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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.