TV’s death toll: the murder of diversity?

Charlotte Maxwell
Latest posts by Charlotte Maxwell (see all)

Over the past few months, we’ve certainly been watching somewhat of a bloodbath on our TV screens. Although this hasn’t been any old blood bath. Whilst we’re all well aware that anyone can die, TV creatives seem to be displaying a trend of killing off their female characters – especially if they’re also LGBT and non-white. The killing your gays trope is running wild!

The death toll

Let’s start with the Season 3 finale of Sleepy Hollow, which killed off African-American female lead Nicole Beharie as ‘motivation’ for the show’s white, male lead. Now whilst reports have suggested that Beharie wanted to leave the show, we’re a little baffled by the 200+ lifespan of her male co-lead.

Then, a mere week after Beharie’s departure, The Blacklist went and killed off Liz Keen, played by Megan Boones. A pregnant Liz died in a car accident trying to make an escape from Mr Solomon. Her baby survived the accident, leaving male lead Tom a widower and single parent.

And, of course, as most things come in threes, this was then followed up by Castle stating that if there is to be a new series, female lead Stana Katic will not be returning to the show.

Above is only a small selection of axed female characters in recent memory. To top that off, a countless number of bi and lesbian female characters have met their maker in a number of shows including The Vampire Diaries, The Magicians, The Walking Dead and The 100. Autostraddle counts 153 such character deaths so far.

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Killing our darlings

The majority of these women have died in some sort of accident or have been shot (how creative!). Some female leads have come to more sinister ends, such as Jane the Virgin’s Rose, who was strangled to death. (Crime series often open with the corpse of a murdered woman.) It seems like killing off a female character is used as a lazy gut-wrencher, designed to elicit sympathy.

TV boffins and critics have argued that this is all coincidental, but I, like many other viewers and much of the Twittersphere, sincerely doubt this. While, yes, any character can die and the script writer is free to let their imagination run wild, trends such as this are not coincidental.

If we examine the rampant sexism, homophobia and racism within modern day society, we can see that TV scripts may easily be laced with countless micro-agressions. Some TV bosses have argued that white males have been killed off in popular series too, but the numbers are in no way on the same scale as the number of queer, POC and female characters that have been killed off.

Bury Your Gays

‘Dead Lesbian Syndrome’ – a term used by TV critics for many years now – is unfortunately becoming ever more present on our TV shows. We wept for Tara in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but she’s not an exception. Likewise, the image of the dead trans prostitute is a new spin on the ‘Disposable Sex Worker’ trope that has littered the crime genre for decades.

Although we have fewer tragic gay and bisexual men wallowing in shame, and those who do get killed off usually don’t die from HIV any more, it’s still evident that queer characters meet their end far sooner than their straight counterparts. TV Tropes has a whole section on the phenomenon, known as ‘Bury Your Gays’.

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Diversity in writing

There is a rather simple solution to inhibit this trend and that is to simply have more leading roles for marginalised groups. Too many of the already miniscule amount of roles are for characters that are not essential to storylines. This makes them easily disposable when their creator gets bored or if studio execs demand dramatic shake-ups to revive limp storylines.

If this appears to be too difficult a task, that can only mean one thing – we need to shake up the TV writing scene. There are few POC, queer and female writers in senior positions in TV and this shows in the way that scripts are written and the number of two-dimensional characters that are created. Lived experience helps a writer inform and build their characters.

Conclusion: unless script writing gets a much needed refresh (and reflects modern society), we’ll be watching the deaths of the likes of Tara over and over again.



About Charlotte Maxwell

Charlotte Maxwell is a Vada Magazine staff writer.