Killing fictional men of color, with spoilers

This post contains spoilers for Agents of SHIELD, Sleepy Hollow, and NetFlix’s Marco Polo.

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Spoilers, right?

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Did I mention spoilers?

Okay.

One of the things I love about Sleepy Hollow is the representation in its casting. Women and people of color are main leads, with things to say and do that are entirely plot-driven and have nothing to do with being women or being black.

This includes dying.

One of the things I was initially dubious about in Agents of SHIELD was the lack of black people. This was remedied in season two, only to then kill one of the black leads.

NetFlix’s series, Marco Polo, has a cast that is almost entirely not-white-people. Therefore, when characters are raped, tortured, maimed, and killed, they are people of color suffering all those fates.

I have very mixed feelings about this.

For a long, long, long-ass time, the role of The Woman Character in a story was to be threatened or killed in order to provide motivation for the (straight, white) male lead. This phenomenon was dubbed Women in Refrigerators, and you can Google it for more information.

As women characters become more prominent, and there are simply MORE women characters in EVERYTHING, sometimes women are threatened or killed because they are WiR. But sometimes, it’s because they are the lead or the badass or the spy or the detective, and the plot simply put them in harm’s way.

Now, it seems, we’re starting to see this with people of color, too.

How do we tell the difference between the two? How do we assess WHY the black guy is killed? Is he killed because he’s the least important to the plot? Because he’s the most beloved of the audience and will get a bigger reaction? Is he killed because all the characters are black, and the story just has this death right here?

As a consumer of fiction, I try to spend my time and money and social media on things I both enjoy and consider worthy of others’ attention. I watch things I like, but I also am aware that my watching and talking about those things has a ripple effect. When I see Yet Another Black Guy die on my screen, I am reminded of how many black men are murdered in this country every year by law enforcement officials who see blackness as inherently more disposable than whiteness.

When I see Yet Another Black Guy die on my screen, I need to feel certain that it was vitally important to the story that the writers kill him.

It’s not the same as killing a white character. It’s just not.

Sure, you can say “but that show killed one black guy and one white guy and one white woman, so there’s parity, so it’s fine to kill him.” But it’s NOT the same. It’s NOT fine. We do NOT have parity. The institutional qualities of entrenched racism in the U.S. means that black lives are devalued even as white lives are valued.

Writers, you had better have a damn good reason for killing that black man, is what I am saying.

Marco Polo? You get a pass. There are three white characters out of about forty leads, and no white extras. Go ahead, show the conquest of the Song Kingdom by Kublai Khan, and have lots of people of color die. Fair enough.

Sleepy Hollow? Agents of SHIELD? No. It’s not okay. I know you have killed and maimed white characters, too. But it’s not the same.

I hope you have a plan for making this right, both of you.

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One Response

  1. I’m crossing my fingers that re:Sleepy Hollow, he doesn’t stay dead. Since many of the characters on that show don’t stay dead.

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