Dear Hollywood, Stop Fridging Women of Color
Hollywood, we need to talk.
Specifically, we need to talk about your debilitating addiction to fridging every damn woman of color on a male-led TV series. It’s not a good look anymore. Please stop, it’s killing us. Sincerely, a Mad Hapa Bitch.
Okay, maybe I should explain.
“Fridging,” if you haven’t heard, is the act of killing off a (usually) female or queer POC to motivate the typically white male lead into coming after the story’s villain with renewed hellfire and fury. It’s as lousy as it sounds. As most POC roles revolve around a white male lead, when it comes to sacrificing a beloved supporting character in the name of ratings, viewer retention, or plot development the POC are the first to go. Now how the heck are we supposed to attain any semblance of diversity, equity, and inclusion when none of the POC get to develop their character arcs?
It’s become so common that two years ago Vox published a thinkpiece declaring that death on TV was “losing its punch,” that Hollywood was “drowning in cheap, sloppily executed deaths”—242 in the 2015-2016 season, to be exact. Just last month, feminist-geek-pop culture site, The Mary Sue, ran a story about how the writers of Supernatural—a show infamous for its dominantly cishetero male cast and penchant for killing off beloved female characters—have tried to walk back one of their most notorious female fridgings in an attempt to appease a largely female, furiously bitter fanbase. So why is it that TV land insists on killing off their queer, POC, and female characters, when in fact over half of the fanfiction community—arguably the most devoted fans a show could ask for—identifies as a gender, sexual, or romantic minority?
The good news is viewers are becoming more vocal about it. The bad news is that it’s still happening. This is precisely why I want to leave no stone unturned and turn to The Alienist, the latest show to fall victim to this same, sad gimmick.
The show starts off quite promising: a crime drama set in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. New York is a jumble of immigrant communities all grunting and sweating their way towards the American Dream. Theodore Roosevelt has just been named police commissioner, and there’s a serial killer on the loose who is preying on gay boys. The show depends on a vaguely Sherlockian premise: a savantishly talented psychologist, Dr. Lazlo Kriezler (Daniel Brühl), who inserts himself into a police investigation and insists that he can solve the case with the emerging “science of the mind.” A known “alienist”—one who studies people deemed insane or “alienated from their true natures”—he enlists his well-bred illustrator friend (Luke Evans) and the NYPD’s first female employee (Dakota Fanning) to assist him in sleuthing his way across Manhattan. Opera rendezvous and horse-carriage shenanigans ensue.
I should mention quickly that as a cis-hetero woman, I am afforded certain privileges that have made watching the grotesque depiction of queer bodies an easier pill to swallow. Some folks might find the less-than-ideal treatment of queer/genderqueer folks on this show upsetting (yet another reason why we need more representation in the writer’s room). For a review of the queer themes of this show, click here.
It is no doubt that Kriezler’s forward-thinking views serve as an understated apology for juxtaposing the racist realities of New York’s immigrant-heavy working class against the lavish affordances of the assimilated white elite. Racial slurs are deployed like nudity on Game of Thrones, and we are reminded, passively, of how each immigrant minority, upon finding good standing in the city, turns around and bullies the next minority. Amidst that, however, Kriezler believes most people are simply misunderstood, formed by society instead of the other way around. So naturally he employs a household staff made up of societal rejects: one black man, one orphan, and one mute Native American woman.
Mary (Q’orianka Kilcher) is mute, yet her character and her actions speak much more powerfully than if she were able to speak. Personally, I found her fascinating. She is the epitome of the brown faithful servant, gliding and sometimes stomping her way through Kriezler’s house chopping his vegetables and tying his laces. She is fierce, warm, complex, unruly, and still somehow humble—and Kilcher adroitly navigates that without uttering a word.
Mary’s presence on the show symbolizes that disabled brown women can have power and agency, even on a period drama, and she was so close to gaining some serious attention.
What made me particularly happy is that she is also allowed to be angry—to be a killer, even. She resents her place as a maid, harbors visible jealousy towards Kriezler’s potential love interest, and does not hesitate to come after intruders with a knife when their home is threatened. Her anger might be deemed crazy by the greater public (she set her mother on fire as a child) but her presence in Kriezler’s home demonstrates that he sees her as complex and hurt instead of insane—another microcosm of the show’s entire concept.
Ah, finally, a complex brown woman with immense potential!
AND THEN SHE WENT AND FUCKING DIED.
I was furious. I am furious. Her character arc was only just beginning. Her biggest opportunity for growth is through her intimate relationship with Kriezler, realized in episode 7 but which simmers consistently throughout. All signs point to a blossoming, fascinating relationship between two complex humans, and then she suddenly dies in a knife fight by falling off the third-floor banister. Clearly the writers had no idea how much power she actually held, or else they wouldn’t have killed her off so suddenly.
This depresses me twofold. One, the supposed reason for her death is to send Kriezler into a harrowing dark night of the soul from which he must emerge victorious, holding the key to the killer’s methods. However, a phoenix rising he is not—his character arc is neither legible nor expressly dependent on Mary’s influence. In fact, the honor of pulling Kriezler out of his grief is given to Sara—thus privileging the emotional trauma of the white woman over the woman of color. Kriezler’s own past trauma, independent of Mary, is arguably enough to sufficiently weigh him down (a tragic relationship with his parents resulting in a crippled arm) and in my opinion is an underdeveloped thread overshadowed by Mary’s death. Thus her death is a) unjustified and b) irrelevant to the actual success of the main plot.
For too long the writer’s room has depended on the dysfunctional qualities of male characters being spurred on by the death of a woman or POC, and the returns are diminishing rapidly.
Two, that a show like this would give the white woman such a complex, developed character arc proves that there is room for women like Mary. While I adore Dakota Fanning’s mature, surprisingly even-keeled performance as Sara Howard, her perspective as the society girl with something to prove is familiar if not boring. It’s the perspective of Agent Carter, Cersei Lannister, Vesper Lynd, Kaylee Frye, Virginia Johnson: all white woman playing characters who fearlessly navigate the privileged man’s world for their own gain. Even cinematographically speaking Sara is given a wide berth—majestic wide shots, picturesque ball gowns in lavish dining rooms. I would have loved to see this show develop a more Downton Abbey-esque upstairs-downstairs balance. The groundwork was already laid, with Kriezler involving his staff in police stings and treating them as intellectual equals—I would have killed to see that fluidity mature to crossing social boundaries, especially with Mary. Alas, for now the show has only flirted with such things.
Mary’s presence on the show symbolizes that disabled brown women can have power and agency, even on a period drama, and she was so close to gaining some serious attention. Women of color hardly get substantial roles as it stands, much less substantial roles in gilded period dramas. We are perpetually the maid, perpetually silent, and perpetually kept out of any narrative significance. To split hairs even further, it’s even more rare to see a brown woman—a woman of indigenous, Latina, or APIA ancestry exist so visibly in a show of this nature, “savage” stereotypes excepted. To have both black and brown representation in this type of drama is not only rare, it’s an untapped market. Practically speaking, people of color are dying to play those roles—Hamilton’s proved that—so is it really so unimaginable that brown people actively inhabited 19th century New York? (I mean, if we can imagine Matt Damon commandeering the Chinese militia...)
Perhaps that’s why her death stung so hard—as a hapa who grew up absorbing messaging that told her she was just brown enough to never be considered for leading period roles (um, bullshit 10-year-old me), I was elated to see a character with my skin tone appear in corsets and hoop skirts and emerge as a poignant, complicated love interest. Mary’s first appearance felt akin to that moment when I found out that Filipino-American Ali Ewoldt would be playing Christine Daae in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway—suddenly all of my childhood dreams were vindicated. Mary’s death conversely evoked a feeling of crushing despair—like when Warren Beatty announced that La La Land had won Best Motion Picture over Moonlight except Jordan Horowitz never shows up to correct him.
Am I too emotionally invested in TV for my own good? Probably. But it doesn’t change the principle: writers need to be held accountable for making stupid and redundant decisions with their WOC.
All this is to say that it is no longer acceptable for writers to damn their characters to sloppy deaths in favor of currying good ratings. Good ratings are not dependent on audience approval so much as attention, so it’s understandable why writers have become dependent on cheap tricks: they’ve proven to hold our attention in spite of how we might feel about them. However, as America inches itself closer and closer to a brown majority population, if our story structures keep failing to affirm and include brown people, who’s to say folks won’t stop watching entirely? For too long the writer’s room has depended on the dysfunctional qualities of male characters being spurred on by the death of a woman or POC, and the returns are diminishing rapidly. And while I can understand making a sudden exit due to contracts or scheduling conflicts—perhaps that’s the case here, but I highly doubt it—it doesn’t diminish my point: the “it’s just where the story’s taking us” excuse is no longer gonna fly.
Maybe if we gave more women, more queer, and more POC writers opportunities for real writing credits, then this would be less of a problem (a note: The Alienist has had all-male directors and nearly all-male writers). Perhaps then writing character arcs outside the white male wheelhouse would be a little less cavalier or clumsy.
So let’s make a deal Hollywood: you start taking some risks with WOC like you do those mediocre white men that clearly aren’t pulling their weight, and we’ll blow you out of the water with some damn good deathless plots. Sound good? Okay fam let’s roll.
Lindsey is a playwright, blogger, and lyrical poet based in Santa Barbara, CA. A born and bred Southern Californian, she is currently living in Manila with extended family working on her first full-length play, Platinum Record. She writes vigorously about hapa identity, the female body, and the importance of wearing pearls. You can usually find her belting out showtunes in her car or arguing loudly about sexuality in coffee shops. She’s a friend of the pod, a hoarder of (coffee table) books, and a connoisseur of very large pants.