By Ashley R. Lierman
So did you hear about The 100?
It’s a crummy story with a sort of okay ending. The 100, a post-apocalyptic SF drama on the CW network, had a long-running popular queer female character, and in the course of the plot she was killed off – in an accident, shortly after consummating a relationship with another female character. Yes, I can hear you groaning in the back already. Queer and other fans responded with such a huge social media backlash, however, that the creators ultimately came to understand the nature of the problem and apologize for the storyline, and to express their wishes that they had known more about the potential harm of their actions and moved the plot in a different direction. And good on them for that; it was a mature, thoughtful, and sensitive response to a type of situation where so many creators just turn dismissive or defensive. It’s nice to think at least a couple of people in the television industry have learned a lesson from this situation, and vowed to do better in the future.
The only problem, though, is the same basic reason there was such a backlash in the first place: it’s not just The 100. Killing off a single queer female character on a single TV show wouldn’t necessarily be just cause for outrage if it were something that happened in a vacuum, but it didn’t. It happened in a media context where tragic endings for LGBT+ characters are so common they’re a bitter joke within the community. While I’m not always the biggest TV Tropes fan, I have to admit their naming the phenomenon Bury Your Gays is both catchy and apt, and it’s a thing that happens on TV a lot, and has been happening for a long time now. By entering another death into that context, a single character decision, based on plot decisions and an actor’s departure, became instead one more brick mortared into a massive representation problem. Especially given that over the course of 2016 so far there have been a startling number of queer female characters killed off on television, even relative to the rest of its unfortunate history.
There’s a thing that Andrew Ti of Yo, Is This Racist? once said that I think of often, originally about using blackface for satire: that the final problem with even well-meaning attempts is that “there’s no controlling the context in which your jokes ultimately live.” It’s not just true for jokes, though; you can’t control the context in which your story lives, period. Even if you have only the best of intentions at heart, if what you actually write just replicates the countless other narratives out there that reinforce oppressive structures and stereotypes, then it’s still to some degree perpetuating that harm. That may be the furthest thing from what you set out to do, but ultimately that doesn’t matter. You can still do it nonetheless.
We have a cultural tendency, I think, to want to think of creative work as sacrosanct, particularly when it comes to examining how it interacts with real-world justice issues. See, for example, the regrettable interview with the Coen brothers where they implied that respect for the process of “how stories get made” is more important than whether those stories end up being inclusive. This issue is even more prevalent, however, in geek culture and speculative fiction. When a large part of the appeal of a genre is escapism, fans and creators alike seem to be particularly resistant to the suggestion that works should be accountable for how they deal with issues that affect real marginalized people – never minding that those people have more reason than most to desire escapism themselves. With the imaginative, immersive nature of SF/fantasy apparently comes a strong sense of its reality for fans; so strong that they will defend the smallest details of fictional people and worlds not just as if they were fact, but with all the literalistic fanaticism of a fundamentalist interpreting the Bible. I can’t count how often on Twitter I’ve seen fans berating, for example, J.K. Rowling or Stephen King for daring to embrace the casting of a person of color as one of their own characters, amid accusations of having caved to “political correctness” and failed to uphold their “artistic vision.”
Artistic vision is a lovely thing, laudable and valuable, and should be protected from being forcibly censored. (No force whatsoever, it’s worth noting, was exerted to even make Rowling or King comment favorably on casting choices, let alone compromise any of their actual artistic vision.) Artistic vision is also neither immune to criticism nor pure of influence. It is not beamed into the artist’s head directly from on high, with no opportunity for interaction with the world. It is of the artist and of the context in which the artist lives, and sometimes it includes some crappy things from that context, whether the artist means for it to or not. You can credit your muse for your ideas, but she’s not on Mount Helicon; she’s right here with you in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist society, absorbing all the same unconscious stereotypes and prejudices that you do every day, and have to actively work to unlearn. She’s not innocent of your failings, and she can’t get you off the hook. I’m saying this as a creative person myself, as a writer myself, with stories and ideas in my head sometimes that feel as real to me as myself: they’re not real, and they’re not magic. They’re products of my mind, and my mind makes mistakes. If I found myself making story decisions because they were what “felt right” for the story, and those decisions reinforced stereotypes or tired negative tropes about marginalized people, then I would be negligent not to interrogate the reasons why they “felt right,” what unconscious and bigoted patterns of thinking they might be following. And unless I managed to accomplish something momentously important and subversive with my work that I could only accomplish by including those decisions, if I didn’t eliminate them, my work would be harmful. It might be harmful anyway.
It’s funny I mention Stephen King here, because in his book Bag of Bones, he explains the title as being part of a quote that he (almost certainly falsely) attributes to Thomas Hardy: “Compared to the dullest human being actually walking about on the face of the earth and casting his shadow there, the most brilliantly drawn character in a novel is but a bag of bones.” This context may not be what the quote is referring to, but I think it may be more important. Characters and stories may feel incredibly real to us, may be important parts of any one of our lives that leave an indelible mark. But they will never and can never be as important as real people. And there are real people out there who are unfairly starved for their own important stories, their own important characters, that they can be touched and moved by and see themselves in, without being hurt for who they are. Even if a decision feels like the right decision for the character on the screen, if it’s the wrong decision for the most vulnerable people in front of it, it’s the wrong decision. Especially when so many other creators around you are making those wrong decisions too, and you’re just another drop in a big miserable ocean.
So I hope The 100‘s lesson, and the lesson of the other shows like it, will be taken to heart at least a little bit; I hope the show’s fans shouted loud enough to be heard beyond one show’s immediate radius. At least enough that it’s a while before the next time I have to say, “So did you hear about…?” – or wonder who the next queer bag of bones will be.