Carr on Culture: Minority bias on and off screen

by Mary Kate Carr / Beacon Correspondent • April 14, 2016

As a person who’s studying writing for film and television, I tend not only to watch a lot of TV, but I also consume a lot of media about it—critiques, recaps, casting announcements, and the like. If you’re a fan like me, then you may have noticed a recent alarming trend: Overwhelming amounts of people of color and LGBTQ+ characters are being killed off their shows.

 “Recent” might not be the perfect word, as our media has just as discriminatory a past as our reality. However, although the television landscape features much more diversity now than in decades’ past, characters of sexual orientation and racial minorities still seem to be considered more expendable than their straight, white counterparts. 

 A prime example is The CW’s The 100, a post-apocalyptic teen drama often called “the best show you’re not watching.” Entertainment Weekly gave season three an A- before it aired, calling it “one of TV’s best Big Saga serials.” It also received praise for its development of a romantic relationship between bisexual lead character Clarke and lesbian character Lexa. Both women are strong leaders and their relationship is dynamic and compelling.

 Then the show did what’s known in TV trope language as “Bury Your Gays.” After sharing a beautiful love scene and consummating their relationship, a stray bullet meant for Clarke killed Lexa. Heartbroken and angry fans reacted by trending “LGBT Fans Deserve Better” and “Bury Tropes Not Us” on Twitter.

 The death wasn’t just in poor taste, but also poor timing: So far in 2016, 10 characters identifying as lesbian or bisexual have already been killed off of their shows. Unfortunately, these deaths often follow the pattern of “Bury Your Gays,” where the gay character is killed off tragically following a happy event. In reality, so much death in so little time could be called an epidemic. In fiction, it’s at the very least a disturbing trend. In real life it is becoming the norm. 

 The 100 didn’t stop with Lexa’s death. Two episodes later, the show depicted a violent execution for one of its main characters, Lincoln, a black man. The actor who portrayed Lincoln, Ricky Whittle, later claimed in an interview that he was “professionally bullied” off of the show. He cited storylines that were drastically cut, and that the showrunner “[tried] to make my character and myself as insignificant as possible.”

 The 100 isn’t the only show guilty of this on this year’s television season, either. FOX’s Sleepy Hollow season finale killed one of its two lead characters, Abbie Mills, a black woman. Her death comes after Abbie’s storylines were shafted in favor of the white male lead, and rumors of the actress, Nicole Beharie’s, discontent behind the scenes. She posted on Twitter that she wasn’t invited to participate in the show’s season two DVD commentary, and recently had to tweet at the show’s official page asking them to follow her. This reveals another disturbing pattern in television—and even a show’s lead can fall victim to it, if she’s a woman of color.

 As both an aspiring writer and as a fan, I wish these scenarios were handled better. They mattered to me, and to countless others who tune in to see themselves represented on screen. One thing I’ve come to believe strongly throughout my time at Emerson is that representation matters. When a character someone identifies with dies on television, when they are treated as disposable, it reflects that viewer’s worth. When actors are driven off their own shows due to mistreatment, it serves to discourage fans that might want to follow in their footsteps.

Fictional characters dying might not seem like a major issue in the grand scheme of the world, but what happens onscreen affects life offscreen.

Take for instance Oscar-winning actress Whoopi Goldberg, who said she was inspired to go into acting by Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols—and who herself inspired Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o via her film The Color Purple. Without representation on television, we wouldn’t have these bright lights to lead and inspire. When minority characters are dying in disproportionate numbers onscreen, where are viewers going to look to find themselves?

 Someday, if I’m lucky, I might have the responsibility to do right by characters not unlike Lexa, Lincoln, or Abbie. I hope I can do a better job. Meanwhile, as 2016 continues, I can only hope that the righteous outrage of vocal fans will help to dismantle this TV trend. The fans deserve better, and so do the characters.