Media and society have always been irrevocably intertwined. Society influences media and media in turn influences society. Though it’s not a 1:1 thing, as society moves forward in acknowledging and accommodating people they previously shoved to the side, so does media, and media can also help people realize the struggles of people different from them and impact them in positive ways. It also gives an outlet for people whose voices are often stifled to express themselves.
A good example is how 20 years ago, it was extremely rare to see a queer character in sci-fi and fantasy television, but now it is much more common. Queer characters are even starting to show up more openly in Western children’s media.
Now that the internet allows for more open communication between fans and even creators, there are a lot of conversations about how fans would like to see both media and society move forward- and troubling trends they see in current media that could set us backward. Regardless of what side of these social controversies you fall on, they are a big part of fandom and media culture right now and therefore worth paying attention to.
Whether it’s a conversation about creators exploiting fans or the high mortality rates of minority characters in television, it’s amazing to see how many social debates this year has already given birth to. Let’s talk about some of the biggest ones. If you have any to add, feel free to do so in the comments!
The High Mortality Rate of Queer Characters
Lexa from The 100
The death of Lexa in the dystopian TV show The 100 kickstarted a huge conversation about the extremely high mortality rates of queer characters- specifically woman-loving-women- in television. It was not simply that Lexa died that upset fans so, but that the specific method of her death- being accidentally shot shortly after having sex with with her girlfriend- is an incredibly common one for queer women on television (another famous example of this would be Tara on Buffy the Vampire Slayer). It seems to carry the subtext that sex between women must immediately be followed up with death as a sort of divine punishment. (The other huge reason why Lexa’s death sparked such outrage had to do with the show’s specific brand of marketing to its marginalized fans, but that will be covered in another section).
Indeed, the website Autostraddle started a list of “65 dead lesbian and bisexual characters on TV”, which has now expanded to being 156 characters, with several female characters having been killed since the list started. The most common cause of death seemed to be being shot, especially by a “stray bullet”. There’s also a disturbing amount who were killed by jealous men. Autostraddle also did a list “29 Lesbian and Bisexual Characters Who Got Happy Endings” for contrast.
The recently killed Nora and Mary Louise from The Vampire Diaries
To put things even more in perspective, only 35 regular characters out of a rough 881 characters were gay, lesbian, or bisexual on primetime programming for 2015. “Out of the 35 LGBQ characters that 2016 started with, 15 have been killed off. We are only 5 months into the year and 43% of the limited LGPQ representation on TV is dead,” wrote Amy Currie earlier in May.
Bury Your Gays has been a trope for a long time, but now there is more conversation surrounding it than ever and TV producers and other creators are being forced to acknowledge it.
The Issue of Creators Deceiving Marginalized Fans to Gain Support
Clarke and Lexa from The 100
Of course, there’s the question of why the death of Lexa is what got such specific fan outrage, when the death of queer characters has been such an issue for a long time. It’s probably entirely down to the fact that queer fans were reportedly both directly and indirectly lied to about the chances for Lexa’s survival.
Fans were aware that Lexa and her girlfriend could fall victim to the “Bury the Gays” trope. But reportedly, The 100’s writer’s assistant, Shawna Benson, specifically went to LGBT forums and promised fans Lexa would not be killed off. “Benson stated that if we didn’t believe that the writers loved her as much as we did, then we might want to “seek counselling” for our “trust issues," wrote Amy Currie.
In addition, when fans noticed Lexa’s actress’ name was not credited in IMDB after her death episodes and expressed concerns, producer Jason Rothenberg shared pictures of Lexa in the season finale (likely a flashback or something) and encouraged these fans to watch Lexa’s death episode, fully knowing their worst fears would be confirmed.
It’s not the first time marginalized fans have been manipulated by creators in the name of ratings, given empty promises, false claims of allyhood and claims of representation that never happens, but clearly The 100 fans have had enough.
The Expunging of People of Color from Sci-fi and Fantasy TV
Abbie Mills from Sleepy Hollow
Another big spark that lit the fire of fandom debate was the death of Abbie Mills in the supernatural TV show Sleepy Hollow. Mills started out as the co-lead of the show, but starting from season 2, many (including me) would say her character was underwritten and storylines of white characters were deemed more important. In addition to this, Abbie’s acress, Nicole Beharie, was pretty clearly ignored and mistreated by the show’s producers. Despite being co-lead, she wasn’t invited to do DVD commentary with the rest of the actors in March of 2015. She also had to ask Sleepy Hollow’s Twitter account to follow her- and that’s just what we saw in public.
It’s not surprising she decided to leave the show (if indeed she did), but many fans were insulted when the producers said she specifically died to further the character arc of her white male co-lead and that was her “purpose” she “fulfilled”. This led fans to discuss other characters of color whose actors were mistreated, often resulting in them leaving the show.
Arden Cho on Teen Wolf
The departure of Arden Cho from Teen Wolf was noted as an example- “Arden says that “Sometimes in a show where there’s so many characters, there isn’t always room for everyone and everyone’s storylines,” aka it hurts leave but I wasn’t getting much to do”, says one article. The article also cites the departure of Kat Graham from The Vampire Diaries.
Ricky Whittle, whose character Lincoln was brutally killed off in The 100, claims he was basically bullied off the show. He says “Jason Rothenberg abused his position to make my job untenable. What he did was disgusting and he should be ashamed. He was professionally bullying me, cutting out all the storyline that I was supposed to be doing, cutting lines, trying to make my character and myself as insignificant as possible to the point where it was starting to get me down. Every time a script would come through, I would see literally nothing for Lincoln.”
The High Death Rate of Female Characters
Laurel Lance from Arrow
Of course, tons of queer women and women of color on TV dying also means a high proportion of female deaths in general. The Mary Suenoted that between Abbie Mills and Arrow’s Laurel Lance, a ton of female characters died that week. Mic said about 8 female characters died that week and gave some additional concerning statistics.
It seems critics are more concerned with the manner of deaths than that they happen in the first place. Many critics note that while plenty of men die on TV, a female character's death is more likely to be an accessory or stepping stone for a male main characters storyline, while the reversal is much rarer. As Mic notes, there's also a lot less female characters than male characters, which might be why their deaths sting more for some.
Jewish Erasure in Superhero Comics
From Captain America
We owe our greatest superheroes to several Jewish men- Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Bill Finger- but lately many have been arguing comics are doing their best to erase their Jewish origins. There’s long been the discontent over the transformation of Superman- who many have analyzed as being an allegory for the Jewish immigrant experience and have shown that even his very name is rooted in Judaism- into a Christ-like figure. There was additional discontent when Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch had their Romani and Jewish heritage erased both in the comics and in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Now, with the “plot twist” that Captain America was working for Hydra, an organization rooted in Nazism, all along, another conversation has been added to the pile. Jack Kirby and Joe Simon were two Jewish men who created Captain America well before America entered World War II, so publishing a cover where Captain America punched Hitler in the face was actually pretty controversial. Simon and Kirby received death threats from Nazis for it and Kirby was entirely willing to go down there and fight the Nazis. Simon and Kirby later fought in World War II.
Many fans therefore argue doing a twist where an iconic creation of Jewish men that took a stand against anti-semitism during a very dangerous period was a Nazi all along for some publicity is pretty gross.
From Captain America
These fans are aware this change won’t be permanent and will likely be a hoax. Cap being brainwashed into Nazism isn’t new. Kirby drew a one-off story by Stan Lee that had Cap briefly and visibly mindcontrolled to be part of the Red Skull’s crew. But this story and that story are horses of a different color- Marvel is not marketing this as Cap being brainwashed, but that he was secretly a Nazi all along. They aren’t trying to show him being mind-controlled, they’re saying the Cap who punched Hitler in the face, the Cap who fought for Jewish people, never existed. They are retroactively disgracing everything Cap has ever stood for or done for the sake of cheap publicity.
This is an ongoing storyline that will dangle this possibility that Jewish people have never truly had this great hero on their side in order to provoke shock and outrage. Unintentionally or not, this plays on nightmarish memories of the Holocaust, where Jewish people often had to discover the people they trusted were never really on their side and were with the Nazis.
Many fans are saying it’s a cheap and crass stunt and I’d agree. And so the conversation about Judaism in comics continues.
The Whitewashing Debate
Promotional photo from the American live-action Ghost in the Shell
Whitewashing in media- casting a white character to play a person of color- has always been a topic of hot debate but this year’s casting of Ghost in the Shell and Dr. Strange fanned the flames even more. I have discussed whitewashing a lot, so I’ll spare everyone more word-ing. This year definitely is a landmark for the debate though- the writer of Dr. Strange actually used the term “social justice warrior” derisively to refer to critics, which may be the first time someone in the movie biz has done so publically. “Social justice warrior” was an insult popularized during Gamergate, meant to make fun of fans who cared about social justice issues in media. Many fans proudly adopted the label or laughed at it though, even making D&D style parodies.
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