WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE 100 AND THE WALKING DEAD
In the weeks since The 100 episode "Thirteen," a conversation on the tendency for lesbian characters to be bumped off in brutal and unfortunate ways has gotten very loud, perhaps the loudest it has ever been -- and it's not going away.
Lexa is not the only lesbian character to die on TV recently. Just last night, another lesbian character from a major genre show, Denise from The Walking Dead, was also accidentally killed by stray weapons fire. But Lexa's is still the name seemingly dominating the conversation. And there are good reasons for that -- she's a leader to most of humanity; she was in a relationship with Clarke, the lead on the The 100; and she was played to perfection by actor Alycia Debnam-Carey. But much like The 100's showrunner, Jason Rothenberg, Debnam-Carey remained silent after the death of her character, Lexa. It seemed her performance would do the talking for her.
Or, you know, not.
Over the weekend, Alycia attended an event at the Paley Center for her other show, Fear the Walking Dead, and her biggest fans weren't there to talk to her about zombies.
When Debnam-Carey was told about the now over $50k raised in Lexa's name for The Trevor Project, she said, "That's such a positive outcome for a traumatic event that people have experienced with the loss of that character. I know there's been a lot of negativity thrown around in some way, but that's what's so important -- to find a social issue and to have momentum for it and develop it in a really positive way. That's so exciting. I'm so moved by that."
She was also very quick to defend the intentions behind Lexa's departure in an interview with IGN. "I just really hope that people know that it was never a negative thing from anywhere, she said, "from the writers or on set or from me. That this character was always a collaboration. Always done with love. You know, I had personal obligations in my own life and it just was that way. It was a creative choice and it was nothing really more than that. I know obviously that it’s hard when there are social issues going on and maybe they were dealt with in an insensitive way for some people. And I hate that people feel like that. That’s really awful if people feel ostracized or targeted but any attention that can be drawn to it is a great thing and moving forward is always great."
There are a two things that are really important to unpack about these quotes, one about Debnam-Carey's personal limitations as a young actor, and one about the notion of positivity vs. negativity in expressing outrage over social injustice.
There are some fans who are saying that Alycia was in some way prompted or fed talking points before attending this Fear the Walking Dead event. I don't know Debnam-Carey personally, but I can speak with some experience concerning the nature of the entertainment industry when I say, "Duh. Of course she came prepared to answer these specific questions". She had to be prepared. But maybe not for the reasons you think.
I hope this won't sound condescending -- being an actor is hard, especially if you're a woman. Steady work is not the norm; it is the extraordinary exception. You may look at Alycia Debnam-Carey and think she is a rare, incredible talent, but I promise you that TV and film execs see her as a pretty meat suit that knows its lines and can hit a mark. And, for those people, Alycia isn't even a dime a dozen.
I can't stress this enough -- Alycia Debnam-Carey is not in a place in her career where she can safely challenge the decisions of a powerful white dude in the TV-making world. She has to consider her own future as much as she considers anything else.
Remember: at nearly a decade his junior, Olivia Wilde was deemed "too old" to play Leonardo DiCaprio's spouse. And the only reason Wilde is even able to speak out about what is obviously a grossly sexist double standard is because enough time has passed and because both she and her spouse are established enough in the industry that they can get away with ruffling some feathers.
It's not a happy truth, but it is quantifiably the truth -- being a woman in TV and film means having to be very careful with what you say and do.
All that being said, Debnam-Carey was pretty clear -- she understands why people are upset. She gets why some people stopped watching The 100. And that's an important admission. Equally important is that she was able to say even that much, which represents some shift in the balance of control between showrunners and viewers. The only thing that hampers her statements a little is her focus on what she deems "positive" ways of dealing with frustration over Lexa's death and the over-arching issue of Dead Lesbian Syndrome.
Positive reinforcement is not a perfect solution. When a child refuses to share their toys, you don't buy them more toys. And while raising money for The Trevor Project is admirable and important, calling out the fact that lesbians on TV tend to be killed over and over and OVER again is also important. Lumping harsh criticism in with a minority of threats of violence is unfair. Harsh criticism isn't just important -- it's necessary.
Straight characters get happily ever after, gay ones get shot by accident. Straight characters get the toys, and they aren't sharing much with the LGBT community. Positive reinforcement isn't the sole solution for that. At some point, people have to shout back, they have to demand better, hurt a showrunner's feelings and their ratings, and make them share those happy endings whether they want to or not.
Promoting and donating to a non-profit that helps LGBT people in need is important, but that does not in any way limit the equal importance of strong, and at-times unkind, activism.
Alycia Debnam-Crey got the most important thing of all right, though -- this is about keeping the momentum going. Change is a long game proposition. All those trending topics, all that money raised -- it's great. All of it. But it's a foundation. You want representation? Keep the conversation going. Pick your battles, but don't always feel like you've got to play nice.