Diversity in death but not in television lives

Photo courtesy of MTV

This year’s television season, especially this past week, has seen a veritable slew of minority characters being killed off or leaving their shows.

This deluge of death includes no less than six female characters who were in popular American shows. The recent events have stirred fan outrage and even started social uproars, such as was seen with the death of lesbian character Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey, “Fear the Walking Dead”) from “The 100.”

Most recently, Arden Cho, who became famous on “Teen Wolf,” announced on her YouTube channel that her character would not be returning next season. Cho devoted the last three years to “Teen Wolf” unable to work on side projects as the show’s creators were not willing to work around her schedule, unlike for her fellow cast mate Dylan O’Brian (“Mazerunner”). Cho did not chose to leave the show, but the showrunners decided that her character’s Asian backstory was no longer needed in the show’s plot.

This follows Nicole Beharie (“Shame”) being killed off in “Sleepy Hollow,” a show where she is the leading actress. Cho and Beharie’s departures shed more light on the unapologetic views of the writers and others in the entertainment industry.

Minority characters include characters of races, genders and sexualities that stray from the mold of a cis white male. The ratio of people that these characters are representing have become much larger in this decade. Here is the breakdown by numbers of diversity on broadcast TV shows from the 2015 GLAAD “Where We Are on TV” report out of 885 regular cast members: 4% (35) are gay, lesbian, or bisexual; 33% (287) are people of color; 43% (381) are women. Among the people of color — 6% Asian or Pacific Islander, 7% Latino/a and 16% Black characters. Now take into account that these statistics also include characters that are not the main or leading roles.

In the last few years, these numbers have definitely increased dramatically due to carefully chosen shows and characters, such as “Modern Family,” “Black-ish,” “Fresh off the Boat,” “Empire” and “Transparent,” just to name a few. However, it is unsettling to think that in shows that are not centered around a specific gender, sexual orientation or race — in other words, shows that should appeal and relate to all demographics — the actors in the minority character roles are being pushed out or made to feel that their characters are not as important as the white male characters. What is even more disturbing is that these characters are often killed off, not given a departure story that allows the character to live on somewhere else in their show’s world.

Denise (Merrit Weaver, “Birdman”) on “Walking Dead” and Rose (Bridget Regan, “Agent Carter”) on “Jane the Virgin” are but a couple of the lesbian or bisexual female character deaths this month. Fans have pointed out a misuse of the “lesbian death” trope to drive ratings, while some shows have argued that the characters were treated like anyone else, and their deaths were meaningful to the plot.

The only good that has come out of this debacle, is that actresses and actors are feeling more confident in leaving shows that do not treat their characters, or even the actors themselves, with the respect they deserve. It is saddening that, even though the viewers are asking for more diverse shows and characters and the number of diverse actors and actresses is increasing, show runners are sticking to their outdated views of what characters they need, want and care about — only seeing diversity as a box to check when necessary, as was the case with Arden Cho. Seeing the amount of displeasure seething from the masses of fans, it is hard to imagine why the networks cannot seem to align their thoughts with the current norms.