How Did The 100 Become the Poster Child for Homophobia?
The 100 has been through a firestorm of controversy this year, mostly as a result of the decision to kill off Lexa, its only out lesbian character. Since then, several more lesbians have been killed off on television, as an unfortunate reminder that LGBTQ characters are still not treated equally on television. But The 100, more than any other show, has become the poster child for the Bury Your Gays trope. While there has been fan outrage following each of the deaths, nothing compared to the outcry surrounding The 100 and Heda.
But how did that happen? One year ago, The 100 was being hailed by every media outlet as one of the most feminist, ethnically diverse shows on television, and one of the only TV shows ever to have a bisexual female lead. (If I'm not mistaken, the only other ongoing show that fits the bill is BBC/Netflix's The Fall.) And in spite of several questionable decisions this year, The 100 is still an extremely socially conscious show—more so, arguably, than any of the other shows that killed lesbian characters this year. But the reaction to Lexa's death was much more pronounced, with fans citing sleepnessness, increased anxiety, and even threatening self-harm, prompting the writer of the episode, Javier Grillo-Marxuach to re-blog a list of self-help hotlines. They also took positive action: raising awareness of the Bury Your Gays trope on social media with hashtags like #LGBTFansDeserveBetter, and raising $113,000 for The Trevor Project, an organization that provides 24-hour suicide hotlines and other services for LGBTQ teens.
So let's talk about Lexa's death. Just to be clear, I think that all fans, and especially LGBTQ fans, have a right to their emotional reactions, and it's completely justified and understandable. There is still a dearth of LGBTQ representation on television, and especially meaningful representation. It makes sense that fans would be upset when one of the few lesbian characters on TV is killed off, especially since it still happens so damn often. 10 lesbian characters have been killed in 2016 alone, and while each case needs to be taken individually, that's an extremely troubling trend.
But that being said, the fact that too many shows are killing off their gay characters doesn't necessarily mean that Lexa's death was a clear example of the Bury Your Gays trope. As I've written before, it was definitely insensitive, considering the cultural context, for the writers to kill off the character right after her first love scene with Clarke. The fact that they were not aware enough of this trope to avoid invoking it is their responsibility, and it's a completely fair criticism.
But execution aside, the decision to kill off a lesbian character (or another minority character) is not inherently offensive unless s/he is killed off because s/he is more expendable. Take The Walking Dead, for example. Whenever TWD kills off a person of color, they wrap themselves in the "no one is safe" cloak, which we all know is bullshit. Anyone watching TWD up until now knows that there are, in fact, several characters who are completely safe (you could make arguments for Rick, Daryl, Carol, Maggie, Carl, and Michonne, but it's really only Rick and Daryl). And there's a pattern there: most of the characters are men, almost all of are white, and all of them are straight.
In fact, just one week after Lexa's death, The Walking Dead killed off a lesbian character in an egregiously offensive way, which conformed to the Bury Your Gays trope to a tee. Merritt Wever's Denise had been introduced earlier that season, and while she was likable, we knew very little about her personality and almost nothing about her backstory. The viewer hadn't been made to care about her, and yet she was brutally killed off just as she started a relationship with a woman and was finally starting to get a character arc. The manipulation and lack of sensitivity there is blatant: TWD writers didn't care enough to give her an arc for the sake of representation (or good writing, for that matter), but shoehorned in a happy relationship and mini-arc to try to make viewers care about her death a little bit more. And, to add insult to injury, she was given Abraham's death in the comics so he would have the opportunity to face off against Negan; she was literally sacrificed on the altar of a straight white man.
But this isn't what happened to Lexa. She didn't die because she was expendable, or because the writers thought the viewers wouldn't care too much. She died because A) Alycia Debnam-Carey needed to leave for Fear the Walking Dead, B) the writers knew that she was important enough that an occasional guest spot wouldn't make sense or be satisfying, and C) it was a natural and fitting end to her character. Heda's entire role in the show is built around the idea that she will die and someone else will take her place (much like the Slayer on Buffy, who also died in the original ending to her hero's arc). And although she did die from a stray bullet rather than in battle, she still died a hero's death, imparting the wisdom and legacy of "Blood will not have blood" to her people. She is one of the few LGBT characters on television who got a bonafide hero's arc, which is usually reserved for white men.
On The 100, even more than The Walking Dead, almost no one is safe. I think I would argue that anyone could die at any time, except for Clarke and maybe Raven. Any other character could be killed off, so long as it's a dramatic, drawn-out death, and comes at the end of a genuine arc, both of which Lexa had. The 100 writers specifically requested Alycia Debnam-Carey for six episodes to wrap up her character arc in a way that made sense, and utilized her as much as humanly possible in those six episodes, to the point that she felt like a co-lead.
And yet, after all that, fans were much, much more upset about The 100 than The Walking Dead. And in a way, this makes sense, because Lexa was a much more beloved character. But in a political context, that's exactly why her death is so much less offensive. Jason Rothenberg is far from perfect in his treatment of LGBTQ issues (more on that in a minute), but he created a lesbian character who was well-written, well-developed, complex, and bad-ass, not to mention a lesbian relationship that was equally nuanced. It can't be inherently offensive to kill off gay characters, since killing off a character after a genuine multi-season arc is exactly what writers do with straight white male characters.
The response to Lexa's death was also the result of some unfortunate instances on social media, which made it appear that the show was queer-baiting. I think that every show is always trying to get more viewers, and it's impossible to know their intent beyond that, but one thing is clear: the controversy was not correctly handled by Jason Rothenberg, at least at first. Where writer Grillo-Marxuach was a model of compassion, interacting with fans and letting them know that he heard their complaints and was trying to learn, Rothenberg only defended his own motivations. He said, for example, that the Bury Your Gays trope was "not something that factored into the decision" to kill Lexa, which shows that he really didn't understand the problem.
Just today, CW President Mark Pedowitz responded to the controversy at TCA (via IGN), and admitted that the social media interaction was a huge part of the problem:
"We're believers in showrunners telling their story. I'm a believer in letting the creatives tell their story. If you start limiting certain things, you start limiting the ability to be creative… My take on this is I think there was much more of a social media reaction - in how Jason handled social media."
But putting any non-fictional events aside for a moment, The 100 itself handled LGBT issues much, much better than The Walking Dead. The love scene issue was a big misstep, but overall Lexa's death respected her character. I would argue that the pronounced reaction was partially the result of lowered expectations for shows like The Walking Dead, which seems to kill off a POC every week. The 100, on the other hand, is relatively diverse and genuinely progressive in its gender and sexual politics, so fans held them to a much higher standard.
But the show doesn't need to be perfect to be progressive. The show is usually aware of feminist issues, for example, and yet engaged in blatant fridging when they killed Gina to propel Bellamy's arc. It's no less offensive since The 100 is doing it rather than a show like TWD, but it doesn't negate the fact that the strongest characters on the show are all women, and that the women drive the action more than the men do. One mistake doesn't change the fact that The 100 is one of the most feminist shows on television. So while we should absolutely criticize The 100 for the mistakes they made regarding Lexa's death, we should make sure not to de facto punish them for being a relatively progressive show. Getting upset and airing criticism is different from getting angry and turning against the show altogether.
It's all about context, which is exactly what I thought was missing from many criticisms of The 100. This open letter to Rothenberg from Fandom Following, for example, gives an impassioned (and often well-reasoned) argument for why the death was offensive, but the writer openly admits that she's never even watched the show, so the entire context of Lexa's character arc is lost. And in regard to the fans' emotional reactions, she writes:
I don't mean to be rude, but you simply cannot understand the experience of being a queer woman, or questioning teen, in today's society. You cannot imagine having characters that can maybe be counted on one hand (if you're lucky…I have one finger) who are possible to relate to. And you really can't imagine what that feels like when it is cruelly torn away.
I completely agree with everything she's saying. I agree that LGBTQ fans deserve better—but from all media, not just The 100. If fans had this response to Lexa, it's partially as a result of mishandling, but it's primarily a problem with society in general and the fact that there's not enough representation. We can and should criticize The 100 for its missteps, but we shouldn't use them as a poster child for homophobia. Let's not forget that there's still an LGBTQ lead character (The Mary Sue has a great analysis of fans discounting bisexual characters in their criticisms), and that the writers are only human. We should call them out for their mistakes, but not throw the baby out with the bathwater.