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Why Context Matters

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This post contains spoilers for recent events in The 100.

A couple of weeks ago, The 100 commander Lexa was killed by a stray bullet, moments after sleeping with protagonist, Clarke. The internet uproar was instant, and has only gathered steam since. Showrunner Jason Rothberg lost 15,000 followers on Twitter. The show’s ratings plummeted the following week, and hashtags like #LGBTfansdeservebetter trended during the show’s timeslot. The uproar was so widespread that I personally came across many discussions of the deaths of lesbian characters in media before I even learned why this was such a hot topic once again — it even recently made BBC news.

Of course, critics have been quick to dismiss the outcry. Characters die on genre TV, after all, and the actress who plays Lexa is contracted to be a series regular on another show. It’s not about social justice; it’s about contracts and storytelling.

But The 100 doesn’t exist in its own little bubble. It’s part of the wider media landscape, and every plot twist is colored not just by the show’s fictional world, but by the tropes and narrative structures that we’re used to seeing. To remove it from the language of social justice, it’s like reading a YA novel with a protagonist who can’t remember her past — the minute you hear there’s a lost princess, you know it’s the protagonist, no matter what else the book has said, and authors have to write with that in mind.

Basically, you can’t tell a story without some awareness of how audiences will respond to it. Anyone who claims that they just follow the will of the plot without ever thinking of the audience is either lying or just not that good a writer. You have to be at least somewhat aware of what the reader might bring to the story and of the context created by popular stories that have come before. Otherwise, you can end up uncritically falling into cliche after cliche.

So here, we have a TV trope: Bury Your Gays or Dead Lesbian Syndrome. It’s the tendency for gay characters to die far more often than straight characters in fiction. When a writer kills off a gay character, they’re invoking the trope, whether they mean to or not, and so they need to think critically about that moment, whether it’s necessary, and how, if it is necessary, they can avoid being cliche. This is true even with generally harmless tropes like “The Chosen One,” but it’s doubly true when dealing with tropes that involve violence toward marginalized groups, where the risk isn’t just being cliche but doing actual harm.

Sure, most writers who fall into the Bury Your Gays trope don’t do so maliciously. But ignorance doesn’t negate the context. Unless the CW pauses the show mid-episode to broadcast an interview with the writer, most viewers never hear the creators’ justifications. They experience the show as it was aired, and react to it based on what’s come before in the series and on what other shows and stories have conditioned them to expect. Writers can’t say “oh, I didn’t mean it that way” and so escape blame.

And the troubling context of Lexa’s death in The 100 stretches beyond a history of lesbian characters being killed off in fiction. The show’s creators actively courted an LGBTQ audience, promoting the show as something revolutionary and really emphasizing the relationship between Clarke and Lexa. So when the show not only falls into old plot tropes by killing Lexa, but does so within moments of the two characters getting together, it feels like an extra kick in the teeth. The writers told fans, “You’re safe here,” and then abandoned them. They killed Lexa almost as an accident, an afterthought, in a way that was closely tied to her relationship with Clarke, when she was a fierce warrior character who could have been written off the show on her own terms.

And I think that’s another important thing here. The 100 could have written Lexa out of the show — killed her off, even — without invoking this outcry. The problem isn’t just that this trope exists, but that the show exhibited lazy writing when dealing with it. If Lexa had died in a blaze of glory, or even just died due to her own mistake as a commander, people might still have commented that lesbians always die, but at least there would have been sense to it. Lexa would have died as Lexa, not as the lesbian plot device.

Because yes, problematic storytelling from others has created a context where creators have to be extra careful and think about the connotations of their plots in a wider media narrative about minorities. But when people get upset about issues like Lexa’s death, they’re not demanding any kind of special narrative treatment. They just want these storylines to receive the same attention and narrative care that other storylines receive — for writers to consider the context, and give these characters and tropes as much thought as any other element of a good story.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

6 thoughts on “Why Context Matters

  1. So glad you covered this, thank you for this article. I agree with you, as a member of the LGBT community I don’t think that characters should be given special treatment because they are LGBT, but the people who say that the Lexa uprising is demanding special treatment for queer characters don’t realize that those characters tend to die much more than their straight counterparts.

    https://www.autostraddle.com/all-65-dead-lesbian-and-bisexual-characters-on-tv-and-how-they-died-312315/

    (the link says 65, but the list is up to 143 now).

  2. I’m glad you covered this – the truth is, the show arguably COULD have killed off Lexa, and even COULD have done so in a way that jarringly evoked Tara’s death on Buffy the Vampire Slayer 14 years ago (shot in a bedroom by a stray bullet almost immediately after sex), but Jason Rothenburg’s fatal mistake was in spending the entire hiatus reaching out to the young LGBT community and assuring them over and over again that he could be trusted, that he knew what he was doing, that his show was NOT going to fall into the same old lesbian cliches of the past…. and then did exactly that. And then tweeted: “who saw THAT coming?” on Twitter. And then dealt with the ensuing backlash by completing ignoring it.

    Maureen Ryan eloquently summed up the entire fiasco on Variety:

    http://variety.com/2016/tv/opinion/the-100-lexa-jason-rothenberg-1201729110/

    To quote her opening:

    If you wanted to come up with a playbook for how to handle TV promotion and publicity in the age of social media, a few of the major rules might look like this:

    Don’t mislead fans or raise their hopes unrealistically.
    Don’t promote your show as an ideal proponent of a certain kind of storytelling, and then drop the ball in a major way with that very element of your show.
    When things go south, don’t pretend nothing happened.
    Understand that in this day and age, promotion is a two-way street: The fans that flock to your show and help raise its profile can just as easily walk away if they are disappointed or feel they’ve been manipulated.

    It all sounds like common sense, right? Except that “The 100” managed to break all those rules and more in the last ten days or so. And the tumult surrounding the show contain lessons that other shows and showrunners could learn from.

  3. The annoying thing is, it was so easy to kill Lexa in a way that made sense. Her death has been foreshadowed since the beginning of the season. Her decision that “blood must not have blood” made her many enemies, and if she had died because of it, it would have been as a consequence of her own choices and actions. She already had a few near-death experiences – the challenge / trial by combat (or whatever it was called), then the assassination attempt, and she got into both of these herself, fully aware of the danger, and taking responsibility for her choices. Instead, her death is an accident, and comes literary right after sleeping with Clarke. And, of course, the creators’ interactions with young lesbian fans and the promises they broke made matters worse. Lexa’s death was perhaps necessary for the story to go forward, but there were ways to handle it much better.

    1. Agree. I wasreally disapointed with Lexa’s death. If they really wanted to kill her, they should have done it as a result of her choice that “blood must not have blood”. Or as a sacrifice to achieve her goals as a comander (peace). They could have send her to Azgueda to deal with the prince or in a long journey to search for something (similar to the city of light). In fact, since Clarke could have go back to Arkadia, she could have stayed and just not show scenes with her for whatever reason.
      True, they wanted to show the first “comander” and the implant. But they could have done it in other ways.

  4. SPOILERS FOR WALKING DEAD

    This is a rant and might be a little incoherent. I’m tired of certain White straight male characters having “plot armor” and surviving in situations were other characters die. In walking dead Carl, Ricks son is shot in the eye and survive, thanks to a lesbian doctor who, a couple chapters later die because a shot in the eye… talking of obvius double standards. In fact, it was short after her girlfriend tell her she loves her…

    I know in walking dead people die, but Rick and Carl should have die a hundred times by now, and always, always survive. The only “harm” they get is losing people they care about. To the point that now I worry about Michone. It’s sad that wehad this tropes. But the counterpart to the “dead lesbian” is the “plot armor”. Everyone knows Rick would always survive, same happens to most White male protagonist. No surprises there…

    End of rant. Sorry if is not completely in topic.

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