Monday, May 20, 2024

On Commander Lexa and the Responsibility of Media Makers

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I started off writing a much more slow, thoughtful and academic article on the latest episode of The 100, but after 500 words my patience ran dry.

Let’s cut to the chase.

The 100 has screwed up. It has screwed up big time, screwed up unforgivably, and I am tired of it, and I am mad about it.

I’m not mad because they killed off my favourite character. Heck, Lexa wasn’t actually even my favourite character. For all the screentime she and Clarke got I didn’t care quite as much about them as I do about Octavia and Raven. But that’s irrelevant, because nevertheless, I’m angry. And it’s not because anyone’s fave is dead. It’s because another show with strong queer representation has subjected another young female character to the infamous ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope, unnecessarily, and with real-life consequences for the show’s young queer viewers.

And it’s time that show-runners start taking responsibility for that.

Scrolling tumblr before this Season 3, Episode 7 “Thirteen” aired, and my dashboard was abuzz. We had been teased prior, in leaks and commercials and a whole lot of talk, about an upcoming scene in which Clarke Griffin and Commander Lexa had sex.

And finally this week the episode aired. People were justifiably excited, because who doesn’t want to see their OTP finally bang, amiright?

Romping aside, throughout this entire season so far I have noticed a particular way in which young female fans of Clarke and Lexa talk about Clarke and Lexa. There is something new and fresh and exciting in Clarke and Lexa that these fans are seeing, and engaging with, and being encouraged by, a kind of representation they’re not getting elsewhere. The fact is, Clarke and Lexa have been given the kind of treatment we rarely see for teenage female characters in media. Both these young women are leaders, respected leaders, with a hefty allotment of agency and power apiece. Couple that with a complex, budding romance that swung like a pendulum between personal and political, and this show was getting pretty interesting. Rarely do we see two women this young and with this much power and influence together. I AM SO IN.

The scene that led to sex was pretty enthralling, I’m not gonna lie. Alicia Debnam-Carey and Eliza Taylor are both great actors. Lexa’s face just had me throughout the entire scene: the adoration in her eyes for Clarke; the gentleness and careful pauses between them both as they asked each other for consent with their eyes. It was so sweet, so tender. We had been building to this moment for a long time, both because queer fandoms always have an intense love of queer love scenes (I mean hello, they are like golden unicorns after all), but also because it felt as if the whole series had been building for this moment in the relationship the entire time. Not just in the context of how the writers and actors discussed the show, but thematically and structurally within the story itself. The scene thoughtfully and intentionally mirrored previous scenes between the two of them, and when we return after the fade to black, the intimacy of Clarke surveying Lexa’s tattoos proved that they had reached a point of deep trust with each other, whilst still giving a subtle hint that there was still more about Lexa we didn’t know.

And then.

The writers decide that, in the very same episode that Clarke and Lexa have sex, in fact within mere minutes of screen time, Lexa gets accidentally killed by a bullet meant for Clarke. She dies in the same room, on the same bed, in the arms of her lover.

My immediate reaction was disbelief, anger, and hurt.

Part of me wanted to write those feelings off as an overreaction. After all, this is a post-apocalyptic science fiction show in which it’s pretty obvious that no one is safe and everyone is in danger at one moment or another. A sudden and shocking death shouldn’t surprise me or make me angry, especially when a show already has plenty of other problematic stuff that I could get mad about, like its issues with race representation and racism, for example.

But when it comes down to it, it’s not Lexa’s death that I have a problem with. It’s that the writers decided to kill her in a shocking and Tragic™ way immediately following her vulnerability with a female lover. And in doing so, the writers refuse to acknowledge the dire and dangerous consequences that kind of a scene can and does have on the show’s very real, very young, queer female audience. Because we have seen this very scene more times than we can count.

It’s exhausting watching queer female characters die. But even more exhausting than that is seeing writers who ignore the real-life historical context relevant to their character.

When you make a piece of media — especially speculative fiction, for the very genre of science fiction was built upon saying things about society that couldn’t otherwise be said —  no matter what you do, and whether you like it or not, that piece of media is going to be informed by the real-life historical context in which it was made, and also by the history of media and reality that precedes it. For example, in October 1968 George A. Romero’s horror film Night of the Living Dead hit theatres. The film ends with Ben, the only black character, as the sole survivor, fighting off reams of zombies before being mistaken for a zombie by a white man and subsequently killed. In April that same year, Martin Luther King Jr had been assassinated. That history resonated with some audiences and informed their viewing of the film. Whether Romero had planned it that way or not, the historical context that preceded his movie became a part of the story.

Queer representation works exactly the same. Our history is rife with tragedy, and a lot of our stories are tragic too. A lot of the young people that are watching The 100 are living this very history.

So in the name of that historical context, let’s bring it back to ‘Bury Your Gays’. This trope is starting to get pretty old. In fact, it’s well over 60 years old. Back in the 1950s, The Price of Salt (the novel that Todd Hayne’s 2015 film Carol is based upon) was considered hugely progressive for the depiction of a happy ending for its two leading women. At the time most characters in lesbian pulp fiction had to either become ‘heterosexual’ or die by the book’s end, so that no published novel would appear to approve of or endorse homosexuality, in accordance with censorship guidelines. This is literally the history that this trope is built upon. Queer girls are broken, destroyed and punished for their love. And somehow, 64 years later, that’s still the main thing that’s happening. It’s still the history. And series creator Jason Rothenberg literally doesn’t seem to give a crap about that history. In this interview with TV Insider, when asked if he is ready for the impending viewer backlash over Lexa’s death, Jason Rothenberg says,

“I don’t even want to talk about the trope that’s out there about LGBT characters; that is not something that factored into the decision [to kill Lexa].”

Wow. So here we have a media maker outright refusing to consider the historical and cultural context that surrounds what he has just created. And that, above all things, is what makes me really angry about this whole thing. The coupling of Lexa and Clarke’s intimate love scene with Lexa’s immediate death sends a very dangerous underlying message to viewers. I don’t really need to spell out exactly what that message is, because we’ve seen it time and time again each time a queer character is killed before our eyes in their moment of authenticity and vulnerability. It hurts.

Show creators need to take responsibility for how they treat their characters, because the treatment of characters is directly connected to the treatment of the audience. It’s why we get so deeply connected to the characters in the first place. It’s why we fell so hard for Clarke and Lexa’s love story, because it resonated deeply with our own experiences. There was a lot to love about this show, and so much to love about Clarke and Lexa as characters. Had the show runners taken greater care in how Lexa’s death came about, or perhaps considered other story options that didn’t result in her death, things could have been different.

In regards to the story everything has changed with the sudden death of Commander Lexa. How Clarke will ever recover and what will happen between the grounders and skaikru now remains unknown. But the significance of Lexa’s death actually penetrates farther than the context of the story. The entire essence of The 100 as a series has changed; and at this point, I don’t know if I’m going to stay with it or go.

All images courtesy of Warner Bros. 

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