Rambles

When is a (fictional character’s) death not an indicator of disposability?

I want to write a story. There’s just a huge problem that keeps me from even being able to begin – the story I want to tell involves some controversial issues. I mean, there’s a lot of issues that are widely controversial that I might hit on either on purpose or accident that I’m ok with dealing with, but for the purposeful ones that’s part of the point and for the accidental ones, well, that’s an accident. I’ll try not to do anything accidentally but no human is perfect. This particular issue, though, is one where the audience I specifically want to reach out to and connect with are kind of unlikely to be ok one particular choice, and their opinions are of high importance to me.

The story I want to tell would include the death of a lesbian character.

Now, most people don’t know anything else about me (other than what you might be able to glean from my other posts and the Twits). They definitely don’t know much if anything about this story. But that statement alone without any further information has caused people to immediately treat me as a hostile entity that needs to be educated and stopped, most often because they tend to automatically assume that I am a straight person who doesn’t have a personal history with Dead Lesbian Syndrome.

And don’t get me wrong – I get that. This topic is an ongoing source of deep pain with a long history that has recently been prodded at with a thousand flaming spears. After the events of the last couple of years, it’s become abundantly clear that there’s a lot of people that still, somehow, don’t get why this topic carries so much weight and why it’s so important that the narratives change. I even have automatic defense systems that tries to take over when I talk to people I don’t know about it because I’ve also been bitten and burned by people who just don’t get it. Sometimes it’s stronger than others, depending on the story and current trends.

For example, Sam from Scream Queens was never going to elicit any kind of feeling from me no matter what happened to her or in the greater culture around the episodes she was in since she and most of the cast only existed to fulfill their trope-tastic roles and then die. Everyone I expected to die, died. Everyone I expected to live lived. On all fronts Scream Queens might as well have been called Trope Queens because the show was 90% about taking tropes to 11. It was the most watchable train wreck I’ve seen in years. Sure, despite the it being absolutely atrocious from the get-go, I loved the first season (and gave up halfway through the second out of boredom). But I had no feelings about Sam’s death because I expected everything to be offensively bad from the get-go.

On the flip side, while I don’t follow or care about most TV since it would just take way too much of my time to keep up with all the popular programming out there, even I’m deeply angry and hurt by the number of lesbian and bisexual women killed in very quick succession back in 2016. Even on shows that could justify it I deeply wish some of them just hadn’t. Sadly, though, the majority didn’t even have the excuse of being a vast wasteland where death is probably more common than a good meal. 2017 isn’t looking like it will be much better, though at least they seem to not be killing as many front-and-center characters this season. Since, you know, they’re already dead.

Now, I know those examples are in television. I’m going to talk a lot about TV here even though my goal is to write a novel or ten. TV is far more public and is more easily accessible for a lot of the population than most books, especially books about specific topics that people may have to go out of their way to seek out. After all, not every book can be the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games or Lord of the Rings. And the books that do end up that readily accessible tend not to have much in the way of overt LGBT-ness.

Also, though I am ashamed to admit it, I actually haven’t read that much LGBT+ literature. I don’t like romances or books where the primary focus is definitely romance, no matter what it tries to bill itself as, and just by the nature of the topic at hand it can be kind of hard just to find LGBT+ stories that aren’t romances. Beyond that, I don’t have a ton of money, so outside of college most of my reading these last several years has been what I can find or acquire as a free PDF. While that’s great for catching up on classics that are now public domain, it’s not so good for following current trends. So please forgive me for sticking to easy examples. Before college, there wasn’t a great deal of interaction with LGBT+ media either.

I came from the kind of ‘we don’t talk about those sorts of things here’ environment. It wasn’t even a forcible kind of environment, but one where gayness just did not come up on its own, programs that it occurred on were not watched, probably not due to the gayness explicitly as much as the kind of shows we, as a family, watched didn’t often discuss LGBT+ themes, or when they did it was so sloppily done that I didn’t notice it until I was older. The topic also wasn’t ever brought up on purpose – there was no reason for it to be. Since popular media for most of my life shunned gayness outright, it just wasn’t a hard topic to avoid. In fact, outside of a few phrases thrown out by bullies that I should have asked Jeeves about but never really got around to asking, the only person I remember ever addressing gayness was my Freshman Health teacher. He told us that HIV wasn’t just for gay men and left the topic at that. No one seemed surprised by this either because no one, from what I could tell, even knew of that history. It was the mid-2000s. ‘The Gay Cancer’ hadn’t been something HIV was called since before we were born.

Until Queer Eye for the Straight Guy became a popular TV show, literally the only encounter I can recall having with anything even remotely LGBT+ related was a news story I happened to pay attention to in third grade about a little ‘boy’ my age who’s ‘mother made him wear dresses all the time.’ I don’t know if the mom was actually forcing them to wear dresses, I don’t know if it was a choice on the child’s part and she was completely supportive of him in a time where that would be considered child abuse. I didn’t have a developed enough sense of the world around me to even ask those kinds of questions then and since that was 20 years ago and I have no idea what channel it happened on I haven’t been able to actually find any history of that story. I don’t even know if it was something that happened in my childhood state or if it was something they’d picked up to talk about from another state. But the story itself is burned in my mind.

Note: I never actually saw Queer Eye for the Straight Guy until we dissected a scene from it in a media class I took in college. I was aware of its existence though, and I kind of knew what it meant even if I didn’t understand anything about it, which is a weird mental place to try to explain, especially when it’s so hard to even begin to try to comprehend what was going on in my child-brain now that I know so much more.

When I first felt non-straight attractions my immediate reaction was “oh…that’s not right…does this mean I’m a boy?” because that was the logical conclusion at the time. No, I had no idea that trans was a thing either. All I knew was that boys liked girls and there was no deviation from that, at least as far as ‘normal’ people were concerned and for some reason it seemed to me easier to just be a boy than to be a girl who liked girls. Of course, really didn’t want to be a boy because I found boys to be quite gross at that age. Instead, I just told myself ‘hey, someday you’ll grow up and be normal’ and decided to hunker down and wait until that day came. Spoiler alert: that day never came.

Outside of my family and media, the only indications I had as to what gayness was came from school bullies. I’m sure it’s pretty clear that bullies don’t exactly make you feel good about things, which is why Tara and Willow’s relationship from Buffy the Vampire Slayer was so important. Buffy wasn’t the kind of show my mom would typically be watching around that time, but I was around the age where I’d tape shows to watch later when she wasn’t home (and choosing what was on TV). Alone I watched a kick-ass girl beat down demons and vampires alongside her friends with possibly one of my favorite wise-elder characters, and alone I saw Willow…start a relationship with a girl. The exact thing that I didn’t know was possible. Willow and Tara made it possible for me.

 I was one of those kids that people like to talk about as being affected by all these lesbian deaths. They were my only positive imagery for years. In the comments section of a lot of articles about last year’s massacre, there are people saying that those who are upset with things are just butthurt. They cite male lgbt+ characters still living in the shows as a reason we shouldn’t be upset. But that misses the point. This is specifically a conversation about girls. Or, rather, a lack of living ladies. For a girl trying to understand herself, that’s rough. It’s already a rough game out there for girls. A female lead outside of romance stories is still very much a novelty, though things have been moving towards evening out with each passing year thanks to the help of stories with multiple protagonists.

Of course, as I said, that’s just our most popular visual media of television. Movies are far, far worse. Literature, though, tends to be a bit better, but that might be due to books not being bound to timetables. They don’t have to fight for a spot on the TVGuide or to be squeezed into at least one of the limited number of showrooms in your local theater. Sure authors hope their books will be put on a shelf where they’ll be noticed and picked up, but there’s nothing to limit the number of books published in a year. Sure, movies can be released outside of theaters, but most people probably aren’t hiking to a film festival just to see something that’s lightly buzzing. We got busy lives, yo. Anyway, there’s a wide range of books. If you want something, I’m sure it’s out there by now. It might not be completely to your liking, but it exists. You can build your own literature bubble and be completely ignorant to trends outside of it very easily. We get one Harry Potter or one Hunger Games every few years. (The sparklepire and fanfic-of-sparklepire books will not be named here, understood?) Everything else is up to you, your tastes, and your willingness and ability to seek out the books that match up to your desires.

That said, the trends are a problem for a reason. When your minority character of whatever type is a disposable token, that sends a subtle message. Each time it happens in every medium the message grows a little bigger. If for every Clexa we had a Britanna maybe things would be different, but unfortunately the numbers are disproportionate. The numbers stay disproportionate for every other group, too, aside from white, straight folks. Well, men in particular, since dying wives (and mothers and daughters) are a good motivator. I mean, it can be such a moving addition to the plot that I want to use it. For my lesbian protagonist. Look, if she wasn’t such a raging lesbian she’d have a dying husband. Either way I want her spouse to be the one who dies.

So…what turns divides the disposable tokens from the moving and meaningful deaths?

They have happened, after all. And I want to write one. Perhaps it’s tied to my own history – the feeling of disposability, the feeling of being brushed aside, ignored, forgotten. I want to challenge the trope and give it meaning. (Though my ability to write is an entirely separate issue and if it turns out to be complete trash I promise I won’t even try to publish. Though you’ll have to bear in mind that ‘complete trash’ is an opinion based descriptor, so we might not be in agreement. But I do promise that I am one of my own harshest critics.)

I want a death story that isn’t a direct slap in the face, where it actually means something. I want to know that the loss of an important character is meaningful, important, that they weren’t a throw-away who ultimately won’t matter. That their loss changed the lives of the characters forever. That they weren’t just there for the shock and drama, they weren’t just removed because their part of the plot was done.

From what I have developed so far, I feel like I meet those parameters. This is a character who could have gone on in the story, she didn’t have to stop there. In a way, it’s both senseless, as any death in real life might be, and a highly meaningful game-changer. I picked the character that was most well-liked and respected by those around her. She’s still learning, but a promising student. The main villain doesn’t have a vendetta against her, she is a casualty in an inherited war. Whose death just also happens to deeply emotionally scar the protagonists. They have to deal with it, find a way to keep living, find a way to continue on together. There are consequences, deserved or not. And all of that is well and good, but whether or not it meets that criteria hinges on two things: will it be written well (I hope!) and is that what other people define as ‘meaningful’?

This is where I start to panic. I’ve gone through so many pages on TV Tropes and read through so many articles trying to figure out how I can write this story without making things worse. One article said that even full-rainbow casts shouldn’t kill LGBT+ women since it adds to the statistics. Now I know I’m not on board with that concept. That limits some potentially poignant stories to not existing since a big part of life is the end of it. That will happen. Others seem to have set criteria, but the criteria can be heavily opinion based. I mean, some things are easy. Only LGBT+ female? Nope. Not even close. Others are difficult to meet. Was it a ‘punishment’ for their happy ending? I mean, I’ll try not to, but they are married. They’ve been in a relationship for some time at this point. They are happily together. Until, well, the reaper pays a visit.

I also know that I cannot get a pass simply for being a lady-lover myself. There are so many stories about women that were written and/or produced or directed by women that are just horrible, misogynistic dribble. It happens. Easily, sometimes, when certain concepts are ingrained in society. Even things that were revolutionary in their own times would be ass-backwards if written today.

So I honestly want to know…where is the line? When is it ok? Will it ever be ok? What will it take to avoid the whole thing being horrible?

I know my own circle isn’t a fair judge. We’re a small slice of the pie. Very small. Like a sliver, at best. For the most part the opinion is ‘as long as I like it, I’m fine with it.’ Which isn’t an easy thing to gauge, because I don’t know everyone. I know the trends show that this isn’t ok right now, and worse is that it’s almost never done well. I also know that there’s no pleasing everyone – but I also also know that when a large enough portion of a group is saying the same thing then maybe it’s worth paying attention to since that’s probably a generally widespread feeling.

And, taking all of that in its own consideration, there’s also the consideration of the author. Why they wanted to tell this story. Drama? No. I mean, there’s no escaping it. It is dramatic. But it’s for the characters and what they have to go through. It’s for the other characters from other media who were butchered for the ratings. It’s for the people who had to patch up themselves as the world again told them that they were just there for the straights.

At the end of the day, no explanation is truly worthy. It’s all excuses. But is it worth it?

For this story, it really seems to be. I’ve thought a lot about what would happen if I didn’t do it. My original plans didn’t include any main character deaths. All of these roads, though, come out a little…weak. It’s just a story about two fantasy kingdoms fighting each other, with ours (the ‘good’ one) being led by relatively inexperienced royals while the other one is helmed by a centuries-old monster who’s been biding their time to ensure that when they go to war, they will win and they will retain control for the rest of eternity. Pulling out the mediator (that being the character that binds all the others together) in a very permanent way is the best answer I’ve found to break all the typical-YA-fantasy-stuffs up into something with more depth. It ruins everything in their universe, which is the best thing that can happen for a story.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I don’t double down on the emotional aspect – when thinking of deceased characters and pairings that didn’t end in happily ever after, I can only think of one that doesn’t upset me. Rose Quartz. From Steven Universe. And she most likely, despite being a female-coded sentient rock from space, was technically ‘straight.’ The character that makes it, though, is Pearl. Madly in love, almost definitely completely unrequited love, broken without her.

I know I can’t top that. Don’t think I’m trying to. I’d be happy just landing somewhere in the same ballpark.

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