Another Dead Lesbian and the Question of Representation

Warning: Last Tango in Halifax spoilers.

My mission on this blog is to mention, support, and promote things I like. I usually don’t mention things I don’t like. Today is an exception. I want to talk about something I don’t like: the kill-the-lesbian trope.

This subject is fresh on my mind because Kate McKenzie was killed off on Last Tango in Halifax in episode 4 of season 3, but I could have written about the topic once a month since the birth of the blog and still have plenty of subject matter.

When I recapped the episode in which Kate died, I did it as a straight report on the story as writer Sally Wainwright wrote it. It’s her story, her creation. She can write it as she wants. (I took to heart a tweet from Shonda Rhimes about fans who think they can tell her how to write her stories.)

I don’t want to tell Sally Wainwright how to write a good story. She knows. She’s written wonderful female characters in Scott & Bailey, in Happy Valley, and in Last Tango in Halifax. I thank her for all of them.

I think this character is part of a larger discussion about media in general and LBGT / woman of color representation in particular.What I do want to explore are the implications of picking this particular character, Kate McKenzie – played by Nina Sosanya – to die. I think this character is part of a larger discussion about media in general and LBGT / woman of color representation in particular.

Kate’s death means that a story about this lesbian couple – one of them a woman of color – is over. There will be no married life struggles, no child raising drama, no representation of two brilliant successful lesbians living a normal life in modern day Britain.

Kate’s death means that a woman of color in a leading role as a lesbian is gone. Her presence in this story, not just as a lesbian but as a woman of color, was significant to many people and to society as a whole. The number 1 search term that brings people to this blog is “Nina Sosanya.” The number 1 post on this blog week after week is about Nina Sosanya. This says to me that she represents something to a majority of people interested in Last Tango.

Kate’s death means that Celia – played by Anne Reid – doesn’t have to grapple with her homophobia, her racism. Kate is gone and with her an important and much needed character arc for Celia.

Kate’s death means that Caroline – played by Sarah Lancashire – will live without love from now on, will grieve for what she’s lost from now on.

Interviews, Quotes, and Comments

Sally Wainwright

Sally Wainwright’s first interview after the episode was with Diva Magazine. When asked why she killed off Kate she said,

It was a really massive decision. And it just felt it wasn’t as… [long pause]. It didn’t give the series as much emotional impact as we normally like to give the audience. I suppose that’s why we made that decision. But I am sad, and I’m really aware that I’ve upset a lot of people.

Later, she was asked why Kate and not John (played by Tony Gardner)? Her answer,

The narrative was that Caroline and Celia had fallen out so badly with Celia not going to the wedding. They weren’t going to speak to each other ever again. Narratively, nothing can ever bring this mother and daughter back together again. And then of course when there’s this huge, massive catastrophe in the family, people do rally round. People do get back together. So it was a narrative decision. It was more about the relationship between Celia and Caroline, and what that gave us.

Celia and Caroline fight regularly and viciously. And make up. That’s been part of their narrative all along. I find it hard to believe that someone had to die for them to make up.

When asked if Caroline would meet another woman, Sally Wainwright answered,

No. And she’s not going to meet another man either.

Nina Sosanya

Nina Sosanya’s first interview after Kate’s death was with Cultbox. When asked for her reaction when she heard about Kate’s death she said,

I was warned before I read the script – which was kind of them – and my honest initial reaction was ‘oh that’s a good idea!’, because the drama is great, but then slowly it dawned on me that I wouldn’t be in it anymore! So that was a bit of a slow burn, but it was off for me because from an outside opinion I could completely see why that’s a great story turn.

But it was quite devastating to have to say goodbye to that relationship, particularly with Sarah, because you build up a working relationship that’s quite unique. It was really sad.

Nina didn’t know at the start of series 3 that she was going to be off the show is how I read that. Assuming she really is off the show. In episode 4 – the funeral episode – she was there as she appeared in Caroline’s grieving visualizations. She may be around for a while in Caroline’s imagination.

When asked about playing Kate as a ghost she said,

Yes, that’s quite an interesting thing to play, because you’re not really playing the character anymore, you playing it as imagined by someone else. So that was a challenge, it was quite good really.

 And would she work with Sally Wainwright again? Yes, definitely!

Lady Parts

A powerful post on Lady Parts deserves a reading. It’s titled Lesbian Lives Matter. Read the entire post, please. Here’s a bit of particular interest.

There is great division in the lesbian fan community right now. Some people are very angry from years of disappointments and have banned the show, much like they did with “The L Word,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Chicago Fire” and countless other shows that let us down. Some do not want to bite the hand that feeds us and are worried that the show might be canceled and Caroline might never get another chance at happiness.

Well, I don’t want the show canceled, but I do want this to be a teaching moment, for Wainwright and everyone who follows her. I want us to scream loud enough, I want them to hear, and I want to finally earn their respect. Lesbian lives matter. Queer lives matter. Stories on television matter. They give voice to those who are struggling to be heard, and they give a face and a familiarity to the Other.

I Want to Have Them Here

A Tumblr blog called “I Want to Have Them Here” posted an piece called In Memory of Kate McKenzie.  They suggest an action that would be an example of what Lady Parts called a teaching moment.

. . . it wouldn’t be right to let this wonderful couple and all that they represent, simply fade away without their significance being recognised therefore we are proposing a highly visible demonstration of our gratitude for the gift that is Kate & Caroline and our appreciation of the two sublime actresses who portrayed them so skilfully and honestly.

We are co-opting the phenomenon of Lovers’ Locks, a symbol of everlasting love. It says a lot about how we would have preferred the script to have gone as well as a warm embodiment of our feelings for the characters and their relationship as lesbians.

The suggestion is to put lover’s locks in a fence near the Red Production offices at in Salford in England. (The address is in the article.) I think this is a quiet, gentle act that could build into news that many writers and producers would notice and think about.

After Ellen

The final quote comes from a piece on After Ellen by Elaine Atwell. Elaine is mad as hell and doesn’t want to take it any more, as are many fans who are fatigued by the kill-the-lesbian trope. Here’s a quote:

. . . writers, producers, and showrunners have no qualms at all about taking our faith and our love and our loyalty and shoving it right back in our faces. Sure, they love us when we offer nothing but praise. They collect the GLAAD awards like Greek gods courting temple sacrifices. They eagerly repeat the stories of how their characters gave real life people the courage to come out. They pat themselves on the back so hard and so often it’s a wonder they’re not all in a constant state of cramp. But when we dare to object, when we express fatigue or frustration with being force-fed the same tired cliches again and again, then the same queer women who formed a vital part of their fan base become a nuisance. When we complain, they call us shrill. And when we try to sneak the characters under our T-shirts and spirit them away to the worlds of Tumblr or fan fiction, places we know we can at least keep them safe, they call us crazy.

Shows with lesbian characters should all be bowing before “After Ellen” and thanking them for all the support, the articles, the recaps, the free publicity, the interviews. When “After Ellen” gets mad, much of the lesbian population gets mad with them. A teachable moment.

What is the kill-the-lesbian Trope?

There’s a wiki called TV Tropes. It has a page called Bury Your Gays. This page, with it’s links to other similar pages, is an education in the frequency with which the trope is used to kill off gay characters. Read and get educated. A quote (emphasis mine):

Please note that sometimes gay characters die in fiction because in fiction sometimes people die (this is particularly true of soldiers at war, where Sitch Sexuality and Anyone Can Die are both common tropes); this isn’t an if-then correlation, and it’s not always meant to “teach us something” or indicative of some prejudice on the part of the creator – particularly if it was written after 1960. The problem isn’t when gay characters are killed off: the problem is when gay characters are killed off far more often than straight characters, or when they’re killed off because they are gay.

Under that are examples from anime, comic books, fan works, film, literature, TV, music, theater, video games, web comics, web original, and western animation. Open and look at all of them. If you’ve heard of this trope before but never really seen it documented, open and look at all the examples. An educational moment.

In the TV section alone, examples come from Chicago Fire, True Blood, Will and Grace, Ally McBeal, The Andromeda Strain, Battlestar Gallactica, Bramwell, Cold Case, Damages, Dark Angel, Dirty Sexy Money, Foyle’s War, Hex, Hollyoaks, Emmerdale, House, Lost, The Sopranos, Supernatural, Veronica Mars, Warehouse 13, Boardwalk Empire, The Tudors, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hemlock Grove, The Killing, American Horror Story and more and more. Now Last Tango in Halifax can be added to the ever growing list.

The Issue of Representation

Pop culture and representations of society and its multitude of individuals in our media matter. LBGT representation, women’s representation, men’s representation, the representation of the handicapped, the disabled, the old, the representation of people of color, the representation of races, religions, belief systems: it all matters.

Television, film, YouTube, advertising, media of any kind teaches us who we are. Teaches us what our culture believes we are. Teaches us what we can and cannot be.

Taking the route of killing off yet another gay character teaches us that gay people are expendable and not worth keeping around. It’s a plot device that needs to be examined by every creative person who writes for TV, film or any other medium. It matters how LGBT characters are handled in the media. Representation matters.

Why Are We So Attached to Kate?

Update: 8/20/2015: Why do we mourn so angrily when our favorite characters are killed off? Here’s a fascinating article at The Mary Sue called The Psychology of Fandom: Why We Get Attached to Fictional Characters that explains what’s happening in our brains and thoughts when a favorite character departs suddenly.

[Note: This post was syndicated on BlogHer.com in a slightly different version: Another Dead Lesbian TV Character and the Question of Representation.]