*** Warning: This article contains slight spoilers for the Saving Hope Season 5 episode “Doctor Robot” ***
Words and promises can sometimes be hollow if you do not back them up with action. The writers at Saving Hope wanted to be sure to prove how sincere they were, and how seriously they took their promises to do better, when they created The Lexa Pledge back in April 2016. The Pledge was created by Saving Hope writer and co-executive producer Noelle Carbone, Saving Hope producer Sonia Hosko, LGBT Fans Deserve Better fundraiser creator Gina Tass, and producer, director and writer Michelle Mama in the wake of several queer female characters being killed off of television series in a matter of days in Spring 2016. It contains seven tenets outlining how LGBTQ characters should be treated and recognizes the lack of positive representation for these characters in the current TV landscape.
The Pledge was not the only action that Carbone and the other Saving Hope writers took during that time. They also took a long hard look at a storyline they had planned for the show’s fifth and final season and realized they were about to contribute to the problem. Houdini and Doyle’s Rebecca Liddiard was going to be brought on to play Bree, a young lesbian woman who got very close to Dr. Maggie Lin (Julia Taylor Ross) before eventually dying from cancer complications. Once all the queer female deaths started happening in Spring 2016, Carbone, showrunner Adam Pettle and the other Saving Hope writers realized that even though Bree wasn’t a main character, this death would be contributing to the Bury Your Gays trope.
Upon this realization, Carbone pitched a new version of the story arc and viewers saw that play out in the Season 5 episode of Saving Hope entitled “Doctor Robot.” During the episode, tensions rose between Alex (Erica Durance) and Maggie as they clashed over the best course of action for Bree. Maggie’s closeness to her patient resulted in complications in the surgery and Bree ended the episode in a coma. Carbone recently discussed the change in direction of Bree’s story, the importance of positive queer representation on TV, concerns she had about speaking up about the issue to her fellow writers and what she’s learned about The Lexa Pledge a year later.
The TV Junkies: You’ve mentioned that Bree ending up in a coma was not always the initial plan. What was the original story arc that you had pitched for her?
Noelle Carbone I came in at the beginning of the season and pitched a season arc for Maggie that went something like this… Personal and professional lines blur for Maggie when she falls for a patient. But when that patient dies of medical complications, the loss compels Maggie to leave Hope Zion and reinvent herself somewhere else before coming back to Hope Zion a better doctor and person. But then the Lexa controversy happened and I knew we couldn’t kill Bree, no matter how we did it or for what reasons. So I pitched an alternative version that kept Bree alive but had similar emotional and professional repercussions for Maggie.
TTVJ: When did you realize that even though she wasn’t a major character on the show that what you originally planned could still be very harmful?
NC: Bree could’ve been in just one episode and it still wouldn’t have felt right to kill her. Not when we were breaking this story at a time when like seven queer female characters were killed off in the span of 10 days. We were lucky that we had the time to look at what was happening, educate ourselves, and change course. Many shows with well meaning showrunners and writers weren’t so lucky.
TTVJ: Did you have any concerns about changing the whole path of the story after it had already been decided, whether that be story concerns or just speaking up that you didn’t feel comfortable with the arc? How did Adam and the other writers take your suggestions to change the direction?
NC: I’ll be honest, it was a bit tricky getting everyone on board with changing the story. We talked a lot in the room about whether or not writers have an obligation to the audience beyond giving them compelling and entertaining stories. There was much discussion about how crippling it would be for writers to have to consider every social or political ramification of the stories they want to tell. Would we be censoring ourselves to the detriment of the show, or to the detriment of our writing? My point was that we do that anyway when it comes to certain types of characters. We understand the socio-political contexts of killing Jewish characters in culturally insensitive ways, or black characters. At least I hope we would. What the Lexa controversy illuminated was that a lot of showrunners didn’t understand the Bury Your Gays trope or why it was harmful. And a lot of people weighed in without bothering to take the time to even try and understand it. That was the most frustrating part. Luckily I was in a room with an incredible showrunner, Adam Pettle, who did take the time to understand the issue and who gave me his full blessing to change the story.
TTVJ: Was this change before or after you guys came up with The Lexa Pledge?
NC: We came up with the new storyline first and then Michelle Mama and Gina Tass approached us with the idea of creating the pledge.
We got a lot of good feedback regarding the Pledge, including input from people who wanted to sign but didn’t feel they could because the tenets were too limiting. In retrospect perhaps it should’ve been a single more general statement pledging to do better. More people would’ve signed on to that version of the pledge. But we wanted to go deeper and use each tenet to explore a different facet of the issue at hand. Things like queer-baiting, which I didn’t even know was a thing until this all happened. And identifying that the death of queer character will always be problematic until more LGBTQ characters are leads. By trying to be more exhaustive in our language and using the Pledge as an educational tool as well, we may have made it inaccessible to some people. Which is a good lesson for the future.
TTVJ: Why is it so important to you to tell stories with positive LGBTQ representation?
Everyone deserves to see themselves represented in society and not having positive representation can be really damaging, especially for kids. A 2009 study puts the attempted suicide rate for LGBTQ youth at 4 times their heterosexual peers. That number is staggering. Television shapes our worldview. So if seeing positive queer representation on TV can help move the needle on that statistic, it’s a worthwhile cause. We have made incredible strides in terms of representation but as a result we seem to have become complacent. For example, I have a link on my toolbar to the Autostraddle.com page that keeps count of every queer female character that’s been killed off. One week the button will say “All 150 Dead Lesbian and Bisexual Characters on TV” and I click on it only to learn that it’s actually 156 now. Currently the button says 172 dead lesbians and bisexual characters but I just clicked on it and found out it’s actually 175. So we don’t seem to have learned much in the past year, which is disappointing. And as long as that’s happening, and let’s be honest, even afterwards, I’ll be trying to get positive queer representation on television.
TTVJ: What did you learn or gain out of this experience with this particular story arc?
NC: I learned so many things! I learned that there are writers in this country, temperate respectful Canadians though we are, who will publicly rail against any attempt to change the status quo. It’s worth noting that most of the retractors who went public were straight white dudes. But shade-throwing aside, I learned that until an episode is actually shooting, it’s never too late to pitch a better version. As long as you’re someone who writes quickly. I also learned, more importantly, that challenging yourself to do better, to tell more responsible stories, is 100 percent worth it because it leads to better writing.
What do you think of this decision? Sound off in the comments below!
Saving Hopeairs Sundays at 10 p.m. on CTV in Canada and Wednesdays at 12 a.m. ET on ion TV in the US.
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.