Saturday, April 20, 2024

An open letter to Jason Rothenberg of The 100

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Dear Mr. Rothenberg,

I don’t watch your show, but I know many individuals who do—individuals who are actively hurting right now.

I also happen to know the signs of emotional manipulation on the part of media creators. Well, I suppose you could say all fiction is emotional manipulation, but there’s a difference between building characters and tensions, and outright pulling the rug out from underneath the feet of your viewers and reveling in the Shock™ you’ve written.

What worries me is that based on your response so far to the criticism surrounding Lexa’s death, you seem to be utterly missing the point. There is certainly always going to be a strong reaction when a “fan favorite” gets killed off, and it’s not wrong to assume that is part of the uproar. But it’s not the totality of it either. And actually, the reason I felt compelled to write this was due to the following quote of yours:

“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].”

It boggles my mind to think that you, a media creator in such a position of power, don’t seem to understand what something being a trope actually means. This refers to a pattern of storytelling commonly used in television, books, and movies. And these patterns of writing are shaped by our cultural context. For instance, Twilight was built largely on the hellish Love Triangle trope, which was often found in media targeted at teenage girls in the years following its release.

But here’s the thing, stories that utilize tropes generally aren’t the result of writers sitting down and thinking “HMMMM let me incorporate this nifty difty one” (unless they are, in fact, Rebecca Sugar and making a conscious effort to subvert them). Rather, their writing falls into a familiar storytelling pattern, due to our societal values and what we tend to consume—a pattern we can recognize and label.

“A trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize.” –TV Tropes

This is not always a bad thing, mind you. Many tried and true storytelling devices are still quite effective for an engaging narrative, such as in the case of the “Unlikely/Reluctant Hero,” the “Will They or Won’t They” slowburn tensions, or the “Lampshade Hanging” device found in many a comedy.

On the other hand, some tropes are negative. And a lot can have damning cultural consequences on top of that. For instance, in Game of Thrones, their most recent season played into the concerning trope that “All Abusers are Male”; the three times a man was being clearly abused by a woman (Tommen with Margaery, Bronn with Tyene, and Hizdahr with Dany, if you watch the show) were either played for laughs or presented in a positive light. “It’s just a show!” Well no. The fact is, men who are victims of abuse, particularly at the hands of women, are far less likely to report it, or even talk about it because of our bullshit sexist societal conceptions of strength. Do you think it’s a coincidence that these are the narratives perpetuated, while at the same time men in the United States are 3-10 times more likely to kill themselves than women?

Media matters. And unfortunately for you, nothing can be created in a cultural vacuum, no matter how much you might like to think that you’re above the influence.

Bury Your Gays,” the trope to which you’ve no doubt been alerted, has a long history. And especially when it involves a gay woman, we’re looking at history shaped by the intersection of sexism and homophobia. I’m not saying you cannot kill a lesbian character ever. I’m saying your absolute refusal to have had this trope—what was it? “factor into your decision”?—was the problem.

From what I can tell, the biggest outcry has absolutely nothing to do with the mere fact that Lexa ended up dead, though I should say, given that she was the only lesbian in your cast, this is a call worth an eyebrow raise. Also given the history of brutalized gays in media, a call always worth a second-thought. But still, I think a fair amount of your fans saw this coming. In fact, forgive me for saying, but it was so baldly telegraphed that even I managed to see it was coming, doing nothing more than scrolling past the occasional gifset on Tumblr.

There are no doubt cries of “never kill your gays!” from fans, and why not? People are hurting. Plus as I said, is this truly the best possible narrative? I have my doubts.

But I do think there is a more nuanced point to make here, because I personally find that mentality to be a little too…Closer it Earth-ish. Or at least infantilizing, if you will. In my opinion, and I believe this is what you have been trying to [rather insensitively] articulate, there are times characters can be killed who simply happen to be gay, and that doesn’t mean they are killed as a result of their gayness. It seems like you are of the mindset that Lexa falls into this, and I am sympathetic to why you believe that, given what you described as your intent: that there was a narrative purpose in her death and a story worth exploring through the resurrection plotline.

However, even if your intent was pure as driven snow, it does not magically make the result infallible. Nor does it make it free of unfortunate implications. The true issue I see, and the point I believe you are heavily missing based on your interviews, is that it was the execution of Lexa’s death that is the biggest problem. And this is for two reasons:

  1. It came within mere minutes of Lexa’s [first, gay] sex scene, and
  2. The manner of Lexa’s death felt completely random, unmotivated, and ultimately cheap for the character you had built.

She was killed by a stray bullet, right? Because “no one is safe” is something you bill your show on?

Look, I truly don’t think you had any sort of malicious intent. But this is why it’s important for media creators to consider the cultural context and to think through all the implications of what they’re writing. Because had you considered the context, you would have realized that LGBT individuals, particularly lesbians, have a long history of media creators continually ripping away the few characters they care about by burying them (hey! that’s the name of the trope!). So given that such a marginalized group with so little representation in shows seem to be continually told the same damn narrative—that the people they relate to will end up dead—perhaps you should have approached Lexa’s death a little more carefully.

Would it have killed you to have Clarke and Lexa hook up just one episode sooner, so maybe for one measly week people who identified with this could have seen that sometimes they can be happy? Or how about twenty minutes? How about anything other than the immediate “they had sex, and here’s the violent and shitty result, which by the way was a direct result of that sex because the bullet was meant for Clarke and Lexa’s only ‘crime’ was loving her.”

Oh and let’s not forget that the guy who fired a gun had been continually telling Lexa that her feelings for Clarke were inappropriate and dangerous (and that her past relationship with a different woman had been a mistake). Because there’s no unfortunate implications the audience can take away from that.

While we’re at it, how in the world was the Stray Bullet of Plot Convenience what you settled on? That didn’t seem hackneyed or anti-climactic to you?

Why didn’t you have Lexa get assassinated? From the social media posts I’ve seen, this was a genuine threat for quite a few episodes, and at least that would have played out with some sort of consideration to her characterization and agency. As would have, I don’t know, her dying in a fight somehow. Or making a heroic sacrifice. Or literally anything else. My understanding is that this was a woman who bested a man twice her size in a fight-to-the-death by catching a goddamned blade with her bare hands, yet instead of killing him chucks a spear right into his spectating mother who had orchestrated that scenario in the first place.

This is the character you created, and yet you seriously mean to tell me that her being a victim of cruel, cruel fate was seriously the best conceivable way for her to die, and a fitting end? Not mention the fact that this was so sloppily done (especially given the bullet’s seemingly non-fatal location and Clarke’s immediate medical attention) that it only served to shatter the suspension of disbelief of your viewers, at least from what I can tell, rather than whatever effect you were hoping for.

What was that effect, by the way? Maximum Shock™ and Angst™? Which is basically you attempting to hurt your audience as much as possible and damn the consequences? Because truly, the timing and arbitrary nature of it become rather difficult to rationalize away. Especially given that it was at the hands of someone who cared for her: the icing on the cake of tawdry drama.

Also, I’m sorry but for especially for someone more disconnected from the show, the whole thing almost transcends drama and becomes comedy due to how nakedly cheap it was. It looks as though Lexa was coming in to borrow a cup of sugar and oh noes!

“Hey Clarke, did I leave my phone charger in here? Zoinks!”

What a twist! How bold. How brave. How stunning.

Okay, I’m getting angry and I shouldn’t be. Because look, I get it. I understand that the “best drama on television” is making a fortune and winning awards off of this utterly shallow style of storytelling, while also “boldly” being as offensive as possible (on every level) and not giving a damn about any implications or criticism. It’s tantalizing to follow suit, especially if that’s a show you find enjoyable. If nothing else, it’s proven to be profitable. I suppose there’s no accounting for taste, though I’m afraid you’ll find few who agree on this site.

If you think “no one is safe” is something deep and interesting, then to each their own. You can certainly write a show exploring that, as you have. But guess what? That doesn’t give you carte blanche to not give a shit about your audience. The empathetic reactions of your viewers need to be taken into consideration, especially when you have so many young, LGBT or questioning individuals watching and getting involved in this relationship. Not to mention, by many accounts, these were viewers that you bent over backwards to get invested, whether extending invites to your set, or promoting (and maybe leaking?) f/f content, or the continual “Clexa”-focused interviews.

It was deadly effective, clearly, because up until last week, you had numerous marginalized teens and young adults who were feeling engaged, feeling represented, and feeling (dare I say it?) hopeful. Which inherently put you in a position of power over them.

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’m also wondering if you realize how many LGBT individuals use media as a form of escapism. A lot of us have terrible anxiety, or struggle with depression, or whatever else the result of this toxically homophobic society yields. Make no mistake, gay marriage might now be legal in the States, but not a single day has gone by since I came out seven years ago where I’ve been allowed to forget my sexuality. That’s what it means to be marginalized.

My tone is harsh, and I apologize, but there’s a lot of people around me that are hurt right now. Then to hear you say that you didn’t even consider the cultural context? That “oh it’s not this trope because I didn’t think about it”? It’s infuriating. And quite lacking in self-awareness.

But guess what? This can be good too. It can be a growing opportunity. This strong outcry hopefully has demonstrated to you the power that you wield, and I simply hope that you wield it for good moving forward. I’m not saying to simply never kill off your LGBT characters from now on and you’ll be fine. I’m saying to put forethought into your storytelling. I’m saying to think about the context. Even better, bring voices into your planning/writing rooms who can offer a perspective that might be helpful. Reach out. Listen.

Learn what it feels like to be the 20-year-old lesbian who hasn’t been able to sleep more than three hours this past week. Learn what it feels like to be the 16-year-old questioning student that had to leave school the day after it aired due to panic attacks. I’ve certainly had to talk to both of them, along with others, because of how badly they were hurt by your show. And if this sounds like an overreaction to you, then all I can say is you are very lucky that you’ve never needed to put so much stock in a single character, because you are represented elsewhere.

We don’t all have that luxury.

Images courtesy of The CW

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