The Uncanny Valley

Elizabeth Bridges - Writer, Professor, Reviewer

Survival of the White, Male, CisHeteros: JRoth’s Fantasyland – A Dialogue

 

lincoln1

Lincoln in S1, already bound and tortured

As you may have read in previous posts, I’ve had a lot to say about the death of Lexa and The 100 EP Jason Rothenberg’s participation in the dangerous and demeaning “Bury Your Gays” trope. But along with recognizing the (to put it mildly) problematic death of Lexa and the ways in which it tangibly damaged the LGBTQ community, the death of Lincoln gives us occasion for a long-time-coming reflection on the equally deplorable depiction of ethnic / racial minorities on the show.

While I took graduate courses on colonialism and film studies that delved into questions of media representation vis-à-vis critical race theory, for this post I wanted to enlist an expert. The following is a dialogue between me and my conference buddy and junior colleague Jamele Watkins, a Ph.D. candidate in German at the University of Massachusetts who specializes in critical race theory. I asked her for her raw thoughts on the episode after watching it. Her responses will appear in the gray boxes below.

To say that the imagery surrounding Lincoln’s death was harsh would be an understatement, but this is not the only problematic aspect of Lincoln’s characterization in the show. On the one hand, he subverts certain stereotypes as a definitively masculine, yet peace-loving bridge figure between the Arkers and the Grounders, and this was auspiciously positive at the outset. To me, the most telling quote with regard to Lincoln’s personality is when he says, “This world has been trying to turn me into a monster for years,” implying that the world didn’t succeed. We see this characterization again and again in his desire for peace, his refusal to seek revenge, his willingness to serve as “The Good Grounder” in the attempt to change the Arkers’ opinions, and of course, in his gentle, loving relationship with his partner Octavia.

Poitier and Curtis in The Defiant Ones (1958)

Poitier & Curtis, The Defiant Ones (1958)

Yet even “The Good X” is a Hollywood stereotype: The Good Indian, The Good Black Man, and yes, The Good Grounder. In other words, the minority figure whose job it is – both in the narrative and to majority audiences – to educate others regarding his culture, life, and to convince them his people are “not all bad” and “not all savages.” This figure frequently dies or at least risks his life as a martyr – the Minority Martyr – aka yet another old Hollywood trope. A famous example of this trope is in the 1958 prison escape movie The Defiant Ones, in which Noah Cullen (Sidney Poitier) risks his life to save wounded white co-protagonist Joker Jackson (Tony Curtis). Poitier actually played several of these martyr figures in his early career, which were at the time the “best” roles available to Black actors. Sad that times haven’t entirely changed on that front and have even regressed on The 100. We have Pike as the newly introduced “savage,” hyper-macho, toxically masculine Black man, Jaha as the drug dealer / religious fanatic preacher, and Lincoln as the minority martyr. Stereotypes all.

Yet, Jason Rothenberg has insisted at several points that his show is post-racial, much as he insists that the depiction of sexuality on the show is incidental, even as he engages in the Dead Lesbian Trope. In both cases, this show does not play in a value-neutral vacuum. It exists in a context in which racism and homophobia are both alive and well, and media can either perpetuate these or be part of the solution to elevate the entire culture towards something better. The “post-“ anything argument is a ridiculous cop-out in today’s world, regardless of the future depicted onscreen.

Fuck the post-racial bullshit. Representation is so important. As a Black woman teaching German, it has meant a lot for me to show representation of all types of identities in the German classroom, including my own. Surprise, I enjoy watching shows that feature actors who look like me. I love Shondaland. With this in mind, I took to the first few episodes of The 100. In the show, I saw actors who looked like me, and even actors who didn’t look like me, but they weren’t white.

Let me repeat this again, for the folks in the back row: yes, I loved that the cast was not all white. Hello new era of television that actually reflects society! However, quickly, I became concerned. Wells Jaha dies a martyr early on. Oh Wells, we hardly knew thee!

"Wells, we hardly knew thee!"

“Wells, we hardly knew thee!”

Already early in the show, JRoth was engaging in this same stereotype of the martyr when he pulled a classic “Redshirt” with Wells. Personally, that development made me queasy right away, but I am sorry to say that I semi-placated myself at the time with the idea that Rothenberg wanted to telegraph to us that “anyone can die” on this show. Something he has since said again and again, in more and more problematic contexts. Wells was set up as a main character and then almost immediately killed off. But even then, I realized that JRoth had delivered us one of the most insidious sci-fi stereotypes imaginable. (And sorry, Star Trek, I know you were progressive for the 1960s, but…) Anytime Kirk’s away team featured a Black man in a red shirt, the guy was as good as dead. Congrats, JRoth, on your throwback to a 50-year-old racist SF trope.

Now, Raven is my favorite. She strong, smart as hell, and calls a spade a spade. I love it.

What I don’t love, [is that she is] a repository for pain. As audience members learn, Raven loses her family. She creates a new one with her partner Finn. This is reminiscent of [Édouard] Glissant’s poetics of relation. Glissant says that […] family trees were torn apart because of the capitalism and trauma of slavery. Black people with a history of the Middle Passage have had to create new families, new communities, new everything. This new rhizomatic family tree means just as much as the “blood” family tree. When Raven lost Finn, she lost her tree. Despite her efforts to create a rhizomatic poetics of relation (Glissant), she ends up alone, physically and emotionally broken.

Raven, suffering again, Part XXXIV

Raven Reyes, suffering again, Part XXXIV

This is a theme that has come up in the fandom a lot. Many have half-jokingly sloganized “No more suffering for Raven Reyes 2K16,” but in fact, she continues to suffer more than just about any other character – not only due to her physical injury and resulting disability, but also due to her history of pain and the loss of her entire family. After Finn, she has been more alone than any other character, and the suffering just keeps piling on. Jamele puts it this way:

[English professor] TreaAndrea Russworm […] explained how watching movies in which Black women bear the weight of so much trauma is not healthy. Particularly, she referenced the Madea movies and the trauma the main character endures. In this show, we see how the People of Color are traumatized or killed. Watching these double standards play out, watching [them] sacrificing themselves for others is starting to feel like this problematic notion that takes place in those films where traumatic violence is not productive.

Indra, shot and sidelined in Season 3

Indra, shot and sidelined in Season 3

This is not only true of Raven but also of Indra, who has also had to watch loved ones and members of her army die one after another, and is now injured herself. As Jamele alludes to above, the longsuffering Woman of Color is yet another Hollywood stereotype. This trope relies on the racist notion that WoC are somehow “tougher” and can “take” more suffering than white characters. Sadly, audiences have been desensitized to this sort of suffering, which has been normalized by media in keeping with the specific history of trauma that meets at the intersection of being both a woman and a Person of Color. Indeed, this depiction barely even registers on viewers without some critical examination. Even the allegedly “positive” notion of the tough, sassy Woman of Color – and those terms have been used to describe both Indra and Raven – is born of the long history of trauma suffered by Women of Color – from racism, to racially motivated sexual violence, to disproportionately low pay and under- or unemployment, to the atrocities of slavery, and everything in between.

Ugh. And Lincoln. I had such high hopes for him and his character. [Even b]efore Kane, he saw the possibilities for the Sky Crew. He wanted peace and risked his life over and over for it. So, Lincoln died while Marcus (the guy whose whole idea this coup even was), lives. I guess I will be watching “American Gods” after all.

Much has been made over the fact that actors Bob Morley (Bellamy) and Kane (Henry Ian Cusick) are both biracial, the former of Filipino heritage and the latter from a Peruvian background. Apologists for the treatment of minority characters on the show have made frequent reference to these actors. However, the narrative has never presented them in a context that they can be read that way. For instance, a white actor played Bellamy as a young boy in the S1 flashback episode “His Sister’s Keeper.” All of these characters’ family members to appear onscreen have also been white. Despite the actual heritage of the actors, there is nothing to indicate that we should read the characters as anything other than white. No detail of name, ethnic heritage, or family background has ever pointed us to any other conclusion.

Nevertheless, S1 and S2 of The 100 led us to assume (Wells and later Anya notwithstanding), that this show was different. At first it strongly featured women and/or People of Color in positions of power – Thelonius Jaha and then Abby Griffin as chancellors, Indra as a trusted general, Lincoln as a powerful yet ultimately kind-hearted bridge figure, Clarke the bisexual protagonist, and Lexa, her lesbian love interest who wields the most power on the show. And yet S3 has managed to utterly reverse all of those progressive portrayals in less than half a season, either eliminating the characters, making them evil, or diminishing their power through various means.

Jaha, chancellor turned religious fanatic / drug dealer

Jaha, chancellor turned religious fanatic / drug dealer

And for what? Shock value? The misguided wish to be an “edgy” show like Game of Thrones – itself an overhyped behemoth that has proven so problematic in so many egregious ways regarding its depictions of women, People of Color, and LGBTQ characters? The 100 is a series on a network geared towards younger audiences. Is this the message Rothenberg wishes to send his core viewers? And who authorized him to make such misguided decisions to the extent that – despite garnering a S4 renewal on the backs of his queerbaited LGBTQ fans – the show has, according to most observers, derailed its entire narrative on this risky venture?

This is 2016. The world deserves better than this nonsense. And by that I also mean white cis-hetero audiences. Every segment of society ultimately benefits from positive representations of minorities. Because representation matters. To the world at large. Elevating minorities elevates everyone and ultimately contributes to a more compassionate world. The media is a powerful tool in shifting hearts and minds, influencing the culture for either good or ill. Rothenberg has chosen to shift his show’s influence for ill.

This show that I began loving has turned into a cis white male fantasyland. The PoC actors have been replaced with a vengeance (Pike!). After all, you can’t kill all of your characters without replacing some. So, is that it? Am I, a Black woman, that easily replaceable?

The 100 would seem to say yes.

The way the camera lingers lovingly on Lincoln’s death scene, the mist hanging in the air, his face transfigured as he looked up to Octavia one last time, followed by the execution style shot to the head of a bound Black man who falls bleeding into a mud puddle as the camera recedes upward. His death is disgustingly romanticized – even as he kneels, bound, excruciatingly reminiscent of images from lynchings or slavery – the lighting and colors in lush greens and blues, detailed in the crispest HD, and the camera lingering over his violated body, the blood escaping from him into the mud a stark red contrast.

A demeaning end for a beloved character. Again.

A demeaning end for a beloved character. Again.

Or you know – just one more dead Black man on TV, in a world that keeps delivering us real images of the killing of unarmed, innocent people like Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tanisha Anderson, Eric Harris, Sandra Bland… should I continue?

Sure, some will say once again, “people die on this series.” No doubt Rothenberg has said this of Lincoln to anyone who would listen, just as he said it of Lexa. But nonwhite and LGBT characters die and suffer disproportionately to white, male, cishetero characters by far. And this true in the media in general – not only in fictional scripted series and not only in this one show.

The 100 deals in dangerous tropes and stereotypes and contributes to a mediascape that continually does the same, playing on damaging depictions that few people even stop to question because it’s just that common. This is what a trope is, after all – a damaging stereotype that is so common that it goes unnoticed and is allowed to slip by unquestioned.

When will we start questioning? When will we stand up as one voice and say enough is enough?

 


Jamele Watkins

Jamele Watkins, U of Massachusetts

Jamele Watkins is a scholar by day and a fitness instructor by night. She focuses her research on marginalized voices in German performance and literature.

When not writing or thinking about writing, she enjoys cafés, drinking green juice, eating tacos, practicing yoga and listening to 90s R&B.

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17 Comments

  1. That last quote of your colleague almost exactly describes what I’mean feeling about this whole mess. Reading this piece just reminded me of how much I loved these characters, in the core such good character ideas and I have no idea why they chose to handle them this way.

    Thanks for bringing such a well spoken and academic perspective to this case. I’m fascinated by the whole ordeal (not just because I’m apart of it). It further solidifies the notion that there needs to be more diversity and education the writers rooms. If given the chance to speak to the writers of the 100 for an hour about the story lines I’m quite positive your colleague would have given them enough insight to change certain storylines.

    • EB

      April 6, 2016 at 6:31 pm

      Jamele is a very astute lady and could definitely do that if given a chance. But then, if JRoth were open to learning anything about his craft, perhaps none of this would’ve happened in the first place. It’s been stated publicly by at least one writer that he was informed of the lesbian trope and insisted on that storyline anyway. Presumably he would’ve said the same with regard to racial stereotypes. He’s a genius auteur, so the tropes don’t apply to him, even when he’s clearly engaging in them.

  2. Need to campaign to get this show cancelled, or at least out of Jroth’s hands.

  3. So glad to see this piece on the show’s racism. After season two I really thought The 100 was doing something amazing so it’s been blow after blow to see once a diverse world completely reverse into so many tropes.

    The visual framing of Lincoln’s death was horrifying and lacking political context because Jason Rothenberg likes to pretend race doesn’t matter in his universe. I feel like Jason is one of those white people who advocates for a colorblind world because they don’t realize that that is just erasing visibility when he could actually open his eyes and see racism for what it is.

    I don’t think there’s any hope for the show at this point, but without a doubt, Jason needs to be replaced as showrunner, especially if The CW plans to go through with a season 4. What a disaster.

    Kudos to you and your conference buddy though. This was informative and I’m really enjoying your work.

    • EB

      April 8, 2016 at 11:37 am

      Thank you. Much as he has done with sexuality, he makes ethnicity / race on the show a “non-issue” but by doing that completely ignores the optics onscreen and their possible impact in various communities. Last night’s episode only made that worse.

  4. Another eloquent article! Well written hitting the nail on the head! Well done.

  5. I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. Basically all of it, actually. But one part of this piece was ignorant and offensive, and left a bad taste in my mouth:

    “Despite the actual heritage of the actors, there is nothing to indicate that we should read the characters as anything other than white. No detail of name, ethnic heritage, or family background has ever pointed us to any other conclusion.” (referring to the fact that you consider Bellamy and Marcus to be white).

    On that note,” Lincoln” is not a name specific to that character’s ethnicity. We have no family background to point to the conclusion that he is a POC. Except that he appears to be a POC (because he IS). Bellamy is very obviously of Filipino descent. If you think otherwise, that’s gross ignorance.

    You bring to up his family background, and I have to take issue with that, as well. Young Bellamy “appeared” white under the fluorescent lighting on the ark, but we never saw his father. We have only seen his mother, who was white. It’s not okay to erase someone’s non-white background simply because they happen to “look” more white than not. Same thing applies to Kane. We have only seen, in the show, one half of each man’s parentage. To assume that the white woman would only partner with a white man is ignorant and shows your own adherence to the “white default” on television.

    Kim Shumway stated that the writers of the show confirmed that Bellamy had a different dad from Octavia, which she states is “obvious” due to the ethnic differences between the siblings. Jason Rothenberg confirmed that Bellamy is half Filipino.

    You may guffaw because it wasn’t explicitly stated in the show so it doesn’t count. However, we consider several significant things to be canon that aren’t explicitly stated, such as Lexa being lesbian. Not ONCE does anyone refer to her as a “lesbian” in the show. She partners with women. You know who else partners with women? Bisexuals and pansexuals. But it’s been determined, based on Twitter accounts of the showrunners, that she is lesbian, and therefore the face of lesbian representation on the show.

    Please note: I an NOT disagreeing with your assertion that the treatment of POC on the show is unfair and disgusting. I 100% agree with that. I only disapprove of you excluding Bellamy’s character as POC simply because his mom and sister are white. Whitewashing is not a form of privilege. It’s a form of erasure.

    The fact that Bellamy is a POC strengthens your argument that the 100 treats its POC characters like shit. If you think he gets the white male treatment, think again. In fact, today, young (and old) Filipino viewers will be treated to their representation being beaten until bloody (while tied up) by a white woman (his sister). Last season, he was tortured in Mount Weather during a suicide mission – yet another shit job/situation thrust upon a POC at the behest of the white lead. Just to name a few. Yes, he’s had chances to play the ‘hero’ role and those have, at times, overshadowed the gross treatment he gets outside of those shining moments, if you can call them that.

    The truth of the matter is, this entire series, he’s played a subservient role to the pretty white girl, who repeatedly treats him like shit. And as soon as he decides he’s done with her manipulation (see 3×05), he’s painted (by fans of the pretty white girl’s pretty white girlfriend) to be even more “unredeemable.” for example, Bellamy handcuffs Clarke, and hell rains down on him for being abusive, when 20 minutes before, Lexa tried to do the exact same thing – telling her guards to size her immediately when she tried to return to her people. Lexa’s actions are defended as “she was doing it for Clarke’s safety because she felt Clarke was not safe with the sky people.” guess what? Bellamy was trying to do the same thing – he believed she was in danger outside of the camp. The actor confirmed this. He wasn’t trying to deliver her to be punished. He was trying to keep her from running away, and would do whatever it took to keep her safe. I can guarantee that if Clarke had told Lexa that episode, “thanks, but I’m going to stay with my people,” Lexa’s knee-jerk reaction would be to imprison her again. Gently, of course. Eventually, Lexa let Clarke go. And I commend her for that. Bellamy didn’t get the chance to come around and be reasonable because Clarke ran away to vacation with her (white) girlfriend. Side note: her “escape” was enabled by two white characters disarming and electrocuting the POC.

    Make no mistake, both Bellamy and Lexa showed possessive behavior that episode, yet only Lexa’s character was given the chance to correct her behavior. A narrative decision made by the show. Which, as you have pointed out quite eloquently, treats its POC characters unfairly and paints them to be villains.

    Bellamy’s character already endured a redemption arc over the course of the first two seasons, but for some reason, they feel the need to put him though another one. What’s the point? We see that this POC needs to prove his worth at least twice as hard as the attractive white guest star (Lexa), who was forgiven and embraced within 2 episodes after she was confronted for her betrayal. And never once did she apologize for it.

    Please, stop Whitewashing Bellamy’s character. It dismisses the pain and upset felt by the Filipino viewers who are hurt when they watch their representation being dragged through the mud.

    • After re reading my comment, I feel the need to clarify: when I speak negatively of Lexa here, it’s ONLY in the context of ethnicity as treated by the show. Lexa is an amazing, multilayered character who will be sorely missed. Also, I don’t mean to defend Bellamy’s actions, though that’s how it came across. I was commentating on the fact that yet another non-white character is put into a role where they are treated as “less than” the white lead. The racism is painfully transparent. Again, I make these statements in the context of the treatment of ethnicity by the show as a whole. Clarke is a great character, and I was hard on her just now… I’m a little sensitive about the ethnicity issue, but then I step back and smack myself for hating on the female lead. Apologies!

      I didn’t bring up the other characters because you so thoroughly covered them and I didn’t have anything to add to that. As a whole, this is an eloquently structured piece. My frustration is rooted in the fact that I’m just sensitive to the white washing of a Filipino character, particularly when I’m about to watch him being tied up, beaten, and humiliated by an angry (albeit justifiably angry) white girl. I may not love Bellamy’s character, but I take issue with physical abuse. It’s never something that is “deserved,” and it upsets me that the show appears to condone physical violence towards family members as a means of venting anger. And it feels shittier because a POC is on the receiving end of those blows. Again.

      Again, it is an overall great article with well-presented points. Thank you for sharing it with us!

      • EB

        April 8, 2016 at 11:34 am

        I understand that he provides representation for the Filipino community as an actor, which is awesome. I wish there were more great roles for folks of all ethnicities. However, as you point out, Bellamy’s character is being treated like shit / being a colossal ahole right now because the writers turned him into that after a good redemptive story arc. I liked him from mid-S1 through the entirety of S2. I’m not the one whitewashing him here. My point is that I think the narrative does that on its own, not by anything actually in the narrative, but in what it leaves out. I think it’s unfair and wrong for shows to do that. It’s fine for us to disagree on this point. But as you mention, reading Bellamy as non-white then only makes the show worse. So either way, the rep for PoC is awful – and got way worse last night in 3×10. Fwiw, I did not mean to be offensive in my interpretation of what the show leaves out re: his background. I think it’s crap, if that is in fact what they’re doing, whether intentional or simply through negligence. And they are negligent about a lot lately, so I really don’t trust anything they say or do at this point.

  6. I disagree with most of the way you have characterized The 100. I would argue in a parallel manner this: that most of the bravest, most honorable, most intelligent, or gentlest characters have been killed or maimed. To wit:

    Wells was good and true, and helpful to a child who turned on him and killed him for his father’s terrible decisions as chancellor. Caliban, the amiable grounder beginning to explain matters to Clarke whom he saw first as their next healer, died when she kicked his bad knee and slashed his throat with an operating scalpel. Lincoln was the most upstanding of characters. He sacrificed himself so that other Grounder prisoners might live. Anya had a wise, almost maternal quality, and she wanted to spare Clarke as a healer even as she carried out orders to kill the Delinquents. Anya died after clasping forearm and hands with Clarke and vowing to get an audience with the Commander to talk ways toward peace. Gustus died at Lexa’s hand for trying to protect her from a risky alliance with Clarke. Jake died because Abby did an end run around her husband’s plan to tell everyone the Ark was dying. Lexa died for trying to change the primary tradition of blood vengeance in Grounder society. Sinclair died trying to protect Raven.

    Do you see the pattern here? Many of the noblest die on this show, because in real life and real war it is often the bravest, most self-sacrificing, kindest, and most just who die, trying to save others or provide an example to others for how to route their societies in new, arguably better directions. Race or gender or sexuality has nothing to do with who dies on this show. Goodness, however, can be fatal.

    • EB

      May 3, 2016 at 3:15 pm

      Yet, oddly, almost all these “good” characters are also POC or queer and are still dead, and they didn’t die nobly.

      Goodness = death isn’t exactly a great message anyway, even beyond the terrible representation. Minority martyr = also a trope in film history, as I mentioned.

      • EB,
        There is a lot of death and sacrifice on The 100. And there are lots of POC characters on The 100. So it seems logical that there will be a lot of POC deaths. I guess we all can go round and round on this carousel of imagined wrongs, but I think keeping a racial scorecard for this particular show, is myopic and a waste of intellect. There is plenty of wrong to dissect in Hollywood; overall, this show is one we should be lauding, not endlessly criticizing.

  7. It’s unfortunate that Jason Rothenberg alienated Dr. Bridges — it’s also unfortunate HOW he did it — because her “The 100” recaps were enormously entertaining. It seems that Titus’ bullet also struck one of fandom’s most engaging voices. We’ll see how well “The 100” fares now that it has killed off its Fonzie.

    • EB

      May 19, 2016 at 9:06 am

      I’ll still be writing about this series from time to time, just not with the recaps anymore. I won’t promote the show after what JRoth did. But thanks for the kind words 🙂

  8. Thank you so much for this! It articulates well my frustration with this season of The 100. Watching this season, I felt as if every leap forward or ‘progressive’ element of his show had been undermined or warped. It’s so nice to hear other critical voices responding to the show rather than the praise and acclaim it got for so much of this season. Thank you! I will be quoting you in my upcoming retrospective for Fandom Following (I’ve quoted an interview you did before), that will be posted tomorrow. Thanks again!

    • EB

      June 11, 2016 at 5:46 pm

      Thanks for getting in touch. I’m so happy my piece here could be helpful to you. You put together an excellent article. Thanks for the proper credit / citation. 🙂 Could you send the link where you quoted me? Thanks.

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