The Fridge is Getting Full
The Rash of Minority and Queer Women Deaths This TV Season
There’s a wave of deaths going through television this winter and spring, and it includes women of color and LGBT women. While, yes, The Mary Sue has pointed out that women in general seemed to be killed off in large numbers currently, especially in the first week of April this year, the bigger problems seems to be with women of color being killed to forward the growth of white characters and, more drastically, the the “bury the gays” and “the evil/dead lesbian” tropes running rampant.
I’ll start with the evil/dead lesbian trope.
The first time I heard this term was back in the spring of 2002 when Buffy the Vampire Slayer made the foolish decision to murder Tara McClay, Willow’s girlfriend, directly after the couple had reconciliation sex. After that, Willow’s driven vengeance crazy and skins the murderer (Warren) alive. When that first happened, the internet exploded pointing out how rare it was to see a lesbian on TV who wasn’t reduced to an evil and villainous role and how much rarer that that it was to see a Sapphic relationship that had a happy ending. I should say that Buffy the Vampire Slayer earned the critical lashing and dip in ratings it received for leading fans on and letting them think that Tara and Willow would have a happy ending. The night it aired was permanently embedded in my brain because it was the only time during her three year run on the series, that Amber Benson was listed as a series regular. That’s how deeply Whedon and company wanted to dig in the knife. Somehow, in fourteen years, things have only gotten worse.
Since the 1976 show “Executive Suite” killed off a lesbian character, there have been one hundred and fifty queer women killed off on TV. 2016 has been a massive year for killing off queer women. While GLAAD reports that there were only thirty-five LGBT women who were regular characters in the 2015–2016 television season, twelve of them have been killed off since January. Over a third of the recurring queer women on television have died, and we haven’t even hit sweeps yet! Autostraddle has a thorough breakdown of the deaths, and it includes a wide variety of shows, including The Shannara Chronicles, Code Black, The Expanse, Jane the Virgin, Janet King, The 100, The Magicians, The Walking Dead, The Vampire Diaries (two characters in one episode), and Empire (two characters in one episode). This list, by the way, includes four women of color, seven murders and, most egregiously, one dual suicide pact. Moreover, one network, The CW aired four lesbian character deaths in the space of one month.
Now, I don’t think that this was a deliberate, hate-filled choice. However, I also don’t think people have been paying attention to the writing they’re committing to or the message they’re sending both in isolation and taken as a whole. If, for example, there were three different shows coming by The CW executives in the space of a month that all had Jewish characters or physically disabled characters dying horrible deaths, then I suspect those executives might have noticed the uncomfortable pattern and tried to ask for changes. I really think that due to lack of education about these tropes in film schools as well as the lack of representation in networks and behind the scenes in television. Overall, I feel that the heads of The CW just weren’t sensitive enough to notice the impact these trends were going to have on fans of these shows and on the LGBT community as a whole.
But that’s no longer an excuse.
There has been a lot of heat now and, deservedly so, about the abuse of these lazy tropes, and show runners, writers, and networks alike can’t just rely on their go-to drama solution of “burying the gays” and creating “shocking deaths.” If it’s becoming both gut wrenching and almost comically predictable to bet on which show is killing off queer women next, then your story telling isn’t even shocking or original. It’s trite, tired, and hurting a vulnerable group, and you have to do better. Besides, how much more interesting would your stories be if you developed and really worked with creating fully rounded queer women who stayed as long-term parts of the plots of your shows? Considering that when 2016 started, less than five percent of recurring characters on television were LGBT (including the men), then actually keeping the queer women alive as vivacious parts of the story lines would be the hard and interesting choice.
The rewarding one.
Yes, I do understand that in the case of The 100 that the actress who plays Lexa had another role, but there was no reason she couldn’t have been written off in a way that could allow her to return or kept alive. It was nothing more than a cheap shock and deliberate baiting and then hurting of a fan base that had helped to make the show a success early on.
But why is this happening in such numbers now and specifically with queer women?
I have a few thoughts onto why this is happening so much in 2016. A few answers might be contributing factors that seem obvious. First, there are more shows on television and produced for streaming services than ever before. I’m sure if you looked across all of television, there has been an increase in character deaths just because there are more programs that need shocking twists every so often. Second, I think that we’re at a time of transition where queer characters are being used as recurring characters and, very rarely, as regular characters on television programs. I think that the shows want to try and be reflective of the world around them — to a marketable extent — and that, alas, there is a phenomenon of shows that use “queer-baiting” and the popularity of slash ships within fandoms to draw fans in, even if they don’t fully plan on delivering on a LGBT story line or, more accurately, a happily-ever-after LGBT story line.
However, I think including these characters is a problem for those with limited writing perspectives. Many dramas rely on love triangles with their big pairings and that, in this world, still tends to rely on two guys fighting over one woman or vice-versa. It’s rarer to see a bisexual love triangle. Similarly, I feel many shows seem to struggle what to do with women characters (see Laurel Lance on Arrow) if they can’t be paired romantically with the main leading man. The easiest solution seems to be sideline the story lines and then eventually use that character for a shocking death.
A friend of mine and a former board member of Legendary Women, Inc., Geneva Canino, pointed out something that might also be contributing to this rash of queer women deaths on television — the passage by the Supreme Court last year of laws legalizing gay marriage in all fifty states in the U.S. It’s possible that because one right has been protected for the LGBT community at large with equal rights to marriage, then it’s possible that writers and show runners have seen that as a sign that the LGBT community in general is equally protected in all respects. They may simply see it as currently more acceptable to kill LGBT characters off, due to real life events presenting the image that the community is a fully protected class. I think this seems like a plausible theory. Often, depending on the struggle — women’s rights, rights in the U.S. for African Americans, and gay rights — the dominant majority groups seems to think that one big act means everything is fine and settled. I think with the LGBT community, people are maybe interpreting the marriage passage as “well everything’s even now,” whether they realize how naive this position is or not.
Since the gay marriage was legalized throughout the U.S., we’ve seen an extremely violent knee-jerk reaction. Currently, there are presidential candidates promising to yank this right away if elected. Moreover, state legislatures in North Carolina, Mississippi and Tennessee are falling all over themselves to pass “religious freedom” bills that make it essentially legal to discriminate against LGBT people in a variety of ways, such as housing, employment, dress codes (in Mississippi), and even the types of bathrooms they’re allowed to use. There are currently no federal laws that prevent employment or housing discrimination against LGBT individuals within the states, and the rates of suicide for members of the LGBT community are exceedingly high due to social pressure, bullying, and rejection from family. Currently, LGBT youth are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers.
A fact that really makes one question the decision made by The Vampire Diaries’ show runners this past month to have two characters kill themselves via a suicide pact to avoid a mystical punishment for one of them.
This isn’t to say that I think queer women or the LGBT community never thinks a character should be killed off for dramatic reasons. However, when it’s becoming so obvious people are afraid to become attached to queer women characters, waiting for the inevitable day they’ll be killed off and even news outlets are waiting this spring for the next death, then that’s a problem. At this point, an LGBT woman character on television is going to die about as obviously as a black guy in a slasher film (another maligned trope) or, possibly, the promiscuous girl in any type of horror film. At this point, the queer women on TV seem far more like queer-baiting canon fodder, existing to reel in viewers who will just be stomped on when the characters they’ve grown to care about are carelessly snuffed out.
You don’t have to lose the option to ever kill off an LGBT woman or an LGBT character in general, but considering that this-four-month-period in 2016 reduced the number of queer women characters on television by about 35%, maybe television does need to give this tired plot line a rest for a long time.
Again, as my friend Geneva Canino puts it, think about what the TV landscape would look like if you killed off thirty-five percent of the cis, straight white men on television in only four months. How well do you think a show’s fan base would react if show runners chose to shockingly murder off cis, straight white women and cis, straight white men leads as often as characters of color and those of differing gender identities and sexual orientations?
Frankly, if shows did that to those fans as often as they stomped on LGBT fans and fans of color, there wouldn’t be television series left to run. And that leads me to my final point…
This wasn’t just a bad spring for LGBT women on television. This was a terrible time for African American women in television as well. On Syfy’s The Magicians, Kira (who is also a lesbian) was paralyzed and then trapped in a magical coma. In the spirit realm, she asks one of the other characters, a white woman, to kill her. In this way, Kira can both be freed and she can also help forward the spiritual and magical growth of the white character instead. This hearkens back to a trend in genre movies and television, as documented by Black Girl Nerds, in which African American characters sacrifice themselves in order to preserve the lives and (in a magical show) the powers of the main white heroine or hero.
The final trope I wish to address was unfortunately brought up by last Friday’s Sleepy Hollow. The infamous Women in Refrigerators trope originated in comics and refers to an incident in which then Green Lantern Kyle Rayner found his girlfriend dismembered and shoved into a fridge. His anger over her loss was what fueled him to avenge her death and to “grow” as a hero. It’s become a shorthand thanks to writer Gail Simone for the (usually violent) death of a girlfriend or woman companion in order to spur the masculine hero into action and to help forward his destiny. Fans were furious several seasons ago when Allison Argent was killed off of Teen Wolf in a similar style. Basically, the problem is that the girlfriend/woman is never an agent of her own. She only exists as a prop and even her death is designed to facilitate the man’s/hero’s growth. These women are not truly characters themselves but only means to an end.
Abbie Mills, played by Nicole Beharie, was originally set up as the officer who didn’t realize her town was supernatural. She was dragged into all of its preternatural drama as Ichabod Crane’s partner and, thus, originally was the audience’s eyes and perspective into the other worldly happenings. However, the series changed over the years and Mills, who was originally clearly set up as the leading lady, was shunted to the side and given less screen time as a character. Because of this, Beharie did ask to leave the show, but as with Lexa in The 100, this didn’t mean that the show had to write Abbie Mills off in such a crappy way. Instead of riding off into the sunset, she’s instead forced to sacrifice her life and her very soul to save the world from Pandora’s rising. At the same time, her last moments are about Ichabod and even the show runners have commented that her death was about leading Ichabod to the next step of his journey. Her death was a means to an end — the growth of the white man protagonist.
As explained on the I Am Abbie Mills Tumblr, this is a disservice to the character, the actress, women of color characters in genre fiction and shows, and to African American women fans of not only Sleepy Hollow but genre television:
Hey Fam, many of us are deeply wounded, angered, and feel betrayed by the cruel and insensitive way Sleepy Hollow handled the exit of our beloved Abbie Mills. Because of this we wanted a way to honor her as they should have and to show our gratitude to the gracious and immensely talented Nicole Beharie for 3 seasons of amazing performances (despite the writing). So we are tagging Nicole and using the hashtag #IAmAbbieMills (created by @theyellowrangersings) on Twitter & Tumblr to show how grateful we are to her for bringing Abbie Mills into our lives, what she meant to us, how we’ve related to her, our happiness — our frustrations, how she’s changed us, inspired us, and what it meant to us for her to represent us in a genre where WOC are rarely in the forefront. Feel free to tweet gifs, link art work, fan fiction inspired by her (*re-write the ending), letters, pictures, collages, etc. We want to shower her with the love and support she deserves.
I couldn’t have said it better myself, because when there’s so very few instances of quality representation of queer women as like Lexa or with women of color as with Abbie Mills, then their senseless loss is that much more painful. Fans, who for a few, brief instances finally see someone like them being a real part of the action and represented as well-nuanced characters for once are crushed when they’re then killed for shock value. The message that this sends is very plain: If you’re a minority woman, then you’re not wanted in this space. You’re not the star or the lead. You don’t matter, and you can’t have a happy ending.
And that has to stop, and it has to stop now.
If you’re interested in helping to honor Abbie Mills and to keep showing Fox Television that there’s a reason she was so beloved, then you can follow the I Am Abbie Mills Tumblr. If you want to help press for better LGBT character representation on television, please see the site LGBT Fans Deserve Better, which has been raising money since Lexa was killed for The Trevor Project.
Special thanks to Geneva Canino and to Autostraddle’s great info for the completion of this article.
Images above are not property of Legendary Women, Inc. They are property of their respective copyright owners, and we do not profit from their use.