The media has tried to send us a message over and over, most recently with the death of Lexa in episode 3×07 of The 100. That message is: gays can never be happy, queer sex is punishable by death, and lead characters can never be in same-sex relationships. In other words, more of the same that we’ve been getting since the Hays Code in old Hollywood stipulated that homosexuals can only be portrayed as unhappy and must be punished. This is a pattern. It is a trope – whether employed consciously or not. It can be nothing other than a trope if you can name more dead TV lesbian and bisexual women than living ones.
And we are tired of it.
Fans were devastated by Lexa’s death, as was I, and any look at The 100 fandom on social media over the following days revealed an unprecedented amount of grief over this loss. This was not only the death of a beloved character, but far greater, death of the best chance of positive media representation that the LGBT community has ever seen on mainstream TV. That anticipation, so carefully built up by the show’s writers and executive producer, deceived millions of viewers and hit a vulnerable community hard. LGBT kids in particular. You can read my last post if you want the sad details.
The Thursday night the episode aired was all shock and utter disbelief. Friday was despair. Saturday, the fandom collectively decided to migrate its allegiance to AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead, which features Lexa actress Alycia Debnam-Carey as a member of the main cast. By Sunday, young fans were fully sold on FTWD and embraced Debnam-Carey’s character Alicia Clark.
You might note that the name “Alicia Clark” is a struggle for your average recovering The 100 fan to type because of Alycia Debnam-Carey, the actress who played Lexa, and the character Clarke Griffin, Lexa’s now grieving girlfriend on The 100.
Using the confusion of actress and character names already present on FTWD, the fans took this idea one step further and began imagining: What if Clarke actress Eliza Taylor were to play a character on the other show? Naturally, her name would be Elyza Lex, comprised of an alternate spelling of her own first name and the name of her character’s love interest on The 100.
Within 48 hours, Elyza Lex was born. Naturally, she could be Alicia’s love interest in the FTWD universe, since Alicia has not been confirmed as canon-heterosexual in the series. Clarke Griffin had a boyfriend in Season 1 of The 100, and she fell for Lexa in Season 2, so we should never just assume any character is straight. Since Elyza Lex is a fan creation, she could be anything they chose for her to be. Pretty soon, the two characters had an amalgamated relationship (aka ‘ship) name: Lexark. Not long after that, social media users brainstormed to agree on what Elyza would be like.
This process resembled the fandom’s collective construction of Lexa’s previous love interest Costia – mentioned, but never shown on The 100 because she was brutally killed by the Ice Nation due to her relationship with Lexa. In other words, an offscreen Lesbian Death Trope. Through a kind of alchemical social media consensus, it was determined that Costia was a person of color. Fans further decided that, if she were to appear onscreen as a flashback, she would surely be played by Nathalie Emmanuel, who currently plays Missandei, Daenerys Targaryen’s advisor and handmaiden on Game of Thrones. There was some debate about her personality, family background (Indra’s daughter?), and role in the 100 universe, but it was generally decided that Costia and Lexa knew each other in childhood and developed into love interests as teenagers. Stories were written. Art was created. And Costia became a fan-created character every bit a part of the story as any you might see on screen.
In a similar fashion, Elyza Lex emerged fully formed after a weekend of discussion and online brainstorming, mostly taking place on Tumblr. The construction of Elyza seems to have begun on the Saturday night after Lexa’s death in The 100 3×07 the previous Thursday. By Sunday, Elyza had a name and a series of possible “headcanon” ideas of how she could be inserted into the story on Fear the Walking Dead. By Monday, there were more elaborate story ideas and prompts popping up on tumblr. By Tuesday, a few fan fiction stories featuring Lexark had been written. By Wednesday, full-blown fan art, character description sheets, and by one count 21 fanfic stories had already been published on ao3. I think there are over 100 now. Typing “Ely…” into the google search field now autocompletes to “Elyza Lex.” And “Elyza Lex” trended on social media sites.
I found this response utterly delightful and remarkable. To be sure, the fandom still mourns the loss of Lexa and especially the Lexa / Clarke relationship, which had been so painstakingly built by the show and adored by millions of fans across the globe. And no one has forgotten the awful manipulation that was perpetuated by the deception that led up to Lexa being offed so callously and uncreatively. Far from it. The fandom is angry and has instigated (at the time of this writing) 12 consecutive days of worldwide Twitter trends related to The 100, LGBT representation in the media, the demand for an apology from showrunner Jason Rothenberg, and finally, the demand for the CW to replace him at the helm of 100.
Make no mistake. This is a big deal. The matter won’t be dropped. This is the line in the sand for queerbaiting, for the Bury Your Gays / Dead Lesbian Trope. Audiences won’t accept it any longer, neither LGBT audiences nor their allies. We are done. I have never seen a more widespread or more coordinated fandom response to any event, and I’ve been a fan and observer of the media since the 1990s.
But beyond the anger and the Twitter trends, the creative response of an entirely new character emerging out of collective fan imaginings over the course of a couple of days? To the point that it becomes a worldwide trend and its own Google autocomplete? This is a new form of collective coping that I never imagined possible. Yes, I have seen and been a part of whole fandoms that crop up around original, non- or semi-canonical characters (Mara Jade in the Star Wars EU books comes to mind), but I’ve never seen a fandom fully create a character that was adopted so quickly or so universally. This group of fans utilized the tools that have long been at fans’ disposal, basically since the inception of fandom: fiction, art, fan-to-fan communication, and collective imagining. The mobile, social web has only hyper-facilitated a process that’s happened at least since the spread of Star Trek fandom in the 1970s and 1980s.
I suspect that Elyza Lex is now a permanent part of the 100 / FTWD crossover fandom. Tumblrites and folks on Twitter had to quickly come up with a hashtag or two that didn’t confuse existing FTWD fans. There was a brief period where FTWD fans were coming onto the Clexa tag and politely asking where all this was coming from. The Clexbian consensus machine decided the new tag would be #qtwd (for Queer the Walking Dead: in other words, genius.)
Basically, it amounted to a mass queer migration from one series to another, and even if they couldn’t bring their other favorite character and actress from The 100 with them, they would create their own alternate canon. They devised their own crossover world where they could still have a version of Clarke / Lexa, only in some sense better because they can make the relationship whatever they want now, and even keep, eliminate, or add aspects of the relationship and the Elyza character as they wish.
Remarkably, the creation of Elyza solves several problems that the death of Lexa created.
- What happens to the Clexa fandom without additional Clexa to speculate about, discuss, make new gifs and art, etc.? This, I would say, was as much a source of many fans’ grief as anything else about the situation. Fandoms die out sometimes when series are over and characters are killed. And fandoms are tribes, families in some ways. Especially queer fandoms, often consisting of people whose own families lack understanding.
- How does the fandom deal with its grief, not only from the loss of a beloved character in Lexa, but the very real loss of hope for positive queer representation from a media property that had painstakingly convinced us that’s what we’d be getting, finally, for once?
- Although nothing can ever replace Clexa, because their relationship was unique, unprecedented, and utterly unlike any other we have seen onscreen – what alternatives are there? None that are satisfying. So the fandom took the tools at its disposal and appropriated media in ways that fans have always done, only now those tools are available via social media, which makes the process infinitely faster and more efficient.
- We have been so completely disillusioned by the queerbaiting and calculated misrepresentation connected to this instance on The 100, on top of all the times it has happened before – where do we find some kind of inspiration, and a character who definitely won’t die on us?
- Where can fans put all the creativity, humor, and fun that had infused the Clexa fandom? Because the hilarity that went into all the memes of “Lexa’s Gay-Ass Candles” has to go somewhere.
So this fandom – and I would guess that it consists mostly of young women, many queer – decided to take the media into its own hands and reappropriate a brand (or two) not only to assuage grief, but perhaps more importantly, to thumb its nose at corporate media that perpetuates the disproportionate number of deaths to characters of an underrepresented group.
Readers of a certain age will remember another such movement of young women who attempted to take back their power from corporate media and create their own culture and icons: the riot grrrls of the 1990s. For those who don’t know, riot grrrl was a do-it-yourself punk movement that began around 1991 surrounding the punk group Bikini Kill and its lead singer Kathleen Hanna. The Olympia, Washington-based band created a ‘zine (like on paper, y’all!) also called Bikini Kill, and in its second issue they published The Riot Grrrl Manifesto.
Although this ‘zine, like all ‘zines, had a very low print run, the manifesto was copied and reprinted thousands of times and ended up with a cross-country distribution. This manifesto was a call to arms that fueled a movement. That movement meant to create space for women in music and culture in general – and in some cases BK meant this literally. They always cleared out space in front of the stage at their shows so that women could see them and dance without getting pummeled by guys in the mosh pit. One of their mottos was “Girls to the front!” Their ethos can best be summed up in the song Rebel Girl from the album Pussy Whipped (1993).
Although not an expressly queer movement, queer women were included and heavily involved in Riot Grrrl. Several RG / queercore punk bands such as Bratmobile (considered an original RG band), The Need, Team Dresch, and The Third Sex emerged out of this scene.
The media became so intrigued with RG that major music and culture magazines (e.g. Rolling Stone) started to do stories on them, and their feminist message was undermined by a male-dominant focus on superficial factors such as fashion, how “cute” they were, and sadly but unsurprisingly, critiques of them as inferior musicians – you know, as if The Ramones and The Sex Pistols were musical geniuses. Several major bands, with Bikini Kill at their helm, responded with a media blackout and refused to give further interviews in mainstream media outlets. You can see more about RG in the documentary The Punk Singer, which is both a bio of Hanna and of RG as a movement. If you consider yourself any kind of feminist at all, I encourage you to watch it.
By the mid-1990s, RG had affected the overarching culture enough that the term “grrrl power,” redubbed with the more harmless spelling “girl power” for the mainstream media, had lost its original meaning as an underground feminist rallying cry. Indeed, by the late 1990s it had become a branding device to sell clothes, corporatized music (the Spice Girls), and media (the Powerpuff Girls).
Nevertheless, the original spirit of riot grrrl lives on, and I see that spirit in the Clexa fandom. Where RG failed, we can succeed because we have access to tools RG didn’t.
The original intent of RG was to reappropriate dominant narratives about women and girls, including and especially queer women and girls, to create space in the culture for non-harmful, non-damaging, healthy portrayals and opportunities for self-expression in media. RG used the media available at the time to do this: namely ‘zines and flyers, music, and personal stories, traded person-to-person at local and regional self-organized Riot Grrrl conventions. They often used brands or iconography from dominant media and twisted them to fit their needs and get out their feminist message.
Riot Grrrls didn’t have social media or the web in any kind of form like we know it today, at least not until the movement as such had waned. I didn’t even know what e-mail was until I was in college, circa my sophomore year, 1992ish. It took a few more years for the graphic, searchable web to be accessible to the majority of people. Fans certainly had no access to the creators of media like they do now, much less the opportunity to interact with them in any meaningful way. But if we had, I think we would have done the same things the Clexa fandom is doing now, my young friends. We would have utilized Twitter trends, hashtags, and all the other resources available today.
As I write this, episode 3×07 of The 100 aired 12 days ago. You all have engineered a revolution in fandom – a Queervolution, as one of my Tumblerite friends terms it – the likes of which no one has ever seen. We have coordinated trends on Twitter every day since, most notably “LGBT FANS DESERVE BETTER” during the airtime of The 100 3×08 last Thursday. You have orchestrated the decrease Jason Rothenberg’s Twitter following by thousands. Episode 3×08 was the lowest-rated episode of the entire series. Through our efforts, the mainstream media has picked up our cause, from the BBC to Variety and many important points in between. The Variety article even blockquoted my previous blog entry on this very site. I’d like to mention here that Variety is the Hollywood trade publication. It is required reading by everyone in the entertainment industry. Trust me when I tell you we have been heard and noticed, and it has been acknowledged that we are a force to be reckoned with. Things have changed.
As Lexa told us, “No one will fight for me.” We have to do this ourselves. And we are doing it. It is happening. It is working. And we cannot stop.
The 100 3×07 and the ensuing response is a watershed moment in media, and this is our time to riot. This is the Stonewall for queer representation. We must not let it pass.
Do not give up, my Clexa fans. This is it.
Representation matters. It matters a lot. Representation can change a culture. If you don’t believe it, read about the case of Pedro Zamora on Mtv’s The Real World in the early 1990s. His appearance as an openly gay man and a person with AIDS put a human face on that struggle and changed the way the media portrayed gay men and HIV/AIDS for the better, forever after. The larger culture came to see these folks as human and deserving of compassion, whereas before depictions had been largely “those gays with their gross disease.” Representation matters. Fan reactions matter. Now more than ever. And we can see this through.
In case you haven’t read the Riot Grrrl manifesto I linked above, let me share a pertinent part of it that relates to why our struggle for representation matters:
BECAUSE we know that life is much more than physical survival and are patently aware that the punk rock “you can do anything” idea is crucial to the coming angry grrrl […] revolution which seeks to save the psychic and cultural lives of girls and women everywhere, according to their own terms.
And not just girls and women (and any definition thereof), but rather all LGBT people, their allies, and the culture at large need our representation. This culture needs saving, and we can help do it. It’s not only for us, it’s about building a more compassionate world for everyone.
Heda Lexa knew that. The pillars of being Heda are wisdom, strength, and yes, compassion. That’s what we want for our world, just like she wanted it for hers.
She finally came to know that life is about more than just surviving. Lexa was a riot grrrl. She changed her culture. We can too. We mourn her death, but this is her legacy to us. No one fights for us. We can and will do this ourselves.
I wanted to give up, but you all have inspired me to keep fighting. And I love you for that. Each and every one of you.
Life is about more than just surviving. Don’t we deserve better than that?
Yes, we do.
If any art on here is uncredited or mis-credited, please comment and let me know so I can give credit where credit is due. It is sometimes hard to trace the provenence of images that get tweeted / retweeted, or blogged / reblogged. If anyone from Tumblr would like to be linked or credited for anything I mention here, by all means let me know.