TelevIsm: The Numbers–Lost and Race and Death Off the Island
Spoiler Alert! Don't say we didn't warn you...
Image: Sayid, wearing a beret, looks down.
In the first post in this series, I looked at how white and nonwhite characters in representation and death on the Island at the center of Lost. While the Island is the focus of Lost, flashbacks and other off-island plots are the main way in which the show develops individual characters, and these stories deserve individual analysis.In this post, I'll be looking at the other narrative side of this complex show: off-island action, in flashbacks, flashforwards, and sideways flashes, with help from my friend and fellow Lost fan, Renee Martin of Womanist Musings.
Numbers for the sideways universe mirrored on-Island numbers closely - that is to say, there were a lot more white people that not. As the people of color who made the cast well-balanced by ethnicity were slowly killed off and as flight 815 finally landed in Los Angeles, the off-island stories became more centered around white, English-speaking, USian characters. 72% of all characters in flash-sideways are white. On a better note, mortality rates for both white and nonwhite characters are identical and low, at about 7%.
When I talked to Renee over GChat yesterday, she had words of praise and critique for the sideways universe. "I do think that Sayid's character was humanized with [his unexpressed love for Nadia]," she said. "They showed that he had such a great relationship with his brother's kids … MOC are often portrayed as abandoning children and not really caring."
But she was more critical of the underuse of Rose Nadler: "[She] was in a servile position, and it was so brief. It seems to me that they owed it to her character to do more with it."
While the sideways universe is problematically focused on whiteness, the numbers for the flashforwards in seasons four and five were extremely well balanced. 51% of the characters in these flashes were of color, and the death rates were identical (11%). I attribute this to the fact that more than half of the major characters in these flashes were of color. Their relationships were given attention and care in many cases.
Flashforwards constitute the high point for Lost's portrayal of characters of color. Sun, Hurley, and Sayid are active heroes and sympathetic family members who try to get back to the island and try to stay away for equally valid and important reasons, while white character Jack is out of control and in legal trouble. While I found Sayid's occupation as a hit man for Ben to be problematic, Hurley and Sun both took interesting directions, including the development of strong familial relationships. Renee said: "Sun had such a strong personality in conflict with the idea of the delicate lotus flower often associated with Asian women."
But the centralization and mortality rates for flashbacks are much more problematic. Flashbacks are especially crucial because they're a defining narrative tool of Lost, key to character development–moreso than the other narrative flashes, which serve to propel the plot rather than develop characters.
63% of flashback characters, main and minor, were white. This is not quite as overwhelming as the number of on-island characters, but it is nonetheless indicative of how whiteness is centralized. White characters may not be of foremost importance in every episode. But they do dominate the foreground of the series.
The mortality rates are stark, revealing 20% of characters of color in flashbacks died compared to 8% of white characters. The disparity here is significant because it reveals how the show stereotypically and violently portrays characters of color. Again and again, nonwhite characters are revealed to be somehow necessarily violent. Ana Lucia was a crooked cop. Ricardo/Richard killed a doctor. Nikki and Paulo were violent con artists and thieves.
Renee expanded on this trend: "I was initially very upset to find out that [Sayid] was an Iraqi torturer… [the bad guys] have to be from the Middle East. With Jin, of course he was Korean mafia [which] fits right in with a lot of stereotypes dealing with Asians; they are either criminals or they own laundries. Eko as an African drug runner is just a case of, hey, why not go all out on the stereotypes. This is why Lost is not nearly as progressive as it originally seems. It never wants to move away from the idea that there is always something negative associated with POC."
Yes, there are violent white characters. Sawyer was a conman. Kate killed her father. MiB killed his mother. Jacob killed MiB. Ben is a violent liar. But this doesn't change the overwhelming characterization of already-stereotypical, already-marginalized characters of color as somehow necessarily or thoroughly violent.
Lost is much more concerned with protecting the lives and the nonviolence of white characters. Characters of color are much more violent, and their lives are less valued. Renee described nonwhite characters as consistently subordinate to white characters: "They were treated like appetizers to the main dish in all of the sideways pieces much like they are on the Island. Their storylines are just not as developed as say Jack or Sawyer. I think that Miles in particular shows that."
Lost is a rare network show which not only represents but develops sympathetic and three-dimensional characters of color. This is pretty cool, as Renee mentioned in our chat yesterday: "I hope that Lost is a starting point that will lead to more POC in dominant roles on television that move away from some of the terrible norms that we have created."
But as Lost draws to a close, I urge you to note: who is dying? Who is not? Who is immortal, and whose immortality is cut off in a second? In its last moments, is Lost making good on the racial promise of its pilot?
Portraying marginalized people in the face of a mostly white slate of network television shows is great, but it's only a start. Painting these lives comes with responsibility: to not play into racist stereotypes, to create new and interesting portrayals and stories, and to build on the promise of a main cast that is only a little over half white.
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