The TV Character Bloodbath: Not White? Not Male? Not Safe!

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Two weeks ago I was spitting nails about the horrible season ender of Sleepy Hollow. Yeah, yeah, spoiler alert. Everyone should know this by now: Abbie Mills, the main character, was killed off. You can read my reaction to it here—I can’t bear to go through it all again.

As is probably apparent in my previous blog post, I was livid at not only the actual choice to kill Abbie off, but also the sheer ineptitude with which it was done. As a writer, I boggled at the ham-fisted fashioning of the season finale (series finale? at this point I hope so)…actually, at the entire trajectory of the show after the creators left at the end of the first season.

I’m still pissed—yes, still! it was that poorly done!—but once I started thinking about the why of it all, my rage got even hotter. So here’s another blog post, rant No. 2. Buckle up, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Okay, so while I was stewing about the mistreatment of Abbie Mills (and actor Nicole Beharie) and the spiraling of my once-favorite show, network TV kept itself busy cutting a bloody swath through a lot of popular shows. In addition to Sleepy Hollow, characters—important ones, at that—have been wiped out on Arrow, The Blacklist, Castle, Empire, and The 100.

It’s been so pervasive that in addition to inciting the ire of the shows’ fandoms, it’s also captured the attention of casual observers, bloggers, and journalists, inspiring nonstop tweeting, tumblr posts, and articles in esteemed publications like Variety and the Washington Post.

No big deal, you say? That’s drama—characters die? Well, it’s more complicated than that.

First of all, why, in heaven’s name, would people in charge of TV shows—people who create entertainment for a living, day in and day out—ever think that offing main characters like Abbie is a great idea? Did they swallow that pretty infinity chip from The 100, the thing that takes over your brain and makes you do stupid things while you placidly watch the world burn? Because it sure seems like that from here. Only people who have had their minds—and their consciences—erased could firmly believe that killing off the heart and soul of a narrative is the way to go, not to mention then doing interviews after the fact with their heads held high, insisting that they had to destroy their own shows in order to save them, and believe it.

On top of the bizarre story choices, this trend deserves scrutiny because of one unifying factor: the characters who have been killed off have been female, gay, or POC (or female, gay, and POC), inspiring accusations of bigotry, misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-miscegenation. In the 21st century? Apparently so. Again, why? From whence does all this bigotry, misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-miscegenation spring?

I have a theory: It’s stemming directly from the phenomenally overpowering self-centeredness of the middle-aged white male. No, I am not kidding. I’m not saying this lightly, either. And it’s not just because they spend way too much time clogging up first class on the airplane, looking down their noses at the rest of us rabble as we shuffle past, shunted off to the back of the plane.

Let’s follow this trail of (white)breadcrumbs and see where it leads:

  1. Producers, showrunners, directors, and TV executives are mostly middle-aged white men.
  1. These producers, showrunners, directors, and TV executives have one goal: to make their TV shows popular, so they get ratings, so they’re profitable. It’s tough to do—there’s more competition out there than ever, what with cable, Netflix/Hulu/Amazon originals, etc.
  1. These producers, showru…ah, heck, this Pack o’ White Guys (PoWG) looks at the success of Game of Thrones and other gritty pay cable offerings and thinks that their success comes from how shocking they are.
  1. They reason the shock-success comes from the sex/nudity and violence—the stuff network TV doesn’t have. Okay, the sex/nudity is out of bounds for network TV, but hey, they can do violence! They then note that the violence is even more shocking because on many of those successful cable shows, no life is sacred—anyone can die at any time, so it keeps the audience on the edge of their seats.
  1. THE PoWG WANTS THAT. They want their audience captivated. They want them coming back week after week, anxious to see how things work out. Because cha-ching.
  1. So the PoWG co-opts this practice. With sex/nudity out, they double down on the violence.
  1. But (and here’s the kicker) they do it wrong. They believe their main character is the White Guy, and heck, you can’t kill off the main character, right? Because…it’s a White Guy. Because the PoWG is in charge, they get to determine who’s Most Important Onscreen. Shocker—it always turns out to be a White Guy. These white guys behind the scenes expect to see themselves represented onscreen, and they have the power to make that happen. Sure, sometimes the focus is on a pretty, young White Chick, while they live out their horndog fantasies via the show (koff Katrina koff), but if she needs to be killed off, no worries—they’ll just get Another White Chick. Bonus: the White Guy Onscreen, their representative, gets to bang lots of different chicks, just like the white guys behind the scenes wish they could do in real life.
  1. Meanwhile, all other sexes and races are relegated to supporting characters, which are ripe for the picking. Kill ’em off, the PoWG says. They can always be replaced. Totally expendable in a way the White Guy character is not.

Can I prove it? Hell no. But I sure can suspect it.

And now here we are, atop a stack of bodies from the Network TV Spring Purge:

  • Sleepy Hollow: the actual main character (!) who was half of the core team, a black woman—dead
  • Arrow: woman—dead
  • The Blacklist: woman—possibly dead (caveat: could be a cliffhanger fakeout; we’ll find out next season)
  • Castle: half of the core team, a woman, plus (bonus?) her POC BFF—both fired/written off somehow; we’ll find out how next season
  • Empire: two lesbians—dead
  • The 100: a lesbian and a black man—dead

Lookit all that death. Shocking, right? Edgy, right? Cool, right? High fives all around! NO. NOT COOL. Not even a little bit. Put those hands down.

If they ever bothered to get their noses out of their own…navels…and see these choices through other people’s eyes, the white guys in charge might have realized that these deaths they so cavalierly brought about might, just might, be offensive to greater-than-half the population that is Not Them.

Women and POC have always been required to adopt characters’ points of view that are not like their own. Women go to action movies and superhero movies and never have an issue with the main character being a guy. It doesn’t go the other way for the PoWG. They’re allowed to gravitate only to entertainment that is reflective of themselves. And therein lies the problem: They never do see these choices, or the world, through other people’s eyes. Why should they? They don’t have to. They accept their free drink and hot towel from the flight attendant and close their eyes as the rest of the population passes by, on their way to the back of the plane.

Too harsh? I don’t think so. Heck, as a writer of chick lit/rom-coms, I live it every day, in a different way. But I’m not going to go into that power structure right now. Jennifer Weiner fights the good fight for us so well; check out her articles about it.

But back to the white guys (as usual). Here’s a concrete example of what I’m talking about: Back in the ’90s, I went to a movie with two friends—a girl and a guy. We were all in our twenties. We saw The Piano. It was a great movie, very powerful. When the lights came up, the other girl and I enthused about a lot of elements of the movie—Holly Hunter’s acting, the costumes, the New Zealand setting, the storyline.

The guy, however, stayed silent (and he was not normally a quiet guy). Then, suddenly, he exploded. He started ranting about how awful it was. Everything sucked, he said. It was offensive, it was boring, it was stupid. In fact, he said, he nearly walked out in the first twenty minutes. We were startled and pressed him to express exactly what bothered him about the movie (after all, he wasn’t the type to eschew art-house cinema in favor of shoot-’em-ups).

He couldn’t find the words. He was entirely unable to voice why, exactly, he was put off—and so violently—by the movie.

It took time, but eventually we got to the core of it: The main character was a woman. The story was told through her eyes. And he didn’t want to see, well, anything through a woman’s eyes. It actually made him uncomfortable. He wanted his point of view to be catered to, and he absolutely rebelled against anything that demanded he subjugate his worldview, even for two hours, in favor of another’s. A woman’s! Unthinkable.

Sure, we can say that it was only one guy. Maybe it was the self-centeredness of youth. Or maybe he was just having a bad day. But time and again, we’re constantly shown how this worldview is all-pervasive in white-male-centric men, and when they’re in power, all they want to do is further that white-male-centric point of view. Including television.

It has always been thus, of course—hell, it’s a miracle they didn’t kill off Scully in The X-Files. But they did pay Gillian Anderson shit wages compared to David Duchovny and, as Anderson pointed out, they tried to shortchange her again when they signed her for the recent reboot of the series. In the 21st century, I say again. SMDH.

So no. It’s not “only one guy.” Overall, we’re not out of the woods when it comes to eradicating racism or sexism or homophobia. Not by a long shot. The difference now is we’re recognizing it. We’re calling those in power on their bullshit. Standing up and pointing out the scourge of whitewashed-heteronormative-viewpoints-as-default. Shining a light on the roaches, even if the roaches continue to be oblivious as they stand there, giving us the finger, secure in their belief that their viewpoint is the only valid one.

Well, welcome to the edge. We’ve finally been pushed there, but we refuse to be shoved off the cliff, either personally or via our fictional representatives. This is pushback. This is the demand to be recognized, that there are other people in the world besides those middle-aged white men, and our existence is just as valid, if not more so. Women, people of color (oh, so many colors), non-hetero orientations, and mixes of all three of these elements—we are everywhere. We are the majority.

Not plot devices.

Not unnecessary.

Not secondary.

Not interchangeable.

Not replaceable.

Not disposable.

And we will not be erased.

*All GIFs via Giphy.com

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17 responses »

  1. I was happy they killed off Abbie Mills. I liked her once because I love Nicole. But her sleepyhead fans are so pushy and obnoxious, they can’t take the smallest friendly criticism against the actress or character. They gang up on you like a mob and even made the show feel stagnant or claustrophobic. It all came down to every twitch Abbie took was to be worshiped or else, every look Abbie and Crane shared was porn or else.
    Now that she’s gone I’m excited where the show will now go. I do hope Sleepy Hollow is renewed but I also hope Campbell has a clear direction for the season and some new writers, especially now that Abbie fans ‘only’ have gone.

    • Hi Molly–thanks for your comment. I’m an Abbie fan; I’m sorry other Abbie fans have given you a hard time. I think we’re passionate about the topic because we see Abbie and Crane as a team—after all, they were presented that way by the show creators and the characters discussed it frequently—so to have that taken away suddenly alters the entire premise of the show.

  2. Oh gosh. Clearly, I’m living under a rock because I don’t watch any of these shows! Ugh. I’ve been thinking about binge watching The Walking Dead because I know something upsetting happened at the end of last season (don’t tell me) and now I’m wondering if they killed off someone who was a woman, gay, or a person of color. Did they? Wait. Don’t tell me. Ugh. Now I’m curious.

    • LOL Julie. I don’t watch TWD either (I have a zombie phobia—weird, I know), but I do know that nobody knows who was killed. That was the cliffhanger. Everyone has to wait to find out! Interestingly enough, the complaint is that it’s highly likely the person killed off was a person of color or a woman (or both).

  3. I have never seen Sleepy Hollow – I don’t think it’s on in Mauritius, but all I can say is that I HATE IT when they kill off the main characters in series or movies or in books! I can understand your frustration!

  4. I don’t even want to talk about The Black List! I thought Elizabeth’s death was faked to fool the people trying to kill her, but I don’t think so. And now Castle without Beckett? Seriously. I don’t watch the other shows, but I can imagine your frustration.

  5. Sorry, but since I’ve never seen any of these shows, I don’t feel I can comment intelligently. I have never been one to watch TV. I know, Iknow, there is something seriously wrong with me.

  6. I don’t watch any of those shows either, Jayne, but you’ve made some thought provoking arguments. It’s interesting how emotional we can become about our beloved shows and the characters in them. My family and I have had some pretty heated discussions about TWD because we’ve become so invested. LOL.

    • I only watch(ed) Sleepy Hollow (no more of that for me, if it gets renewed!) but this isn’t so much about the shows or the characters, or anyone’s devotion to them, but instead about the overarching, highly disturbing trend of showrunners and producers feeling completely justified in killing off women, people of color, and non-CIS characters.

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