This post contains spoilers for Orange is the New Black season 4, Wynonna Earp season 3, Elementary season 6, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. season 5, and a bunch of other stuff that’s been off the air or out of theaters for years.
I knew I was never going to watch Sleepy Hollow again when Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills sacrificed herself in a heroic death for Tom Mison’s Ichabod Crane at the end of the series’ third season.
When I saw spoilers that Orange is the New Black’s Poussey was killed off in a tasteless and traumatizing scene that called back to Eric Garner’s murder by a police officer four years ago – and the folks in fandom defending it as something that “had” to happen – I immediately took the show out of my Netflix queue.
And, every time a person of color dies so the Winchester brothers can live, I wonder why I even kept the show around as an afternoon marathon session.
Heck, not only did I think I’d have to say some pretty sharp words to Rian Johnson during the climax of The Last Jedi where he had Finn set up to kill himself in order to (possibly) save the dregs of the resistance, but to this day I block everyone I see on social media that wishes for Finn’s death by redemption arc – or suggest that his death would have somehow “saved” his character from being boring.
And now, Wynonna Earp has followed in the footsteps of these shows by killing off the main Black character Xavier Dolls (played by Shamier Anderson) in the third season’s second episode (“When You Call My Name”) and the fandom and crew alike don’t seem to get why that’s such a big problem.
In a review of the episode in question, Den of Geek writer (and one of my twitter mutuals!) Kayti Burt, wrote something that I think is incredibly relevant… and telling. Burt writes that:
Dolls is the only person who is allowed to make a decision about what risks he is willing to take with his own body and, in the end, he believes saving his found family is worth it. He dies the way he lived: giving everything for the people he loves. He made his choice. Now Wynonna, and the other people Dolls loved and who loved him, have to live with it.
First, let me point out that I wouldn’t have seen the review in question if not for the fact that Wynonna Earp showrunner Emily Andras posted the bolded part of the review shortly after it was posted. With people loudly airing their grievances about how Anderson’s leaving the show was handled by having his character killed off at the same time, it feels a bit… uncomfortable to see this quote displayed as is.
(And in case you didn’t know, during one of the seasons of urban fantasy series Lost Girl where Anders served as the executive producer, the series’ only main Black character – K.C. Collins’ Hale Santiago – also died as a result of sacrificing himself for the white woman he loved.) Second, let’s unpack the end of that bolded quote:
He dies the way he lived: giving everything for the people he loves.
In media and in fandom, many characters of color tend to be (re)positioned or seen as satellites for white characters. (With Black characters, this can be linked to the Mammy archetype and a history of Black subservience in white literature.) Dolls gets a heroic death, sure, but isn’t it a little interesting that that’s what tends to happen with these characters of color?
They never get to be selfish and they never have the all too human reaction of “you know what? I’m gonna keep on living”. They graciously and gladly sacrifice themselves for white characters, frequently bestowing some Wise Negro Knowledge on the way down if they’re Black and they don’t manage to make it out alive.
I wish that more people, when faced with the seemingly heroic death of a character of color in media where they’re generally one of a few characters of color – especially if it’s a sacrifice to save a white character – interrogated their frequent willingness to accept that end for the character.
Sure, at first glance, it seems super noble for Dolls to die the death that he did and it’s pretty dang heroic of him, but… why is that the choice our incredibly white writers’ room made for his character?
Why are heroic or educational (where a, usually more privileged, character gains knowledge or a wider worldview as a result) deaths a thing that seem to keep happening to characters of color?
Why are characters of color frequently fridged to give more meaning to white characters’ lives and storylines? And why does it feel like fandom doesn’t exactly care to fight back against the media trend that leaves fans of color disappointed?
Fandom can talk for days about how terrible “Bury Your Gays” is as a trope and campaign for better representation for queer characters because they are so tired of seeing themselves die on-screen or in the pages of a book. (Peep huge swathes of the Voltron Legendary Defender fandom following the death of a minor queer male character in one episode of the current season.)
And yet, despite knowing how much it hurts to see the only character even remotely like you get killed off – especially to give another character emotional boosts — many people in fandom still never seem to find themselves capable of empathizing with our pain as people of color watching our people get killed off — frequently fridged — in fandom’s favorite shows.
And, as someone who is both queer and a person of color in fandom? It’s incredibly frustrating that we’re treated like unicorns unless someone needs a “This Ain’t Racist” buddy to chime in on and derail conversations like this.
It’s not that I’m a baby that can’t handle the deaths of characters of color in my media. (Well, it’s not just that. I am a delicate and soft baby.)
It’s that characters of color who make it to main-ish status tend to wind up either killed off by the source media in these cases or whom the fandom desperately wishes would get killed off because that is the only way that fandom thinks that they have value. It’s that when these characters of color die, it’s usually in a form of fridging – a death done order to save a white character or provide them with a tragedy that fuels the remainder of their mission or a further plot point.
There are other ways to send off a main character on a show. Killing them off shouldn’t be your immediate go-to, especially if they’re one of the only characters in the media that are marginalized in that particular way.
This is a major spoiler for the current season for Elementary, but the show is currently (apparently) working on an “out” for Jon Michael Hill’s Detective Bell that’d allow him to be written off of the show without killing him off and would leave him with an open ending that he could potentially return to in later seasons.
(I’d also like to point out that unlike many of the characters of color that get killed off on TV instead of written off, Hill’s Detective Bell isn’t the sole site for that good ole “POC rep” and the show is pretty decent about showing a version of New York that is actually diverse and has plenty of marginalized people – not enough because the show needs more queer and disabled rep – engaging with the main characters who make it to the end of their one-off episode or arc.)
What has me entirely stuck in my feelings is the way that the fandom tends to stay silent or, worse, get hostile to fans of color, in the face of these deaths, but fight back against similar character deaths that involve white characters.
Think about the outrage after Lexa was killed off on The 100. It’s a classic fridging and emblematic of the harmful “Bury Your Gays” trope I mentioned earlier. The fandom rallied around the character’s death and raised awareness about the way that her death was frankly problematic and hurtful to queer viewers. They developed the “Lexa Pledge” because “LGBTQ fans deserve better” (and we do) and several showrunners and writers – including Wynonna Earp‘s – signed it or otherwise agreed not to bury queer characters.
Ultimately, however, this understanding of the need to protect a marginalized community from poorly thought out representation that harms us and reminds us that society sees us as disposable… doesn’t seem to apply to people of color.
When Ricky Whittle’s Lincoln was killed off in a brutal death scene (that same season) after the actor documented a history of racist treatment from, I believe, some of the cast and crew of the series? I don’t know that I saw even a tenth of the same concern for him or the character he played.
(And don’t get me started on the way that queer white women trended hashtags and sparked an industry and fandom-wide conversation on killing off queer characters only to stay pointedly silent – and in some cases, went full Angry White Feminist™ – when queer Black women called out Orange is the New Black after Poussey’s death. Queer white women in fandom, women who portrayed the rise and return of Clexa as important to all queer women, made it clear that they were rather uninterested in engaging with Black fans about Poussey and the painful imagery of her death on the show.)
Think about when Agent Phil Coulson, a staple of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was killed by Loki partway through The Avengers. Fandom literally trended the hashtag #CoulsonLives and did fan campaigns until their favorite character was brought back to life. Now that the character has died for good in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., fans of the show and character are wholeheartedly preparing to dump the show unless they bring him back once more.
While the series is ostensibly helmed by a character of color with Chloe Bennet’s Daisy Johnson as the center of the diverse ensemble cast, folks in fandom are frequently more interested in white male characters around her and their deaths or other removal from the main cast are frequently met with demands (via hashtags such as in the case of the popular #StandWithWard/#JusticeForWard ones for early series antagonist Grant Ward) for them to be reinstated or else their fans will no longer watch the show. To this day, I don’t know of any dead character of color in the MCU that has ever received a hashtag to raise awareness about the supposed unfairness of their deaths or even regular fanworks that “fix” their death the way fandom has done for a ton of white characters in the MCU.
Which brings us back to Wynonna Earp and why the fandom and showrunner’s reaction to fans of color getting upset about Dolls’ death is such a bug in my bear: when white members of fandom decide that the death of a white character is problematic, their reactions constitute noble and valid activism/grievance airing, but when fans of color get mad about the death of a character of color and say they’re no longer watching a show because seeing a traumatic death of a character of color is painful…
It’s “armchair activism”.
It’s “why people don’t like x fans”.
Which sounds mighty hypocritical from people who’d riot in the streets of the nearest major city if one terrible thing happened to their white fandom favorite… But then, who decides which fans and characters should (and do) matter more?
At the end of the day, characters of color don’t matter to fandom. I don’t care if you personally love Finn from Star Wars or how much you personally ship Dolls and Wynonna because it’s just not personal, it’s a pattern. Fandom has a whiteness problem and it’s rarely more obvious than when the treatment of characters of color come into play.
Within the fandoms for Western media, there are a few constants:
- characters of color are less visible in fanworks when they show up at all
- even when they’re main(ish) characters, these characters of color are frequently reduced to support staff to a white character
- if the show doesn’t kill them off, the fandom desperately wishes that they’d die and/or kills them off in fanworks
That last bullet point brings me to another problem: what happens when fandom wants to kill off a prominent character of color in a piece of media – usually for committing the sin of being the main character or being beloved by the white character that is.
Finn’s thankfully thwarted sacrifice starts around 3:12 into the video!
Like I mentioned at the start of this piece, I’ve got a major bone to pick with Rian Johnson over the scene at the end of The Last Jedi where he has Finn prepare to die a brave, heroic, and utterly pointless death by aiming his tiny ship directly into a beam cannon the First Order has aimed at the bunker where the Resistance is hidden away.
I have an even bigger bone to pick with all of the people that wished that Finn had completed his suicide run into the beam cannon. Back when I was writing that post about my complicated feelings about Rose Tico, I used to search for “Rose Finn” on twitter to see what fandom’s reactions to the pair was.
Do y’all know how many people I blocked just for saying how much they wished Rose had just “let Finn die”?
And even more frustrating were all the people who wrote articles – not fandom meta, legitimate pieces they might have been paid for – where they talked about how the film would’ve been better if Finn died.
Where they argued that Finn was a useless coward who could only possibly repay audiences for the time they wasted on him by killing himself for no good reason (because this wasn’t a big ole ship like the one Holdo warped into the Supremacy, it was the equivalent of a rocket powered canoe… the plan would have failed).
And despite the fact that Finn was the male lead of The Force Awakens and should’ve been the male lead of The Last Jedi (thanks for that, Rian!), folks are out here legitimately demanding that he die a noble death to what… redeem himself according to notions of redemption that the same folks wouldn’t apply to the actual trilogy villain? Okay.
While this message was sent to a fan of Candice Patton, it echoes tweets that the actress receives to this day.
Back in The Flash season three when we (viewers and characters) found out that Iris’s death was supposed to set off a terrible future, you know what a worryingly large chunk of fandom did in response?
They tried to demand that death from the showrunners and writers.
Iris’s actress Candice Patton could expect to see a good dozen tweets every day telling her that they wished she would die and to this day, the fandom still has people @ the writers begging for Iris’s death or saying that the show would be better if she died on it. (She still gets harassment along this line, something I’ve talked about in many other pieces.)
Throughout Teen Wolf’s five-season run, main character Scott McCall – who exists in an ambiguous racial space because while his Mexican-American actor Tyler Posey said that Scott is Latino too, that’s not addressed in the show — was constantly subject to calls from fandom for his death and fanworks that killed him off to reenter his white best friend Stiles Stilinski and Derek Hale, the werewolf a majority of the fandom shipped with him.
Killing off characters of color “in the way” of a further focus on white characters is peak fandom racism. It’s ridiculous that more people don’t stop to think about the “why” behind their desire to see characters like Finn or Scott permanently removed from their narratives.
Even if they deign to give them a heroic sacrificial death, the very fact that many people in fandom are more comfortable with a main character of color dying than they are with the idea of the villains in those media pieces dying is… Not Great.
When the only or most visible character that is anything like you in a series dies, it’s hard to continue to find the same levels of value in the source material.
I know many Black viewers who stopped watching Into the Badlands after a prominent Black female character who died, others still who won’t be finishing Wynonna Earp because of Dolls’ death. If you know anything about horror movies and the folks that watch them, you should know that Black people really don’t get down with the “Black Person Dies First” trope that the genre clung to through several years…
Harder still is being in fandom with people who should get it because they’re also marginalized and they should know how much representation matters… and they don’t. Or, they brush it off because once they get their representation on lock, they’re good.
I’m not Wanda Maximoff. I can’t snap my fingers and end the problem like that.
But you know what would help?
First, the burden of representation shouldn’t be heaped onto a single character’s head and the fact that it generally is – because there’s usually only one or two marginalized characters with main roles in most of fandom’s mega-faves.
Syfy’s Superstition has Black characters die all the time… but it also has a majority Black cast so when a Black character dies, it’s not as though the show is back to beige.
In shows that have more than two queer characters – think Noah’s Arc or The L Word – when bad things happen to queer characters, they’re not the ONLY things happening to this marginalized and underrepresented group.
Writer’s rooms like the one I referenced for Wynonna Earp and what we know of the writer’s room for Jessica Jones (did y’all see how poorly season two treated male characters of color?), suffer from a lack of diversity that leads them to return to harmful tropes and mediocre approaches to their diverse characters.
Actually diverse writers room that are full of writers from all sorts of backgrounds help bring nuance to their diverse characters and, in the event that they die instead of being written off, might be able to manage portraying those deaths outside of familiar and played out tropes.
And for the second thing?
As always, I’d like folks in fandom to think more about how they engage with characters and performers they don’t like (either in general or as much other characters). Especially when they’re not white.
I know we’re all out here having fun and sharing our opinions, but like… Characters of color in Western media fandoms are not treated well by fandom or their source media and it’s kind of ridiculous how little folks care to try and change that.
Fellow fans, please ask yourselves “why” you need x character of color to die a heroic death before you demand it of them or make excuses for people who create those sorts of deaths for these characters.