When you go looking through the television landscape for nuanced, multi-layered female characters, your first stop might not be The CW. Yet the network is quietly airing a television show featuring some of the most dynamic women on the dial. I’m talking, of course, about The 100.
The 100 is set in a post-apocalyptic world, one which initially looked like it was conceived by throwing darts at a pile of YA dystopian clichés and then hoping viewers would be too charmed by the sexy cast to spend time thinking about the plot holes. (Mostly I am, although I’m very concerned about how the show thinks bone marrow transfers work.)
The basic construct of the show is thus: the Earth has been destroyed and all of humanity now lives on a space station orbiting the radiation-filled planet. Unfortunately, this spaceship is running out of air, causing the ship elders to send 100 juvenile delinquents down to the Earth’s surface to see if it’s habitable. Obviously this isn’t a show about sexy zombies (that’s iZombie, also on The CW!) so the Earth can sustain life. Down on the Earth’s surface, hijinks ensue, many of them involving warfare and some light murder. You know, normal teen show topics!
The 100 has created an interesting world of moral complexities, where the “right” decision will often get you killed and the ruthless choice can sometimes save the most people. The people making those hard choices, ruminating over those tough calls, and grappling with the conflicts of leadership? By and large on The 100 it’s the female characters calling the shots. It’s a quietly remarkable feat for any television show, but it’s especially impressive in a show aimed at a young audience.
Early in the pilot we’re introduced to Clarke Griffin, a pretty blonde thrown into jail after her father gets tossed off the ship for trying to make the air shortage situation known. Clarke at first appears to be a bit of a stick in the mud. She’s the one following the rules; she’s the one looking at the map when everyone else is enjoying their time on the ground. “Princess” is what her season one love interest calls her dismissively.
Over the course of just two short seasons, Clarke goes from being the rule-abiding “goody two shoes” to the undisputed leader of the group. She strategizes and wages war, she makes hard calls and impossible decisions. She’s tough and vulnerable and sexual and smart. She’s multi-faceted and multi-dimensional, but most importantly, she’s a leader. She’s a young woman and she’s a respected leader and those two things are not even remotely a big deal in the world of The 100.
In fact, The 100 is practically littered with female characters in leadership roles. I think there might be more women leaders than men, a shockingly enjoyable change of pace from the status quo of most fiction. In just about every role, from mechanic to warrior, women are calling the shots on The 100.
Clarke’s mother Abby takes over the role of Chancellor from Jaha, who wanders off to become a Jesus metaphor in the desert. Raven is the all-around tech wiz of the group, and probably the reason they’re all still alive. The Grounders, the mysterious people who have survived on Earth while the “Sky People” hid out in space, seem to have an unending stockpile of amazingly badass female rulers. Meanwhile Octavia falls in love with a Grounder and then becomes a warrior, learning the ropes under the distrustful and brutal Indra.
Women populate some, if not all, of the most important roles in the universe The 100 has created. Best of all, this happens without anyone calling attention to it.
The show does right by these female characters in many ways. One way is by creating romances that are just one aspect of these women’s storylines, not their entire narrative purpose. Octavia has a Romeo and Juliet love with a Grounder, yet this relationship plays a huge role in her development into a warrior and her acclimation into Grounder culture.
Early on in the show, Clarke has sex with Finn without a lot of the hand-wringing and sexuality-policing that usually happens on shows aimed at a younger audience. Later, Clarke has a dalliance with Lexa, the female commander of the Grounder army.
The show never goes out of its way to underline Clarke’s bisexuality or to make their relationship into an after school special. Clarke loved Finn and Clarke is attracted to Lexa, and it’s no big deal. There’s bigger fish to fry than the gender of who Clarke is crushing on at the moment.
It’s also sadly radical to see a bisexual character presented as a strong protagonist, where her sexuality is just one aspect of a multitude of ways she impacts the story. Usually bisexual women are the quirky best friend, the free spirit, or the sexually adventurous one. Clarke is serious, smart, ruthless, and vulnerable. She’s a leader and is arguably the main character of the show. Oh, and also she’s bisexual.
This shouldn’t be revolutionary, and yet it feels very important that Clarke’s sexuality is both an important part of her character and also perhaps the least interesting thing about her.
The 100 isn’t interested in pitting female characters against each other for the sake of male attention. When Finn’s girlfriend Raven shows up, there’s never really any catfighting or rivalry between Clarke and Raven. There are some hurt feelings and teen angst, to be sure, but the show doesn’t set one girl against the other. If two female characters are having a disagreement on the show, it’s likely over how to lead or that one left the other to die in a bombing. Normal girl fight stuff.
The show realizes that romance is a part of life, and relationships are a part of the show, but they often take the backburner to the life-or-death happenings of the moment. Clarke isn’t sitting around worrying about a love triangle, she’s worrying that all of her friends are going to be brutally murdered unless she comes up with a battle plan.
On The 100, women are unquestioned leaders in several societies. They’re warriors alongside giant beefy men, and often they’re much scarier than their male counterparts. They experience huge personal growth and character arcs that aren’t fueled primarily by their love lives. They’re allowed to be scared and vulnerable and also to be strong and ruthless. They’re allowed to make mistakes and to do unthinkable things. They’re not always likable.
In an article about the controversy over Black Widow’s role in Avengers: Age of Ultron, NPR writer Linda Holmes used a great analogy about the scarcity of female representation on screen. She said that comparing male and female representation was like comparing baseball games to football games. Because there are fewer games in a football season, each individual game takes on far more meaning.
Therefore we all zero in on Black Widow and wonder why she can’t be the perfect representation of everything we want a female superhero to be, because we see so few female superheroes on screen. She has to be everything to everyone, because the scarcity of cinematic resources means we don’t have other characters to pick up the slack and represent women in other ways.
The 100 doesn’t suffer from this scarcity of representation. The 100 is playing baseball, not football. There are women who are warriors and women who are leaders and women who are tech wizes. There are women who are villainous scientists and women who fight for what they believe in. There are women who are straight, and women who are queer, and women who are bisexual.
The 100 has created a world where women can hold different roles and occupy different narrative functions and also be three-dimensional human beings. You know, like men are in every story ever.
The 100 isn’t a compelling show only because it features so many great female characters. The show is also tightly written, moves at a breakneck speed, and isn’t afraid to go to some very dark and surprising places. The show is good because it’s a good show, period. Putting multi-faceted female characters on screen week in and week out shouldn’t be something noteworthy, but it is.
Hopefully more shows will take The 100’s lead and provide us with female characters taking charge. Until then, I’ll just be obsessing over Clarke, Lexa, Raven, Octavia, and all the rest until the show returns this winter.
Morgan Glennon (@mojotastic) is a freelance writer and obsessive TV watcher who tries to live every week like its shark week. She’s a contributing writer at BuddyTV and her work can befound around the web, or mostly collected on her Tumblr blog. You can always find her onTwitter, where she tweets about television, comics, and Pretty Little Liars theories.
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