Fangirl Friday: On media and responsibility

Hi, peeps!

Yesterday I was on the Twitterz and I came across a story that a fangirl posted about an incident at a fancon in which there was a meet-and-greet with an actress from a particular show. According to the fan’s account, as well as that of another fan, the actress was incredibly dismissive with regard to concerns raised in the session about queer rep — specifically lesbian rep in this instance — in the show with which she was associated. She not only was dismissive, according to the accounts, but she became agitated and frustrated that fans brought it up because the show had fallen into the so-called “dead lesbian trope” (DLT; aka the “bury your gays” trope) and killed off one of its popular characters who happened to be lesbian.

Basically, she didn’t want to hear it and told fans to “get over it.” Another actor on that same show has Tweeted similar sentiment about fans still upset over losing a beloved lesbian character, the irony being that this actor actually plays another gay character in the series.

So to recap, in the DLT, one or both women in a same-sex relationship on TV die soon after finding happiness together or die right before, thus ensuring that audiences never see a F/F couple that survives.

2016 saw a lot of lesbian or bisexual women characters killed off in TV shows.

One of those characters was Lexa, from the post-apocalyptic series The 100, and the fallout from that continues to resonate through the fandom. Clexa — named for the ship of Clarke Griffin and Lexa — were the F/F characters destined never to find happiness by killing Lexa off. Fans rallied, however, and created a movement in the wake of that character’s death. That movement continues to resonate, and has even contributed to bringing in thousands of dollars for various causes. The fandom’s activity also inspired the launching of a whole new con named for the ship (ClexaCon) that focuses on queer women’s representation in media. This is a dedicated, talented group of fans determined to make something good come of this.

Commander Lexa, The 100 (Alycia Debnam-Carey)

I’ve written about Lexa and The 100 in the past, and addressed the anger of the fandom, and why that anger has validity in terms of the show’s queerbaiting with regard to Lexa, especially, and the horror so many felt when they watched Lexa die about a minute after finally consummating her relationship with Clarke.

As I’ve written, many fans felt that yes, Lexa probably would have had to die eventually, given the kind of world the show presents, but killing her with a “stray bullet” that was meant for Clarke (and that was fired by a potentially homophobic father figure) a minute after consummating with the love of her life…well, you can understand how that may have felt like a cheap shot, given that this character was a powerful, strong leader of hundreds of people.

Basically, all this got me thinking, again, about writing, media, and responsibility and whether a TV show’s writers and showrunners owe anything to their viewers.

I’m going to quote Erin Latimer, who writes about queer rep in movies and television, because I think she’s on to something:

I’m not mad because they killed off my favourite character. Heck, Lexa wasn’t actually even my favourite character. For all the screentime she and Clarke got I didn’t care quite as much about them as I do about Octavia and Raven. But that’s irrelevant, because nevertheless, I’m angry. And it’s not because anyone’s fave is dead. It’s because another show with strong queer representation has subjected another young female character to the infamous ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, unnecessarily, and with real-life consequences for the show’s young queer viewers.

And it’s time that show-runners start taking some goddamn responsibility for that.

–Erin Latimer, “On Commander Lexa and the Responsibility of Media Makers” (March 7, 2016, posted at The Fandomentals)

She notes that Clarke and Lexa resonated, especially with younger queer women, in ways that she hadn’t been seeing for other shows. There are a number of reasons for that. Both are young women in leadership roles who are respected with lots of agency and power — that’s not something you get in a lot of TV these days, that kind of rep for women. Couple it with a F/F relationship predicated on mutual respect and genuine care, and holy shit, you have an amazing recipe for young women in general, young queer women in particular.

Clexa: Clarke (left; Eliza Taylor) and Lexa

Once again, Erin Latimer:

But when it comes down to it, it’s not Lexa’s death that I have a problem with. It’s that the writers decided to kill her in a shocking and Tragic™ way immediately following her vulnerability with a female lover. And in doing so, the writers refuse to acknowledge the dire and dangerous consequences that kind of a scene can and does have on the show’s very real, very young, queer female audience. Because we have seen this very scene more times than we can count.

It’s exhausting watching queer female characters die. But even more exhausting than that is seeing writers who ignore the real-life historical context relevant to their character.

When you make a piece of media — especially speculative fiction, for the very genre of science fiction was built upon saying things about society that couldn’t otherwise be said — no matter what you do, and whether you like it or not, that piece of media is going to be informed by the real-life historical context in which it was made, and also by the history of media and reality that precedes it.

This. THIS is what has bothered me about Lexa’s death, but for me, it wasn’t just another cheap fulfillment of the DLT. It was also a horrible, crushing blow to young queer women throughout the fandom who FINALLY saw two powerful young women building a relationship together, only to have it ripped away.

I was angry about the way Lexa died, yes, but my heart broke for the young queer women in the fandoms, and I have spent some time talking with a few and consoling a few others. Just a month ago, I consoled a young woman on Twitter who is still beside herself about losing Lexa/Clexa, and who said that happy endings for her are few and far between in media, and what does that mean for her life?

Media representation has real-world consequences, and this young woman is struggling with the realization that in spite of all the fucking work preceding generations of LGBTQ people and allies have been doing, in spite of all the changes, long, stable F/F relationships in media are still the very rare exception.

That’s something that maybe we don’t think about, is that media is informed by the context in which it is made, and it’s informed by the media’s history and the context that precedes it.

There are thousands of young queer people living realities and contexts right now that are violent, dangerous, and maybe bereft of hope. Thousands of young queer people who don’t get support at home, and who desperately look for representation that resonates with them, that shows them that they’re going to be all right, that they will persevere. Raise your hand if you looked for yourself in media — whether it was books, comics, TV shows, movies, or music — when you were a young queer. Or hell, even a young woman looking for strong female rep.

Uh-huh. Pretty much all of us.

And when you’re, say, a 16-year-old queer woman and dozens of queer women like you are being killed off in TV shows that you watch, what the hell kind of message does that send?

That you’re expendable.

And to kill such a strong, vibrant character like Lexa right in front of viewers’ eyes in a moment of, as Latimer says, authenticity and vulnerability, makes it even more painful. “It fucking hurts,” she says.

Clarke and Lexa, sharing a moment.

It does.

And in the case of The 100, the showrunner dismissed the trope, thus dismissing the very real historical and cultural context in which LGBTQ people live, though he attempted to walk it back a bit, and admitted to queerbaiting the episode (though that’s not what he called it).

I’ll now point you to TV critic Maureen Ryan’s piece about ten days after the episode aired in which Lexa died (March 2016). Ryan was diligent in addressing the reactions of fans and initial non-reaction of the showrunner and pointed out that the showrunner engaged in promoting the season 3 finale on social media, saying that the actress who plays Lexa was “on set” as a way to drum up fan engagement, neglecting to note that the character had actually died several episodes earlier.

Here’s Ryan:

The episode in which Lexa died — the seventh one in the current season — was shot in the fall and aired March 3. To be sure, it wasn’t all that surprising that the character was written off, nor did most fans — or myself — have an innate problem with her exiting the show by dying or leaving in some other way. Debnam-Carey is a series regular on “Fear the Walking Dead,” so fans had been speculating about Lexa’s survival chances for some time.

That’s why it is baffling that the show all but ensured that its most hardcore fans knew that Lexa would appear in the season finale. The trumpeting of her appearance at the end of the season prompted many viewers, especially fans of the Lexa and Clarke pairing, to keep hope alive, but in reality, there was no hope to be found. If her appearance in the finale had been secret, that might have allowed the show to unleash a potentially interesting surprise, but in addition to taking the air out of that presumed twist, the way “The 100” shamelessly toyed with LGBTQ viewers — who are among the show’s most active promotional allies — constitutes inexplicable and deeply unwise misdirection.

–Maureen Ryan, “What TV Can Learn From ‘The 100’ Mess” (March 14, 2016, Variety Magazine)

She raised several points in that piece, especially with regard to this age of social media and direct engagement with an audience: don’t mislead fans or raise hopes unrealistically; don’t promote your show as an ideal of a specific type of storytelling and then totally drop the ball in that regard; when things get screwed up, don’t pretend nothing happened; and understand that promotion is a two-way street — fans that raise a show’s profile can also take it down if they’re disappointed or feel they’ve been manipulated.

Doin’ it right. Sanvers ship, from the CW’s Supergirl. Maggie Sawyer (left; Floriana Lima) and Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh)

Ryan makes the point that she’s not advocating that showrunners pander to their audience. Rather, she reminds them that it’s important to think promotional efforts through carefully, and that “sloppy, dismissive and tin-eared moves by its show or its personnel aren’t easy to bury or ignore these days, and fan engagement is a collaboration, not a spigot to be turned off whenever things get inconvenient.”

Let’s come back to queer rep.

Every LGBTQ person on this planet carries a wound throughout their lives. All of us — those of us who are lucky enough to make it to adulthood — learn at an early age to be doubly aware of our surroundings, because we may be queerbashed, harassed, or killed because of the way we look or because someone suspects we’re not completely straight or cisgender.

All of us learn early on all the words that people hurl at us to denigrate and hurt us, and we learn ways to at least deflect the worst of them, though there’s a price we pay for that in the walls we build within. All of us carry the knowledge that if we’re not careful and if we don’t hide who we are, our own damn parents might throw us out of our homes or put us in some sort of conversion therapy camp to remove the queer from our very souls. We come to expect the slurs, even the violence or potential for violence — even in our own homes — because that’s the culture we’re given to navigate.

So we look for some evidence that we’re not the scrapings on the bottom of the culture’s shoe, that we’re worthy of love, respect, and happiness. Most often, we look for it in media, and when we find those glimmers, we soar. We hold them close. We revel in them.

“WayHaught” ship from SyFy’s Wynonna Earp. Media doin’ it right. Waverly (left; Dominique Provost-Chalkley) and Nicole (Katherine Barrell)

So it’s fucking hard when we’re betrayed. Especially when it’s a show that actually did a few things right. That makes it even harder, the betrayal.

I want to be clear that I’m not advocating that shows pander to fans, as Ryan also stated. Nor am I advocating that show writers pander, either.

I’m a writer myself, and I understand what the creative process is about, and how storytelling works. But if you’re going to engage with fans, then you damn sure have a responsibility not to bait them, as Ryan says. You have a responsibility not to falsely raise their hopes, and don’t paint yourself as a shining example of, say, queer rep and then engage in the most banal and harmful of tropes and bait your fans into watching it.

This is why so many in the Clexa fandom remain hurt and betrayed to this day. Because we live the harmful reality every damn day of what it means to be queer, and perhaps no one better sums that up than Professor Elizabeth Bridges:

This was not just a character dying. This was not just the end of a beautifully developed same-sex relationship unlike any other we had seen onscreen. It was the death of our hope. It was the death of our hope for ever feeling like we matter, like we are equal participants in this world. Despite whatever “progress” happens, people still hate us. Despite things like the marriage decision – which, frankly, will probably get reversed sometime – this was the assurance of what we have always suspected, always known in fact: We live in a culture that hates us and believes we deserve to die because of who we love. And make no mistake, Lexa was shot precisely because she loved Clarke, whatever context you might try to place around it.

And Lexa – the young Commander of the 12 Clans, an honorable warrior, smart, fearless, and so deeply, heartachingly human – was killed in the most meaningless, trite manner possible.

–Elizabeth Bridges, “Someday. Maybe. But not today. – The 100 – 3×07, ‘Thirteen'” (March 7, 2016, posted at The Uncanny Valley; PLEASE go and read the rest of this and spend some time in the comments.)

Media thus matters. Those of us in marginalized communities understand that better than most, because we seek reflections of ourselves in it judiciously, and we engage with it, whether it’s through subtext or overt representation, and we expand on it, and we create vibrant, amazing fandoms around it.

So when I say that I think media has a responsibility to its audiences, it’s not that I demand that they write only to me and people like me and that they only write certain kinds of stories. What I hope instead is that creators think about the context in which they’re creating, and about the history of certain kinds of representation. There are, after all, lots of great stories to be told that don’t rely on tired, harmful tropes. And there are media out there that are doing it right, whose creators get it.

I want more of that, without the baiting and without the brush-off.

And one really good way to ensure that, friends, is if you write those stories. If that’s not your thing, then support stories like that, and help build the context in which the DLT itself dies. Because this shit matters, and I believe that we all have a responsibility to our young people to tell stories that resonate with them and that give them hope that maybe we didn’t have. Especially in these current times, our stories and the way they’re presented matter.

Let’s make sure they get told.

Happy Friday and may the odds be ever in our favor.

(Edited to add quote by Elizabeth Bridges.)

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12 thoughts on “Fangirl Friday: On media and responsibility

  1. I have been watching the 100 recently. or at least the first three seasons. I knew in advance from posts others have made, that Lexa was going to die. And while I appreciate the anger fans felt over her death, supposedly after consummating her relationship with Clarke I have a couple of questions of my own..
    A; Lexa’s death occurred in a public place as a result of someone trying to kill another person. Certainly It didn’t take place in a ‘romantic’ setting. And her death was not unexpected.. in fact I would say it was necessary as part of the ongoing plot.
    As for her being a lesbian…i’m not sure why the writers made her a lesbian in the first place.. Sorry but I just don’t see the relevance to the story..

    just my two cents.. I still enjoy the story and look forward to the next seasons when they are uploaded to Netflix

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  2. Get a beverage.

    Settle in.

    Here we go.

    Lexa’s death occurred, I believe, 64 seconds after she consummated with the love of her life. 64 seconds after an incredibly moving and vulnerable moment, which is part of the DLT — Any queer character who is allowed a moment of happiness will invariably have it taken away quickly soon thereafter (because part of the DLT means that no queer character gets to have long-term happiness), and in many cases, it’s through death. Lexa’s death was also at the hands of a disapproving father figure, who could be read as homophobic and who was trying to remove the love of Lexa’s life and instead removed her. In addition, the trope wasn’t just the DLT — it also engaged the trope of the “stray bullet” killing the lesbian. Exhibit A: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

    Here’s a list of lesbian/bi women killed in media in fulfillment of the DLT trope over the years. When lesbian and bi women’s rep makes up a very small percentage of media rep in general, the impact of losing lesbian and bi women characters is much greater. Over the years, it’s nearly 200 lesbian and bi women killed off in media in fulfillment of the trope. And when you think about how lesbian/bi women’s rep is so low across media in general, losing almost 200 over the years is not small potatoes.

    In the 30 days leading up to the episode that featured Lexa’s death, 3 other queer women were killed off in TV shows. 4 queer women dead in media in 30 days.

    With regard to writing a queer character — short answer: Why not?

    Longer answer: The 100 allegedly makes efforts to be feminist and inclusive (and has failed in some respects in that regard; discussions for other times). So it’s no surprise that there was a character who identified as lesbian and a character who is bisexual. I’m guessing that the decision probably wasn’t made initially, but instead evolved with the introduction of Alycia Debnam-Carey as Lexa. The on-screen chemistry between actresses Eliza Taylor (Clarke) and Debnam-Carey probably was apparent to the show’s staff and the showrunner and the writers saw some potential there to create some queer rep. Which is not unheard of in media, to create something as you go. I took a writing workshop with showrunner/writer Emily Andras in March, who wrote and ran shows for Lost Girl (and has written for Killjoys) and who is the creator/showrunner of Wynonna Earp. She said that if a showrunner sees potential chemistry between characters that could be really cool, then the showrunner will probably go with it.

    In this case, ADC, I think, captured Lexa’s essence very well — an incredibly strong powerful woman who is attracted to other women. And frankly, there is no other character in The 100 who could possibly have served as a love interest for Lexa besides Clarke. No one “got” her like Clarke did, and Clarke, for her part, realized that Lexa understood her, too, and that no one “got” her like Lexa did.

    So it’s irrelevant why a decision was made to create a queer character. What is relevant is how that character is handled, and the historic baggage that comes with killing a queer character in a trope-y, ham-handed, brutal way 64 seconds after she finally ends up in the arms of the love of her life. She finally gets some happiness, but she dies (no more happiness) and leaves the other queer character bereft (no more happiness for her either).

    The other issue here — as Maureen Ryan noted in the quotes above — is that the show knew damn well that they had killed Lexa off but its writers and showrunner continued to bait LGBTQ fans with promises of seeing her in the final episode of season 3, as if she were alive and well. They interacted with them on social media and engaged them and pumped up episode 3×07 as something “special” even as they spoke about ADC being on set for the shooting of the finale. So thousands of fans worldwide tuned in to episode 3×07 and got the moving, beautiful love scene only to be subjected 64 seconds later to a horrific anti-LGBT media trope that the showrunner applauded on social media when it aired as a “great twist,” basically. But clearly, it was not seen that way and in the backlash, the showrunner refused to engage with the fans for days and when he did, he was dismissive and lashed out at fans after months of queerbaiting on his part and the show’s part.

    It was the episode’s primary writer, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, who spent days on social media allowing fans a space to vent, who, too late perhaps, realized the damage that had been done but who tried to mitigate it and tried to help as he could. Quite a contrast, his response, to that of the showrunner, who remained silent during those initial days. Grillo-Marxuach did a panel after that about the bury your gays trope, and he said that the failure wasn’t necessarily that the death had happened (and I take issue with that; see below — there are any number of ways to die; the DLT is not the one to use), but rather the cultural impact the death would have outside the show. Which is a major point I made above — understand the context in which you are creating.

    At any rate, I take exception to his statement about that, too, because fans worldwide engaged directly with the showrunner and the show’s writers prior to Lexa’s death, and told them about the DLT, and about the impact such a great queer character had in their lives. So the show was, I would argue, fully aware of the potential cultural impact, and about dangerous tropes. What they perhaps were not prepared for was the savvy of the fans, and the organizational capability. F/F fans have historically been that way, though, and each generation brings that creative energy to its fandoms.

    It’s not an accident that the lowest viewership The 100 had was the episode that aired after 3×07. It’s not an accident that The 100 has continued to slump in the ratings (the season 4 opener had 43% fewer viewers in the 18-39 age range than the season 3 debut). Where it previously was bringing in 2.5-3 million viewers (prior to Lexa’s death), it is now bringing in about 700,000-800,000; sometimes up to 1.2 million.

    Nor is it an accident that the Clexa fandoms have rallied and created amazing projects, ensuring that over $100K have been donated to the Trevor Project, that various other projects have been funded, that motivated fans created ClexaCon, whose inaugural convention in March was attended by over 2000 people (I was among them).

    Because media rep is about more than just the characters. It’s about how representation resonates and affects. That’s the point, here.

    With regard to Lexa dying in general: as I noted above via Erin Latimer, most fans were aware that ADC was already signed to another show and speculation abounded as to when Lexa would be removed from The 100. Many fans had made their peace with Lexa probably dying or disappearing in some fashion, but if the former, many fans expressed the hope that her death would be heroic, as would be fitting for a powerful leader of her caliber who had inspired so many people. Say, in a battle saving Clarke and her people. Something. Like that. Something that would do her character justice.

    Instead, she gets the DLT. And to make it even more offensive, she’s DLTed in the service of an AI subplot, in which she is relegated to nothing more than a chip that was inserted into her neck. She’s relegated to the role of “vessel,” like so many women are. This amazing, powerful, beautiful, strong woman who served as inspiration for thousands of young women around the world (and older women) is not only DLT’ed, but also dismissed as simply a vessel for an AI subplot.

    I’m seeing a lot of anger over that, too, that after all the awesome that was Lexa, she’s reduced to a carrier for a plastic chip.

    And now, I’ll leave you with this blog by Professor Elizabeth Bridges, who does media studies and identifies as queer. She wrote it after watching the episode in which Lexa died. I linked to it, above, as well, without the explanation of who she is, but I think it’s imperative that people read it so that they can understand all the things The 100 did wrong (and is still doing wrong–discussions for another time), and why Lexa as a character resonated so deeply culturally, and why the manner in which she died created such an outcry.

    Media matters.

    Representation matters.

    That’s why understanding the context and historical baggage that comes with it can be so important.

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  3. Although I’m familiar with the titles of some of these shows, I don’t watch them, (could it be my advanced age?) so I didn’t realize until now that the “kill the lesbian/have the unhappy lesbian kill herself” motif had resurfaced. I suppose I thought we were finished with “The Children’s Hour” and “After the Fox,” two of many films whose endings sent throat tightening spurts of anxiety through those of us who were questioning why we really didn’t like boys THAT WAY. A long time ago I read two books about the portrayal of minorities in American films/tv programs. In the first book, “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks,” the author, Donald Bogle, describes a continuum of stereotypes used by white filmmakers to portray black people. His study ends with the films of the early-1960’s. The second book, ‘The Celluloid Closet, Homosexuality in the Movies,” written by the late Vito Russo, studies the usage of gay and lesbian stereotypes. I remember concluding that white American male filmmakers have treated LGBT characters and black characters in very similar ways. It is only when black, latino, Asian, gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender filmmakers can raise the funds, do the casting, producing, and directing that we can see fully realized, multi-dimensional characters who find a way to be relatively happy.

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  4. Very few people fail to understand the meaning of a burning cross on someone’s lawn or a noose hanging from a tree. It is well understood that such things are not aimed just at the person whose lawn or tree received the attention of racists. Those things are aimed—with intent and with malice—at anyone who might identify with the targeted victim. Which is why we have laws against hate crimes. Hate crimes are meant to warn any member of the victim’s group what can happen to them if they get uppity.

    The Lesbian Death Trope had just such an origin. Because of attempts by society to censor anything they deemed unacceptable, any depiction of ‘deviant’ sexuality had to have a ‘moral’ ending, ie death or a suitably hideous punishment for the ‘deviant’ ones.

    When Donna Deitch was trying to make Desert Hearts, here’s what she heard from the studios:
    “They kept talking about changing the ending, about how [Cay and Vivian] couldn’t possibly be together.”
    Which is why she had to finance the movie herself.

    I read a quote by someone (might have been Donna Deitch, might not, but I do remember the quote very well) that she was told she had to have an unhappy ending for a lesbian story, and when she asked why, she was told it was traditional, that ‘those stories’ always ended that way. And when she asked why again, she got no answer. No one knew. No one knew that those endings were meant to enforce society’s norms. They were meant to warn other ‘deviants’ that they might have a moment of happiness but never a happily ever after.

    Let me say that again:
    UNHAPPY ENDINGS WERE MEANT TO SERVE AS A WARNING!!!

    If young people have been devastated by the Lesbian Death Trope’s many instances in recent storytelling, IT WAS ENTIRELY INTENTIONAL. Perhaps not intended by the show runners, who seem to be as clueless as the studio wonks mentioned above. Perhaps not intended by the clueless actress you mentioned. Nevertheless, the poison does its work. And to tell a devastated young person to “get over it” is to deny that we have been a persecuted minority forever, and that our experience tells us, with a swift punch to the gut, what the trope really means. If we feel like the targets, it’s because we are.

    For more on the origin of the Lesbian Death Trope, see the film, The Celluloid Closet, or read the book of the same name by Vito Russo.

    Here’s where I got the quote from Donna Deitch:
    https://www.buzzfeed.com/shannonkeating/desert-hearts-and-lesbian-happy-endings
    (Check out the article. It has a great picture of the two ladies in a liplock!)

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    1. Excellent commentary! Thank you, Catherine! Midway through President Obama’s first term, there began a resurgence of films and TV programs about slavery. I had to wonder if these films represented the wishful thinking of people who were bitter about the election of a black president, sort of a “get back in your place” attitude.

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  5. Thanks Andi for your thoughtful and insightful commentary in reply to my comments re Lexa and her relationship with Clarke and her untimely death.. clearly I wasn’t paying as closely to the unfolding drama as I thought I was

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