No Happy Endings: The Trope That Kills The Marginalized

We need to have a serious discussion about an annoying superhero trope that never seems to go away (but needs to). So excuse me for a moment while I step up on my soapbox, and let's discuss how superheroes are never allowed to live happily ever after.

(Spoilers for Supergirl season two and finale, The Flash season three (including the 5/23 finale), Arrow season five)

Mon-El, I'm sorry, I'm the star of the show, I have to stay single, so you're going to have to go away or die. 

Recently, on a Facebook post regarding Arrow, a friend posted that he thought Felicity was going to die in the season five finale of the show (which airs on 5/24/17). When I asked him why he felt that way, he said the show has taken to ramping up Ollicity (the Oliver Queen + Felicity Smoak romance) again, despite the fact that their engagement was broken up back in season four, for suspect reasons. I replied: "well maybe they [the writers] are actually just getting Ollicity back together." He sounded surprised in his response when he said "yeah sure, that would be cool. They are cute together."

That conversation took place last week, but my brain has been mulling it over and over since then, made worse by the fact that the day before it took place, The Flash had apparently just killed Iris West for realsies (but not really, as we discovered during the finale on 5/23. But we have been treated to the sight of a black woman getting stabbed throughout this season). But what caused me to write about this was Supergirl's season finale, where Kara has to choose to either save Earth or keep Mon-El, her apparent true love. When I stopped crying, I started getting mad.

Make love to me now, Tony, because I won't be in the next film. 

The idea that superheroes (or heroes in general, regardless of the genreneed to stay singleor otherwise sacrifice their love to the greater goodis an old one. In fact, Superheroes Stay Single is the name of the trope, because it happens so often. Batman always has a new love interest; Deadpool seemed super in love with Vanessa, and yet for Deadpool 2 it appears Domino is the new lover; Iron Man 3 suggests Tony and Pepper have turned a corner, but the latter has left the former for some reason by the time Captain America: Civil War rolls aroundand I've already mentioned all three of the CW's powerhouse superhero shows and what they appear to be doing. Nor is it only a trope for the superhero genre: Bond always has a new Bond girl (and both of the times he's ready to settle down with her, she ends up dying, of course. If you're curious about the Bond films in particular, those are On Her Majesty's Secret Service and Casino Royale).

Pick your favorite series, whether on TV or in film, and tell me if this hasn't been done a thousand times before.

Mother always told me to never become a Bond girl. I should have listened. 

There are definitely a lot of fans out there that will be glad that Mon-El is exiting Supergirl, and there is a huge subset of the Arrowverse fandom that would be very pleased if Iris had actually died or if Felicity gets a surprise funeral in the finale. And I'm not suggesting that heroes must be married or have happy endings. Realistically, people die; evil people can and will use loved ones against the good guys; and not everyone gets a happy ending, even in real life.

Plus, it's not like Mon-El was the perfect boyfriend: he started out as the quintessential dudebro with little respect for women. But by the end of season two, he'd quieted down quite a bit, decided that he wanted to be a better man for Kara, and had learned to respect the fact that she was the strength of their relationship. Still, I was not heavily invested in their long-term romance. Before the finale, I didn't really care one way or the other.

So why was I so upset when the finale ended with Kara poisoning Earth against Daxamites? I mean, shouldn't I be focused on the fact that Alex asked Maggie to marry her, or that J'onn and M'gann were together again? Well, I am happy about those, with a caveat (which I will discuss below), but I also felt it deeply unfair to Kara to have literally everyone around her happy and in love, while she was the only one that had to make a sacrifice. The romantic in me wept. But there's more to this.

Avaunt! Into the refrigerator with thee, Iris! 

This is Critical Writ so it shouldn't surprise that my dislike of the "Superheroes Stay Single" trope has something to do with feminism, and to a wider degree, progressive ideals. See, here's the thing about this trope: it disproportionately affects women, people of color, and gay love interests.

Every goddamn time a hero has to emanate manpain and thus "grow" as a person, 97% of the time it means that a woman has to be fridged. And it's pretty much 100% of the time if it's an LGBT relationship (Maggie, you might consider rejecting Alex's proposal and running for the hills instead, just sayin'). The dead gay lover trope is so common, it has it's own entry on tvtropes: Bury Your Gays.

It's worth noting that the Bury Your Gays trope was born out of a need for censorship on American tv. In order to get past decency standards, queer characters had to be either straight and married, or dead, by the end of the story. The fact that Bury Your Gays is still so pervasive today makes that all kinds of gross. And it's understandable why the LGBT community freaks out when their characters get killed off.

Marry you? LOL nope, I choose life lol...

Even when a love interest isn't killed off completely, they end up getting shoved off screen: Pepper Potts has been disappeared out of the MCU, Paul divorces Curtis on Arrow because of the Mr. Terrific gig, Patty had a very strange and awkward exit off of The Flash in season two. But I don't possibly have the space here to list even a fraction of all the women and gay love interests who have been killed off, time and again, throughout the superhero, sci-fiction, and fantasy genres.

The romantic in me wept for Kara's pain during the finale, but later I was angry because they didn't kill Mon-El. At the end, he gets sucked into a wormhole, and ladies and gentlemen, this here is comics... the door is wide open for him to return later, miraculously able to deal with the lead in Earth's atmosphere. But of course he didn't die: he was a handsome white male. If racebent Jimmy Olsen had been Kara's true love this season, would he have died? Probably, because people of color of all genders also get fridged in the romantic narrative, especially if they are dating a white person. Also, black characters in Hollywood die a lot, whether they are romantic interests or not.

Ultimately, women, people of color, and LGBT partners are all disposable. What's worse is that we in the West are so conditioned by the constant fridging of these characters, that we can predict when it's going to happen, and even expect it (like my friend and Arrow). We joke about the "black guy dying first" in every movie. And the LGBTQ+ community is understandably wary and tired of seeing their already meager on-screen representation thinned out even more in the name of drama.

This is my 'I'm sooo happy I didn't date Kara in season 2' face....

As a fantasy fiction writer, I've caught myself almost falling into the same pattern. It's so easy to create instant drama by killing off a loved one. Here I am, a feminist writer, and yet I was about to commit that most egregious of sins: I was prepared to kill off a loving wife and woman of color just to create manpain in my hero. Instead, I've opted to develop my hero and his family in another way. Because you know, it's fiction, and I can do that. I literally make this stuff up.

Here's the thing though: killing off a loved one isn't the only way to create drama and conflict. Evil people may threaten the life of a hero's loved one and I don't have a problem with that concept. But why must a character suffer the death of a loved one in order to grow? And why does a woman and/or a gay partner usually have to suffer a death in order for someone else to grow as a person? We already don't have enough women, people of color, and LGBT represented in TV and film. And yet when we get them, they are often the first to be offered as sacrificial lambs on the altar of drama.

They don't have to be. It wasn't necessary to shoot Lexa in front of her lover in The 100, even though the actress was exiting off the show for career reasons. It wasn't necessary to kill Abby on Sleepy Hollow, which was really a dick move on the part of the showrunners anyway. It's not necessary to kill Iris (seriously, how many people does Barry have to lose to prove he has the heart of a hero? He had both parents killed right in front of him, and he is still good and pure).

Mon-El will likely be back at some point, if only for a cameo, and if only because he's a charming white guy. But if Iris West had been killed, I would probably have abandoned The Flash, because she's one of the only women of color in current superhero visual media. And if my friend is right and Arrow unexpectedly kills off Felicity, then yeah, I'm done with you. Sorry, but fridging Felicity would be one brooding bridge too far, Arrow. I'm still not over the way you treated Katie Cassidy and her Black Canary.

Hello? Yes, I'd like to report a possible fridging in progress. Please send help right away!

There are so many ways for writers to create drama and develop characters, and yet so many writers fall into the trap of taking the easy way out. I am calling out to the writers of shows across all genres on TV and in the movies: think of another way. Don't kill women and gay characters just to create pain. Creating pain is easy. Providing traditionally marginalized people with on-screen representations they can admire and look up to and not watch die? Apparently not easy, even in 2017.

Ivonne Martin is a writer, gamer, and avid consumer of all things geek—and is probably entirely too verbose for her own good.