Friday, April 24, 2015

LGBT Characters in The Vampire Diaries and The Originals

We are currently in season 6 of The Vampire Diaries and season 2 of The Originals.  The latest season gave the viewers the most gay characters these shows have ever had at one time. The Vampire Diaries had Luke, while The Originals had Josh and Aidan. Maybe three gay characters isn’t exactly an immense number considering the sheer size of the casts on these shows, but it was still a peak in this universe’s representation of gay existence.

Except, now, they’re down to one gay character: Josh on The Originals. Luke died recently, sacrificing himself on The Vampire Diaries for his straight sisters and Aidan was just brutally murdered by Dahlia to make a random point and add to Klaus’s endless, overflowing Manpain

These two deaths not only killed off 2 thirds of the gay representation on both shows (and the entirety of the gay representation on The Vampire Diaries) but killed off half of the named gay characters these shows have ever had. In one fell swoop, this season slaughtered half of the series’ entire gay representation.

Prior to the introduction of Luke, Aidan and Josh, the only other named gay character - Bill Thorbes choose death over becoming a vampire. Of the four gay characters these shows have had, three of them are dead. By any form of accounting, killing 3/4 of any population is targeted and in the case of marginalised characters beyond problematic.

Every last one of these gay characters died by violence leaving Josh alone and looking awfully vulnerable (Which suggests that a gay character had better head to the plot box and hide if they want to live). Yes, these are shows with a pretty huge death rates, but the straight people dying didn’t annihilate three quarters of their presence from the screen. Wiping out three quarters of a minority representation by violence is still a gross trend and sends a terrible message about disposability of these characters. They were not put on the bus like Jeremy, not dead by natural causes like Liz but all dead by violence.

Because if there’s one thing worse than the gross death rate of gay characters in The Vampire Diaries / Originals universe, it’s the treatment of them when they were actually alive.

The Vampire Diaries and The Originals between them have covered 8 seasons (and counting since both have been renewed) - a pretty massive 171 episodes, and an enormous and uncountable array of characters. In all that time and with all those characters, we would expect some LGBT characters to eventually appear.

“Eventually” they did - and eventually is an apt description. Like many shows and book series, The Vampire Diaries (and the greater Vampire Diaries world) waited considerable time to introduce a substantial LGBT representation (assuming we stretch the definition of “substantial” to cover any of the gay characters on this show). This is a far too common meme we see in fiction - LGBT representation is something that is only belatedly introduced, usually after a series has been established for some time and there is a growing level of criticism. Vampire Diaries even tried to allay some of that by teasing that there would be an LGBT character in season 2 (widely tipped to be Rose) before they hurriedly backed away from it.

For the number of characters on these shows, the LGBT representation has been late, sparse and also very much limited to gay men. Again, with this many episodes and this many characters, the lack of a broader representation of the LGBT community is glaring. The only other LGBT representation we have is the highly dubious single scene of Rebekah and Nadia having a threesome with Matt. Could Rebekah and Nadia be bisexual women? Certainly. But neither of these characters express any kind of interest in women after this (or before in Rebekah’s case) and it’s not like we haven’t seen Rebekah’s many (male) love interests in The Vampire Diaries, The Originals and even the book of the series. Rebekah seems to be only interested in women when it’s for the enjoyment of a straight man - a destructive and fetishistic trope that constantly reduces female bisexuality to a performance for the straight male gaze and consumption. This is emphasised by the whole focus of that scene - on Matt’s happiness and enjoyment of Rebekah and Nadia being together and in bed with him.

And, of course, Nadia had an entirely ulterior motive to be there on top of the straight male gaze consumption. At best, it’s a grossly fetishistic depiction of bisexual female sexuality, at worst, it’s two straight women performing bisexuality for a straight man’s pleasure.

Of course, the actual representation we did see on these shows was so utterly awful that I actually regret that Vampire Diaries and Originals wasn’t MORE erased. Yes, this show has earned a Pass at Writing Gay Characters because the depictions are just that awful.

The first gay inclusion we see is an unnamed cowboy in season 1. You probably don’t remember him, most people don’t remember him - he was one of Isobel’s (Elena’s vampire mother) pets. She compelled him to have sex with her. This should really have served as a warning of what’s to come: a nameless token who is reduced to a raped sex toy.

Our second mentioned gay character was Bill Thorbes, Caroline’s absent father. While his sexuality was mentioned on multiple occasions by both Caroline and Liz, he seemed destined to be a Gay Marris: referred to but never to appear. So we were actually somewhat surprised when he did actually make an appearance in season 3. Though, while his sexuality was snarked about whenever he was mentioned when he wasn’t actually present, it seemed to disappear when he actually appeared. This is especially apparent when you look at the media reporting of Luke’s appearance as the first gay character on The Vampire Diaries. Huge chunks of the media, even the gay media, completely missed the fact that Bill was gay.

That’s a problem with representation right there - if you can have an openly gay character on the show for that long and no-one even noticed, that’s a problem.

Of course, if Bill weren’t gay that would have reduced a tiny amount of the awfulness from the infamous Vampire Conversion Therapy scene. Bill decides to “cure” his vampire daughter by using torturous aversion therapy to make her resist her vampireness, while she struggles and desperately yells that she can’t change who she is. We are still amazed that she didn’t break out into a rendition of Born This Way and design a special vampire triangle. To appropriate the suffering of LGBT kids forced to undergo conversion “therapy” (which the LGBT community is still desperately fighting to have banned since this torture of children remains legal in the vast majority of places) would never be acceptable and would always be gross. But to have a gay man be the villain inflicting this on his straight daughter throws in a level of discrimiflip to the whole scene that doesn’t so much leave a bad taste in our mouths as make us fight not to vomit.

Bill ends up murdered by Alaric and remains dead because, unlike his straight daughter, he simply cannot accept his new vampire-ness. Yes, he dies because he cannot accept himself. That’s not even subtle.

Of course that brings us to Luke. Luke was Liv’s twin brother and, pretty much, shadow. From the very beginning he was just backing for Liv while Liv actually involved herself in the whole Traveler storyline. It was Liv who was active, Liv who got a love interest and Liv who ingratiated herself into the main group while Luke… hung around in the background and whined. He never had a love interest (one was briefly mentioned, but of course we never saw him) he never had a storyline, he never took part in anyone else’s storyline. He was little more than an extra (especially for a character that was so hyped to the media for inclusion cookies).

It looked like he might have a greater role in season 6 when we had so many storylines focusing on the Gemini Coven, murderous relatives and the weird ritual of twin killing they have. I would have expected a lot more focus on Luke as one of the 4 Geminis. But it didn’t happen - for the early season he was Elena’s pet spellcaster (because what is the point of a gay man if he doesn’t exist to serve a straight woman?) before passively accepting that the twin-spell ritual would happen one day which would result in Liv killing him. Let’s be clear, from the very beginning Luke was sure he would be the one who would die in this ritual. And that was understandable - we saw Liv perform some pretty awesome magic while Luke was captured by a human football team. Not vampires, not witches, not wereanything - mortal teenagers. Very little about Luke suggested he was powerful or even capable.

It was Liv who rebelled against their twin-merge fate. It was Liv who fought against this, who hated it, who railed against it. But not for her brother - because in a pretty gross retcon everyone suddenly decided that Luke was actually more powerful and Liv would be the one to die. Suddenly Luke starts to care and rebel and fight - see it’s ok if a gay character sacrifices himself so the straight folk may go on living, but the straight sibling dying? Hell no! Luke is willing to fight for Liv’s life as he isn’t for his own. Unfortunately, unlike Liv, Luke has no-one fighting for his survival. And to save both his straight sisters he hunts down Kai and sacrifices himself.

Just to pour some salt on that wound, Kai is even a little redeemed by Luke’s death - and there is no come back against Kai for that death (though some characters did belatedly pretend to care, most of the cast simply didn’t). A shadow, a tool and a self-sacrificing corpse: Luke’s tenure was sad for any character, let alone one that was so hyped.

Josh is the first GLBT character introduced on The Originals.  He happened to be in New Orleans on vacation at a time when Marcel was attempting to expand his nest of vampires.  Josh was taken at the same time as his straight female friend and she quickly sacrificed him in an effort to save herself. Marcel believed that this evidenced a lack of loyalty and Josh was turned instead of her. Josh has spent most of the series as little more than Davina’s BFF and occasionally Klaus’s servant - even going so far as to risk his own life for Davina despite little effort from the writers to show us why he would be so invested in this woman. A gay man needs no reasoning to sacrifice himself for straight person, it seems. He is constantly at the service of stronger supernaturals and unlike Gia, has never been presented as particularly skilled or necessary. It is specifically because Josh’s character has never been interwoven into any of the major plotlines that he spends a lot of time in the plotbox, just waiting for some major character to remember that he’s still alive. But, given the death rate on this show, this may actually have saved him.

The second character GLBT character to appear on The Originals was Aidan - Josh’s love interest. Aidan was the second in command to the Crescent Moon werewolf pack headed by Jackson. For a time, Aidan had difficulty reconciling his identity as a werewolf and his desire to be in a relationship with Josh. This in fact was the central conflict in their relationship though, again due to lack of screen time, it wasn’t developed nearly as well as it could be.  Akin to Josh, Aidan spent much of his time on the peripheral of the story.

Watching Josh and Aidan together was really quite sweet. The problem is that they didn’t share the same kind of sexual intimacy or intensity as the straight characters. When Josh and Aidan are compared for instance to Elijah and Gia or Elijah and Hayley or even Marcel and Cami, their romance was most definitely not charged. The one time they shared a bed together, it was left to the audience to assume that they had had sex. To add insult to injury, once again, their relationship culminated by Aidan’s death. Heaven forbid we see a same sex relationship on television that doesn’t end in gay death.

According to the following interview on TVLine, this tragic ending seemed necessary to the writers.

WHY AIDEN? | “We knew off the bat that we wanted to tell a beautiful Romeo and Juliet story between Josh, a vampire, and Aiden, a werewolf,” Narducci explained. “Our goal was to create a complicated, layered person who was put in many dilemmas with regards to his loyalty to the pack. … Every one of us loves Aiden and every one of us is really sad to see Colin Woodell go. He was such an incredible actor, a beautiful performer, a star in the making. But we felt like that was the best story. With any death … if it’s right, then that’s what you have to do. And that’s what it was in this case.”
That said, death wasn’t the only possibility for Aiden. Narducci revealed that the writers “had talked about many different endings for Josh and Aiden. We’d talked about the possibility of them running off together, we’d talked about the possibility of one of them being captured and the other having to risk everything to try to save them.” Ultimately, though, death seemed the most appropriate way to end their Shakespearean romance.

From the beginning Josh and Aidan were only viewed from a heterosexual perspective - hence the reference to Romeo & Juliet. What I want to know is why the tragic shakespearean reference was necessary in the first place? (Apart from anything else, it’s dubious to compare a love story that was the entire focus of a plot to a romance that appeared maybe once every three episodes, and then briefly). We have seen couples have long relationships in The Vampire Diaries world with lots and twists and turns and yet Josh and Aidan were given less than a single season for their love story arc. Elena for instance has been struggling with her feelings for the Salvatore brothers for years now.  Why couldn’t Josh and Aidan been afforded the same chance?  

The writers claimed that death was the right way to go without ever explaining why. Having Josh and Aidan run off together would have at least for a time, cleared the show of any GLBT characters; however killing Aidan effectively did the same thing because Josh is now in the wind (read: plot box) until they figure out what to do with him next since Josh has no other storylines. Given their horrendous record with LGBT characters to-date you would think that finding a way to keep these two characters even if only peripherally involved in the show would have been the best option. What Aidan’s death affirms is that the writer’s want credit for inclusion no matter how badly they pull it off.

Considering how long the The Vampire Diaries/The Originals has aired it’s fair to say that there has been a paucity of LGBT representation. Four characters of which only one remains does not constitute equal screen time. If we then include that the majority of the characters in question died violently it speaks largely in regards to the importance LGBT people hold in this universe. Still, some fans squee and the writer’s attempt to justify the unjustifiable, expecting critics to buy into the charade and scrape up the crumbs gratefully. It’s not romantically tragic as executive producer Michael Narducci suggested to kill off half of the only romantic same sex relationship to ever appear in this universe. Furthermore, Aidan’s death was not predestined as Narducci implied because the writers sat down and actively plotted a story arc for this character. The bottom line is that the writers made a decision and the end result is that Aidan died to serve Klaus’s angst - a character who already has more than enough opportunities to angst.

The future does not look bright in The Originals/The Vampire Diaries world in terms of GLBT representation. With only one character left and said character being described as Juliet, it’s enough to make one wonder if the writers see Josh’s death as predestined as well. What I do know for certain is that what little representation we have had to date has been so bad that they might as well have not even gone down that road. If all the writers could accomplish was repeating gross tropes that are continually aimed at the LGBT community they could have saved us a lot of time by skipping it altogether.