Hey, American Network TV – I’m not watching for white guy peen.
This might come as a shock to you, since you’ve recently decided to kill off literally all the women, and quite a lot of the men of color, so I’m gonna say it again for the network execs in the back: I. AM NOT WATCHING. FOR WHITE GUY PEEN.
I watch TV for women. All women. And since I have more than a passing familiarity with the importance of representation for minorities such as my lesbian self, I also have a strong desire to see women and men of color, disabled folks from all walks of life and fat people – ALL THE FAT PEOPLE. The one group of characters I don’t watch TV to see, because I’m bored to the back teeth of their pasty faces, are white, straight, cis, able-bodied men.
The thing is, it’d be only mildly cringe-worthy every time another dude writer trots out the same BOLD! NEW! TWIST! that coincidentally involves the violent death of a woman – if it weren’t making all the TV I love unwatchable because I’m so angry I want to throw up on my laptop. And I need my laptop to do my job so puking on it would be a problem. Guys, don’t make me do it.
With the death of Lexa on The 100 last month and the bombastic backlash that has spawned the LGBT Fans Deserve Better movement, raised over $100k for the trevor project and created The Lexa Pledge, comes a heightened focus from the media and from audiences on not just LGBT representation but – generally – all representation on TV. And it turns out that Lexa’s is just one in flurry of female and minority onscreen deaths lately. Not did we lose queer female characters at a rate equivalent to one every ten days in the first three months of the year, but so many women and male characters of color are dying horrible deaths so frequently that it feels like there’s something in the air. The zeitgeist, if you will, where it was once inspiring All The Zombie Things or All The Superhero Things, is now chock full of dead people who happen not to be white guys.
Said zeitgeist has always been jaw-grinding for me, but it got personal a couple of weeks ago. Where Lexa’s death was saddening, The 100 wasn’t my particular playground – I was only ever a casual viewer. Then I lost Sleepy Hollow’s Abbie Mills and Arrow’s Laurel Lance in the same week and had an allergic reaction that left me screeching down the phone to one unlucky friend at six in the morning after a 4 AM Twitter spiral because ABBIE MILLS IS DEAD AND EVERYTHING IS AWFUL FOREVER.
Laurel’s death on Arrow was one I’d been braced for since the show revealed it would be killing off a main character at the start of its fourth season. Arrow has rarely treated its female characters well and really, all the obvious choices were women… or the show’s one regular black character, John Diggle. Once pictures of a gravestone with Laurel’s name on it leaked during filming I sighed, rolled my eyes and resigned myself to yet another clichéd death unworthy of a great character. When it arrived, it stung but I felt my loins were sufficiently girded.
Abbie Mills’ death was upsetting on entirely different level. Not only were I and many other Sleepy Hollow fans completely blindsided by it, but Abbie – played by the radiantly talented Nicole Beharie – is one of only three black female leads in this genre on major network TV right now. Where I can throw things in frustration over Laurel’s predictable fridging, there are a fair (HAH) number of other white female characters on major network sci-fi and fantasy shows. The same can’t be said for black women, like, at all, and Abbie’s largely black female fanbase are understandably devastated by her loss.
#SleepyHollow punished it's black female lead and her black fans for getting too uppity. This final episode was showing us her "place".
— OrYouWillbeMoved (@MsGo) April 9, 2016
Also notably, Beharie’s exit from Sleepy Hollow closely coincides with announcements from Arden Cho and Kat Graham that they would be leaving Teen Wolf and The Vampire Diaries respectively. There is good reason to suspect that Beharie quit Sleepy Hollow because she was being sidelined in favor of her white male co-star. Cho’s explanation also hints that she’s leaving because she feels underutilized compared to the rest of the cast, and you only have to look at Graham’s presence (or lack thereof) on Vampire Diaries to suspect similar motives. Good for you, ladies, go find those greener pastures. Also on behalf of all my fellow white screenwriters I’d like to apologize to all of you, like, super hard.
But where Teen Wolf was never reliant on Cho’s character for its central dynamic, and The Vampire Diaries will likely end after Graham’s exit anyway, Fox actually seems to be seriously contemplating renewing Sleepy Hollow without Nicole Beharie.
I just… have they lost their damn minds?
The thing is, this is another element feeding the Dead Lady Zeitgeist of late: franchises losing female co-leads whilst keeping their male counterparts, assuming these male stars are more valuable.
— acceber74 ? (@RaRUPE4) April 9, 2016
ABC provided the most recent example of this in the bizarre decision announced last week to bring Castle back for a 9th season, minus female lead Stana Katic, as well as the show’s other regular female cast member, Tamala Jones. Apparently this is their idea of a ‘major shakeup’: they’ve wrecked the show’s central appeal – the buddy-cop-romance between Katic’s Kate Beckette and the titular Richard Castle – and lost yet another black woman from a major network TV show in one fell tone-deaf swoop.
It appears that neither Katic nor Jones have chosen to exit Castle. No, ABC just thinks audiences care that little about women. But let’s be real, it’s a move so staggeringly incompetent and flamingly sexist that I kinda need to stand up and sarcastically slow-clap it out for a moment, guys, give me a sec.
Of course, TV execs consistently value female characters (and thus actresses) far less than they do their beloved white men. The originator of the Mulder/Scully dynamic that Castle is predicated on, Gillian Anderson herself, was initially offered only half of what David Duchavny was to appear in Fox’s X-Files reboot. Because X-Files would totally have been worth watching without Scully. I wouldn’t have died of boredom watching Duchovny make exactly the same faintly constipated face in every single scene for ten years without Scully, at all.
In an industry where both 74% of TV execs and staff writers are men, sexism isn’t new or shocking. It just seems to be having a particularly violent tantrum across all of American TV right now. And I have to ask myself why? Because as little as two years ago Sleepy Hollow was being hailed for its diversity and seemed to be offering real hope for a heightened presence for women and people of color in genre TV. This was the same time period that spawned Orphan Black, a show that revolves around women’s right to own their own bodies, and also Arrow’s second season, which aired the first kiss between two women ever to appear in a comic book TV show. Even amongst the current fridging bonanza, Shonda Rhimes is the most powerful showrunner in the American industry right now, Empire is Fox’s most successful show and the numbers of LGBT characters onscreen are steadily on the increase, even whilst they seem to be dying in greater proportions than ever.
Change is inch-worming its way into the industry as networks wake up to the startling reality that, no really, a lot of us aren’t watching for white guy peen.
But I think that’s precisely the problem. It’s noticeable that the common theme amongst showrunners reacting to criticism of violent female deaths in their work seems to be that they want to make ‘bold’ choices, like that somehow justifies contributing to a violently misogynist trend in popular media. Seriously check those interviews with Clifton Campbell, Marc Guggenheim and Jason Rothenberg. They all use that word and at this point I gotta suspect that it doesn’t mean what they think it means.
(Honestly, one more white guy showrunner calls their cliché dead woman storyline ‘bold’ I’m going to show up at their offices with a dictionary definition of the word ‘BORING’. And then I’m going to read it to them through a megaphone whilst I dance around clothed only in printed copies of Gail Simone’s Women in Refrigerators website, because I’m getting that close to having a hysterical fucking breakdown over how mind-numbingly over-used this ‘twist’ is.)
‘Bold’ often means ‘edgy’, ‘gritty’ and obviously violent – all of which tend to be chauvinist shorthand for un-PC. Is it too much of a stretch to wonder if maybe pressure to be more inclusive, to think sensitively about the needs of vulnerable minority audience members, may actually be creating a backlash? As a bunch of crusty male creatives feel the earth of the industry moving under their feet, are they reacting by pushing women and minority characters out of their stories all together just to reassure themselves that they can? That Shonda Rhimes isn’t about to appear in their offices to shove the ratings for Scandal up their noses until they agree to center all their work on (OH NO!) black women?
Maybe not that consciously, of course, but this cynical lesbian can’t help but wonder…
Ultimately why it’s happening isn’t really the point, though. The bottom line is that as May sweeps approaches, I’m running out of shows to watch and I love shows, guys. My entire life is TV. But I can’t escape into a fictional world where I’m regularly reminded that in the minds of guys in charge, I am a disposable plot point, not a person – I don’t want any of that stink anywhere near me.
All the TV I used to enjoy seems to have killed off one of my favorite female characters in the last two months (from Arrow to Sleepy Hollow to Orphan Black – a dead queer woman, a dead black woman and a dead female superhero, good times).
Is that so much to ask?