Queer Life and Death in Cartoons and TV Shows

The Internet has been abuzz lately regarding the “Bury Your Gays” trope, escalated by several popular TV shows killing off queer characters, particularly women, and adding to this larger idea that relationships between queer women are unstable at best and tragic at worst.

A lot of people are currently criticizing The 100 and Orphan Black for killing off major queer characters and making their partners suffer. I know nothing about The 100 except for what I’ve read about that one character’s death and how it’s angered many viewers. However, I will say that I was previously a bit interested in watching the show. Now, I probably won’t because I’m quite tired of queer female relationships–when they’re shown at all–being tragic, petty, or unstable. I’m not keen on getting into a show already knowing that that’s what’ll happen. I’m sure The 100 is phenomenal in many other ways, but this turn of events makes me hesitant. Orphan Black is a different story for me because I’ve been a fan of the show from the very beginning, so I didn’t know going into it that there would be queer representation at all nor did I know what would happen to Delphine at the end of season 3 (however, I don’t think she’s really dead). I’m invested in the story for many other reasons besides Cosima and Delphine, but I can completely understand why some people have dropped the show and others who maybe hadn’t seen it yet might not be interested anymore.

When I reflect on queer representation that I’ve come across, I find that there are more positive examples in cartoons (and maybe anime) than in live action TV shows or movies, especially mainstream ones. Part of this is certainly differences in the type of audience. Cartoons in the West are generally aimed at younger audiences and along with that comes particular ideas of what’s appropriate and not appropriate for kids. Queerness for a long time has been deemed “not appropriate,” hence why there are only a handful of recent cartoons that make queer relationships more explicit. On the flip side, tragic death, drugs, and excessive blood and violence are also generally deemed not appropriate for children’s media.

This could be why queerness, when it’s clearly presented in cartoons, is much more positive than it is in live action shows, including those that explore queerness in depth.

600x600bb-85.jpg

I’m going to pick on The L Word, which for the longest time was touted as the quintessential lesbian show. Just about every queer woman under 40 has seen it or at least knows what it is. I watched the entire series several years ago and I enjoyed it, but all of the characters are so terrible to each other in their relationships. All of them. Every single one. They cheat on each other, they lie, they break promises, and some eventually set out to ruin others’ lives. All of this is the stuff of great drama, so The L Word is really just doing what its genre does best, but subsequent TV shows haven’t seemed to step away from this. Orange is the New Black is also pretty gay, but Alex and Piper, as cute as they are together, basically exhibit the same selfish toxicity that’s evident in The L Word. I had similar frustrations with the first season of Transparent. I generally liked the show, but hated every character except Ali and Maura. They’re all selfish, terrible people, including the token lesbian couple that comes into being through breaking up marriages.

I see almost the opposite in cartoons. I’ve discussed Korrasami at length on this blog and noted many ways in which they have a stable, supportive relationship. Marceline and Bubblegum from Adventure Time are also getting back to that level (though they have a lot to work through and Marceline is also the Angst Queen). Ruby and Sapphire from Steven Universe are a great example of a committed couple that works through their problems. Sure, they have conflict, but they would never cheat on each other or hurt each other in ways that I’ve seen queer women do in live action TV shows.

Of course, presenting cartoons as full of entirely positive queer representation and live action shows as full of entirely negative ones reduces the issue too much and is inaccurate. Carmilla mostly shows Hollstein as happy together, but even when they’re not, it’s not because Laura or Carmilla cheat or hurt each other on purpose. Their conflicts typically come from Laura’s hero complex and Carmilla’s survivalist instincts. On the other hand, most queerness I’ve seen in anime is subtle, stated but not explored much, or tragic (Kill la Kill and Revolutionary Girl Utena come to mind).

Why is any of this a problem? Isn’t drama and death just part of good storytelling? Of course it is, but we have to remember how influential media is. Someone who’s never met queer women before can watch all of these shows and come away with an ill-informed notion about how these relationships work in real life. I know so many people who live and love nothing like the women in The L Word or other shows (at the same time, I know people who relish in that exact sort of drama, which gets into a different issue of how much queer media affects our actual behavior).

Fiction is powerful. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t be a writer. Therefore, it’s always a good exercise to examine these sorts of tropes and trends and ask if the story must always play out this way. I don’t believe it does. I think there are so many other ways to tell stories about queer relationships, but it’s easy to get stuck in the same patterns.

Platonism in Orphan Black

So, I recently took a MOOC about three of Plato’s dialogues (Euthyphro, Meno, and Republic Book 1). By the way, I highly recommend taking MOOCs, especially if you’re a writer and/or also like me in that you miss the structure of college classes, but don’t want the hard commitment of actually going to grad school. MOOCs are free online college courses and they’re great for getting structured knowledge about all kinds of subject areas.

Anyway, in this MOOC, I got reacquainted with Plato’s theory of forms and at one point, I realized that this is basically what the Dyad Institute is trying to achieve in Orphan Black.

Form theory basically says that there is something called “The Good,” (represented by the Sun) of which we can only know pieces, rather than understanding or defining the whole thing. There are also perfect forms of concepts such as justice, virtue, holiness/piety, etc. These perfect forms live beyond the physical world. The Good, essentially, shines its light on these forms, but all we see here are the shadows and these shadows move in front of a flickering fire, which represents our beliefs. Belief itself is a shadow of the Good (the Sun). So, we can never fully know the complete nature of things like justice, virtue, holiness, etc., but we can point to examples, which are parts of these forms.

I thought it would be fun to make a diagram applying form theory to Orphan Black.

OBFormTheory

It’s a rough sketch and may not be entirely accurate since I’m not completely sure that Dyad’s goal is the creation of a perfect human. The end of season two suggests that they’re aiming for a specific military perfection, but not a broader perfection. Furthermore, Dyad seems at least partially aligned with Neolutionism, which allows self-determination as far as achieving the perfect/ideal body goes. This wouldn’t fit with the notion that there’s already some preexisting yet unidentifiable Good or Perfect Human that Dyad is striving for.

With this reading of Orphan Black using Plato’s theory, we see that all the clones are just shadows of shadows of some indefinable ideal, so it’s no wonder they’re not even close to perfect. So, whatever Dyad is trying to achieve, they actually won’t ever get there no matter how many sets of clones they make.

I think this reading also diminishes the need to know who the original clones are. While this is an interesting question, I wouldn’t be mad if Orphan Black never addressed it. After all, in this model, the original clones are “belief” and beliefs don’t exactly take on physical, identifiable forms (or clones) to begin with.

It also shows how most of the clones closely match some possible ideal trait, but also fall very short of the mark. Sarah and Alison, for example, represent different forms of motherhood, but neither is Motherhood herself. Rachel Duncan is supposed to be the form of leadership/control, but her breakdown in season two clearly shows otherwise. When Dyad created all of the clones, they were trying to achieve some balance of ideal mental and physical health, which we see break down in nearly all of the main clones.

All of this is to say that not only is Platonism everywhere, but the way it appears in Orphan Black actually makes it pretty easy to understand. As we get ready to enjoy season three, I’m sure we’ll be given even more characters and plot points that grapple with other ethical and philosophical ideas.

Lessons From Orphan Black: The Fridging of Amelia

Orphan Black is one of the best shows that premiered on TV last year, and as it features several women as main characters whose life goals are not primarily finding husbands and having babies, it’s a wonderful relief from most of the crap clogging up the airwaves. The premise is simple: a young woman named Sarah Manning witnesses a woman who looks exactly like her commit suicide by jumping in front of a train. Since Sarah is strapped for cash, she assumes the woman’s identity and embarks on an uncertain, terrifying road of discovering that she’s a clone. She teams up with two other clones, Alison Hendrix and Cosima Neihaus, to unravel the mysteries behind their existence. However, between a mysterious killer targeting them and all of their closest loved ones potentially monitoring them, it’s enough of a struggle to keep both themselves and their families safe.

In so many ways, the show is a real treat. Not only is it an engaging story, but it’s also marginally more diverse than most other stories on mainstream television. The show is really about the clones, and although there are male characters who have important roles in the story, their tales don’t outshine the main plot. Furthermore, the show has a romantic arc between two female characters, but their story is not solely about being queer. This is refreshing because many representations of GSRM characters in mainstream media only focus on those characters’ sexualities and/or gender identities as the crux of their character development.

As much as I love Orphan Black for giving us something a little different, it’s not flawless. The biggest grievance I have against it is the way it handles Amelia, the only black woman in the show.

Her story (the little that we know of it) is a reflection of how poor WoC are easily exploited.

Amelia arrives very close to season 1’s end and reveals that she is Sarah’s birth mother. This is exciting for both Sarah and the audience because there’s finally a chance of so many questions being answered–how did Amelia get involved with the scientists who made the clones? What did they do to her? Does she know what they might be planning? Some of these questions are at least partially answered. Amelia had twins, one that she gave to the Church (Helena) and one that she gave to the State (Sarah). Once she discovered what kind of people these scientists were, she sacrificed everything to protect the two babies.

By meeting Sarah as an adult, Amelia once again risks her life. She’s introduced near the end of one episode and dies in the finale. It seems like she is only here for a second. Because her death happens so quickly and is a catalyst for Sarah’s pain and angst, I think that Amelia is a victim of a variation of the fridging trope. Here’s why:

  • As the only black woman in the story, her quick, violent death plays into the trope of black people dying first in many TV shows and films. It also demonstrates that the way the story ends for exploited black women is death.
  • Her death is fuel for the white protagonist (Sarah) to reach a new level of character development via intense emotional pain. The same thing happens to Rue in The Hunger Games film (I specify the film because Katniss is portrayed as a white woman when she is really a woman of color).

On one level, Amelia’s death is necessary. She potentially holds many answers to this clone mystery that Sarah may not ever discover. She’s also comparable to many other parental/mentor figures is tons of other stories whose deaths force the protagonists to reach a new level of independence (e.g. Lily and James Potter, Albus Dumbledore, Severus Snape, Gandalf, Brom, and Jiraiya). It’s a way to make the main character’s journey more trying so that they ultimately become a stronger person.

I’m okay with Amelia, as the birth mother who Sarah has dreamt about and who can answer so many of her questions, dying before Sarah is satisfied with knowledge. Sarah needs to learn to figure out who she is on her own without knowing all the answers about her origins or her existence as a clone. It’s the fact that Amelia is the sole black woman that makes her fridging much more obvious and problematic. If there was another black woman, or even several, then Amelia’s quick arrival and violent death wouldn’t be the only story about black women in the show.

Your mileage may vary, but for me when there’s only one representation of a particular minority in a book, TV show, or movie and they fall under some tired trope that has been disproportionately applied to that particular group, I’m disappointed. However, when there are several such characters and one dies for a particular plot reason, I personally do not see it as problematic.

For example, in Attack on Titan, Eren Jaeger’s mother dies very early on. Dead mothers appear in so many types of stories across several genres, especially fantasy, and they are often examples of fridging. If Eren’s mother was the only or one of very few women in the series and/or the other female characters were terribly sidelined as in many other shonen series, I would take issue with it. However, there’s Mikasa, Annie, Hanji, Ymir, Sasha, and Christa to balance everything out. Therefore, Eren’s mother’s death, while still motivation for his growth, is only her story as opposed to the story of women in general.

What Could’ve Been Different and What Can Writers Learn?

The easiest fix would have been to introduce Amelia a little sooner or maybe given her a few more scenes before she’s killed. The writers also could’ve included at least one other black female character who would play a larger role in the story and would stick around for a while. Maybe season 2 will include some flashbacks where Amelia will appear again so we can learn more about her.

I think the lesson for writers here is a set of questions. As you develop your characters and your worlds, it’s always good to stop and ask yourself “Is this character who is of a different race/gender/sexuality/etc. from me and/or my other characters a well-rounded, fully developed character? Is there a notion in my writing that this person only exists to be the token representative of their group? Have I given them more to their character than my outside knowledge of their race/gender/sexuality/etc., which may involve what I think these kinds of people look like, act like, and enjoy?”

No writer is perfect and no TV show, book, or movie will be 100% free of fridging or other tropes. However, awareness, knowledge, and listening can help you avoid these things in your writing. All of that can only help to make you a stronger storyteller.

—————————————————————————–

Check out this video for some more examples of fridging: