TelevIsm: The Disappointing Case of Kate Austen

Rachel McCarthy-James
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Image: Lost character Kate Austen played by Evangeline Lily

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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22 Comments Have Been Posted

Great post! I've been

Great post! I've been looking forward to it since you posted on ontd_lost. I completely agree that a lot of the viewer responses and the actual character are both problems. It's hard to talk about Kate because inevitably the misogynist slurs come out, even in places that are supposedly feminist.

And I find myself not just disliking Kate but actually resenting her, which makes it even harder to discuss her with any kind of objectivity.

My solution: I solved this

My solution: I solved this by stopping in season 2. Kate will forever remain awesome in my mind.

My boyfriend got me

My boyfriend got me interested in Lost during season four. Because of this, all that I know of Kate is the needy, undefined, sad character she is today. The character is bad! She should've been killed off or re-written, or something/anything!

Well, I'm one of the exceptions apparently..

I was shocked to find this post. I really, truly had no idea that SO MANY fans disliked Kate. I was not completely unaware that she had her haters, so to speak, but maybe I'm lost in the fact that I have never hated Kate.

I was upset with Kate a time or two, but in a disappointed kind of way, more than a 'give up on her character as worthless' kind of way. I respect her, really, and in many ways personally relate to her, and regardless of what that says about me. I think she's a good person ultimately, with spunk and dreams and hopes, and who has unfortunately spent her entire life being shit on. No matter what else you can say about her, she loves, deeply and unapologetically, and yet doesn't become a pathetic man/ sex addict. She's strong and CAN run with the boys, but I always felt she was waiting deep down inside to just be allowed to be. and love. Which for me was why she became a mother..and that sentence alone says a lot. She BECAME a mother, to someone else's child and set her life straight for this little boy she had no relation to, because she loved him, and because HE loved her. He didn't judge her or question her, he loved her, and with a past full of questions and betrayal and an utter inability to BE GOOD again, this was a chance to just have the kind of life she felt like normal people had all along.

This doesn't mean she doesn't feel lonely, or will suddenly stop having feelings of conflict about other parts of her life. It shouldn't mean that having trouble letting go of who she had come to think she was, and trusting that she has truly become who she is now makes her disappointing. She is real for me. She struggles and stumbles and loves and overcomes. I love Kate Austen. She is a character I will always love, and respect. I think it's very revealing of what OUR world has become that she cannot be accepted for the true human being she embodies.

She stole a child and let him

She stole a child and let him believe he was hers. She should be hanged. And yes, she had been shit on all her life, by her own doing. Noone asked her to kill her father and live on the run.

I hate this character as much as you do, infact a lot more

I hate this character significantly more than you, trust me. Kate Austen is pathetic, celf-centered, arrogant, useless, slut look I really don't have the time to list all the denigrating terms in the dictionary and if i did, it'll all apply to her. But speaking in fairness, I can't see her taking any blame for killing her abusive father for her mother. I get it, the fact that if you take the law into your own hands, you will face the wrath of the law yourself. But she didn't really have a choice cause pathetic losers like her stepfather are the absolute scums of the earth and should be dealt with accordingly, its not like anyone else could have stepped in for her, she didn't really have a choice to just see her mother suffer like that, guess you can only blame the system. But that is no excuse for her fucked up traits as a character...

Disappointment in Kate

I think for me, the disappointment started with her Season 1 backstory. Here we were, seeing this confident, assertive, effective, if flawed woman with a mysterious life of crime behind her... and it turned out her crime was poorly planned, poorly executed, and cliche. Even her ways of dealing with the consequences lacked any insight, humility, or awareness. This was a typical reveal for male and female characters - that their pre-island lives were filled with misery and general low self-awareness. However, I do think it was the promise of a strong yet flawed female character that made Kate's backstory all the more disappointing. Or maybe Evangeline Lilly just doesn't carry herself like a person who would be as ineffective and foolish as Kate has consistently been.

Furthermore, I think the accusations of her being a "slut" are hilarious given that to me, the only realistic thing her character has done since arriving on the island is have sex with the attractive and available man who demonstrated his affection for her over and over again. Although the entire island seems to be pretty unrealistically sex-negative (they crashed on an island! and their lives are at risk on a regular basis! why is no one having sex?), Kate in particular has seemed unrealistically cautious in her approach of the "love triangle" (gag).

The Dissapointing Case of the Women of Lost

I think Kate is emblematic of the show's poor treatment of women in general.

Women on the show tend to serve the plot as motivations for male characters. As fancyxthat says, Kate is, "used as a mechanism for [Jake and Sawyer's] antagonism." Men do things on the show for women (usually without asking the woman's opinion) much more than women display their own agency.

If women do display agency, too often it is out of an irrationally expressed motivation for babies. Motherhood is important to many women but not in the way it is portrayed in this show. Of course Jacob would cross Kate's name off of the wall, a woman getting a baby means that her life is fulfilled.

Claire and Rousseau go insane when they are kept away from their babies. Rousseau kidnaps Aaron and Claire makes her creepy skeleton baby in a crib. Motherhood is the only thing that can keep a woman sane.

To be fair, Ben does a fair amount of insanity after being violently separated from his "adopted" daughter. Many female characters show agency and power unrelated to inspiring men or needing children. They usually (Ana Lucia, Ilana, Naomi) die before they can pull a Kate and become boring television. Soon after Sun shows she is an empowered, kick-ass business woman in addition to being a mother, she gets pushed into the show's background, tagging along with Lapidus.

Kate started off being daring, adventurous, resourceful and self-reliant. Her descent into wallpaper and second class main character is troubling and obnoxious from an entertainment point of view as well as from the point of view of representations of women in the media.

Thank you for calling out Lost on its failure with a female lead while also examining the sexist nature of criticisms of Kate's character.

I can't believe I'm going to

I can't believe I'm going to defend the Lost writers on Kate here, but I do have one little nitpick. She wasn't told she couldn't be the hero because she was a mother. Jacob said he picked the candidates because they were alone, and once they were no longer alone he crossed them off--not just Kate, but many other people as well. He then even said Kate could still have the job if she wanted it. So at least in that one instance, I wouldn't say the show said anything particularly strange about motherhood.

But I still agree with all the problems with the character. It seems actually that to be an actual fan of Kate you need to see her the way the show so often seems to want to present her: as a victim. As someone who is really good and self-sacrificing except other people keeping making it hard for her. Which to me is just ridiculous.

I've come to feel like that's the biggest problem with the character for me, and it does seem tied to her being a woman. Where male characters can have selfish sides that compete with their more sympathetic sides, Kate seems to be presented as sympathetic and heroic when she's being self-centered and selfish, as if it's rude to remember that she caused her own problems and has left a trail of destruction behind her. If you don't see her as a victim you see someone who's just incapable of really being counted on for anything. I think the character suffered because the show was so quick to make excuses for her for fear of her being a bad guy, as if she couldn't stand the same kind of scrutiny as her male counterparts. Jack, for instance, can be a total douche but in consistent ways that have been explained. It didn't keep him from being an annoying character for many viewers, but I think in the end even he earned some respect while Kate still seems to be floating around asking for sympathy.


Hit reply in the wrong place. That was supposed to be a reply to the original article. Hate it when I do that.

Jacob said he picked the

<i>Jacob said he picked the candidates because they were alone, and once they were no longer alone he crossed them off--not just Kate, but many other people as well. He then even said Kate could still have the job if she wanted it. So at least in that one instance, I wouldn't say the show said anything particularly strange about motherhood.</i>

Well, yeah, except that every woman (and thus every Candidate) that survived to the end of the show was a mother, and thus unsuited for leadership. And Sawyer, at least, was a dad and probably would have been happy to get off the island and see his kid, and Jin definitely wanted to, but that didn't disqualify them. I still call shenanigans.

kate is the shit. i think

kate is the shit. i think most of the depth all lost characters had was absent in the last couple of seasons, kate included. if anything, kate was a ray of light amongst all the crap the writers and producers conjured up this season.

Keit is the best woman in

Keit is the best woman in the world and Evangellin too. I knew the woman which was so like on Keit. It is super girl.

Kate and Aaron

I really wish people would stop romanticizing Kate's relationship with Aaron. I really do. Many tend moan over how being Aaron's mother made her less selfish and more stable. These same fans tend to conveniently forget that Kate had claimed Aaron as her son for a very selfish reason. Worse, she had claimed Aaron at a time when she was about to face trial for criminal charges. After meeting Claire's mom, Carole Littleton, she kept Aaron for herself for another two-and-a-half years.

I think that a lot of my past dislike of Kate stemmed from the fans' tendencies to excuse her crimes. She made it clear in "What Kate Did" that she had murdered Wayne Jensen because she couldn't stand the idea of him being her natural father. She even made it clear that his abuse of her mother played no part in her decision to kill him. But many fans continued to claim that protecting Diane Jensen was the motive behind her crime. They also made excuses for theft of Aaron . . . after she had finally admitted to Claire that she had been wrong to raise him.

And I feel sorry for Evangeline Lilly. Her character has been plagued by a great deal of bad writing during the series’ six seasons. Mediocre and questionable episodes like (1.12) “Whatever the Case May Be”, (3.06) “I Do”, ”The Little Prince”, (3.15) “Left Behind” and especially (4.04) “Eggtown” marred her character development. Her criminal trial featured in ”Eggtown” was probably her worst storyline. In fact, I would call it a travesty in legal fiction. Her lie about being Aaron Littleton’s mother struck me as inconceivable. And the fact that Oceanic Airlines and the authorities actually bought it struck me as even more idiotic, considering there was no way Kate could have been six months pregnant when she boarded Flight 815 in Australia. The Australian law enforcement and airport security cameras could have easily disputed her lie. But Cuse and Lindehof led many viewers to believe that such a stupid lie was actually plausible.

I have to hand it to Lilly. Despite her inexperience at the beginning of the series and the shitty writing that Cuse and Lindehof tossed her way, she actually managed to develop into a solid actress.

I always tried to keep the

I always tried to keep the whole triangle in perspective by realizing that it was supposed to be 100 days on the Island..not 4 or 5 years as the fans were experiencing..I mean..3 months is not a long, long time..I know it irritated some people and created the whole environment to put the whole blame her. And it did create a sort of limbo for her if she couldn't make up her mind. But it didn't distract me from her bravery and willingness to take on any of the trials as well as any of the men.
She was tough and she was capable. Always.
I am glad the writers found a way for her to figure out that baby Aaron was not the answer to all of her problems either even if figuring it all out was about the lying and the deceit...And surely everyone believes that she should have taken the baby with her, right? Swaddling and leaving it on the beach while hoping for the best wouldn't have worked either. But no reason for the lie presenting it as her own. Baby Aarons presence in her life was created as her own personal island where she could continue to hide out. One of her big issues in another disguise.
In the end she killed the mib and was able to actually make a decision about Jack.
But I can't help wondering what her years after the island would bring. For her and everyone else. No matter how she and the others grew..
Wouldn't everything else afterward always be anti climatic?

Aaron's Departure

"And surely everyone believes that she should have taken the baby with her, right? "

First of all, Kate did not take Aaron off the island. Sun did. I had no problems with that. But as you had stated; Kate should have never proposed the idea of pretending to be Aaron's mom. Jack should have never supported her. And Sun, Sayid and Hurley should have realized that someone should have taken the trouble to find out if Aaron had any relations off island.

Just a quick note regarding

Just a quick note regarding the lie about Aaron being Kate's son, and people saying how selfish it was for her to say he was hers: if they were to lie about being the only 6 survivors, they didn't have any other option for Aaron. The only possibilities for his existence were: 1) born on plane, after take-off and pre-crash; in which case, as a serious preemie, he wouldn't have survived 2) He was one of the female 6's baby (Kate's) and born after the crash, or 3) The Survivors were lying about their circumstances.

They could have told Oceanic

They could have told Oceanic that Claire had originally survived the crash, given birth to Aaron before disappearing or dying. They didn't even bother to find out if Claire and Aaron had any living relations. And Kate's main reason for claiming Aaron as her own was out of pure selfishness. She made that clear in "The Little Prince", "Whatever Happened Happened" and "The Last Recruit". Yet, you're still making excuses for her and the other members of the Oceanic Six. Why? Why is it so hard, even after so many years, to accept that Kate did wrong in claiming Aaron for herself? Even she was able to admit that she was wrong to do so.

Here is the singular reason why Kate was the worst

Basically, whatever was the absolutely wrong thing to do in any situation on the island or off was Kate's solution to the problem. She was basically the writers way to start shit or move the plot. Outside of the that she was extremely self-centered and never took any responsibility for the trouble that she caused. The flashback to the bank robbery is the pinnacle of what was wrong with Kate. She convinces a bunch of bad dudes (and maybe ladies) to break into a bank to take a stupid airplane from a safe deposit box. She endangers both the people in the bank and the robbers for Kate's own purposes which have zero meaning what-so-ever.

Slut shaming justifiable in this case and similar ones?

Rewatching the show recently, I think slut-shaming in Kate Austen's case is justified. It's not that women shouldn't be allowed to have casual sex or should be universally judged for it, it's that her casually switching between partners is a manifestation of her shallow behavior as a character. She's constantly toying with the emotions of whichever man is in charge, because she's a coward. She's not capable of taking care of herself, so she uses sex and false professions of love to rope in someone to take care of her. If she were a strong character who looked after herself and just so happened to be polysexual than I might be rooting for her. I believe men and women should be allowed to express their sexuality however they want, as long as they're honest about it. Taking advantage of people who are looking for more than just sex IS something that justifies shaming.

It has nothing to do with her

It has nothing to do with her being a slut. She just ruins everything. She gets a strong opinion about something and tries to stop someone from doing something on the island and always ends up wrong.

Kate Austen

Fans were not the only people who hated Kate. I am thinking of the Deputy who stalked and arrested her. His actions were very over the top and unprofessional. I reviewed the show a few times and I did not realize how much Kate bothered me until I had watched it over again. Perhaps the first time I was just caught up in the story line. Kate really had a flaw and made impulsive decisions which really put others in danger. And I really had to wonder about her use of sex in regard to Sawyer and Jack. Her sense of what love is was really warped and as others have said this could be a result of her not great past. And to be fair, her mother's sense of what constitutes love was pretty warped. She was a child in a woman's body. But let's face it, all of the characters chosen to be on the island had very heavy issues which defined a lot of the show's dynamic. Jack also got heavily on my nerves--all that screaming, buzz-killing and running around. As Sawyer says to him when Kate and Jack return to the island, "When you were in charge you just reacted to things and a lot of people died."
I object to the idea that Rousseau was insane. I think that compared to most of the survivors she was very lucid. She was able to survive in a foreign and hostile environment for 16 years on her own, and appeared sad but wise. Sadness over tragedy is not insanity. In the discussions about the role of the woman on the island, not one mentioned her or for that matter, Julia. Julia is a very mysterious and powerful figure to me. Even so I was disappointed when she got all jealous about Kate and started to veer from her very rational, decisive and independent self.

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