Writing television shows with positive portrayals of LGBTQ characters isn’t a new concept for Canadian television writer Aaron Martin. In fact his latest series Slasher, which he created and wrote all eight episodes, had a main cast that was diverse both racially and in sexual orientations. Keeping diversity at the forefront is something he learned through time spent as a writer on Being Erica, The Best Years, Killjoys and a stint as writer and showrunner on Degrassi.
Martin recently joined The TV Junkies as part of our Queer Representation on TVseries to discuss his experiences bringing LGBTQ characters and stories to the forefront of his series. He also weighs in on the current controversies surrounding LGBTQ characters on television and what he sees as part of the solution to the problem.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Slasher had a very diverse cast–with both interracial and homosexual couples among the lead characters. What kind of feedback have you received about that?
Aaron Martin: Nothing but positive feedback, and I’m hoping we’re at the point now if you do put mixed race or LGBTQ couples on TV that it shouldn’t be an issue any more. I personally haven’t seen anything bad about it.
TTVJ: Slasher wasn’t an anomaly for you, in fact you’ve always made it a point to include LGBTQ characters in your stories. Have you ever received backlash or opposition when you were trying to bring those stories forward?
AM: For me, I personally haven’t had any problems putting LGBTQ characters on TV up here in Canada–no one has ever told me I couldn’t (nor has anyone when I’ve developed in the US). And I think, across my career, I’ve put about 10 or 11 prominent characters in the shows I’ve worked on (prominent meaning they were at least recurring if not part of the main cast).
It’s always been more like–for example, on Being Erica I wrote an episode where Erica (Erin Karpluk) had to deal with the fact that a woman in her past named Cassidy (Lost Girl’s Anna Silk) who she was really close with, and who was a lesbian, hit on her. Erica didn’t know how to deal with it, even though she loved the woman, so she pushed her away and they never talked again. That was a huge regret for her and when we talked about Erica going back to that regret the concern was we didn’t want Erica to be a lesbian. Jana Sinyor [Being Erica’s creator] and I were arguing that it’s not about her being a lesbian, it’s about her loving somebody and there’s a difference and you can actually do both. It wasn’t even a push back, it was just more of a talk.
The only weird instance was going back to 2001 when we first brought a gay character on Degrassi, Marco Del Rossi, and it was really important to me that he not be “straight acting.” There was some concern that having a “gay acting,” whatever that means, character would be slightly homophobic, but I thought ‘He’s just being himself so that’s not homophobic!’ Those are the only two times I’ve had any kind of an issue.
TTVJ: When you run a show called Slasher it’s pretty clear that a lot of characters are going to die–and you did kill one of your gay characters in Season 1. So you obviously don’t believe that we should abide by the rule “no gay characters can die.” That being said, what do you think the crux of all the controversy over recent LGBTQ character deaths on TV has been about?
AM: I think that it’s the defacto way to go with a gay/lesbian/trans or queer story is to always end in tragedy–especially when it has romance involved. It’s a really weird situation that I don’t quite get. Straight characters break up all the time on TV, but it seems like gay characters, when they are done, they have to die.
In Slasher everyone is going to die so I had no qualms about killing the gay character, but I made sure that the show didn’t just have one gay character and we kill that one gay character. There’s another gay character who is a huge part of the show and there’s a couple of lesbians that don’t die–they find something horrible, but they don’t die. I wasn’t afraid of that in Slasher, but I do understand why there’s been such an uproar, especially when it comes to lesbian characters because I feel like they actually die more than gay guys do.
TTVJ: Secondary characters are always going to be more vulnerable than main characters–whether it’s because of story or business-related motives. How do we get more LGBTQ characters represented in television series?
AM: It really comes down to–and this isn’t just for LGBTQ characters, it’s for all minority characters–that you have to start writing main characters who aren’t just straight white males or females. It has to be a concerted effort by people creating TV shows to actively say ‘This character I’m going to create is not a white man or white woman and is not straight.’ That’s the only way you can do it.
That’s what I’ve done. Every time I create or develop a show I sit back and say ‘Who’s not going to be just the white person?’ I worry that starts to sound like tokenism but it’s not. It’s just accepting the fact that when you’re casting a show you’re given mostly white actors–that’s changing a lot, thank god–but if you care about this issue you have to do a concerted effort to make these characters more than just secondary characters.
TTVJ: The discussion on tropes such as “Bury Your Gays” seems rampant on social media, but from your experience, is it also happening in writers’ rooms?
AM: I think the fact that the pledge is going around shows that this is a discussion that’s being taken seriously in writers’ rooms. It might not be taken seriously in every writing room but definitely more than it used to. That’s definitely a positive that has come out of this.
My only worry about this is you don’t want to do the opposite of killing gay characters, which is you make gay characters where nothing happens to them. That’s just as bad in its own way. The ultimate goal is for gay characters to be just like straight characters, where good things happen to them and bad things happen to them and not just one or the other.
One of the strongest episodes of Buffy The Vampire Slayer was the one where Tara died. It definitely fell into the “Bury Your Gays” trope, but it was also a gripping story, and it impacted Willow’s journey as both a witch and a lesbian. I would hate to think that THAT story couldn’t be told in the future. We have to allow bad things to also happen to LGBTQ characters, otherwise it’s still a form of inequality.
TTVJ: A big concern many writers have is giving audiences too much control. How do you stay away from that and audiences who feel they are “owed” something?
AM: It’s interesting because the last thing you want to do when you pitch a series is try and give a network what you think they want. That’s not how you create interesting shows, by trying to fit yourself into a mold. That being said, I think if you were going to put a strong lesbian or gay couple at the center of your show (or put your hitherto straight character into a non-straight relationship) then there is some responsibility that comes with that, especially after six lesbian characters were murdered in the space of a week on American TV.
I’m all for characters being fluid in their sexuality, and I don’t think all LGBTQ relationships have to “live happily ever after”–though it’d be great if both parties could at least live. But if you’re going to go there with a “straight” character, then you can’t just have it be a one-off, or do it just to titillate audiences. When we did the episode of Being Erica where our lead dipped her toes into lesbianism, we explored what that meant for Erica–about where she fell on the spectrum, and how her love for the character of Cassidy was something she could express emotionally, but ultimately not physically, because Erica was, after all, straight. What we didn’t do, was make her gay for a small arc and then throw her back into the arms of men.
But again at the same time I think it’s dangerous if creators and the audience try and control each other because that doesn’t feel like it’s going to fix things either.
TTVJ: In theory the solution seems pretty easy: make what’s on screen reflect reality. Yet why do we still seem so far away from that making that happen? What obstacles still exist for getting more LGBTQ characters on screen and in meaningful roles?
AM: In some ways I’m not sure that everybody knew that trope existed until it erupted with the Lexa controversy on The 100. I have some friends who are very liberal and open-minded I was talking to and they said ‘I had no idea that happens.’ These are people who are really smart and who you would think know that happens. I’m hoping this discussion is going to open people’s eyes. How to fix it? I don’t know. Again it’s just about creating more LGBTQ characters.
Aside from the “Bury Your Gays” trope, where I get disheartened with LGBTQ representation on TV is how limited it is–ie. how many more fun gay secretaries or assistants can there be on TV? Not that there aren’t fun gay secretaries/assistants in real life, but there are also gay cops, gay doctors, gay… well, any job. The reason I like The Walking Dead (for its depiction of gay men–not quite for its depiction and killing of lesbians) is that Aaron’s sexuality is just a part of who he is. It doesn’t define him.
TTVJ: Shifting to the positive side of things, what good things do you see happening involving LGBTQ representation on screen?
AM: The positive is that if you looked at TV 20 years ago I don’t know if there were any main gay characters or even secondary gay characters. Ellen [Degeneres] came out and then they cancelled her show. Obviously we’re doing way better than that. As with anything that’s moving forward, there’s going to be times when you move forward but also when you take steps back. I think what’s happened in the last year, especially with Lexa, it’s been a step back, but it’s still a forward progression, especially when you have shows like Transparent on the air. Imagine a show like that on the air 10 years ago. It wouldn’t have been on the air and now it’s winning Emmys.
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Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.