TelevIsm: The Numbers–Lost and Race and Death on the Island
Spoiler Alert! Don't say we didn't warn you...
Thanks to Liss for the screengrab!
One of my very favorite shows, Lost, has many amazing and compelling characters of color, like Sayid Jarrah, Jin and Sun Kwon, and Hugo “Hurley” Reyes. In a world where many if not most popular television shows are composed of almost entirely white casts, it’s nice to see a show in which whiteness is not the unchallenged, unvarying norm.
But representation is not necessarily anti-racism, and Lost’s framing and depiction of these characters is often violent and damaging. A pertinent example of this in the current, last season came two weeks ago in the episode “The Candidate”, in which Sun, Jin, and Sayid–three out of four of the remaining characters of color from the original cast - were killed within the span of a few minutes so white characters could live.
Using the well-indexed and well-researched (though often problematic I’m sure) Lostpedia, I’ve looked at the centralization and rates of violence for characters of color versus white characters. I’ve done this by counting the number of white characters, dead and alive, and the number of characters of color, dead and alive, on the axis of characters on the island, characters off the island (in flashbacks, flashforwards, and in the sideways timeline), and main characters. I’m looking at deaths because Lost is an exceptionally violent show. Its high rate of character mortality is indicative of the tone of the show and its treatment of their characters and in particular, their nonwhite characters.
In this post, I’m focusing on the composition and deaths of characters on the Island, and in my next post, I’ll look at the same statistics off the island. I’m starting off with the on-Island characters because the Island is the central point of focus for the show: it is the main character of the show. The Island is the focal point of action in each episode. Character deaths are frequently justified as “it’s because the Island wanted it”. The Island represents the mythology and the soul of the show: its racial politics are worth independent analysis.
Since I began with the example of Sun, Jin, and Sayid above, I’ll first look at main characters and start with the good news. Characters of color comprise 44% of the total cast of 29 main characters (all of whom have been on the island).
This is, frankly, a pretty great number. Lost is a large cast, and it’s clear that the producers made an effort to hire a racially diverse group of people. But this proportion does not mean that their depictions were not racist (which is pretty much the point of this post). For instance, the casting of Indian British actor Naveen Andrews to play Iraqi character Sayid erases both the actor's and the character’s race, and deprives Iraqi actors of an opportunity to play a character who is not a terrorist. But representation, particularly when the representations are well-developed and sympathetic characters as they usually are on Lost, is something to be recognized.
While their promotion of main characters of color is a good sign, the Island is not only composed of its main cast. It’s an ensemble show, which means both a large central cast and many regular and one-episode characters. On the Island, white characters overall are much more emphatically centralized; 75% of all characters appearing on the island are Caucasian. This undermines the heavy inclusion of characters of color in the main cast by placing them in the context of a heavily white atmosphere.
The composition of the context of characters on the island–the minor characters who make up much of the environment in which characters exist–helps to define which minor and major characters are normalized and important and worth developing, like Jack or Juliet, and those who are others and thus disposable, like Eko or the quickly-killed Mrs. Klugh. And beyond simple representation, the rate at which Lost keeps or kills the entire cast of white characters and characters of color is as reflective of its overall attitude toward race as the racial composition on the island.
Harold Perrineau, who played Michael on the show, also pointed out this trend: “[T]here are all these questions about how they respond to black people on the show… Desmond and Penny hook up again, but a little black boy and his father hooking up, that wasn't interesting? Instead, Walt just winds up being another fatherless child. It plays into a really big, weird stereotype and, being a black person myself, that wasn't so interesting.”
The rate at which nonwhite characters die lends credence to Perrineau’s reservations. While 50% of white main characters are dead, a full 69% of main characters of color have lost their life. This indicates that the lives of characters of color are of less valued in the show; they are taken less seriously and thrown away more frequently. It’s nothing for the show to dispose of nonwhite characters like Michael, Jin, Sun, Sayid, Eko, and Ana Lucia.
Michael’s fate and that of other main characters is problematic, but characters of color actually face a lower rate of death overall on the island–while 85% of white characters on the island have died at this point, 82% of characters of color have died. Credit where it’s due, but this could be attributed to the much higher rate of white characters overall on the island discussed above.
In the show, the Island is heavily personified as an independent character (which is why I've capitalized it). Its wants and needs are explicitly defined–"the Island isn't done with you yet", as two mysterious white characters, Hawking and Widmore, say to another, Desmond. Whiteness is normalized and preferred by this mythical force.
And as we saw in last week’s episode, the guardians of the Island–Jacob, the Man in Black, and their mother–are all white. In their manipulation and machination of the people they bring to the Island to find their replacement, settle their debate, or whatever this show is about, they prefer to bring primarily white people, and primarily kill nonwhite people.
Stay tuned for my analysis of Lost characters white and nonwhite, dead and nondead, off the Island, and what the proportion of those different categories of characters mean.
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