Before we get into the meat of this post, there’s some things we need to define. First, what do we mean by “minority” characters. For the purposes of this post minority characters are those that are either not straight, not white, not male, have a mental illness, have a physical disability, or some combination thereof. Second, I, as the writer of this piece, need to acknowledge that I fall into approximately none of those areas and have had some privileges living as a straight white man living with fairly good health. Coming from a place of privilege such as that can often lead to someone thinking that their experiences are everyone’s default and that we can speak for everyone on every subject. That’s wrong. When we assume our experiences are default, we can wind up either hindering, or actively harming communities that we are trying to portray and represent in our writing, and we become immune to hearing criticism from those communities as well.
When writing stories, be they for the movies, books, or television shows, writers have many decisions to make. “What’s the ratio of women to men going to be?” “Am I going to include LGBT+ characters?” “What about racial minorities?” “Are any of the characters going to have a disability, mental or physical?” Now, when it comes to movies and television those decisions aren’t solely up to the writer. Producers, directors, show runners, and the money people can and often do make changes to the best planned story lines. But for right now we will just talk about TV, where the showrunner is the sole person in charge of answering those questions. They may have a staff room full of writers working on various scripts and the like, and the overall plot, but ultimately it’s up to the showrunner to make the final decision of where the story is going. The problem that comes from this though, is that most showrunners are straight, white, and male.
The fact that most showrunners are Straight White Male Writers (SWMW) is not a problem in and of itself. The problem becomes when these SWMW fall back onto lazy tropes in their writing, most often at the expense of characters that belong to marginalized groups. Often times what happens with these characters is that SWMW will fall back to either racist, sexist, or homophobic stereotypes and tropes associated with them, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes only because that’s how they know how to write people of color or gay people or transgender people or someone with a mental illness. This especially becomes a problem when they claim to be progressive and that they’re staunch allies of the community that’s being represented. This usually leads to these groups creating large fandoms, especially in this day of social media, that give exposure and hype that the creators use to get additional seasons from their networks.
And this is where the problems start. These communities that spring up around can at times be insane, and for good reason. They finally get characters that they can relate to, and they devour everything they can about them. Interviews, fan fiction, gif sets and photo sets from the show, and official social media accounts. Often times though, this comes crashing down when the honeymoon phase ends and either long running issues that fans hadn’t taken notice of start to become a lot more prominent or are brought to their attention, or a truly shocking incident happens that snaps fans out of their revelry and reminds them all of the other instances of that trope and why they always get hurt. Or, it could be a combination of both, often times it’s the shock of one scene that causes the long standing issues to actually come up to the surface.
A good example of long running issues is what usually happens with racial minorities on television shows. Plenty of times there are no people of color on a cast, or the writers fall onto tired stereotypes of their race. Black men are tough and intimidating. Any lady from south of the U.S.-Mexican border is a fiery, sassy, and sexually liberated or the maid. All Asians are super nerds that can hack into any computer system known to man. This doesn’t mean that those characters can have certain aspects of that used in their characterization, what it does mean is that those traits can’t be their only characterization. Using tired tropes like that ultimately is damaging to minorities because it pushes stereotypes that lead to real life consequences for them.
This now brings us to one of the stupidest, laziest, most tired tropes in all of Televison. Bury Your Gays. (Warning, the page image is very gory.) Especially on television, a gay character, often a woman, will be killed off to introduce angst in their partner or allow for a different relationship to go forward. Writers and showrunners seem to use it to be “shocking” or “edgy” with their characters, and pat themselves on the back for doing so. The problem is that just because something is shocking that doesn’t mean it’s well written. The fact remains that it would actually be more shocking if the gay couple were to make it through the whole series and have a happy ending! Members of the LGBT+ community, especially women, either never see themselves on television, or if they do it’s as angst and for the purpose of temporary wish fulfillment on the part of the writers.
Now, straw man I have conveniently erected for the sole purpose of answering your question, I can hear you saying “But Nick, does that mean you should never kill a gay character, or never have an Asian hacker?” No, what it means is that you need to be careful with how you write these characters. Recently, a television show callously killed off the only openly lesbian character, and how did they do it? Accidental bullet meant for someone else because they loved that someone, immediately after they had a sex scene that had been hyped up all season by both the fans and the writers. You know what one of the most common instances of burying your gays is? Shooting the lesbian with an accidental bullet immediately following her having a sex scene after a bunch of build up. The reaction was swift and predictable, especially considering the long history of the trope.
Again, I can hear you convenient straw man, “Why should it matter? It’s just a fictional character, it doesn’t matter that much.” First off, to paraphrase noted philosopher Louis C.K. “When someone tells you they’re hurting, you don’t get to decide that they’re not.” Members of the LGBT+ community are noted in many studies to have higher rates of suicide, as well as higher rates of mental illness. When you kill off a character in such a stupid way it just reinforces the belief in many of your fans that all that characters like them are good for is being killed off for shock value. It hurts them, they get to see all their straight friends get healthy relationships that last, or characters that are killed off in a meaningful way, whereas they get killed by an accidental bullet to the stomach meant for another character.
It’s similar when it comes to racial minorities. They don’t get to see themselves as full fledged characters often, and when they do they’re the ones killed off instead of the (typically) white main characters. (See, Black Dude Dies First) Again, similar to the LGBT+ community, when you do that all it does is tell them that their lives aren’t meaningful and that all they’re good for is being a stereotypical side character, or dying first, and that’s not okay. It ultimately comes down to respecting the historical and cultural contexts that surround your show.
This now brings us to my second point, and the second problem that comes from SWMW writing these types of storylines is when they try to defend themselves. Often times, you’ll see the showrunner after such an incident trying to justify his use of the trope with statements similar to “They weren’t an x character, they were a full character that happened to be x.” And that’s well and good, if the character had been treated with respect. When you’re not a member of the group, it is very hard to understand why they get upset about damaging tropes. That misunderstanding usually comes from just looking at your show in a vacuum and assuming that nothing else informs the viewing experience, when in reality every other TV show, movie, and book all inform the viewers’ experience. That is why I have two rules for SWMW.
Rule Number One: If you are writing characters that are members of minorities in the real world, you cannot make the story about them being a member of that minority. Let them write their own stories about being a black woman in America, or gay, or trans, or mentally ill, or disabled. Do not write those stories because those are not yours to tell.
Rule Number Two: When writing minority characters, make sure you treat them with the respect they deserve. Do not use tropes that have a history behind them that are harmful to members of the community.
And finally, what happens when you mess up? First, listen to what the criticism is. Second, apologize and promise to do better. Third, and this is related to number two, don’t act like your crap don’t stink and keep digging yourself into a hole. Fourth, and finally, do better! Actually improve on how you write these types of characters in the future.
In short, Straight White Male Writers, if you feel the need to write off one of your minority characters and decide to do it in the most harmful and lazy way imaginable, here’s a friendly Orca to help you.