TelevIsm: The Numbers

Rachel McCarthy-James
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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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18 Comments Have Been Posted

I think that what has

I think that what has happened is not racism. Whites in america is 74.3 Percent of all Americans, the others are latinos, blacks, Asians, etc.. the writers aren't racist, they can do anything and someone, somewhere will say that they are racist.

Not related

Alberto, the percentage of whites in the US has nothing to do with Lost or with RMJ's analysis (especially since the show features an international cast and takes place in a fictional, non-US location).

Kelsey Wallace, Web Editor

Good point.

Another reason that most will die is that the show will end soon. i know there maybe still racism, and i belive that racism not only exist but it is quite strong in the world we live, when president Obama was elected i was surprised, i didn't thinks that we as a people was ready, and i am happy it happen. i thinks that he is not perfect, but he really is trying to do his best to help america.

we are evolving, but slowly.

I'm not sure if this changes

I'm not sure if this changes the gist of your analysis or not, but I believe in two cases - Ana Lucia and Eko - the characters were killed not because of a decision by the writers, but because the actors either chose or were forced to leave the show: Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje chose to leave and I believe Michelle Rodriguez left as a result of her DUI convictions (I may be a bit mixed up, however). In these cases, the writers had to react to the decision of the actors. Eko, from what I understand, was intended to be a much more prominent character and the writers were disappointed that he chose to leave.

Once could argue that the decision to kill the characters off rather than find some more noble way to write them out of the show is telling, but one way or those other those characters had to go. It's often easier, and more dramatic, to kill a character off who is unlikely to return - making it easier for the audience to accept that he/she is gone - than it is to write a friendlier, though perhaps more ambiguous, departure.

Good point on Eko, but....

Good point with Eko, thanks for bringing it up - I do have word counts so I couldn't really bring it into my discussion as a differential. I have more problems with Eko's character, but I'll bring that up tomorrow. But even "not counting" Eko, the rates are pretty vastly different.

With regard to Ana Lucia - that was a completely unnecessary death, as was Libby's, though for reasons of sexism rather than racism. Daniel Dae Kim also got a DUI (while filming the fourth season), but he was not written off because of that.

I don't believe Ana Lucia's

I don't believe Ana Lucia's or Libby's death was due to racism or sexism. There was a lot of backlash against Ana Lucia's character to begin with and that story didn't play out the way the writers hoped it would. They liked her character though. There wasn't a lot for Libby to do on the island other than be a potential love interest for Hurley. However, even without that, their deaths helped dramatize what position Michael was in to save his son, Walt. They weren't "unecessary". I agree with the person who said that it's really difficult to write off characters on an island that one supposedly can't get off of without killing them.
Also, I strongly disagree with the statement that it was "nothing for the show" to kill Jin, Sun, and Sayid. I've read the producers and writers say in numerous interviews that it was a very difficult decision to kill them off, especially because so many people were invested in Sun and Jin's love story, which was one of the things at the center of Lost. They killed off Sun and Jin to emphasize that the Man in Black (an evil white man it should be noted) was willing to go to any length to do what he wants to do. It was supposed to tug at the audience's hearts.
I agree somewhat with the statement that Sayid's character was a bit stereotypical, but he wasn't a bad guy and he wasn't a terrorist. He ultimately died trying to save the other members of the castaway group. His death was heroic and he redeemed himself after siding with the fake Locke temporarily.
Lastly, I think it is worth noting that a great many of the "evil" characters on Lost have been played by caucasion people, including the Man in Black, Ben, and Widmore.
The writing on Lost isn't one 100% awesome in relation to minorities, but it is at a much much higher level than almost any other television show on air right now.


The ostensible reason for Michelle Rodriguez's and Cynthia Watros' exit from the show was their DUIs. When male cast members got DUIs, they did not get the same fate. Michael and Waaaalt's story was plenty dramatic without killing two women.

Audience reaction does not really excuse disproportionately killing characters of color. Also, when has Lost been in the business of going out of its way to please its fans?

I don't care if it was difficult for the producers to kill off three characters of color so they could save three white characters. It was racist because it reflected the show's ongoing tendency to preserve white characters while killing off characters of color, and the ongoing centralization of white characters.

<i>Lastly, I think it is worth noting that a great many of the "evil" characters on Lost have been played by caucasion people, including the Man in Black, Ben, and Widmore.</i>

First, this post is not about "good" or "bad" portrayals. It's about how focused Lost is on white characters and how white characters are often saved at the expense of POC characters.

Furthermore, it's problematic to place white people in positions of authority on a regular basis while making POC subordinate, which is what this show has done in at the very least the case of Ben and Widmore. All the "good" leaders? Also white - Jacob, Locke, Sawyer, Jack.

<i>The writing on Lost isn't one 100% awesome in relation to minorities, but it is at a much much higher level than almost any other television show on air right now.</i>

They are doing better than many shows, but that doesn't make them immune from criticism.


to build upon Jeremy's comment, it's difficult to "write off" characters who are trapped on an island WITHOUT killing them.

That being said, I do believe that Lost's handling of characters of color has been less than stellar. Equally problematic is the show's need to pair off characters with their (opposite sex) "soulmates" in the sideflashes.

Ugh, the heteronormativity

Ugh, the heteronormativity on this show is really incredible. Huge cast. ONE tiabgl (I switch up the glbt acronym to avoid centralizing any one group) character in the entire show.


...and the one iltbgq (love the order switching strategy, btw) character is the relatively minor (and not so friendly) Mr. Friendly!


There's been some speculation that the writers implied that Boone was bisexual or gay, though this was only done postmortem and through other characters' flashbacks. For example, in one of Shannon's airport flashbacks, she (snidely) alludes to him "checking out" another man.

Of course, this is problematic on several fronts: for one, it's kind of weasely to "out" a character after he's gone - i.e., when the writers and audience no longer need to deal with his sexuality. Easy out, you know? Also, there's the little issue of Boone's pseudo-incestuous relationship with his step-sister, which plays to the stereotype that glbtq folks (and especially gay men) are deviants.

Not a big Boone fan, though I definitely have a soft spot for off-Island Mr. Friendly.

Tom Friendly fan club?

I did not know that about Boone, thanks for sharing!

I actually kind of love Tom Friendly regardless, and I think he was severely underused.

i love lost

i love lost. it's one of the only intelligent shows on tv. i think it should be noted jin, sun, and sayid were killed off 2 episodes from the end of the series. of the main characters jack, sawyer, kate and hurley are all that are left, and i feel like most of them will be dead by the time the show comes to a close. their deaths gave fuel for the final 4 to keep fighting. their death was the ultimate act of love and selflessness. at the end of the series there will only be one candidate left (we now know who it is but i wont spoil). so yes the odds were always that it would be a white person. but you could also make the argument that all the evil characters on the show are white. man in black, ben, widmore, "mother", ethan, all of the "others" i don't think race is, excuse the pun, black and white. they have included a diverse cast and portrayed them all as complicated flawed emotional people. what more could you ask for?

as for glbtq inclusiveness that could have been portrayed better, and kate constantly swooning over jack, then sawyer, then jack is also pretty anoying, but hey, at the end of the day it's a show about love and you can't go wrong with that.

I love Lost, too.

<i>what more could you ask for? </i>

That characters of color not die at a much higher rate than white characters?

That characters of color take on more positions of authority and leadership instead of constantly sacrificing themselves for the island or white people or whatever?

(All the "good" leaders are white, too: Jacob, Desmond, Jack, Sawyer, Horace Goodspeed. Leaders of color are usually subordinate to some white dude whom they eventually sacrifice themselves for - Richard, Hurley, Sayid, Jin, Michael, Miles, even Dr. Chang).

Except, for the record,

Except, for the record, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje left the show because he didn't want to live in Hawaii anymore. Michelle Rodriguez only wanted to do one season by her own request, which was made before she was even cast in the role. In the small pool of ethnic character's TWO does make a difference. If you subtract the two who left because they WANTED to your equations are slightly different and less manipulated to prove your theory.

You make no mention of the actual character and the fullness of their characters and actions. You make no mention of how in-depth and heroic their actions have been. You are going on more of a Quantity v quality theory here.

Pay no mind that Sayid is a born again softie who saves peoples lives rather than destroy them, yet can kick ass just the same. And manages to use his training and heroic decision to save the rest of the people with his sacrifice? Or that Eko was a crime lord turned priest on pretense but lived it and became that priest. That Ana Lucia was a strong woman who overcame terrible grief and still stayed strong. Or that Walt Lloyd couldn't stay 10 forever. That Jin and Sun had such a deep epic love that one couldn't live without the other, and in the end they chose to to die together after all that has separated them?
But let us not waste time on the quality of these characters. Instead let us focus on their color, because makes it so much more controversial.

Never mind that everyone cannot live and still have the story be compelling and emotional.

"Whiteness is normalized and preferred by this mythical force." Seriously? You are going to try to make the island a sentient racist? Grasp at straws much?

This piece is called "The Numbers" for a reason.

I have a little thing called word count limits, buddy. I've made several allusions to specific qualitative instances of racism, but the focus here is on quantitative.

That's why the title is "The Numbers". Seriously? Do you understand the whole point of this piece is to look at it from a quantitative point of view? There's a TON of feminist analysis of race on the island from a strictly qualitative point of view - I suggest you seek it out if that's what you're so concerned about.

And as I mention several times in this essay, Lost does develop nonwhite characters, and that is great. But it also kills them, really often. And Sayid? Sacrificed himself <i>for mostly white people.</i> Grasping at straws much?

I'd like to see some support for your claim re: Michelle Rodriguez. And you know what? Even without those two actors (and the fact that they would make a significant difference as you point out is an indicator of promoting whiteness) there is still a very significant disparity.

Also, I'm not the one trying to make the Island into a sentient force. The show very explicitly develops that idea.

You are trying to make the

You are trying to make the island into a sentient RACIST.

As for Michelle Rodriguez, her own words explains why she left and it's not DUI related:

You are digging for racism.

Like a true crap hound, not satisfied until you have nit picked everything for the sake of watching your aftermath wreak havoc.

It's things like this that make people look at me with stereotypical goggles instead of seeing me for who I am. I hate it when people create problems where there are none and throw me in with the "stereotyped" crowd. Just because you see racism that doesn't mean that people you are pretending to defend see it as well.

I like the fact that Sayid died saving other HUMAN BEINGS, instead of fulfilling a role of torturer for MIB, thus not perpetrating the Middle East stereotype. A stereotype that makes it seem that the those of us from the middle east are violent and hate EVERYONE of non middle eastern or Islamic descent.

You are stripping away a fundamental foundation of equality to suit your own purpose. Just by removing the quality so you can use the quantity for your agenda, you have become a perpetrator of racism.

I got the point. What I do

I got the point. What I do not get is why it's stripped down to numbers alone to prove racism when the whole picture says a different thing altogether. Why find racism when there is none?

This is a major problem in ethnic relations today. People are seeing what they want to see or finding someway to make it so. When I read this article I saw an argument that needn't be there.

Strip down Sayid, he is scientifically Caucasian, which is apparently neither here nor there, but his role is huge and tries to remove the stereotype by his actions.

Now Libby, who scientifically is Anglo Saxon, has less depth, and does nothing to to make her superior. She even perpetrates the helpless white woman stereotype.

Both die. But which one tries to go beyond stereotype?

When you try and strip down to numbers you lose much of what makes the whole picture.

And the source does make a difference. Scientifically, you can't argue fact when you get data that is not complete. Thought provoking yes, but factually complete no.

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