you, but it still happened. It even made me cry a little. No murder necessary! Just normal, human separation.
Crazy, I know.
I actually didn’t even watch the second half of this season of The Walking Dead because I have trauma fatigue. That’s a show that completely forgot people can strike out on their own into the brave new world. Sure, they want to survive, but considering how many people die in that group on a weekly basis, I’d seriously have gotten the fuck out years ago.
Rick is like a hero in a Greek epic. He probably won’t get stabbed until the end, but if you’re standing next to him, chances are you’re getting a spear to the liver.
(I really love Homer.)
Conversely, Orphan Black, which I’m rewatching, has been very particular about who it offs. And man, those deaths pack a punch. Not in a cheap way–in a good storytelling way. It feels earned. It does not feel gratuitous. And this is in a show with a famous tail amputation scene.
Good storytelling. Go fucking figure.
And the thing is, again, it matters. It matters when your black characters are dying left and right around seemingly untouchable white heroes. It matters when your queer fan favorites perish horribly with no chance at happiness. It matters when women are sacrificed to forward the narratives of male protagonists, victims in the service of “character development.”
This doesn’t get taken seriously. Instead, criticism falls on the fans for wanting happily ever afters and unrealistic endings. (REALISM, REALLY.) When, instead, these choices reveal–on the creator’s part–a disturbing lack of introspection and ability to understand one’s audience and their life experiences. They reinforce norms instead of challenging them. It’s not always political, you might say. Some characters just die. But the thing is, “not political” is a luxury all its own. For a lot of people, political isn’t just the narratives they see on basic cable. It’s their bodies and their lives.
And if you’re too lazy to consider that or to think up a compelling ending that doesn’t rely on a minority character getting gunned down, that may not be criminal.
But it is bad fucking writing.