Something interesting is going on today on the Tumblr of TV writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach. Most recently, Javi was one of the lead writers on The 100, but he has a healthy list of well-known shows to his credit, including the underrated cult series The Middleman. He’s also just been given a big job: He’s now the showrunner on the (somewhat controversial) reboot of Xena.
Javi is a fairly socially conscious guy, as TV writers go. It helps that he himself is a person of color (he’s originally from Puerto Rico.) One might expect, therefore, that he’d be aware of the stereotypes and tropes that plague characters from marginalized groups, and work to avoid those when possible. Unfortunately, it looks like The 100 just committed one of the worst: They killed off a lesbian character, right after hooking her up with one of the female leads. Ouch.
This isn’t a show I follow myself, so I can’t speak to how the character was treated beforehand, but going by what fans have been saying, it looks like her relationship was built up and teased for quite some time, and the character herself has been around for a while, too. She’d been well established, in other words, and given enough screen time for viewers to get invested in her. Given the show’s reputation for diversity (albeit great only in comparison to most prime-time network shows) LGBT viewers have been drawn to it, pleased to have some good representation. (I’ll note here that CW shows in general have been pretty good on the diversity count, especially Greg Berlanti’s Arrow/Flash/Legends of Tomorrow.) It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that many of these viewers are outraged at this character’s demise, and they’ve used Javi’s unusually accessible presence on Tumblr as a sounding board for their grievances.
At first, Javi was pretty defensive about the criticism, noting that while the writers’ room acknowledged the unfortunate track record of dead queer folk on TV, they believed they were telling a good enough story to make up for it. They also had to contend with the departure of the character’s actor, who now has a bigger role on another show and could no longer commit to this one. Given the brutal nature of the show, killing her off likely seemed like a better choice, thematically, than putting her on a bus.
The criticisms kept pouring in, however, and after a while, Javi seemed to realize that there was nothing he could say that would justify what had been done. What he started doing instead was simply reblogging all the comments he got, giving people a chance to air their anger on his fairly large platform. He could have made the choice to simply start ignoring people, but this is actually a pretty cool move on his part. It’s also a reflection of a certain amount of enlightenment on the underlying issue, which is that LGBT* viewers almost never have a character in whom we can invest without fear that they’ll eventually meet a tragic end.
One of the reasons it’s so important to have not just diverse characters but diverse writers is because people who have been on the business end of marginalization are a lot more keenly aware of things like stereotypes and microaggressions, and can work to head those off before they end up on page or screen. Even though Javi is undoubtedly socially aware and is a PoC himself, he’s cis and het, and that limits his awareness to some degree. I don’t know whether any of the rest of the writers’ room are LGBT* but it seems unlikely. Most TV writing crews are staffed primarily with cishet white guys, and that shows not only in casting but also storytelling decisions.
Of course, even having diverse creative crews is no guarantee of success. Even Greg Berlanti, gay himself, has had some problems: Arrow character Sara Lance was revealed to be bisexual and in a long-term f/f relationship, but within a season was killed off (she was later resurrected–long story–and is now part of another team/show, in which her bisexuality has been re-established, which is great.)
Of course, there’s been backlash about the criticism. Some of it deserved–some fans are being rude and even threatening, which is never OK–but some of it is also in the same vein as criticisms of social justice itself: The belief that everyone should be treated equally, which means that marginalized people shouldn’t have any “special treatment” compared to others. It’s likely that this view probably existed within The 100’s writers’ room, too: In a show with a high death toll, it probably seems disingenuous to write the story as if some people are less likely to die than others.
Unfortunately, in order to rectify injustice, one first has to acknowledge that it exists. The truth is that marginalized people are NOT treated equally, and never have been. That’s kinda the point of the “marginalized” thing, yeah? Even if we’re better represented now than ever before, there’s still an enormous amount of pop culture history to make up for. We can’t just pretend that things are great now, and therefore we can ignore the past and move on as if it’s not still affecting people every single day. If a runner has been sabotaged for so long that she’s miles behind the lead, simply ceasing the sabotage doesn’t help her make up for the miles she lost while she was being treated unfairly. A true leveling of the field requires acknowledging unfair advantages and disadvantages, and working to eliminate those where possible. People who want to pretend that history is irrelevant argue that giving people who are behind a hand up is giving them an unfair advantage, but that’s not the case at all: It’s simply making up for the disadvantage they were given to begin with.
In terms of writing, that means that when writing characters from marginalized groups, they DO have to be treated differently than others. It means acknowledging that there are still so few representatives in mainstream entertainment that killing off even one of them leaves an enormous gap in the overall picture. It means avoiding stereotypes in characterization. It means things like not keeping a queer character perpetually single or making their love/sex scenes more sanitized (or, in the case of conventionally attractive young cis women, more salacious) than those of cishet ones.
It also means acknowledging intersectionality: A queer person of color is going to have different experiences and perspectives than either straight people of color or white queer folk. The more boxes one ticks on the marginalization list, the more complicated that character will be, and the more careful one has to be when writing them. As marginalized characters often pull double-duty for diversity points (we don’t need one woman AND one black person if we have a black woman, right?) that means being extra vigilant not to screw them up. I’m certain I’ve screwed up myself, given that I have several multi-category characters in my work (a British-Indian trans woman, for instance), but I have worked very hard to avoid those screw-ups when possible because I know there’s a greater risk of them. When I’ve been upbraided for a screwup (as has happened a time or two), I take that criticism to heart and work extra hard not to make the same mistakes again. I don’t simply arrogantly announce that the story required that screwup, as if I’m somehow not responsible for writing it in the first place.
Nothing, of course, will bring back this character, and undoubtedly the show, and the overall TV landscape for LGBT* characters, will be poorer for her loss. But I do hope that the way Javi has handled this gathers some attention from other writers and showrunners. Listening to criticism and admitting one can do better is the first step, and it’s one that far more writers ought to take.