CORRECTION: It was originally stated that the episode, "Thirteen" was filmed by the time Shawna Benson was writing on LGBT forums. It was not.
It's hard to believe that it's only been three weeks since The 100, the CW's popular, dystopian science fiction series, went from being a show known for its inclusion of LGBT characters to a definitive cautionary tale in how not to tell LGBT stories or interact with a queer audience.
After three weeks of fan outcry over the death of Lexa, out lesbian and leader of the 13 clans, after countless trending topics, articles from major news outlets, tweets from actors and writers, and even after a few interviews from showrunner, Jason Rothenberg himself, fans heard something they'd been demanding of Rothenberg from the start -- an apology.
It wasn't enough. And if we're being honest, necessary though the apology was, it was never going to be enough.
Let's look at that apology first and then work our way back to really understand the scope of this situation and why The 100's blunders are something that every showrunner and writing staff must learn from.
Immediately preceding his self-published statement on Medium, Jason Rothenberg was interviewed by Damian Holbrook of TV Insider on March 21st. Rothenberg very specifically did not apologize about the choice to kill Lexa by a stray bullet there. When asked if he would change the story he said, "No, absolutely not. We would have told the same story. I stand behind the story; I just don’t think I would have gone out of my way to say ‘This is the best episode we’ve ever done!’ Nobody really anticipated that this would happen so now that we’ve seen it, the idea for me as the showrunner going forward is to learn lessons from it, you know?"
What a difference a few days can make.
On March 24th, Rothenberg penned an open letter entitled "The Life and Death of Lexa" in which he took a decidedly different approach:
"Despite my reasons, I still write and produce television for the real world where negative and hurtful tropes exist. And I am very sorry for not recognizing this as fully as I should have. Knowing everything I know now, Lexa’s death would have played out differently."
This section was bolded by Rothenberg, but he also acknowledged that Lexa's story does not exist in a vacuum and that the "Bury Your Gays" trope (which highlights the repeated trend of killing LGBT characters in much larger quantities than their hetero counterparts) is very real and must be considered when writing stories featuring queer protagonists.
Looking at the comments under Rothenberg's post, you can see everything from fans pointing out his contradictory statements over the course of three weeks, accusations that this was done for PR reasons ans specifically due to the upcoming The 100 event at Wondercon, all the way up to accusations that Rothenberg has been and is still lying about why Alycia Debnam-Carey was really written out of the show.
And all that might make you wonder if fans upset at the death of Lexa really want an apology at all. The answer is "yes," but it's important to understand the difference between saying "I won't accept your apology" and "I can't accept your apology". People aren't gleefully shutting the apology down, they simply don't feel they can trust it. And, moreover, what they want an apology for is far more complex than just this single character's death. What the LGBT community needs going forward is just as complex and important.
UNDERSTANDING THE MISTAKES
The story of Lexa's death and fans' fear of and reaction to it is much longer than three weeks old. In order to understand it you need to directly speak with fans and academics. Fortunately, from very early on there was a strong voice that represented both fandom and academia in the form of German and Comparative Literature professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Elizabeth Bridges.
As someone who watched the show with a few friends without interacting with the online fandom, I was struggling with my own feelings of frustration over Lexa's untimely departure. It became obvious that, if I were to speak about this topic any further, it was necessary to hear about the larger picture from the mouth of someone other than myself.
Speaking with Bridges, the biggest thing that became clear was that fans were far more upset about the "infiltration" of fan spaces than they were about just Lexa's death. Bridges was clear on this point saying, "This has really been the worst case of a show exploiting its audience I've ever seen."
What Bridges is alluding to is the extent and manner of the online engagement that Rothenberg (as well as other members of his writing staff) had with their LGBT audience starting in The 100's second season.
Likely recognizing an opportunity to increase live viewership once Lexa's sexualility was confirmed, specific inroads were made on Twitter, Tumblr, and very pointedly at LGBT-specific forums as well in order to garner not only more eyeballs, but also faith in The 100's commitment to do LGBT characters' stories justice.
This is where Bridges divines an important distinction. "Strong presence online is great," she says, "but when you are blatantly misleading or misdirecting fans, that crosses an ethical line. And especially if you're infiltrating the fandom. It's entirely unethical, especially when we're talking about a vulnerable population of young LGBT fans who trust you."
INTERACTION VS. INFILTRATION
Forget forgiveness for a moment. Whether or not the Internet forgives is not going to be discerned in one article, but it can be said with near-absolute certainty that the internet never forgets. If you said it, somewhere someone probably screen-grabbed it. And this is perhaps the way in which The 100's fandom has acquitted itself best -- by keeping a record of everything. On the website, We Deserved Better, fans have worked together to tell Lexa's story not through their words, or through the show itself, but through the way the crew used social media to engage their audience.
During Season 2 and the hiatus between Seasons 2 and 3, the writing staff of The 100 made it clear -- when it comes to lesbians, Lexa is a defining representation and she is important to the people creating the show.
The 100 staff actively sought out their LGBT fans and discovered those fans were scared, specifically that Lexa was not long for this world. When fans pointed out the "Bury Your Gays" trope and that Lexa's former girlfriend, Costia, had already been killed off without so much as a single on-screen appearence, writers like Kim Shumway would make the fact that Lexa was "not dead" a very big deal. Jason Rothenberg would repeatedly say that while he is "ship neutral" (aka, he doesn't play favorites with regard to which characters should be in relationships together) he sees Clarke and Lexa as "seaworthy".
In other words, The 100's writing and production staff was specifically engaging their LGBT fans and saying, effectively, that when it came to Lexa, fans have nothing to fear.
So, what consitutes the difference between interaction and infiltration? And what ethical dilemmas does that difference raise?
Perhaps the most concrete example comes from when staff writer Shawna Benson, began anonymously engaging with The 100's queer viewership on a highly visited lesbian forum. She claimed to be there for "rumor control" which sounds nice in theory, but comes with some potentially disastrous consequences.
When a picture of a poster signed by Alycia Debnam-Carey surfaced online saying "Thanks for the opportunity," fans immediately assumed it meant that Debnam-Carey's time on the show was over.
IMPORTANT FACT: At this point in time, the Lexa's fate had already been decided and the script for "Thirteen" had almost certainly been written. And yet, when Shawna Benson turned up onto the forum, she stated, "No 'goodbye' implied by thanking the show creator for casting her in a great role."
This is where the question of ethical fan interaction comes into play. Is it right to intentionally mislead a group of minorities regarding a character who represents them for the sake of a shock moment? When tropes like "Bury Your Gays" exist and have proven to be directly harmful to the LGBT community, there's a fair argument to be had that, no, it is not ethical to engage with fans in this way.
"It was all to keep viewership and keep the core LGBT audience guessing, but hopeful," says Bridges. And that's the ugliest of all possibilities -- despite knowing what pain would be caused (a pain Rothenberg would, at one point, describe as "delicious"), the show's writing and production staff still convinced viewers they were safe solely in order to keep them watching.
THE APOLOGY LGBT FANS OF THE 100 DESERVE
In the grand scheme of things, none of us is owed anything from a television show. We're not owed anything at all, really. But if Jason Rothenberg's intention is to show LGBT fans of The 100 that he is truly contrite, if he wants to truly begin down the path ofunderstanding how to treat queer viewers and characters with the same respect that straight ones are, he needs to acknowledge more than the fact that killing Lexa with a stray bullet (right after she finally got to have sex with Clarke, the woman she loves) was a mistake.
"I promise you burying, baiting or hurting anyone was never our intention. It’s not who I am." That is a part of Jason Rothenberg's apology. But his actions say different. To actively engage with your queer audience (even going so far as to seek them out in their own spaces), to have both you and your staff promise them that the character they rely upon for representation is safe, and then to pull the rug out from under them in the most hurtful way possible is burying, is baiting, is hurting.
The apology should be for that -- for not just killing Lexa (and thereby lesbian representation on The 100) but also for willfully using an LGBT audience to increase the show's popularity, even after doing the exact thing writers had been told repeatedly will hurt LGBT people the most.
"This show was a lifeline for so many people, and not just kids," says Bridges. "It's such a complex situation. So many layers. That's why it has hit fans so hard."
That's where the real apology needs to begin -- by admitting to the manipulation of a minority for the sake of viewing figures despite the potentially hurtful outcome. And then that apology needs to be extended to the peoples of color who have been watching characters like Lincoln, Raven, and Indra suffer comparatively severe pain for nearly three seasons while their white counterparts were more often allowed to flourish.
There needs to be a promise to do better and an understanding and acceptance that the promise will not be trusted or believed until it is followed through upon.
I DON'T GET IT/WHY SHOULD I CARE AND A COMPARISON
If you're not part of the queer community, an ally of said same, or if you were never a fan of The 100, why should you care? If we're boiling this down to the most selfish of reasons, it is because next time it might be you. And maybe it already has been you. Forget social justice for a second (as I know many of you often try to, anyway) -- think about this as simply acting in the interest of fairness.
Let me draw a comparison: back in 2014, 2K Sports made a promise on their Twitter account that, should they ever reach one million followers, players would receive a time-coded, digital download of what's called a Diamond player (like Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson). It took a few years, but they eventually achieved that goal.
But 2K Sports didn't make good on their promise. Instead of a Diamond player, gamers received a random locker code, which could net them anything. Most people did not get a Diamond player. And the only time the PR team ever mentioned that the rules had changed was when they responded to one fan, a response that would not easily be seen by anyone else following 2K online.
2K Sports made a promise on social media and they didn't keep it. And while a small minority have said "it's just a game," the overwhelming response has been the opposite -- if you make a promise, you should keep that promise.
Leaving aside all the deeper consequences, what happened with The 100's staff and their fans is basically the same situation. As they engaged on social media sites, forums, and at conventions, Jason Rothenberg and his team were repeatedly doing the same thing 2K Sports was -- making a promise.
Fans told them about "Bury Your Gays". The LGBT community made their fears explicit, and The 100 crew repeatedly said that they were listening. And when the writers had written the scene that killed Lexa off in precisely the way the queer community feared, they spent months pretending that they hadn't, they continued engaging and issuing the same platitudes about representation and respect for the LGBT community.
To put it in the simplest of language -- not cool, dude. Make a promise. Keep a promise. And The 100 didn't.
THE REAL LESSON OF "THE 100 MESS"
Writer for Variety, Maureen Ryan dubbed this ongoing event "The 100 Mess" and, from first to last, it has been just that -- a mess. And in the middle of a mess it's often hard to find the bright spot, the silver lining, the comfort, no matter how cold.
And that comfort is this -- I have written now three articles on this subject here at Blastr, a sci-fi site with an admittedly conservative-leaning readership. Articles have been written online and in print across innumerable, major publications. The non-profit designed to help struggling LGBT peoples, The Trevor Project, has now received over $80,000 raised in the name of both Lexa and the people who love who she is and what she represents. It's been recommended by many fans of Lexa that Rothenberg and his team add to that number, and I think that would go a long way in spreading goodwill.
The reason Lexa's death was so upsetting isn't just because her face was a recognizable one for so many queer people, it's also because she made the LGBT community feel more visible, more relatable. And it made them feel like they were being listened to. Every time someone tweets about why Lexa matters, each time someone challenges the "Bury Your Gays" trope and demands that writers and showrunners do better, someone who hasn't thought about any of this hears why representation in stories matters for the first time. Even in death, Lexa is making LGBT people more visible.
This weekend is Wondercon, where Jason Rothenberg, and members of The 100 cast and crew will be. People are going to talk with them about this, and those words will echo throughout that convention hall and beyond. There's no hiding it -- The 100's reputation is irreparably tarnished because they misused and misled the queer community both in their marketing and in their storytelling. Fans and professionals worked together to ensure they wouldn't get away with it. And they haven't. And what other show staff will hear is that they won't get away with it anymore either.
The lesson for fans of Lexa is "keep talking". If you speak, you will be heard. And the lesson to storytellers is just as simple:
You better be listening.