Queer Representation on TV: Noelle Carbone

Photo courtesy of Noelle Carbone
Photo courtesy of Noelle Carbone

After researching and discussing the recent controversy surrounding the treatment of LGBTQ characters on television with friends and colleagues, Saving Hope writer and co-executive producer Noelle Carbone decided to take action. Along with Sonia Hosko (producer on Saving Hope), Gina Tass (creator of the Trevor Project Fundraiser) and producer, director, and writer Michelle Mama, Carbone authored the “LGBT Fans Deserve Better” pledge, now being dubbed #TheLexaPledge on Twitter and in the media. The pledge is a guideline for writing positive LGBTQ stories and contains seven tenets including promising to “refuse to kill off a queer character solely to further the plot of a straight one” and to “never bait or mislead fans on social media or any other outlet.”

In addition to her duties on Saving Hope, Carbone also spent several seasons as a writer on Rookie Blue. She recently joined The TV Junkies as part of our Queer Representation on TV series to discuss why she felt personally responsible to take action and come up with the pledge. She also addresses how queer characters have been dealt with on the shows she’s personally worked on and tackles concerns and objections other writers may have in regards to the pledge.

The TV Junkies: How have the recent string of LGBTQ character deaths affected you personally and why is it so important to keep striving for proper representation?

Noelle Carbone: For me, one queer TV character dying is disappointing. Two deaths are concerning. But when 24 queer characters are killed off in 7 months? That sh*t feels very personal. It feels like I’m being sent a message of “You are disposable.”

Proper representation is important because it’s what I needed when I was a scared, confused, questioning teenager. I didn’t know any gay people growing up. The only LGBTQ representation I saw was on TV–fictional characters like Ellen Morgan (Ellen), Willow Rosenberg (Buffy) and Jack McPhee (Dawson’s Creek). If those characters had all been murdered, that would’ve really messed me up. I guess I worry that we’re messing up a generation of queer and questioning kids and inadvertently telling them that they’re worthless and disposable.

As a writer, I know there is no grand conspiracy to send that malicious message to the LGBTQ community. I know it’s just a coincidence. But the fact that 4 shows, with 4 different showrunners, on 3 different networks all killed off queer characters in the same 10 day span…well, that points to a huge systemic issue with how we view and write queer characters in general. And that means that, as a writer, I’m part of the problem. That makes it doubly personal for me.

TTVJ: As a queer writer in the room, what sort of responsibility do you feel for bringing LGBT stories and characters to the forefront?

NC: When I was starting out in this industry, a well-intentioned producer told me not to pitch queer stories. She said that being labeled “the lesbian writer” would severely limit my opportunities and derail my career. So I backed off. I was too young and too green to know how terrible that advice was. But now I know better. So I’m trying to do better and be part of a solution.

Does that mean that in a story room I expect my opinion to be the be-all and end-all when it comes to queer characters? Absolutely not. But I do feel like it’s become a huge part of my job to ensure we don’t perpetuate any negative tropes as far as those characters are concerned.

TTVJ: Often times LGBTQ supporting characters are not brought back on shows due to business decisions that have nothing to do with story. How can those situations be handled better than just falling back on tropes and killing them off?

NC: I get the business side of things. It sucks that we often don’t have the money to keep supporting characters under option–which means they can go off and book other gigs. The long-term solution, as Mo Ryan pointed out in Variety, is to have more queer characters that are leads. Get them out of the precarious “supporting character” camp and make them fundamental to the lifeblood of the series so they’re played by actors that are under option. And so they’re not the first character with a target on their back when it’s time to play “Who should we kill”.

And if for whatever reason a showrunner does have to say goodbye to a queer character, I would ask that she/he consider a few things:

1) Is the drama you’ll get from killing them worth the flack you’ll get for killing them? And are you willing to potentially lose your LGBTQ audience in the process? Because that’s actually what’s happened right now.

2) Are you sure you wouldn’t rather leave the door open for a triumphant return a season or two down the road when/if that actor becomes available again? Might that character’s return get you more buzz than their death?

And 3) If you do decide that killing this character is the best thing for the series, can you look at the way you’re writing that episode and that scene and ask, “Could this death be interpreted as a punishment for their sexuality?” And, “Are we killing them in a way that suggests they’re disposable?” And if the answer to either is yes, or maybe, or even “Well, I could see how someone might interpret it that way,” than keep rewriting until the answer is “definitely not”.

Under any circumstances Lexa’s death on The 100 would’ve upset a lot of fans because she was a beloved character. But the reason it caused such outrage–the reason it sparked a movement–is because of how she died. And because of the lack of transparency surrounding that death. Don’t hype a queer relationship to bolster your ratings and then kill off one of the lovers seven minutes (of screen time) after they’ve consummated that relationship for the first time. It’s a cautionary tale for all writers and showrunners.

Bell Media
Bell Media

TTVJ: Saving Hope had a romantic pairing between two women, Maggie (Julia Taylor Ross) and Sydney (Stacey Farber), that many fans got very attached to. In Season 4 Sydney was sent off, despite the audience being very much invested and behind that relationship, and a similar thing happened on Rookie Blue between Gail (Charlotte Sullivan) and Holly (Aliyah O’Brien). How frustrating is that, when you’re trying to bring these positive queer stories to the forefront and business gets in the way?

NC: Stacey booked a pilot right before we started breaking Season 4, which was great for her but meant we couldn’t break the arc for Maggie and Sydney that we wanted. Then later in the season Stacey became available for a short window and we decided that we’d rather have her back for a couple episodes than not have her at all. That being said, we had to be very careful about the story we told in those episodes. We wanted to make it romantic and dramatic, but we also didn’t want the audience to think we were arcing out an epic love story for them and then disappoint them when Syd had to leave after 2 episodes. We didn’t want to write a cheque we couldn’t cash.

In regards to Rookie Blue, I think we made a mistake by not integrating Holly more with the other characters. There were some exceptions but mostly her stories were only with Gail. And that meant that when push came to shove and we had to make some hard decisions about which characters we could afford to bring back and which we couldn’t, Holly fell on the chopping block. And so did Oliver’s girlfriend, Celery (Emily Hampshire) for the same reasons. I do have regret about Gail and Holly’s story ending so abruptly and I wish we’d found a way to make it work with Aliyah because Holly was a great character who made Gail an even better character. And Aliyah was lovely to work with. I’m still not-so secretly hoping there’ll be a Golly spinoff though. I hope Tassie’s [Cameron] reading this. [laughs]

TTVJ: What would you say to people who would argue that the Pledge is unfair in that you’re only looking at LGBT stories, and can you understand those who say they feel limited by the Pledge?

NC: I’d tell those people that I agree with them. There are other fights to fight when it comes to proper representation on TV. But this is the fight that found us. By luck or fate or misfortune, or a combination of the three, the bodies of dead queer characters started piling up, and the media took notice, and the fans demanded change. And me, Sonia [Hosko], Michelle [Mama] and Gina [Tass] just happened to be in a position to take up that mantle and push for change. But I think this movement can be a springboard for other conversations that need to be happening in our industry.

Here’s what some people aren’t understanding or are refusing to acknowledge. The pledge doesn’t promise that nothing bad will ever happen to an LBGTQ character. It also doesn’t promise that the writers who sign it will never kill a queer character. It promises that, before we make any choices in that regard, we’re going to make damn sure we’ve thought about them exhaustively and ruled out every single other option. Not just whether to do it, but how to do it, and what message we’re sending by doing it the way we’ve chosen.

For me personally though, I wouldn’t go anywhere near that choice for a long time. Because the truth is, whether or not you sign the pledge, you’re gonna take a beating in the press and in social media–and probably in the ratings–if you kill a queer character any time soon. And honestly, I’m not sad about that.

TTVJ: I think most agree it’s good that these representation issues are being brought to the forefront and more actively discussed in writing rooms. But how do you keep from letting the fans wants and desires dictate too much of the story?

NC: I think it’s one thing when a handful of outspoken fans rail against a show and its writers for taking the series in a certain “shipper” direction. Believe me I’ve been there. But when there’s a public outcry about a pervasive negative storytelling trend across multiple shows, I think we all have to pay attention to what the fans are saying. And take stock in our own writing. The fans aren’t saying, “Queer characters have to be sacred cows without flaws.” They’re saying, “Please stop killing us en mass in ways that are demoralizing and for reasons that are lame.” I’m okay agreeing to those terms. Some writers think that’s the tail wagging the dog. Frankly I think you can learn a lot about a dog by watching its tail. Just ask Cesar Millan.

ABC/Corus Entertainment
ABC/Corus Entertainment

TTVJ: In the pledge you specifically address social media. In the current landscape, social media and interacting with fans has become a major responsibility for actors and people involved in television shows, and it’s something you often do during Saving Hope’s season. What lessons have you taken away about how creators should be interacting with fans through social media?

NC: I was an early adopter of using social media to interact with the people who were creating the shows I loved. I remember the Buffy message board being a huge thing. Stephen S. DeKnight used to come on every Friday and interact with the fans for a few hours, answer their questions, give them insight into the process. He didn’t have to do that. I’m sure it didn’t increase their ratings any. He did it because it was fun for him, and to give back to the fans. I think that’s an incredible lesson. Engage with the fans if it’s what you love and if it’s important to you to hear their feedback, for better or for worse. If you’re only doing it out of a sense of obligation, or to boost the ratings, or to be showered in adulation, skip it. Let someone else handle it. Let your actors do it. They’re probably more charming than you are anyway–and your fans would much rather see pictures of them than the three hot dogs you had for lunch.

I’m lucky that I’ve genuinely adored every show I’ve worked on, so the social media aspect is a bonus for me. I get to talk about the show I love with people who also love it. Sure, every once in awhile someone is going to call me a hack and tell me I should go to hell, but then I remind them that I’m a lesbian who was raised Roman Catholic so I’m pretty sure I already have a reservation. They don’t think that kind of response is nearly as funny as I do. Which either means I have a far superior comedic sensibility or they’re right and I am actually an a-hole.

But above all, be honest. If a fan asks you a question you can’t answer because it’s a spoiler, say that. But don’t lie. Or mislead them. Because you’ll never get them back.

TTVJ: A point of contention others may have with the pledge is that in the writers’ room you can control your intentions and where the story goes, but you can never know how the audience will react. In that respect, is there any way to fully prevent against “queerbaiting”?

NC: I know that’s what people are scared of. I’ve heard it firsthand and I can empathize because I know you can’t make all of the fans happy all of the time. But queerbaiting is a very specific thing. I did a lot of reading up on it when this whole movement started because I’d actually never heard the term before. As it pertains to TV, it means infusing your show with homoerotic tension between two characters even though you never have any intention of letting them be together.

I think some writers who create slow burn relationships between queer characters are worried that if they sign the pledge, that slow burn will be interpreted as queerbaiting. But it’s not. Not by any definition I’ve ever read.

TTVJ: What do you feel still needs to be done in order to get what is on our screens, as far as LGBTQ characters, closer to the reality of the world we live in?

NC: Write more queer characters. That’s the long and the short of it.

I hope one day there’ll be so many queer characters on television that when one of them dies it’ll barely register. We’ll react to that death the way we did when Jenny died on The L Word. We’ll go “Meh. I wonder what Alice is up to,” and get on with our lives. A girl can hope.

 

Thoughts or comments? Share them below! Read more from our Queer Representation on TV series here.

Saving Hope will return for Season 5 in the Fall of 2016 on CTV.