by Raizel Liebler
This American television season has had many dramas dropping major characters Games of Thrones style. But what has been really great to see is the number of shows this season that have had their major female — and frequently women of color — characters leave their shows in powerful ways. Others have commented about how many of these departures mean that next season there will be many fewer continuing Asian American female characters. So this post discusses some of the most compelling departures by women of color from television shows during the last season, from Nikita, NCIS, Person of Interest, Hannibal, and of course, Grey’s Anatomy.
On Nikita, the entire show ended with Nikita taking final revenge on her arch-nemesis Amanda, after taking care of all of the oddly named groups that start with “The” or are single words with usually innocuous meanings. While an episodic kicking-ass conspiracy show could end at any point with the release of information about whatever the big secret is, of the primary connections running throughout the entire show only one was romance-based. The others were based around the weird dynamic between three women, Amanda, Nikita, and Alex, where Amanda constantly tried to drive a wedge between Nikita and Alex. In the end, Nikita is able to protect most of her self-created family, including her protegee Alex.
On NCIS, Cote de Pablo left the show as her character Ziva David coped with the violent, conspiracy laden death of her father. While shippers wanted her to end up with the resident over-the-hill wisecracking dudebro Tony, Ziva had suffered through the death of several family members during the show — and left the team and the show alone, to rediscover herself. Over the course of the show, Cote gave a nuanced portrayal of a strong, but also flawed Jewish Israeli(later -American) woman who kicked ass, but also had a strong emotional connection to her country and culture of origin and of her family and country of choice. Considering the show is literally directed towards retirees, the fact that her character was ever more than a punching foot with a funny accent, speaks to both the quality of acting — and that the showrunners realized how lucky they were to get Cote — giving her all of the meaty storylines once she arrived (except for Gibbs, who sometimes had flashback drama). While the character is Israeli and not necessarily a woman of color* and performed by a Latina, Ziva showed a complex character — and hopefully will allow her portrayer, Cote de Pablo to continue to be cast as interesting characters, rather than typecast.
On Person of Interest, Taraji P. Henson’s Detective Joss Carter died after fixing up all of her storylines — and adding in a hot kiss with one of the other leads. Keidra in her post Yaybooyay: Black Women On Television In 2013 summarizes the departure:
Of course, they had to kill the only black character on the show!? I actually think it was a win, and here’s why. The episodes building up to Carter’s death put her at front and center, established her as a total bad-ass (not to mention squeezing in an unscripted smooch with Jim Caviezel) and she died as a hero. Her death was mourned by many fans online who swore to never watch the show again after her death. That means killing off her character was not a cheap move, but a gutsy one. You don’t get that kind of gut-wrenching emotional response for an actor or character that’s not beloved. That’s power – and that’s why it’s a win.
I write about Hannibal through the perspective of a non-watcher. This season, Beverly Katz, a Asian-Jewish-American crime scene investigator, played by Hetteniene Park, was killed by Hannibal when she got too close to his murderous secrets. Her death on the show was controversial enough for a show where — no spoiler needed — the main character is a killer that kills even his closest friends — that Park wrote a long response about the importance of her character. Park writes in response to the critics and the fans:
I got to play this amazing woman who didn’t have to sleep with anyone (not that I would have minded) or act dumb and girlie or fawn all over some guy or be a conniving bitch to get people to notice or respect me, and she didn’t speak broken English or karate chop anyone (not that I would have minded). Nobody called her “dragon lady” or “exotic.” She could shoot a gun and drive that FBI SUV like a champ. And all with the extra added bonus of being Jewish. And when I get messages and thank yous from viewers who dig that or are inspired by that, well, that’s what makes any of this worthwhile or mean anything to me. So thank you for that. I love Beverly Katz. And I loved playing her.
Finally, on Grey’s Anatomy, after ten years of playing Christina Yang, Sandra Oh has left the building. Christina was always up-front about who she was and what she wanted. As someone who stopped watching the show after its never-ending Shonda-drama-ness got too much for me, Christina’s continued interest in being the best surgeon possible was seen as a realistic goal, one that didn’t stop her from entering relationships. Her commitment to not having children, while different than that of many other characters whose children exist (somewhere else where child care never seems to fail), is respected.
But Christina’s most long-standing relationship isn’t with a romantic partner, but with her best friend, Meredith. Over the course of the show the two of them have argued, disagreed, squabbled, fought, and comforted each other through the hard times. They have even had discussions about how they have made different life choices and that has changed the scope of their relationship and led to jealousy. These best friend conversations have always seemed the most realistic element of a show that frequently veers away from realism. Having the show acknowledge that Christina’s life has changed alongside Meredith’s marriage and children, shows that it is possible for a character to have compelling character development without the traditional markers of accomplishment for women. Meredith and Christina call each other “my person” — and mean it, with their relationship at the center of both of their lives, despite their romantic entanglements elsewhere and their career ambitions to be the best surgeon ever.
I do not say this lightly, but I think that Christina Yang may be the most nuanced female character EVER on American television (at least a character on a show for ten years or more). And the fact that she is a woman of color — and specifically an Asian-American woman — shows that audiences are interested in following and rooting for characters that are well rounded whether or not they fit the same demographics as the audience.
As a final note, I hope that casting agents will now take a broader scope in casting Jewish characters, following the lead of NCIS and Hannibal, casting people of color in these roles, rather than just continuing to cast white actors. Many of those white actors playing Jewish characters aren’t actually Jewish, so why not cast more actors of color?
- Ziva might be a woman of color, considering she may be Sephardi or Mizrahi, two of the larger sub-Jewish ethnicities, whose members would generally be considered to be people of color. As far as I know, the show never touched on this issue.