On The 100, Our Heda Lexa, and LGBTQ+ Representation on TV
Yu gonplei ste odon.
Last week’s episode of The 100, called “Thirteen,” was one of the best episodes in the series’ history. It also included a plot element that left many fans – particularly young lesbian fans – distraught and angry. **SPOILERS TO FOLLOW FOR THE 100. DO NOT GO PAST THIS POINT IF YOU’RE NOT CAUGHT UP**
In “Thirteen,” we discover the backstory of the end of the world, how A.L.I.E. came to be, and the origin of the Grounders. It’s an episode jam-packed full of stuff. It should’ve been a unanimous fan favorite. But there was one plot point that left lesbian fans of the relationship between Clarke and Lexa reeling. Lexa was accidentally killed by her adviser, Titus, with a bullet that was intended for Clarke.
Young lesbian fans of The 100 (and their allies) were furious over it – not only because a beloved character had died, but because this seemed like another example of a lesbian character meeting a tragic end in a medium that isn’t exactly short on LGBTQ+ characters meeting tragic ends. These fans have been taking to social media to express their feelings of hurt, anger, and betrayal to the cast and creators of the show, many of whom have been sympathetic and concerned about these young, vulnerable fans.
Some of these fans have expressed deeper hurts, citing Lexa’s death as a trigger to suicidal thoughts or other thoughts of self-harm, and cast and producers alike have been reminding these young women that we want and need them on this planet, and sharing resources where they can get help if they need it (like The Trevor Project, for example).
“Thirteen” writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach has been actively reblogging and responding to fan concerns on his Tumblr. You can head over there and scroll through all of the complaints and concerns about the episode, as well as the support. Here are the major complaints:
- Lexa’s death falls into the Dead Lesbian Trope, or “Bury Your Gays,” which is harmful considering that many young people who watch The 100 watch because of its positive portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters. Many of them felt that they were lured into a false sense of security only to have the rug pulled out from under them and having the show they love treat them as callously as the world often does.
- Many fans figured Lexa’s death was coming eventually, but to have it right on the heels of a love scene between her and Clarke seemed at best unnecessary, and at worst a confirmation of the Dead Lesbian Trope. Just like the sexually active dying in horror movies because “girls having sex = bad” and only good, virginal girls get to be Final Girls. Lexa’s death read like a “punishment” for the relationship, intentionally or not.
- A lot of fans are less upset about the death, and more upset by the response (or lack of sufficiently sympathetic response) from The 100 showrunner, Jason Rothenberg. They say that, while Grillo-Marxuach is at least respectfully acknowledging and grappling with the fans who received the episode negatively, and the show’s stars have been actively interacting with fans to comfort them, Rothenberg is primarily retweeting supporters and explaining away the decision without really understanding or acknowledging that this particular fan pain goes beyond fans simply being upset with a plot point. It’s a marginalized and vulnerable community feeling like a show that has traded on “progressiveness” as far as LGBTQ+ characters took advantage of them.
We also know that the actress who plays Lexa, Alycia Debnam-Carey is now a regular on Fear the Walking Dead, and so was contractually obligated to be available to that show. Many fans asserted that she could likely do both, but both Rothenberg and Grillo-Marxuach clarified that Lexa would’ve definitely had to be done as a character no matter what.
According to IGN, Rothenberg said:
I would say that a lot of factors come into play when you’re breaking a season and it would be a lie to say that the fact that Alycia had another show that she was a series regular on and that I only had the use of her as an actor for seven episodes, six really… There was a date for certain at which we were going to lose her and after that it would be very difficult to arrange to see her again and that definitely played a big role in my decision to have the story go in that direction.
That said, I also, around the same time that I discovered that, that she was a series regular in another show, I was fishing… It was between seasons. I had these two great stories. I had the AI story on the one hand this continuing Grounder conflict between the twelve clans and what I knew would be a difficult 13th clan relationship. And there was no point at which the stories merged. I was searching around for what I was jokingly calling “the theory of everything” – what was the grand, unifying theory of the season? Then I remembered we discussed this notion of reincarnation in episode ten of Season 2 and the idea that Grounder commanders were selected via reincarnation. I didn’t want to say that that was nonsense and I didn’t want to say that it was actual, sort of spiritual, mystical reincarnation and then I struck on this notion of technological reincarnation.
I was thinking about it long and hard before the [writers] room even started, so it all factored into my thinking. It’s hard to say for sure… Were she not on another show, would I have not had this story play out? It’s hard for me to say yes or no. I can say that I adore her, I think she’s amazing. I miss her more than anybody else does, I guarantee it, and yet I still feel like the story was compelling and emotional and the kind of story we tell.
On his Tumblr, Grillo-Marxuach explains:
[T]he problem is not whether anyone loved the show enough to return, or didn’t love alycia (and i keep saying this, she is absolutely blameless in all of this) enough to have her back. the problem is that FTWD is made by a different studio than the 100. basically, the competition has her under contract. to have continued the character would have put the hundred and the corporation that makes it in the very difficult position of having to request that a competitor pass onto us one of their prized actors, in whom they themselves have invested a great deal. it was possible for us to negotiate to get six episodes to wrap up her arc – and i wholly understand how unpopular the decisions we made have been – but to try to continue with the character having absolutely no right to her time and effort because of the restrictions of her contract in another series would have been impossible.
So, the actress definitely had to be written off. The questions remain: did she have to be killed off? Is this another example of Dead Lesbian Trope? What could’ve been done, written, or handled differently?
Hindsight is 20-20, but it’s often all we have. So let’s dive in.
My Initial Response
When I watched the episode for the first time, my initial thought (after I was done bawling and wiping up my snot with ALL THE TISSUES) was “Damn, Clarke has the worst luck with lovers dying.” As you may remember, Clarke had to mercy-kill Finn back in Season Two, or leave him to be more brutally executed by Grounders for killing innocent members of a Grounder village. That’s two dead lovers for Clarke. Yeesh.
My second thought was That was sad, but awesome. Lexa died having imparted wisdom to her people, and through her relationship with Clarke she realized that “Blood must not have blood,” and showed her people that this was an idea worth standing up for. It remains to be seen whether the Nightblood that replaces her as Commander (likely her favorite protegee, Aden) will be able to uphold this huge shift in Grounder culture and protect the Thirteenth Clan while staving off civil war, but she led well, and AI or no AI, anyone taught by Lexa has the potential to be a great leader. Lexa also died with Clarke by her side – not on a bloody battlefield. She had the chance to say goodbye to the woman she loved and die in her bed, which is a luxury I imagine is not always promised to Grounder warriors.
Her death scene was one of many moments in the episode that made it poignant, thought-provoking, and took the story to the next level. A lot of people have died around, or because of Clarke since the show started. One of the great tragedies of the show has always been that the more of a leader Clarke becomes, the more people die around her, and she can’t escape that. She tried to escape it by leaving Arkadia carrying the weight of the people she had killed at the Mountain, only to end up at Polis for more death.
My Response After the Fandom Response
The first thing that struck me when I saw how upset so many fans were was that in all the criticism of her death, people seemed to be treating Lexa as though she were the only queer girl on the show. As if Clarke, the bisexual protagonist of the show, didn’t count. The more I read about how queer girls had pinned all their hopes on Lexa, the more it felt like Clarke was being dismissed as a queer girl role model, because she happened to be in a relationship with a guy in the beginning of the show. Never mind that she’d had relationships with two women since. Everyone was talking about the queer girl who died, but no one was talking about the queer girl who’s still alive. The queer girl whose story this show ultimately is.
When talking about this point with a fellow fan of The 100 over Twitter, this particular fan brought up the oft-repeated misconception: “also, way more bisexual women in media (usually w/ men) than lesbians.” I pointed her to the recent study GLAAD did analyzing LGBTQ+ characters on television that I linked to in my post about bisexual representation on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which states that of the 59 LGBTQ+ characters on TV last year, 39% were gay men, 36% were lesbian, 15% were bi women & 5% were bi men. There are more lesbians on television than bi women and men combined.
We shouldn’t ever ignore the history of how LGBTQ+ characters have been depicted and treated on television, but we also shouldn’t ignore the ways in which representation has changed for the better, while clinging to a status quo that doesn’t exist in the same way anymore.
When I was talking to my girlfriend about it, we discussed the idea that a possible reason for this misconception is that when lesbians see other lesbians on television, they feel comfortable. The lesbian characters don’t stand out as odd, as lesbian fans recognize themselves and feel calm. Whereas a bisexual woman, especially if she’s ever dating a guy, is automatically suspect.
The response to Lexa’s death has had a bit of a negative effect on bisexual female fans of The 100 who’ve been identifying with Clarke as well as Lexa, and who feel marginalized by a community that’s also supposed to be theirs, all letters in LGBTQ+ being equal. An example:
I am bi. As I read how a bi girl ending up w/ a guy is just not good enough, I feel hurt. I wish people understood it’s not abt choosing genders. I’ve personally faced belittling/bullying when dating men. I feel like that side is always undermined as less than being attracted to women, both in real life & now when we talk Clarke. Makes me feel I have no place in the world,really. “Love is love” is a beautiful concept; but I wish people would believe in it & support w/o reservation or qualifiers.
This isn’t to say that fans shouldn’t be upset that a beloved character died, but it felt strange to me that people were talking about the “Dead Lesbian Trope” while looking for ways to explain away Clarke being a queer girl role model.
Fans often cited a similarity between Lexa’s death and Tara’s death on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In that case, too, the “real” lesbian was mourned while the queer girl who’d previously had a long-term relationship with a guy didn’t get as much attention – that is, until she kept asserting on the show over and over that she was indeed a lesbian, and that her relationship with Oz was a fluke.
I understand how important the representation of a happy, lasting queer relationship on television is. Especially between women. It’s important. And it’s not something we see nearly enough.
Yet in the context of this particular show? A show in which there are, like, zero completely happy relationships that don’t end in tragedy ever? I don’t see this as an instance of LGBTQ+-specific tropes.
Titus didn’t, as many people in the fandom have asserted, attempt to shoot Clarke because of “their love.” He was shooting Clarke, because he didn’t like how she was influencing Lexa in changing Grounder culture. For several episodes before this, Titus was trying every tactic he could to convince Lexa or Clarke to abandon the idea of “Blood must not have blood.” Eventually, he felt desperate enough to shoot Clarke in order to be the only voice in Lexa’s ear again and hopefully steer her back to their traditional ways of doing things.
Lexa’s death also didn’t come suddenly. Sex is not the only thing that determines a romantic relationship. Did Lexa’s death come soon after her love scene with Clarke? Yes, and that probably could have been spaced better. However, these characters have had a romantic relationship since their first kiss in Season Two. It was a relationship as tumultuous as the world in which they live, and the fact that each of them was the leader of their respective groups has always meant that it would be difficult for them, because they are each women who put their people first.
The trope I was concerned about was “Disposable Woman,” or “Women in Refrigerators.” As I was thinking about the fact that Lexa died to further Clarke’s story, I also thought about the fact that Maya died to further Jasper’s story. Gina died, furthering Bellamy’s story. Lexa’s backstory includes the death of her former lover, Costia. That doesn’t look good, huh?
Except that Finn dies to further Clarke’s story. So does Wells (who furthers Jaha’s story, too). One day, I’m going to look into the numbers to see if I can find how many male halves of couples die to further their partners’ storylines in both m/f and m/m pairings on television. I’m curious about that now.
In any case, The 100 features so many nuanced female characters, that I find it difficult to criticize the portrayal of any one, since there’s such a variety. The more women you put on a show, the less you have to worry about each one being The Perfect Representation of Womanhood. The same goes for LGBTQ+ characters. There were two queer girls on The 100 (three if you count Niylah, the woman Clarke was sleeping with at the trading post in Sector 7 while hiding out from bounty hunters. Who knows? She may become more integral to the story as the show goes on, having already helped Skaikru once). Now, the brilliant Lexa is gone, it’s true. Yet there is still a queer girl at the head of this story. She’ll be mourning Lexa along with us.
And she still has more life, and story, and opportunities for love ahead of her.
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