This article is part of a series on fan culture and its many related topics. Start with our primer on fandom and follow along with the series every day this week.
Caroline Framke: For the past couple of months, I’ve been up to my ears in death.
This spring saw a huge groundswell of fan outcry over queer women dying on television. In March, The CW's apocalyptic drama The 100 killed off gay commander Lexa in a disappointingly clichéd way, setting off a chaotic onslaught of furious fans storming social media with passionate pleas for the show's writers to do better.
Around the same time, a handful of other shows also killed off gay women characters, fueling many viewers' ire and sparking a more widespread debate about the types of characters we tend to view as "disposable."
As that debate reached a fever pitch online, I decided to count up and analyze all the deaths across American primetime shows; what I found was overwhelming. (And, yes: Queer women did indeed die at a disproportionate rate.)
In the days afterward, one of the hardest questions I received was basically, "Where do we go from here, now that we know TV deaths are lopsided?" When NPR's Rachel Martin asked me whether awareness of disproportionate deaths — and the unfortunate "bury your gays" trope that launched the outrage in the first place — would change the way TV writers tell stories, I hesitated, then offered a resounding, "Maybe!"
But should it?
Writers and artists both love and fear their fans
The relationship between fans and creators has always been incredibly complex, and in recent years it's grown quite intense and fraught. While creators often depend on fans to keep their works alive and relevant, historically there was a clear distance between them. These days, the internet makes it easy for people to contact — or at least publicly comment on — the people whose works they love (or hate), creating an immediate feedback channel that doesn't always go both ways and isn't always welcome.
Some creators invite and encourage engagement from their fervent fan bases, especially if they're already familiar with fan culture. J.K. Rowling has always supported Harry Potter fanfiction; Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda credits the fans who annotated Hamilton on the lyric site Genius for making him step up his game when he wrote his own in-depth explainer.
But for television especially, fans' ability to contact writers and creators directly has been an uncomfortable jolt to the system — and no one knows exactly how to handle it.
In May, I attended a Writers Guild panel on LGBTQ characters on TV. During the event, the panelists were asked whether they'd heard about The 100's controversial death and its ensuing maelstrom of fan fury as series creator Jason Rothenberg made some stumbling attempts at damage control. The participating writers — who work on shows ranging from American Crime to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — said they had. They also said that in drawing attention to the "bury your gays" concept, the uproar made them aware of a trope they hadn't fully understood before.
But for as much as they sympathized with fans who felt hurt or offended by what had happened on the show, they firmly rejected the idea that they had to listen to those fans when writing stories. Jane the Virgin creator Jennie Snyder Urman urged people to keep watching the show beyond a single moment they might not agree with. Carter Covington, the creator of MTV's recently canceled Faking It, praised his passionate fans as inspiring but dismissed the idea that he was obligated to give them a happy ending just because they wanted it so badly.
It wasn't the first time I'd heard television writers struggle to balance their appreciation of fans with their concern that fans sometimes ask — or demand — too much. And they weren't merely defiant; they were scared.
The relationship between creators and fans has never been more confusing than it is now
As the barriers between fans and creators get knocked down with hashtags and Tumblr questions, some creators are straight-up terrified by the new wave of interactive fandom that wants so much more from them than, say, a written fan letter might once have asked.
More specifically, many people are saying that fans have become "entitled." As the very idea of what "fandom" means has become its own topic of conversation, curious but wary media coverage has focused on the "demands" fans are making of the works they love.
The collision of comic book fans with billion-dollar film franchises, resentment over the upcoming Ghostbusters reboot, anguish over a TV show killing off yet another queer female character, and passionate love for Broadway’s rapping Founding Fathers have all made for irresistible topics of conversation, especially as what fans are saying has become more and more visible to people making the creative decisions.
And to be sure, there are absolutely times when fans express their anger in unproductive and even willfully destructive ways. Vox's Alex Abad-Santos was reamed for not identifying a romantic relationship between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes in Captain America: Civil War. The 100 writers received death threats. Some Ghostbusters reboot rage has expressed itself in concentrated, ugly Twitter campaigns that target anyone who says something halfway positive about the new movie.
This unfortunate behavior mostly comes from vocal minorities. But it's an unfortunate truth that those who yell the loudest are usually the first to be heard, which is how you get TV writers blinking in panic at the idea of having to cater to fan whims. I wouldn't be surprised if, despite saying otherwise, fan backlash results in far less communication between creators and fans, rather than more.
Creators and fans need to find middle ground before creators shut fans out completely
Truthfully, I'm of two minds about how much weight creators should assign to fan feedback. I believe creators should never fully ignore blowback. When people dismiss the internet as an outraged monolith, they're usually missing out on more nuances than they think. And at the end of the day, creators hold far more power as individuals; fans have to band together in huge numbers, like The 100 fans did, to get any kind of notice.
Still, I also appreciate the often impossible position creators find themselves in, where they want to encourage fans to interact with their work while also telling the story they want to tell. I don't think it was out of line for The 100 to kill off Lexa in general, as the show makes a habit of killing main characters and she held a dangerous position that almost always ends in death. But at the same time, I think her death could have happened in a much more satisfying and interesting way than it did.
So this might not be the most satisfying answer, but really, it comes down to balance. Fans can — and should! — get involved with their favorite works and express their passion. Creators can — and should! — listen to their fans. But as communication between the two groups becomes easier and easier, it's more important than ever for them to treat each other with respect, so they can listen to each other without resorting to ultimatums.
Previous entry: Defending fandom is exhausting. Let's start celebrating it instead.