Spoilers for Arrow, Sleepy Hollow, The Americans, Empire, and Vikings, and past episodes of half a dozen other shows.
Seven women died on television last week.
Four were women of color. At least two were lesbians. Let’s add this to the six other women, mostly non-white and LGBTQ, who were also killed since the start of this year.
- Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy, Arrow), one of the world’s most famous superheroines, overcame depression and addiction, killed to prove a point to her father.
- Camilla Marks and Mimi Whiteman (Naomi Campbell and Marisa Tomei, Empire), a married couple murder-suicide.
- Nina Sergeevna (Annet Mahendru, The Americans), a former spy executed by her Soviet captors.
- Yidu and Kwenthrith (Dianne Doan and Amy Bailey, Vikings), an enslaved member of Chinese royalty drowned by the male lead, and a pregnant rape survivor murdered by another woman on a man’s orders.
- Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie, Sleepy Hollow), sacrificed her life and soul to save the male protagonist.
- Nora Hildegard and Mary Louise (Scarlett Byrne and Teressa Liane, The Vampire Diaries), an interracial lesbian relationship, through joint suicide.
- Commander Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey, The 100), shot with a bullet meant for her female lover.
- Rose Solano (Bridget Regan, Jane the Virgin), half of the show’s primary lesbian relationship.
- Natalie Vasquez (Anabelle Acosta, Quantico), the first main character to die, killed by a bomb.
- Denise Cloyd (Merritt Wever, The Walking Dead), shot through the eye after she decided to face her fears and love another woman.
Look, I understand the narrative reasons for death. By no means is the decision to kill a character automatically a misstep. It might resolve their arc, affect the direction of the show in a necessary, meaningful way, or simply be an inevitable outcome given the series’ trajectory. Game of Thrones, much as I despise the show for other reasons, serves as an obvious example wherein each ill fate made sense within the context of both the characters’ individual story and the wider narrative at hand. Hell, even Han Solo in The Force Awakens serves a purpose, enhances the conflict, and finishes his decades-long development.
The problem is twofold: death’s become so overused in recent memory, such an easy way to throw in a cheap “shock value” surprise rather than taking the time to further logical development, complex characters, and story growth. And within recent weeks these unnecessary, lazy, often brutal deaths, have all been inflicted upon minorities.
This isn’t new. There’s the Bury Your Gays trope, the seemingly inescapable Women in Refrigerators cliche, and the undeniable fact that people of color don’t have anywhere near as many leading roles as white men, and are constantly killed, tortured, or marginalized in the roles they do have. Even in their own promotional photos. And it keeps happening.
Whatever your narrative intentions were, whether or not you believe the truth that minorities are woefully underrepresented in media and frequently the ones to suffer brutal disservice, you can’t deny the pandemic of women who have died on television recently. It’s the facts. You can’t.
Even though I stopped watching Sleepy Hollow midway through season two because of your marginalization of your characters of color, including and especially your main female lead, Abbie Mills, she in particular cuts me to the quick. She was supposed to be different. She was the hero. She wasn’t the damn sidekick to the white man no one cared about but a co-lead with Ichabod Crane, as equal and important a prophesied Witness. If the rumors of Nicole Beharie wanting to leave the show are true (which, after your continual sidelining of her character in favor of the white man and a white couple, I don’t blame her for), there are dozens of ways you could’ve orchestrated her departure without resorting to a death. A performer’s desire to leave, whether personal or due to scheduling conflicts, doesn’t mean their character has to be discarded. Especially in a show with, you know, magic, demons, and time travel. Take The X-Files or Babylon 5, both of which miraculously found creative, emotional, effective ways for their male protagonists to depart. And later, return, because they get to come back whole.
What you’re saying, by killing her, is that Abbie never really mattered. A black woman on a major television network, prominently featured on all the promotional materials. Can you comprehend just how rare and important that is? Abbie Mills was the savior of the earth, endlessly kind and unquestionably good, every inch a hero — the reason many people began watching to begin with, and ultimately her existence, her sacrifice, was only important with regard to saving her male partner. She was so unimportant to the grand scheme of the narrative that you can move on without her. She was expendable, in her own show.
It’s horrifying. It’s exhausting. I’m so tired of this.
I’m going to quote a previous article of mine, which might be odd, but given it surrounded the death of Arrow’s Laurel Lance, it remains relevant:
Women aren’t props. We don’t exist to die for, well, some reason, we haven’t decided yet. Throw in the fact the CW Network caters to women — specifically young teens in the midst of forming their senses of self. What happens to these girls when they constantly see their heroes, their role models, killed off? How does that empower her?
It doesn’t. But it’s a “creative pop,” I guess, whatever.
Newsflash: it’s not groundbreaking to kill a female character for shock value. It’s a well-established, much-despised trope, and a lazy cop-out when a showrunner can’t dream up anything better for that character than to die.
I’m not asking you to pander to your audiences or sacrifice creative impact. What I’m insisting is that every creative decision you make, with every actor, every character, be thoroughly thought-out. Your choices don’t exist in a vacuum. Hold yourselves accountable. Look at the world outside the confines of your idea. It’s your responsibility to represent minorities, and as creators you should know firsthand how much media is capable of influencing, shaping, inspiring; how desperately the non-male, non-white, non-straight, non-cisgender, non-ablebodied need representation.
So consider every angle. Educate yourselves. Write better, more engaging, more challenging storylines.
It’s 2016. Stop killing us. We deserve better, you should know better, and there’s no excuse anymore.