Sunday, June 12, 2016

"The 100" Controversy

(Spoilers: The 100, Person of Interest)

Today I am wading into the controversy about the death of a major lesbian character on The 100. If you’re aware of the controversy, you’ll know I’m pretty late to the discussion – but you’ll understand why I’m bringing it up now in a bit. Also, full disclosure: I am friends with the writer of the episode in question, Javier Grillo-Marxuach (though we haven’t discussed the episode or the controversy).

If you are unfamiliar with what I’m talking about, the CW show The 100 featured a lesbian relationship between its main character and another character. When the main character’s girlfriend was killed off in the middle of the season, there was an outcry from the LGBT community. The primary reason for the anger appears to be that there are so few LGBT characters on television, though there was also anger at the way in which the character was killed off (in a non-heroic manner immediately after the consummation of the relationship) and in the showrunner's cavalier handling of the uproar afterwards.

On the other side of the argument, it’s important to remember that this is a show where many characters – including heroic and well-loved characters – have died. And the actress who played the character, Alycia Debnam Carey, had taken a major role on Fear the Walking Dead, so likely the character was removed partly because the actress wasn’t going to be able to star in two shows at the same time for very long.

There is certainly good reason to complain about the lack of heroic LGBT characters on television, and about how many of them end up dying. There should be more heroic, happy LGBT characters on television who survive all the way through their series. My fear is that this goal could be jeopardized by the backlash against The 100. Here’s how:

I read an interview with some of the writers of Person of Interest a few weeks ago. The interviewer asked them about the lesbian couple on that show and whether the controversy from The 100 might cause them to avoid killing either of those characters. The writers sidestepped, but the question is a bit disturbing. It happens that the characters on Person of Interest weren’t originally intended to be lesbians. But the actresses had great chemistry so the writers decided to give them a romantic relationship. The trouble is, we’re talking about another show where main characters have died. If making those two characters lesbian takes otherwise valid plot options away from the writers, the writers might not make that choice in the future.

I’m writing this post precisely because I just encountered that in something I’m outlining. I have a married couple in my story. Initially I conceived of them as a heterosexual couple. But it occurred to me that my story could use more diversity. I looked to see which character or characters I could make gay, and I thought it would be cool to turn this couple into a lesbian couple.

The only problem is, one of them is going to die in the story. This isn’t because they’re lesbians – that plot decision was made while they were still a man and a woman. But now I’m wondering whether I should make them a lesbian couple instead. Will people attack me when one of the characters dies as they have The 100?

So The 100 controversy is discouraging me from putting LGBT characters in my story. And that’s not a good thing.

I also recently read a roundtable in the Hollywood Reporter that included Lee Daniels, who said that it offends him when White writers write Black characters. I certainly don’t want to speak for him, but in context I think what he really meant was it offends him when primarily Black cast shows have primarily White writing staffs. And I agree that’s pretty offensive.

But the way he said it – that it offends him when White writers write Black characters – feels like a warning to White writers not to write Black characters. And that would mean less diversity in casts, a bad thing. I sympathize with the frustrations of communities that have been traditionally underrepresented, but it’s important to couch those frustrations carefully. You don't want to turn characters from that group into a "third rail" that discourages showing them on screen.

As I said, there was more to The 100 controversy than just the death of a lesbian character. It could and should have been handled better. Let’s just make sure that we affirm efforts toward diversity and that when someone missteps we couch our criticism in a way that’s productive rather than destructive.

By the way, I’ve decided to leave the characters in my story lesbians.


Sleepwalker said...

Not sure if you're already aware of it, but the "Person of Interest" couple also received the same ending -- one of them was killed off, and unfortunately, it didn't make any real difference to the plot. As expected, there is at least some outrage in the LGBT community. From what I can tell, it's limited because the showrunners have never openly baited these viewers. But from what I have observed, I'd say making your character a lesbian and killing her off would be a pretty bad choice these days. Are you sure you can't make another character gay? One that survives? Otherwise, you'll just be adding another number to this trope, and I'm pretty sure you'll get the associated response.

Doug Eboch said...

I could make another character gay, but there would be little evidence of their orientation in the story as few of the other characters have romantic relationships. This is basically my fear - because of the potential for criticism, I'm on safer ground not putting any gay characters into my story. Is that progress?

Sleepwalker said...

I'm facing the same dilemma, so I hear ya. I think the key is to not just throw in a token lesbian and then ignore the context. For example, as you also pointed out, I didn't think Lexa's death on The 100 was such a problem, because the lead character is still bi and alive, one of her other female lovers is still alive, and one of her male lovers is also dead. Plus, there was lots of foreshadowing, many other characters died, and Lexa's death played a key role for the plot. (The behavior of the show's writers is a different issue, but I'm not following them closely, so I can't really comment on that.)
So, the questions for your story would be: How many other people die? What kind of death is it? (If it's a stray bullet, don't do it. ;-)) Is it only done for shock value? What's the role of the other lesbian woman? (If she's a lead and more people than this one lesbian die in the story, it's probably not a big problem.)
At the end of the day, it's your story, of course, and you'll have to decide how to tell it. Just keep in mind that the main problem is not so much the lack of lesbians on screen but the fact that those who do appear usually die.
(There have also been lots of articles lately explaining the "Bury Your Gays" trope and its implications. I guess if you google around and read some more about it, you'll get a pretty good idea of the problem and whether or not it applies to your particular story.)

Alice said...

You're a writer. Write your heart.