Why CW's 'The 100' Is a Feminist Dream, Except for When It's Not
The 100 gets a lot right (and some significant things wrong) in its examination of a post-nuclear society.
The 100Airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm
Cast: Eliza Taylor, Paige Turco, Thomas McDonell, Eli Goree, Marie Avgeropoulos, Bob Morley, Kelly Hu, Christopher Larkin, Devon Bostick, Isaiah Washington, Henry Ian Cusick, Lindsey Morgan, Ricky Whittle
First things first, I love sci-fi only when it’s done right; sadly, there are nearly infinite ways to do it wrong, including overdone tropes, archetypal heroes, or reckless, excessive, and often gendered violence. It’s also the case that technical issues like bad acting and less-than-believable special effects disproportionately plague sci-fi movies and TV shows when compared to more realist situational dramas or sitcoms. (Not that there’s anything particularly realistic about Grey’s Anatomy -- a good thing really, as most of my favourite characters were swiftly killed off in that show.) Of course, here's no such thing as perfect content, and I was fully prepared to viciously dissect The 100 in glorious nerd troll-y detail, as I have with so many of its predecessors, and as any upstanding Internet Human should -- right up until I saw the second season.
The 100 is set almost 100 years in the future, at which time the Earth is ravaged and apparently uninhabitable, due to some sort of global apocalypse. Sounds pretty standard so far, right? The last remaining humans are living on a space station called The Ark and are somehow all from North America.
At this point, I was feeling dubious at the distinct lack of national diversity in this world, despite it being racially quite mixed. The characters all speak English and are presumably American -- or at least used to be back when countries were still a thing. However, I let this detail slide for the sake of pragmatics. I know it’s an American show (airing on the CW) and therefore is going to be US-centric. That’s just the pre-apocalyptic world we live in.
The story follows protagonist Clarke Griffin (Eliza Taylor) as she and 99 other youth prisoners from the Ark are sent down to Earth in order to ascertain whether it’s habitable or still toxic. I would have just sent some rats, maybe a ficus or two, but that’s me.
On Earth, Clarke proceeds, in the way of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to blast through almost all conceivable stereotypes about young blonde girls you can think of on TV these days. She’s ass-kicking, smart, a natural born leader, and determined to keep her ‘peeps’ alive. She stands up to the emerging antagonist, Bellamy (Bob Morley), who seems to think that the kids can survive on fire and testosterone alone.
For the most part, the show was gearing up for a great start. There’s very nearly a sharp U-turn into bad TV trash land when a love triangle develops between Clarke, her on-Earth boy-toy, Finn (Thomas McDonell), and his old girlfriend from the Ark, Raven (Lindsey Morgan), but thankfully, that's narrowly avoided.
Unlike the vast majority of love-triangles, which revolve around the inability of some boy to pick between a bitchy brunette and a sweet, misguided blonde while they duke it out for his favours, The 100 flips the script. Clarke doesn’t hate Raven and they manage to become unlikely friends. They even garnered a ship name -- “Princess Mechanic” -- a reference to their respective roles within the wider group.
Raven is a gifted engineer and mechanic; she can do anything from building a landing shuttle from scrap metal to fashioning a powerful bomb in less than a 45-minute episode. Indeed, The 100 is bursting with dynamic female characters, leaders, stoics, emotional messes, and warriors; here, the full range of human possibility is afforded to the gender that is so often hemmed in by a narrow range of socialized expectations.
The show seems like a feminist dream and in many ways it is, except of course, when it’s not. Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe The 100 is one of the best and most representative shows out there right now, and the problems I identify have much more to do with what’s not explored than what actually makes it into the show. It’s all in the negative space that bothers me, so to speak.
We are sold a picture of the future in which racism no longer exists and all countries have somehow assimilated peacefully into groups that undoubtedly have divides, yet none related to race or gender. This is a beautiful picture to paint for viewers, and a sobering look at where we’ve failed as a society and a global community. The issue I have with it isThe 100 is that the narrative never discusses, never even tangentially considers, the road to achieving such harmony. Perhaps it really is the case that seeing the vast majority of the human species wiped out of existence would bridge the gaps forged by the tribalism that plagues our species. Imagine if fear and oppression of Difference would no longer permeate society.
If such harmony were achieved, though, as it appears to be in The 100, I want to know why and how! Such difficult steps are completely brushed aside, leaving us to kind of forget that the starting point (i.e., where we are now in the fight for civil rights, equality) is even an issue.
With the debut of season two, I was really hoping to see some commentary or, at the very least, allegory, on the social dynamics introduced in season one. At least some of my hopes were granted. The series delves into “grounder” culture -- turns out there were people living on Earth the whole time and they have a rich history, a system of governance, and their own challenges, both survival-based and social. It’s like Columbus all over again when Clarke and the gang discover the Grounders, a parallel I will return to in greater depth, below.
Like the Sky crew, a strong young woman with conviction leads the Grounders. Still, one wonders why the much older and more experienced Indra (Adina Porter) is relegated to second in command. This seems to be a common occurrence with people of colour in the show. Thelonious Jaha (Isaiah Washington) is technically the chancellor of the Ark, yet he is almost entirely superseded in influence (and seeming sanity) by Clarke’s mother, Abigail (Paige Turco) and Councillor Marcus Kane (Henry Ian Cusack).
Nevertheless, perhaps the most important exploration of season two is that of indigenous savage tropes. The Grounders are presented as wild warriors with no capacity for peace or negotiation. They threaten the security of The 100 on Earth. They are also technologically more rudimentary, relying on spears and swords rather than guns and bombs.
There are ongoing parallels between the Sky Crew’s interactions with Grounders, and the European colonization of the New World. Initially, The 100 fictionalizes the Grounders as savages, primitive beast-like creatures that understand nothing but war and violence. Their customs are demonized as excessively cruel simply because they are not sanitized in the same way as those practised on the Ark. People on the Ark are “floated” when they break one of a great many restrictive laws. To be floated means one is ejected into the vacuum of space without protection. Floating is therefore a form of savage capital punishment. It's the Otherness of the Grounders that renders their method of execution strange and unusual by comparison.
Slowly, the stereotypes about the Grounders are unpacked throughout season two, and we see that not only do The 100 have much to learn from them, but that their humanity is important and real. I’m unclear as to whether this critical commentary on colonialist ideology is intentional, because many of the telling interactions are subtle. Even if this is incidental (which I somewhat doubt), the writers of The 100, as well as series creator Jason Rothenberg, are approaching Whedon-esque territory in their ability to synthesize cultural issues into a palatable teen drama.
Selena Neumark works in communications and as a freelance wwriter in Vancouver BC, Canada. She writes web articles as well as short prose and poetry for publication. A graduate of the University of British Columbia in Philosophy and Social Justice, Selena often writes through an activist lens. She loves the sea and hates the rain.