The 100 and the Power of Story

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by Kathryn Graham

On March 3rd, an episode entitled ‘Thirteen’ of The 100 aired on the CW. Shortly afterward, the social media sphere blew up with enraged and heartbroken fans. Why? Here There Be Spoilers.

In this episode, an older male mentor and advisor, Titus, shot his commander and the only lesbian character, Lexa, with a stray bullet mere moments after her one and only love scene with the bisexual female protagonist, Clarke.

The showrunner, Jason Rothenberg, claims he decided to do this because the actress who played Lexa, Alycia Debnam-Carey, was signed to Fear The Walking Dead. You can read more about the entire situation and the social media debacle here: Why The 100’s Showrunner Jason Rothenberg’s Silence Sparked Backlash From His LGBTQ Fans. The results are the same regardless of intent, however. Of any outcome he could have come up with, Rothenberg landed on having Lexa accidentally killed directly after a romantic, touching sex scene with the girl she’d been pining for the entire season.

What’s the big deal? It’s ‘just a story’, right? Can’t the fans who are upset just get over it or go watch something else? To that last point, no, we really can’t. Due to a drought of LGBT characters on television in general, Lexa was one of a kind. More than that, however, nothing is ever ‘just a story’, and it is important to recognize and respect the way in which fiction intersects with the real world.

Lexa’s death on The 100 falls into an overall pattern in media in which lesbian, gay, or bisexual characters die for shock value or to further another character’s storyline. This is called ‘Dead Lesbian Syndrome’ or ‘Bury Your Gays’.

Again you may ask, who cares? It’s all fiction. The trouble is, this pattern of murdering LGBT characters on screen and The 100’s contribution to it is part of a much larger story our culture is telling itself about the existence of minorities, and in particular, LGBT people.

A story is never ‘just a story’. Right now, you contain within you the story of who you are, what the world is like, and your place in it. External events occur, but it is how you tell yourself the story of your life that dictates who you are, how you feel, and how you influence others.

We collectively create our world through storytelling. Public perception on a grand scale is shaped by stories that family members, religions, politicians, and media portray. This is undeniable. It is also why a ‘good story’ is the best way to create a movement for social change.

People like to dis television (aka ‘the boobtube’) as if it’s the cause for the dumbing down of society. This is an outdated and simplistic view. Television is undergoing a Renaissance. It is now being hailed as the new ‘visual novel’. And lots of us, all over the world, are watching. The Average American Watches This Much TV Everyday. That is to say: nearly five hours of television per day. In short, the stories we tell on television reach a lot of people, and they matter.

All writers of any stripe, including television writers, purposefully create their stories to connect with others. They invite you to invest a piece of yourself in their creations. They want you to pay attention so they can inform you. Change your mind. Make you see. Most importantly, they want to make you feel. The craft of storytelling is about selecting choices that support the impact you wish to make.

The storytellers of The 100 chose to include a compelling lesbian character. They also chose to kill her and the method of her death. While the intent behind this was not to say ‘being a woman and loving a woman will get you killed’ (it seems clear that the writer for the episode, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, did expressly not intend this result), it’s not hard to see why the juxtaposition of these two scenes would send that message. Lexa was not meant to die because she was a lesbian, but the story dictated that she died because she loved Clarke.

This message is not new to LGBT people. Right now, despite all of the progress that has been made, the story the real world tells LGBT people boils down to this: You should not exist. We are told over and over that we should change, be invisible, or just die. This story is woven into our society in many ways, but in television, people who wish us to disappear accomplish this mainly by keeping characters like us off the air or killing them when they do show up on screen.

If people want to make us invisible, they rail against including LGBT characters in almost any story where they might appear. They deny any romantic or sexual interactions between same-sex partners unless slapped in the face with evidence. Same sex couple’s interactions, no matter how tame, are given ‘adult’ ratings, while no one in their right mind would give a heterosexual couple a stricter rating for simply holding hands or a kiss.

Opponents of LGBT people make certain that children aren’t able to see people like us on TV. To them, our mere existence is presumed damaging to a child. So relationships like Korra & Asami on the animated Nickelodeon show Legend of Korra are largely relegated to a suggestion and an after-the-fact acknowledgment of their relationship, despite the creators’ own wishes.

Censors try to keep same sex relationships off the air precisely because they know it will change things. If representation held no power at all, there would be no need to bury it. But they understand the power of story well enough to know that showing two women or two men in love, or even the hint of it, can be a catalyst for change in the audience and society at large.

They know that seeing gay people represented as heroes or happily in love in The 100 or Star Wars or Xena will change everyone’s hearts and minds. They understand the power of story.

And largely, they have succeeded. This depressing statistic about sums it up:

“According to the most recent GLAAD study, only 3.9 percent of 813 characters regularly seen on prime-time network scripted series will be lesbian, gay or bisexual – a total of 32 characters.” (Cited from here: How the 100 Buried Its Gays and Almost Got Away With It)

What happens when those few lesbian, gay, or bisexual characters actually do get portrayed on screen? You guessed it. They usually end up dead. Here’s another sad and telling list: All 138 Dead Lesbians and Bisexual Characters on TV, and How They Died.

Invisible or dead. That’s the story lesbian, gay, and bisexual kids are told. Is it any wonder, then, when we’re afraid? That we’re heartbroken and tired? When we feel like no one cares about us? Is it surprising that so many of us take our own lives? It’s what the world has been telling us to do all along.

LGBT kids ask ‘Where’s my happy ending?’ Our enemies say, ‘You don’t deserve one’. Our allies say ‘Maybe some day’.

If we lived in a different world with a different story, then Lexa’s death might have been seen for how it was intended: an enlightened leader who chooses peace and love is cruelly killed by those who cannot see as well as she can. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), we live in 2016, not post-nuclear 2150, and the story we tell the LGBT community is still largely comprised of two tales:

Nobody wants to see you as you are.

You will die because of who you love.

It’s time to change the story. It’s time to make ‘some day’ into ‘right now’. And you know what? The fans are doing just that. Between their campaign to take down tone-deaf showrunner Rothenberg and the ongoing massive fan fundraising event that so far has brought in nearly 45,000 for the Trevor Project (support for at risk LGBT youth), The 100 fans aren’t going to let someone else tell their story anymore.

Bonus? Javier Grillo-Marxuach is determined to make amends and show his true colors too. He’s set to Explore Xena & Gabrielle’s Relationship in the Xena Reboot. Maybe some day is a little closer than we think.

About Kathryn Graham

Los Angeles-based television writer, TVWriter Contributing Editor, and lover of women. e-mail: kathrynagraham@gmail.com