TelevIsm: The Disappointing Case of Kate Austen
I was going to begin this post with the line “Kate is a divisive character among Lost fans”, but I won’t, because it’s not true. The Lost fan community is, with some exceptions, united against Kate. Very few Lost fans are Kate fans, the way people are Ben fans or Juliet fans or Hurley fans. In fact, many fan discussions are rife with discussions of how much Kate sucks – and I must admit, I occasionally join in.
In a show with plot holes the size of my Hyundai, bad dialogue, and Jack “I’ll Fix You Whether You Like It or Not” Shephard, why is Kate often the focal point for the problems of the show among the fan community? Is it poor writing? Misogyny? Disappointment at the Lost opportunity for an amazing strong female character? I talk to The Curvature and Feministe blogger Cara Kulwicki and fellow fans from ontd_lost to try to figure it out.
Any discussion of Kate must begin with the writer’s betrayal of the character, an indication of their utter inability to write consistent, relatable, believable female characters. In our GChat conversation yesterday, Cara, a longtime fan who writes regularly about Lost at Feministe, describes Kate as “a huge disappointment. I really loved her at the beginning of the show. She was so capable yet so compelling, and she totally seemed to have an inner life. And now she's just useless. She does whatever the dudes do, or quite frequently, whatever they tell her to do. Whenever she manages to form a unique opinion of her own, it pretty much always ends up not really mattering in the end and being overruled.”
In researching this piece, I decided to talk directly to the fans I knew in my main Lost community, ontd_lost. ontd_lost is a place I’ve always found to be highly critical of the social implications of the show and generally a nice place to be. It is also a part of a very problematic circle of the ONTD LiveJournal community. Their thoughtful answers to my questions were very helpful. Bitch fan Sarah wrote: “Kate is really frustrating to me because she represents so much Lost potential. When I heard that she was originally supposed to be the main character, I seriously felt like crying because how awesome would that have been? Instead, they opted for the safe and easy white guy hero.”
Kate’s (very sudden) transition to mother is explicitly defined as one of the reasons that she cannot be the hero of the show in her conversation with Jacob in last week’s episode, reflecting Lost’s very problematic attitude towards mothers. sidewalk_doctor points out the gendering of her goals: “While [family] is a fairly universal need, it makes me a bit uncomfortable that this seems to be all she really wants, especially when she's presented as one of the major female characters (if not the most major one) in the series.”
“The triangle” is the romantic conflict between Kate, Jack, Sawyer, and later Juliet that in many ways dominated seasons two through five, and it’s a common focus of critique of Kate. The show’s extended focus on the tension of that situation is often framed as one of the major failures of the show’s storytelling. fancyxthat mentioned this in her comments about Kate: “I don't hate Kate per se, but I hate the way she was written -- especially in season three -- as constantly vacillating between Sawyer and Jack and being used as a mechanism for their antagonism.”
Cara liked the triangle at first, but was soon frustrated: “Her entire character just ended up becoming consumed by this romantic plot line. And it was no longer about why she was attracted to both of these men and what that meant about her and just turned into ‘she likes them both! oh noes!’”
The triangle is a point of frustration even for the actress who plays Kate, Evangeline Lilly (who is often praised by fans). She said in an interview with NY Mag: “I often would have liked to rewrite some of the stuff that was passed between Kate and her beaus. You know, her romantic leads, her men.”
With the cultural baggage of female sexuality comes a lot of gendered Kate hate. Cara commented on the disparity between reactions to Kate with reactions to Jack, another character who causes a lot of fan frustration: “Whereas hate towards Jack (which I admittedly participate in -- hate that guy) seems to be "oh Jack, fuck you you're such a douche" with Kate it's more along the lines of STUPID WHORE KATE DIE IN A FIRE YOU CUNT.” Cara mentioned having discontinued reading a lot of blogs because of these strong currents of sexism.
LJ member flumes put it this way: “I think a lot of people don't like her for valid reasons however "because she's a dumb slut" isn't a good one. Yea, she's stupid. But the slut-shaming? No thanks.”
Reaction to Kate is not necessarily sexist. As Cara pointed out in our interview, “I don't like Kate's character, but I don't like her because I think the character is sexist!” The problems with Kate’s character – the triangle, the shunted storylines, the unclear motivations – are indicative of the writer’s issues with writing female characters, especially considering the emphasis on maleness as central and all-knowing. But that does not excuse misogyny and sexism directed at Kate as a character. Women, fictional or not, should not be slut-shamed, reduced to their sexuality, or subjected to vicious slurs.
I can’t say that I have the answers to Kate here. She’s a problematic character that represents one of many wasted opportunities on the show to create at least one consistently excellent female character. I don’t react particularly well to her because I don’t feel that the writers have acquitted themselves well. Like Cara, I’m upset by how both fans and the writers have treated the character. The character of Kate – how she’s written, the reactions she provokes – ultimately pinpoint how suffocating the show’s and often the fanbase’s male-privileged point of view can be.
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