High Death Tolls on Television Hint At Larger Problems in Narrative Storytelling

There was a lot of death on television this season, but an examination of who's dying reveals problems in the treatment of women, people of color, and LGBTQ characters on TV.

This season on television, to love a character was to fear that they might end up dead. It was a season of death and controversy, one that may permanently alter the way we think about character and stakes on television.

In a study of the 2015-2016 television season, Vox collected data on characters who died in television series after appearing in at least three episodes. The numbers are pretty staggering: 241 characters bit the bullet this season, but the death toll is particularly high for women, minorities and LGBTQ characters, given that they appear much more infrequently than straight white men, who still dominate the television landscape.

Representation is a problem for pretty much everyone who isn’t a straight white guy, and TV’s apparent fascination with character death is making it worse. While men technically make up the majority of the death toll (by a pretty narrow margin at 56 percent), their share of the count doesn’t really tell the whole story. Vox’s Caroline Framke points out that the parameters she laid out (namely that the character must appear in three episodes of the show) allowed a number of shows to get away with a relatively low death toll because the majority of their deaths belonged to women who were only present for an episode or two, and she notes that while the deaths of many minor characters weren’t counted, she found that many of them belonged to women, “and they themselves paint a picture of just whom the TV industry sees as disposable.” She continues, saying:

“This qualification is also at least in part responsible for the fact that recurring/regular female characters were killed off at a lower rate than men. There are simply fewer regular/recurring female characters and many shows were already killing women left and right, within an episode or two of introducing them in the first place.”

It speaks to an attitudinal problem with female characters, LGBTQ characters, and people of color. We still live in a world where television shows are dismissed for being “too female and strong female leads are a rarity. Their massive share of the death toll when they don’t make up an equivalent portion of lead or significant roles is a pretty clear indication that not only is televisions approach to character death is flawed, but its approach to women is flawed, too.

The numbers also reinforce many of the claims that’ve appeared in the media with regards to queer women dying on television and the “Bury Your Gays” trope. Vox’s study shows that 10 percent of the deaths recorded were queer women, and there was hardly a more notable character death this season than Lexa’s on The 100. But that number doesn’t take into account any queer women who were introduced and then killed in fewer than three episodes. Autostraddle’s own study shows that in the last 40 years of television, only 11 percent of shows have included lesbian or bisexual female characters, which really illustrates just how disproportionate the number of queer female character deaths are when compared to the total number of queer women who appear on television.

Discussing these numbers within the larger context of TVs treatment of death, Vox says, “Straight white men might still die on TV (hi, Ned!), but the supporting characters who get the kinds of non-resonant deaths that cause fans to roll their eyes are much more likely to be women, people of color, or LGBTQ characters.”

It’s important to recognize these characters deaths aren’t necessarily cases of showrunners and writers looking to kill off women, people of color and LGBTQ characters with sinister or vindictive aims. Instead, the problem stems from the how these characters are created and positioned in the narrative. But make no mistake: the cavalier attitude toward the narrative impact of representative characters is sinister even when it’s unintentional.

With a few exceptions, television shows don’t kill their leads. They kill supporting characters, often for shock value or to give a lead character some pain to “work through.” These supporting characters may take on important parts of the plot, but many are ultimately expendable. When a show’s representation shows up in supporting characters who are killed off to further someone else’s story, does it undermine the value of that representation?

Cate Cameron / The CW

It’s clear that there’s a lot tied up in the problem of character death on TV. But Vox also points out that another big part of the problem with character death on television is the very strange approaches we see to life and death in narrative, particularly with regards to death as the ultimate raising of the stakes in a show.

“If the worst thing that can happen to a character is that she could lose her life, then that character probably isn’t terribly well-developed in the first place,” says VerDerWerff. He goes on to point out that emotional stakes are more difficult to create, but that they’re often the mark of standout characters.

“Of course, it’s much easier to create stakes that pertain to a character’s physical body. Creating stakes that pertain to someone’s mind or soul is inestimably harder, because it requires digging deep, creating great characters whose lives you care about so much that even if, say, they lose their job or a lover, you find yourself distraught.”

Somewhere along the line, the treatment and perception of life and death in television took a wrong turn and it’s fundamentally altering our experience of narratives. When over 240 characters die in a single season and when many of those characters made up the representation that Hollywood so desperately needs, something’s amiss. When it happens with such frequency, death on television isn’t meaningful, poignant or even shocking, but exhausting.

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