The 100 and the power of the unlikable woman

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Jun 27, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

There’s a motto on The 100, the CW’s sci-fi apocalyptic drama about a group of delinquents from space sent to survive on Earth. The saying goes, “There are no good guys.” It’s how characters justify morally reprehensible decisions, like mass-murdering a mountain full of innocents or bombing their own armies as part of a larger battle strategy. It’s the explainer for why a character might test high levels of radiation on a stranger or why a group of guards with guns might massacre an entire village. It’s also a reflection of the complexity of humanity in general. On The 100, as with life, there really are no good guys, but when it comes to the sci-fi series, there are plenty of “unlikable” women, and that’s a damn good thing. 

For anyone unfamiliar with the term, the “unlikable” woman moniker is a recurring theme in literature and television. It’s often used to describe a female character of questionable morals. She behaves badly, sometimes for no good reason at all. She’s the “other woman,” the nasty boss, the nagging wife. Maybe she’s a drunken, sloppy mess, a woman who’s traded in a family for a successful career, an uptight b*tch who doesn’t know how to let loose and have fun. The unlikable woman takes many forms but, at her core, she’s a character driven by complex desires that often are at odds with what society has been taught to expect from women. Hence, she’s “unlikable.” 

Some might take issue with that word. After all, it’s been a label slapped on female characters who deign to do the same thing male protagonists have been doing for years to the ire of no one and to the applause of some of the biggest sci-fi fandoms. A smuggler more concerned with his ship and his gambling debt than saving the Republic is a “rogue,” a “reluctant hero.” A man avenging the death of his family by indiscriminately riddling bad guys with bullets is viewed with sympathy and even admiration. He’s cleaning up the streets — who cares if he’s staining them with blood?

Then there are the male characters who aren’t heroes, but who are still given a free pass of sorts, despite their own “unlikability.” The deadbeat dad. The man who refuses to grow up. The serial dater. The guy who can’t do his own laundry. The thief, the swindler, the gambler, none of these character types are particularly likable, but when played by men, they’re rarely deemed “unlikable.” Instead, words like “troubled,” “complex,” “layered,” and “redemptive” get thrown their way. 

Women aren’t afforded that same luxury, the luxury of figuring themselves out on screen, exploring their darker natures, screwing things up, drinking too much, not showering. The list of things women can’t do in order to avoid the dreaded “unlikable” label is endless, seemingly because viewing women in any light other than as a maternal figure, a sexpot, or a blushing virgin is a bit too much for audiences to handle. Who wants to watch a woman commit murder, or fraud, or talk about how disgusting she finds the idea of raising a child when they’ve been taught that an entire gender’s “natural” state is as a mother, a wife, a daughter, an extension of their male counterparts in some way?

The 100 Diyoza

I get why people cringe to hear the world “unlikable,” but when it comes to The 100, consider it a compliment. Unlikable women on the sci-fi series are the most interesting, fully developed characters on the show. They’re villains like Charmaine Diyoza (Ivana Milicevic), a terrorist and murderer sentenced to life mining on an asteroid only to commit mutiny, kill her captors, and take command of the only inhabitable piece of land left on Earth. They’re bunker queens like Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos), who’ve fashioned their reign after bloody Roman emperors, sacrificing their own people for a greater cause. They’re spies like Echo (Tasya Teles), a woman quick to switch sides and use her skills to lie, cheat, and steal her means to survival back from within the enemy’s camp. 

“Unlikable” women may not become likable on The 100 — Diyoza is holding an entire people hostage, Octavia is filling corpses with flesh-eating worms to use as bio-warfare, and Echo is willing to betray potential allies in order to complete her mission — but they do become something, arguably, even better: real. 

It’s hard to imagine a scenario like the one challenging the characters on The 100. The world has ended twice, friends and families have been separated and killed, characters have been forced to do nightmarish things to survive, and now hope for a peaceful rebuilding of the world after another apocalypse seems dim. While plenty of male characters have been used as a moral center this season — Bellamy (Bob Morley) and Monty (Christopher Larkin) both have leaned toward the self-righteous — the women on the show are the ones in charge. Characters like Clarke (Eliza Taylor), willing to do anything to protect her daughter; Gaia (Tati Gabrielle), a religious fanatic waiting for the opportune time to install a new commander; Indra (Adina Porter), a battle-worn warrior forced to follow her queen down a dark path; and Abby (Paige Turco), a brilliant doctor struggling with a drug addiction — these are the women, along with more villainous types like Diyoza, Echo, and Octavia, who are making decisions and taking action on the show. 

Those decisions have been shocking, horrifying, unconscionable, but they’ve also felt grounded in a reality not often afforded to women in sci-fi. What Clarke would do for her daughter, Madi (Lola Flannery), is what any man or woman would do for their child. The choices Octavia makes to save her people are the tough decisions any leader might face in the same situation. The belief system Gaia values, the just cause motivating Diyoza’s criminal activities, the familiarity of old habits Echo is falling victim to, and the siren’s call of self-destruction Abby’s currently drowning in are fantastical in this setting, but they’re rooted in a grittier truth. 

What The 100 does so well, and what I think more people should appreciate, is how these women, who would be called “unlikable” by most, are given dimensions not as a kind of lip service to feminism but because the writers know that a complicated “villain” or a troubled “hero” is infinitely more interesting. You might not agree with Diyoza or Octavia, or any female character on the show, but you can’t argue their logic, or deny there’s a part of you that understands their decision-making process. 

In the world of The 100, there are no good guys, but it’s pretty revolutionary to see a show committed to doing right by women who behave badly. They’re not cautionary tales, they’re not there simply for the audience to root against. They’re there to pose a question. Why are we rooting for these women? Why are we condemning them? TV rarely asks that of us, especially when it comes to female characters who don’t follow a prescribed mold. 

So the next time you hear the term “unlikable,” think of Octavia, fighting for survival in an underground bunker for five years. Think of Diyoza, rallying people to a just cause and being punished for it. Think of Clarke, desperately holding onto hope that she’d be able to make good on a promise she made to see her people safe. Think of Echo, a woman trying to forge a new life for herself despite the chains of her past. Then think of yourself in these women’s shoes. Think of how you would behave, how you would react, the tough choices you’d have to make. Would you want to be labeled “unlikable”? Would you really even care?

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