TWD: The Struggle of Balancing Storytelling and Representation

Author: Eri Tsujii ¦ October 26, 2016

-Spoiler Alert!-

If twitter is any indication, I wasn’t alone in how I felt about Sunday night’s Season 7 premiere of The Walking Dead.  It was brutal.  It was gruesome.  It was heartbreaking.  And while I ugly-sobbed in mourning over the loss of both Abraham and Glenn, I found myself having a harder time coping with the death of Glenn. Mostly because I realized I was not only mourning the loss of a beloved character, but also the loss of one of the few Asian characters on TV who has been developed in a thoughtful and multi-faceted manner.  Glenn was moral, he was intelligent, he was impassioned, he was physically capable (without having to be a martial arts master), and he was sexual – the last two of which we rarely see in modern portrayals of Asian males.

Like many of you over the past several months, I spent some time (probably more than needs to be spent on discussing fictional characters) debating with friends about who would be the one killed.  And while there was much talk about Glenn being the likely candidate since he was killed in the comics, I found myself vacillating between thinking “No…they wouldn’t do that to the only Asian character; not with all the backlash Hollywood has been getting lately” and “Well, maybe they would…he is, after all, the only Asian character.”  And I was mad at myself for thinking that.  Mad at myself for reducing the basis of my argument to race.  To basing it not on his character arc or how his presence can further or hinder the main plot lines, but rather on his Asian-ness.  But the more I thought about it, and the more I wanted so badly to analyze his presence on the show as purely a function of his character and not his race, the more I realized… we aren’t there yet.

It’s a tough place to be where you want to be treated like any other character would be treated, but then knowing that in doing so you’re likely going to be taking down diverse characters at a faster rate than they are popping up.  And while we’re all sick of the tired trope of the PoC character being the one to die, we also don’t want to be in a situation where we think “Well, they definitely won’t kill off the PoC character because…politics…”  Either way, it ruins the element of surprise and hinders good character development and story telling.  So does this mean that we’re doomed to never be happy whether a PoC character lives or dies?  Are we stuck in a Catch-22 of representation?  Right now, it might seem that we are.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I can’t speak for everyone, but for myself, the reason why I currently find myself being perpetually displeased with PoC character outcomes is because there’s not enough diversity out there to make it not feel personal.  I know that might sound ridiculously dramatic, but when you have only one character of a particular representation on a show, like it or not, that character becomes a symbol of something much larger than they would be had there been five actors of that same representation on the show.  That’s why when we watch shows like Luke Cage or Fresh Off the Boat, it doesn’t feel as stigmatizing when we see a character we don’t like, and why we are able to enjoy the characters (flaws and all) without having to worry as much about what each character means for how PoCs are being portrayed to the rest of the country.  And that’s why it hits us hard when one of the few strong and multi-dimensional Asian characters on TV that we can genuinely feel proud of gets killed off in such a brutal manner.

pebble-icon Eri Tsujii (aka Pebble) is one of your co-hosts on Fandom Cracked. Need some help coping with the loss of some of our favorite characters on The Walking Dead? Listen to our podcast on Mentally Surviving the Zompocalypse here!

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