“No woman should ever suffer at the hands of men.” – Sara Lance (Arrow 2×4)
When a beloved character dies, it hurts. Or at least it should, if the creators are doing their job properly. But it’s a good kind of hurt. Because even if it inspires rage or tears, the story was worth it. It’s the kind of hurt that both creators and audiences desperately want, unfortunately not every beloved character’s death causes a good hurt. Sometimes the anger and sadness stem not from the irrational pain of loss but the perpetuation of problematic narrative tropes or the loss of limited representation. This is not the kind of hurt that creators should desire to inspire, as the makers of Arrow are about to learn.
In an open letter to the Executive Producers and Writers of Arrow, a group of fans explain rationally – and with a lot of contextual evidence – that they believe it was a mistake to kill Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) and why the writers should bring her back from the dead. The letter is attached to a Change.Org petition, which already has over 400 signatures. The letter is well-written and shockingly rational considering the subject matter but it’s the comments that are truly heartbreaking. They show a large group of women that just can’t understand why the characters they identify with are continually depicted as disposable in the most brutal ways.
“Her death didn’t match her life, and she represents too much to just be killed off in such a cavalier fashion. It didn’t do her character any sort of real justice. It was actually somewhat disgusting.” – Sarah Bell
“If you want to be a writer, and tell a story to millions of people, you need to take responsibility for the impact your writing has on the world and your audience.” – Aliisa Percival
“I am a bisexual woman who has seen reflections of herself in media only as deceptive, sexualized serial killers or sneaky, lying cheaters; who has seen countless female characters violently and viciously murdered for no reason but shock value. I thought Arrow was better than that. But it turns out it isn’t.” – Aly Klein
“I was so stupid to believe a queer woman on television would ever get a happy ending.” – Beck Davis
“The one time a bi woman is shown as a hero, you literally threw her in the trash.” – Kari Wallace
“I wasn’t just shocked, I was horrified and hurt, but most of all I felt betrayed.” – Katrina Maurer
“Sara was the only hero in the show whose origin story didn’t revolve around a man and you killed her and are allowing her successor’s origin story to revolve around a man.” – Laura Crook
“She was more than just the sum of her parts. But they treated her as if she were less.” – Nina Sullivan
“Sara Lance was every bit the hero I wish I had growing up, so I’m devastated that this letter even has to exist.” – Claire West
When looking at the progression of Arrow’s narrative, it can be argued that Sara Lance died for many reasons. She died to kick-start the season mystery and introduce the villain. She died because Team Arrow was getting a little crowded. She died to make the stakes higher, to show the audience that no one is safe. And of course she died so that her sister Laurel could don her mask and become the Black Canary in her wake. In fact, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that Sara Lance was created to die and is therefore simply fulfilling her narrative purpose. Unfortunately, these rationals fail to take into account external context, which as Arrow doesn’t happen in a vacuum, are extremely relevant.
Like the fact that Black Canary was one of very few female superheroes that have been lucky enough to appear in live action comic adaptations. And she was the first female BISEXUAL SUPERHERO on television, that’s a pretty big deal. There’s also, according to AfterEllen and FemPop, a very troubling trend of killing queer ladies this season including Tara Thornton (True Blood), Leslie Shay (Chicago Fire), and Agent Isabelle Hartley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.). Those ladies, and Sara Lance, join the countless other women that have been murdered in order to further someone else’s plot (usually a whiney, white male *cough* Oliver Queen *cough*).
“Stuffed into the fridge” is a well known trope, commonly referred to as ‘fridging’, where a female character “is killed off in a particularly gruesome manner and left to be found just to offend or insult someone, or to cause someone serious anguish.” The name comes from Gail Simone’s famous Women in Refrigerators list but is hardly a new phenomenon. In fact, we saw one of the most well known fridgings come to life this year (poor Gwen Stacy). This trope is so engrained that most people don’t even notice it, which is incredibly problematic because as Heather Hogan so eloquently explains over at AfterEllen:
“When female characters are killed off as a way to make other characters’ stories richer and more complicated, the takeaway from that is that women are disposable, that their lives are tradable to make other people’s lives more interesting, that violence against women is an unavoidable part of life. And that message isn’t being pinged around inside a vacuum; it is being broadcast out and absorbed into a society that doesn’t need another excuse to devalue the lives of women.”
Within the context of Arrow this is even worse, because within 15 episodes THREE prominent female characters on Arrow have been fridged, including one of the shows few women of color; Shado. To make matters worse, Shado (who is a character from the comics) was killed so that Sara could live (as well as to act as catalyst for Slade Wilson’s super villain arc) and as such, by killing Sara they are almost negating Shado’s sacrifice. Basically they fridged Shado so that Sara could be fridged for Laurel. Celina Jade, who played Shado on Arrow, even threw a little shade at Arrow on Instagram:
It’s undeniable that Sara Lance was fridged, and in a particularly brutal way. She wasn’t just killed, she was killed on camera. She was shot with multiple arrows before falling of a roof and hitting a dumpster on her way to the ground where she was unmasked so that Laurel could witness without a doubt that her sister Sara was dead (her death was also shown a number of times). Her body was then taken and displayed for everyone to see in the next episode after which they put her in a freezer. That’s right, Sara Lance was literally stuffed in the refrigerator. The episodes that have aired since Sara’s death have shown that Laurel’s pain over losing her sister is the catalyst for her journey towards becoming the Black Canary.
Beyond the basic trope of fridging, the fact that they killed Sara so that Laurel’s could advance (as Shado was killed for Sara’s advancement in Season 2) suggests that in order for one woman to rise another must fall. (In fact Moira Queen’s death – another prominent female character that was fridged on Arrow recently – is acting as motivation for Thea’s badass upgrade.) While there is a definite tradition of killing one hero so that the person who witnesses it can become the new incarnation of that heroic identity, there are plenty of ways to pass the mantel from one hero to another. Considering the other implications of killing Sara – not to mention that Sara had already basically passed the Canary mantel on to Laurel – there were certainly other ways to kick start Laurel’s origin story as many of the comments on The Canary Lives Initiative’s petition suggest.
“it feels like the show is saying in order for a this female to grow/survive another has to die and that’s ok BUT it is not ok” – Elizabeth Da Silva
“Because a woman doesn’t have to die in order for another woman to rise.” – VirginiaSanchez
“You couldn’t let her live? She couldn’t have taught Laurel before handing over the mantle? Or course not, that would have meant not having Laurel’s transformation be about Oliver. For once, the woman would have been empowered…I knew from the start Sara would die, most of the queer fans did, which means your “plot twist” was less surprising than a car crash in motor racing. The fact that you’re reduced her value to her death is an affront to her life” – Melissa Anderson
“By killing Sara in order to further Laurel’s arc into the Black Canary, you have essentially furthered the aggravating myth that men can be any flavor of hero they like (we have John Diggle Army Soldier, Roy the acrobat archer, Oliver the somber archer), but when you have masked lady fighters, there can be only one…When are women’s stories going to start mattering more than their deaths?” – Ashley Elson
“Because you shouldnt have to kill one strong amazing female character off in order to make room for another. You can have more than one and this show has proved that now they should stick to that.” – Shay Hardy
The open letter on the petition page links Sara’s significance to the lack of female characters in similar roles, especially how that affects young girls. Due to the limited number of live action female superheroes around, young girls tend to latch onto the few that are available. Sara Lance is no exception. What does Sara’s death mean for those girls that saw her as hero? To quote the open letter in question: “Because if the Canary, who symbolized the strength and protection of women, could fall so easily and so quickly, what hope do these little girls have now? If our heroine can be murdered in five seconds, what does that mean for the rest of us?”
Sara Lance was also one of very few bisexual characters on television and the only bisexual superhero – that has been depicted in a relationship with multiple genders – in the live action offerings by DC and Marvel. As The Canary Lives Initiative points out – linking to GLAAD’s 2013 report – proper bisexual representation “pretty much doesn’t exist”. It’s clear that Sara Lance was incredibly important to a number of different under-represented communities.
As suggested above, in response to a reaction like this people are quick to point out that a characters gender/sexuality/race had nothing to do with their demise. Apparently Stephen Amell defended the writers to a disappointed fan on Facebook saying: “I think your anger is misplaced. Sara’s death had nothing – at all – to do with her sexuality. I can say with 100% certainty that this never entered into the writers minds.” (The conversation was screencapped and posted on Tumblr). He might be right, most fans – including those in behind The Canary Lives Initiative – are willing concede the writers aren’t sitting in their lair dream up ways to kill minority characters. The thing is that they probably should have taken Sara’s sexuality, and her gender, in to consideration when they decide to kill her because whether they thinking about or not representation matters.
“representation is important, and so is forcing writers and show runners to think more critically about the impart potential story lines will have on their audience.” – Jessica Gibson
“I know fan petitions like this rarely work, but please at least think about what it says. This is not “OMG you killed my favorite character!!!” This is about what that character meant and stood for, and about the message her death sends.” – Kristen B
“I have read that Sara’s sexuality didn’t factor into your decision to needlessly kill her, but it should have. She was a role model for so many and deserved better – we deserved better.” – Paige Heth
“Like bi people are killed all the time, intrinsically, I’m not mad about them killing off a bisexual character, but I am mad because they killed off one of the only bi characters on tv and gave her no agency in her death…I’m mad because Sara was a bi hero who didn’t get to go out like a hero…I truly don’t think that the writers meant to kill off the bisexual character, but that was important to who she was…I am also frustrated that ‘kill your gays’ and ‘fridge your women’ tropes still find there way into supposedly progressive shows.” – piratequeennina
“So it damn well should have crossed the writers’ minds that they were writing the death of their only regularly recurring queer character, of one of the very few bisexual characters on television, of the only canonically queer female superhero on TV” – absentlyabbie
It’s not just fans that are upset by Sara’s death, several other sites have already written about the hugely problematic implications of killing a character like Sara. AfterEllen: “’Arrow’ stuff Sara in a refrigerator, is sorry not sorry” , FemPop: “The Annual Queer Lady Bloodbath Continues”, Fangirlish: “Why did Arrow’s Sara Lance have to die?”, xfinity: “Killing Off Queer Women On TV: Response To “Arrow’s” Latest Character Death” and io9 “In Lieu of a recap: Dear Arrow Writers…”. And that’s not even counting the many opinions posted on individual fan’s blogs. It’s quite clear – even to those that are against petitioning writers and producers – that this response goes beyond the loss of a beloved character.
The death of Sara Lance is just another example of how expendable and interchangeable female characters are. Many fans have pointed out that The Canary Lives Initiative is unlikely to alter Sara’s fate (unless Lararus Pit) but it’s still worth looking at because, as the open letter explains, Sara’s death is symptom of a wider problem that needs to be addressed. Even if they can’t save Sara, they might be able to help the next generation of girls that are about to be kidnapped, raped, tortured or killed just so that someone else can become a hero. But then again, maybe there’ll be a Lazaruz Pit just outside Starling City? Let’s keep the dream alive like these lovely folks.
“Unless Nyssa swoops in off-screen to rush her to a local Lazarus Pit we’ve seen the last of Black Canary I and the birth of Black Canary II.” – Alex Cranz (FemPop)
“I shall be holding out for the introduction of the Lazarus Pit to bring Canary back to us. And flashbacks. Thank God for flashbacks.” – Fangirlish
“so after they bring tommy back from the dead via the lazarus pit, that would totally pave the way for sara to return too right? okay cool i’m glad we all agree :)” – sheisquitelovely
Read the full open letter and sign the petition here.
Author: Undie Girl
Undie Girl (aka Von) has a BA (Hons) Major in Cultural Studies. The title of her honours thesis was “It’s just gay and porn”: Power, Identity and the Fangirl’s Gaze. She’s currently pursuing a Masters of Media Practice at University of Sydney. Von’s a former contributor The Backlot’s column The Shipping News and a current co-host of The Geekiary’s monthly webcast FEELINGS… with The Geekiary.
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