Ain't I a Woman?: The Unbalanced Portrayal of Strong Women on 'The 100'
It must be said that women have come leaps and bounds as it relates to representation in popular media. I’ve seen more WOC, LGBTQA women and disabled women on my various screens in the past 3 years than I have in decades of TV viewership and that’s a wonderful thing. I will always celebrate the presence of more women, especially increasingly diverse women, in film and television. The traditionally male-dominated world of television is slowly opening the doors to allow for voices like my own to be heard, and audiences are overwhelmingly receptive. Obviously, we’ve not reached perfect equality, but we are seeing growth. Unfortunately, not all growth is good.
For all the positive changes we’ve seen there are strong reminders that, even as women become more than just housewives and child bearers, the men who control the writers’ rooms they come from don’t always understand what it means to be a strong woman. The forward movement of women in popular culture is sometimes at complete odds with the oftentimes unintentional reinforcement of outdated gender roles or the inability to allow women to be both strong and emotional, intelligent and soft, love interests and warriors, be sexual beings and not have that same sexuality used as a tool. It feels like writers believe there is only one way a woman can be strong, and it often comes at a detriment to the characters and the women who watch them.
Today I want to tackle this issue as it affects one of my favorite shows: The 100. If you had to choose one (singular) amazing thing about this show, it’s just how many women there are (and have been) and how integral they are to the plot. The “Core Four” of the show (made up of Clarke Griffin, Raven Reyes, Octavia Blake and Bellamy Blake) is almost all women, the leaders of the opposing groups in each season are almost always women, the plot is almost always being driven by the actions of women.
At its core, The 100 is a show about women and what they are willing to do to ensure the safety of those they love and that’s a powerful message….when it’s done right, that is. The first season handled the dichotomy of womanhood almost perfectly. All of our women were placed in difficult situations that often required them to make decisions logically, but we were also shown the emotional impact of those decisions. The show even begins with a mother (Abby) making the decision to send her only child down to a possibly toxic Earth, because the alternative is certain death as opposed to a chance at a real life.
We follow Clarke and her big heart as she navigates the trials of leadership, made all the more complicated by her difficulty relating to a group of delinquents who won’t listen to her due to ingrained class differences to a safer space, as she tries to save a boy others would have left for dead (Jasper Jordan), as she learns more about the Grounders and their ways and reacts with horror at the thought of a child being forced into battle so young.
We see Raven’s love for Finn give her the determination to repair a dropship that’s a hundred years too old for safe use and hurtle through the skies to the ground and, later, love for herself allow her to walk away from her romantic relationship with Finn. We see Octavia, brimming with curiosity and wonder at her first taste of true freedom, eager to see all that the world has to offer but also finding a hidden ferocity within herself.
It’s not until the show’s second season that we begin to see issues with how women in positions of power are portrayed, and it’s all thanks to our closer look into the Grounder society. Grounder society, even more so than Arkadian, is extremely matriarchal. Women are in positions of leadership across the board and you’d think that’d be a good thing. Unfortunately for us, and the show, Grounderism is also rooted in heavily racist allegories.
The list of tropes The 100 shoehorns in as it relates to the Grounders is almost unparalleled by any other show with a “native” group. We deal with the “Badass Native”, wherein, because indigenous people just love going to war, they must all be badasses of some sort or other; the “Savage Native”, wherein the indigenous people immediately reject outsiders by violent and forceful methods; the “Proud Warrior Race Guy”, who seeks battle specifically because his culture teaches that war is the only way to earn true honor; the “Angry Black Woman”, characterized by a black woman who is — almost always — angry, and many more. They all mean that, when the Grounders actually start to have meaningful interactions with out main characters, they all come out worse as a result.
The change is most obvious in our lead character, Clarke Griffin, which makes sense. She remains emotionally vulnerable but capable of making the hard decisions, right up until the aftermath of Finn’s death. I’d like to note here — before we go any further — that I obviously expected making the decision to kill Finn to emotionally impact, and, yes, even devastate, Clarke. It’s a decision no one should have to make and one only Clarke can ever truly bear the weight of.
The problem is in the bad advice this show gives our heroine through one Lexa kom Trikru. At Finn’s funeral pyre, Lexa tells Clarke that true leadership is made possible only in remembering that “Love is weakness.” In all fairness to the show, it is initially presented as a bad ideology; her actions in allowing the bomb to fall on Ton D.C. were shown as horrifying to her mother and her choice to lie to Bellamy about Octavia’s safety is seen as the betrayal that it was and, ultimately, the plan that she concocted with Lexa failed. It’s not until Clarke is reunited with her friends and sees her mother, who she loves, being dragged to the draining table that the plan succeeds. But the lessons that Clarke learned in this season, namely “love is weakness,” and “I bear it so they don’t have to” follow Clarke for seasons to come and continues a downward spiral for the show and for Clarke — and the other women — going forward.
Season 2 sets an ugly precedent that The 100 has had a hard time walking back from. Although our characters’ actions are almost always motivated by love for their family and friends, we are also continuously shown that that same love causes them to behave in irrational and sometimes harmful (to themselves and to others) ways. There is no bigger example of this than our main character’s actions over the course of Season 5. I suppose we should have expected this, should have seen it coming, because a large part of the hiatus between Seasons 4 and 5 was spent pushing the fact that Clarke was a “Mama Bear” now, which was apparently short form for “Now that Clarke has an adopted daughter she’ll lose all semblance of logic and reason because of the power of love!”
The lesson that The 100 continues to teach women everywhere is that, in order to be a good leader, logic and reason cannot coexist with love. Every single last one of our female leaders deals with this quandary and ultimately, every time they chose to prioritize love over logic and reason, they lose.
The pattern begins with Lexa in Season 3, choosing to turn her back on the traditions of her people, motivated by Clarke (who she loved). While Lexa isn’t killed because she’s a lesbian (there’s a complicated mix of contract obligations, plot lines to introduce and more that factored in there), we can’t deny that Lexa choosing to love Clarke (her enemy) and choosing to listen to Clarke’s advice over the traditions and desires of the people she was sworn to lead was a huge factor in her death.
It continues into Season 4 when Abby’s love for Clarke results in her destroying the radiation chamber before the Nightblood can be tested again — a solution that would have worked goes untested and results in her daughter being left with only one other companion on a barren Earth for six years. In Season 5, Clarke’s love for Madi results in her leaving her best friend to die, joining up with a serial killer, shocklashing her daughter and more.
Maybe I’m alone in feeling as if the show tells women that, if we want to be leaders, seen as strong and capable people, we can’t afford to have emotional attachments, but I don’t think I am. Woman are capable of being both emotional and good leaders, capable of loving people and also recognizing that sometimes you can’t always put the ones you love first, capable of compromise in the face of hard choices. We are strong because of our emotions, because of our humanity, not in spite of it.
Women deserve to be shown on screen as we are in life, and sometimes that means that the men who far too often run writers’ rooms need to step back and lead by listening. I promise the (mostly female) audience for your show will thank you for it.