As a communication undergraduate, I’m constantly exposed to issues that plague the creative industries. Subjects such as diversity, representation, and the role of online cultures come up regularly. Social media allows fans and critics to voice their complaints to the producers of films and television shows, who in turn either adjust their productions accordingly or ignore the issues altogether.
However, this development isn’t always a good thing. When enough angry people voice what might truly be a non-issue through the virtual megaphone, it almost sounds like rational, critical discourse. Through a racial lens, the backlash that erupts on social media whenever black characters are killed in certain TV shows, while well-intentioned, often falls into a ‘non-issue’ discourse. Worse, it takes the spotlight off the more critical underlying problem: racial representation.
While this occurs with many TV shows, AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead is a prime example of this phenomenon. The Walking Dead follows a group of survivors into a world infested with zombies. Each season, the main group of protagonists expands and diversifies.
Apart from exploring themes such as what it means to be human, the show kills off popular characters as a substantial part of its charm. Viewers tune in for the deaths and stay for the occasional gems of character-driven storytelling. However, there’s a recurring complaint that the show doesn’t tend to have more than one regular black character at a time, as each seems to be killed off and quickly replaced by another black character. As a black man, this complaint annoys me.
We’re at the point where there will never be enough black characters on the show to stop the complaints.
During the earlier seasons, it could’ve been considered an astute observation. However, with time the show began to introduce multiple African American and other minority characters at the same time. Still, the complaints about killing off black characters persisted. Considering how death is a major part of the show, why should a character be spared because of the colour of their skin?
What is the point of investing in a character when you know they’re safe from the cruel hands of the producers and writers? The whole aspect of equal representation is rendered useless if the producers can kill off 20 white characters without any race complaints; but when one black character is killed, the outcry is focused mainly on the character’s race, rather than the audience’s investment with the now-deceased character.
Furthermore, when these social media barrages affect the outcome of the show, the production stops being the story the creators want to tell, and becomes something more akin to fan fiction.
We’re at the point where there will never be enough black characters on the show to stop the complaints. These complaints about killing off black characters divert the discourse from the underlying issues of racial representation. The Walking Dead tries — it really does. Is there a good reason though, why in a show set in Atlanta, Georgia, where 54 percent of the population is black according to its 2010 census, only 14.4 percent of the cast is black as of the sixth season?
There’s only so much realism you can have in a show about zombies, but representing the racial diversity of its setting would be a nice touch.