“From the ashes, we will rise” is the tagline of the new and current season of CW’s The 100. It’s catchy, pithy, and fits in well with the show’s whole radiation nuisance that’s always hovering in the background of every season. But while radiation is certainly an upcoming threat, another issue has begun to rear its ugly head in the show: white feminism.
But first, what is white feminism? Traditionally, it’s feminism that focuses on the oppression that white women face and puts their struggles first, while failing to address or otherwise recognize other injustices faced by women of color, members of the LGBTQ community, disabled women, and so on. It’s Tilda Swinton’s emails to Margaret Cho where she essentially asked for a personal lesson plan in whitewashing and race in Hollywood from a woman of color. It’s Scarlett Johansson shrugging off the whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell by reminding us all how important it is to have a franchise with a female protagonist, even if that protagonist was meant to be Japanese. It’s the continual ignorance of white women to the intersectional nature of feminism and the failure to recognize that not all forms of feminism are equally beneficial to all women.
The 100 is guilty of perpetuating white feminism and presents its white female characters in ways that make it obvious just who is right and wrong within the context of the show. The white women are positioned as leaders and depicted as strong, righteous characters. This becomes problematic when we watch these same women treat other characters of color poorly, both women and men. They condescend and demean non-white characters in sometimes subtle, sometimes overt ways. Because they are women, however, the show would have us believe that they are meant to be examples of “strong female characters,” and so their treatment of non-white characters is never depicted as a flaw. It’s merely depicted as what needs to be done in order for these white women to protect their people.
After nuclear radiation has made the planet’s surface uninhabitable, humans launched themselves into Earth’s orbit to survive in a place called the Ark: one enormous space station made out of multiple smaller stations. Ninety-seven years later, the Ark sends 100 juvenile delinquents back to the surface to test the survivability of the earth after all this time. What neither the Arkers nor the 100 delinquents know is that they are not alone on the planet: other humans have survived the radiation on Earth, albeit without the technological advances of those in space, and they’re known as Grounders.
It’s hard not to see the show for what it could be: a kind of retelling of Native American history, with the earth Grounders as Natives and the Arkers as white colonizers, which makes certain casting choices very awkward. The leader of the twelve Grounder clans is Commander Lexa, played by Alycia Debnam-Carey. Despite the fact that most of the Grounder chiefs we see prior to Lexa have been women of color (Indra, a black woman, and Anya, whose actress is of biracial Tibetan descent), that doesn’t stop the entirety of the Grounder nation from being helmed by a white woman. (She wears a bindi, for some reason. #Aesthetics, maybe?)
It’s not the most uncomfortable thing in the world, but it’s enough to make you tilt your head. There are so many badass ladies of color leading individual clans, but none are worthy enough to be Commander of all twelve? Also, is it wise to have a white woman in command of a population meant to be reminiscent of Native Americans? This happens amongst the Arkers as well, with Chancellor Thelonius Jaha being overstepped and eventually succeeded in power by Abby Griffin and Marcus Kane.
Other character choices are cringe-inducing as well. Season three introduces us to Charles Pike, who is very much anti-Grounder. He doesn’t like them, doesn’t trust them, and doesn’t want anything to do with them. He adds fuel to a lot of anti-Grounder sentiment amongst the Arkers to the point where he and a team massacre 300 peacekeeping Grounders “just in case” they decide to turn on the Arkers. Among this murder party are Bellamy Blake, played by biracial Filipino-Australian actor Bob Morley, and Monty Green, played by Korean-American actor Christopher Larkin. Pike is played by Michael Beach, a black actor.
The show’s narrative in season three makes it painstakingly clear that Pike and his supporters are the antagonists. They’re the bad guys who are morally lost, or confused, or just plain ignorant and angry. We know this because the main character, Clarke Griffin, is not on their side and spends much of the season trying to foster peace between the clans. Lexa, as well, struggles to maintain the unsteady alliance, and Octavia, Bellamy’s sister (who is white, by the way; they have different fathers), is very openly critical of and disgusted by Pike’s methods. These three women together make up the core shield of defense against Pike and the Arkers who would otherwise eradicate the Grounders.
The show’s narrative frames the arc of the season by pitting the evil and misguided men of color against the good, honorable white women saviors, a point which will be revisited further down. While Pike is outwardly discriminatory towards the Grounders, Bellamy and Monty are shown in a more–for lack of a better term–sympathetic light. Both have suffered very personal losses due to the Grounders, so it would come as no surprise that they’d have a harder time accepting peace between the clans. But did they have to take most of the men of color and center them as the antagonists?
Of course, the exception to this rule is the Grounder Lincoln, who tries to reconcile the rising tensions between Grounders and Skaikru, but don’t worry: the show manages to trivialize his character too. In the show, Lincoln is in a romantic relationship with Octavia. Much of Octavia’s storyline involves her bridging a gap between her own people and the Grounders, and feeling more at home with Lincoln. By the third season, she clearly identifies more with the Grounders and aligns herself with them against Skaikru. When Lincoln seems to be pulled in the opposite direction–that is, starts to get more comfortable with Skaikru people and culture–she lashes out at him.
In one scene when Lincoln speaks to Octavia in Trigedasleng (the native Grounder language), Octavia retaliates, “At least you can still speak the language.” She later proceeds to lecture him about his own culture and people, because nothing says “mutual respect” like a white woman scolding a black man about how he chooses to identify himself. What’s worse, the narrative doesn’t frame this scene as Octavia being in the wrong. It’s Lincoln who’s depicted as being the guilty party. How dare he go through a period of character development and personal uncertainty, am I right, ladies?
This happens again–a white woman being framed as righteous while a character of color is rebuked by the narrative–in the same season when Pike kills Lincoln. Octavia blames her brother Bellamy for Lincoln’s death as he’d sided with Pike in the first place, and she takes it out on him physically. His hands and wrists are chained up to a tree and she continuously beats his face to a bloody mess while generic sad music plays in the background, music meant to make us sympathize with the heartbroken Octavia.
The obvious racial implications of a man of color suffering at the hands of a white woman are glaring, and yet neither the narrative nor the fandom reprimanded Octavia’s character. It was “feminist.” It was “empowering.” It was excused as understandable actions coming from a woman whose heart was torn up. That doesn’t fly with me. A white woman shouldn’t get to pummel a biracial man in a TV show without experiencing some kind of repercussion within the story, but the writers never go there, and Octavia is never reprimanded narratively for beating her brother’s face in. She’s framed as the tragic hero of the moment; Bellamy just got what was coming to him, so we’re supposed to shrug because, “Well, what did he expect,” and move on.
The framing around male characters of colour and white female characters gets regurgitated and reproduced often in fandom, especially in depictions of the fan-favorite relationship between Bellamy and Clarke. In the show, Clarke is often referred to as “Princess,” first condescendingly and eventually fondly. While it’s no surprise that fandom has taken that nickname and run with it, oftentimes even propping Clarke up a peg and referring to her as a “queen,” Bellamy is often cast as the devoted, subservient “knight” meant to follow her bidding and throw himself into harm’s way for her despite being referred to in the show as the “king.” It’s an old romantic notion–the queen and her knight trope, a man devoting himself to you–but given the new context, there’s an underlying racial element to depicting the white woman as the queen and the man of color as her knight. A little more sensitivity and knowledge on intersectionality and this could easily be avoided by fans.
The Bellamy/Clarke relationship aside, there’s a double standard in fandom when it comes to both characters’ actions within the show. As mentioned above, Bellamy is proverbially crucified throughout the third season for his participation in the Grounder massacre by both the narrative and the fans, but fans have stayed relatively silent on or gone so far as to defend other characters’ actions, such as Clarke and Lexa dropping a bomb on the village of Tondc, or Lexa leaving the Arkers behind in Mount Weather, or Clarke and company irradiating Mount Weather and killing the 300+ people inside. History has shown that the Arkers have no reason to trust the Grounders, especially after abandoning them in Mount Weather, yet the attempts by the men of color (Pike, Bellamy, and Monty) to defend themselves and their people from further attacks is seen as despicable, the last straw. When white women like Clarke and Lexa take action, on the other hand, both narrative and fandom bend backwards to understand and defend them. Redemption arcs, it would seem, are for white women, not men of color.
While fandom certainly exacerbates the presence of white feminism, the fans can’t be blamed for all of it. Sometimes, though, it’s hard to get the point across that your love for or defense of a male character is not because of that character’s attractiveness. Just ask fans of Bellamy, Monty, and Wells. For many female fans of color, there’s an expectation that we must put our gender above our race and that if we’re defending these male characters for their actions, we’re somehow sexist. To put it bluntly, this is laughably ignorant. Defending a character like Bellamy Blake against fandom racism is not the same as, say, defending Loki from the Avengers for being “misunderstood.” Looking at all characters through the same lens is not automatically progressive. Fans need to recognize and address racial insensitivity in their favorite media in order to really move forward. Otherwise, as is the case with The 100, you risk falling into the white feminist trap.
I love The 100. I watch it every Wednesday. But loving this show also means recognizing its gross elements, and the show’s basic level-one feminism is definitely that. The fact that the writers fail to understand the racial elements of its own show makes the treatment of its characters of color all the more distasteful. Watching white women beat, demean, or otherwise belittle men of color is not “empowering” to watch, nor is watching white women lead a nation or group if it means silencing the women and men of color who could equally do the job. Race and feminism go hand in hand, and we would be better off if we could just recognize this instead of pretending otherwise. The 100 certainly would be.