2017 saw three martial arts television shows, Into the Badlands, Iron Fist and Samurai Jack, all competing for viewers’ affections. Iron Fist was the least popular of the lot, already subjected to harsh criticism before its release for not taking the opportunity to cast an Asian-American actor as its protagonist. However, Jessica Henwick’s performance as Colleen Wing was well received, and she’ll be reprising the role in The Defenders, and possibly more Marvel productions.
Meanwhile, Samurai Jack was blowing fans away with its long-delayed final season. It introduced Ashi, the daughter of Jack’s nemesis Aku, who ultimately defies her destiny of killing Jack by helping him accomplish his goal of going back in time and killing Aku. The two are getting married when Ashi fades from existence, both of them realising too late that killing Aku meant she never even existed. It was a bittersweet end, poignant but predictable: the character was only created so Jack’s defeat of Aku would nevertheless leave him emotionally scarred.
Into the Badlands also ended its season disappointingly. After spending the whole season trying to reunite with his girlfriend Veil and their son Henry, Sunny spends most of the finale trying to kill her captor Quinn, who just won’t die despite being stabbed repeatedly in seemingly fatal areas. He grabs Veil and threatens to kill her, so she stabs herself, killing them both. It was a grievous, contrived and mean-spirited way to kill her off, flicking dirt into the eyes of viewers who were invested in her attempts to escape her jailer. Veil’s just a tragic memory for Sunny now, and an absent parent for baby Henry.
It was an alarming coincidence to see two women of colour, and love interests of two Asian protagonists no less, be sacrificed like that on two American cable series. Say what you will about Iron Fist, but at least it didn’t kill off female characters to provide the hero with some emotional turmoil. There was similar controversy when Sleepy Hollow killed off its black female lead Abbie Mills; the show only lasted one more season. Into the Badlands showrunner Alfred Gough admitted he was “unaware” of the trend, indicating that it was not a factor when the writers were making such an important decision.
But the problem isn’t new: the term “Women in Refrigerators” was coined by writer Gail Simone to describe it, referencing an issue of the Green Lantern comic where Kyle Rayner discovers his girlfriend Alexandra DeWitt has been murdered and stuffed into a refrigerator (Yes, really). Alexandra had only been introduced with Kyle six issues prior to that one; her sole purpose to provide him a sympathetic backstory, but her death was a gratuitous and pointless tragedy compared to ones like the death of Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben.
What’s ironic is that while the American film industry is not considered as progressive and diverse as television, it rarely kills off female characters in its sequels when writing them out, in comparison to TV Series. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol delightfully subverted the trope, although it was unfortunate that the producers clearly felt Michelle Monaghan’s character had been a mistake. Even though these departed female leads like Jane Foster (Thor), Carol Marcus (Star Trek) and Mikaela Banes (Transformers) are white, it’s even more unfortunate that television writers feel they can treat their women of colour characters in particular, as expendable.
Perhaps I should start watching The Walking Dead despite my aversion to zombies outside comedies. It’s a pleasant surprise to hear Danai Gurira, a dark-skinned actress no less, is still playing Michonne on the show despite its propensity for killing off main characters. Similarly, we’re thankful the Starz series Black Sails did not cast aside its black female characters Max and Madi, with the former undergoing a character journey arguably equal to Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones.
Yet shows like The Walking Dead or Black Sails weren’t designed to cater to us like Into the Badlands. We want to support these shows to encourage producers to give more opportunities to actors from ethnic minorities. They cannot expect us to if they perpetuate lazy storytelling and waste strong casting, reinforcing the false notion that one must prioritise diversity over quality or vice versa. Less diverse casts certainly won’t solve the problem of fridging women; only quality writing can.
Author: Christopher Chiu-Tabet
Editor: Precious Mayowa Agbabiaka