A Day Without The 100’s Women
Those of us who expected a new episode of The 100 on March 8th were more than disappointed when we realized that we were going to have to wait another week. It’s unknown if this “one week hiatus” was designed to coincide with the international “A Day Without Women,” but the show’s absence certainly had that effect: a day without women (and without shows like The 100 depicting compellingly complex female characters) makes us appreciate their absence and their presence. It also gives us the opportunity to discuss The 100’s women and how they help define what it means to be a twenty-first century woman: an intellectually and physically capable fearless female, balanced in her feminine and masculine traits, making her superior to most men.
Think about it. Who flew the Millennium Falcon better than Han Solo and almost killed Kylo Ren with no training? Who jumped in front of Batman (to a kickass guitar riff) to save him from Doomsday’s heat ray with her shield, then used that shield (and her sword and lasso) to nearly defeat Doomsday all on her own? Who leads a team to outwit the Empire, steal the Death Star plans, and avenge her father? Who starts a revolution against President Snow and the citizens of the Capital in Panem? Who figured out how to send John Glen into space?
Rey, Wonder Woman, Jyn, Katniss, and the “West Area Computers” of Hidden Figures are just a few (out of many) characters who fit our definition of a twenty-first century woman – yes, Hidden Figures is set in the patriarchal 1960s, but as Cultural, New Historical, and Marxist theories note: stories, regardless of when they’re set, typically reflect the perspective of when they’re produced. Had Hidden Figures been released in 1960s Hollywood, it would’ve been a different story than the one we saw in 2016. This is because history is often an interpretation rather than a representation of events, continuously shaped (and reshaped) by society’s attitudes and prescriptions (and by whoever is in power).
Returning to The 100, it is difficult to think of any female character who doesn’t fit our definition of a twenty-first century woman (even the extras look fearless and confident). Regardless of their position, regardless of their age, regardless of their ethnicity, regardless of which side they’re on, nearly every woman on The 100 is depicted as being fully capable of leading and saving the world all on her own. It’s one of the main appeals of the show – they get dirty, they fight dirty (they don’t wear make-up, they wear war-paint), they have the best dialogue and one-liners (especially Raven), they’re fierce lovers and protectors of those they love, and they find a solution to every problem. They are, to borrow the title from a certain Amazonian Princess, Wonder Women.
What The 100 illustrates, however, is not how women can be fearless and confident Wonder Women, but why they have to be. This, I suggest, is what makes The 100 and its gritty narrative not just compelling, but timely and culturally relevant – the embodiment of American sculptor Kristen Visbal’s “Fearless Girl” statue recently installed to defiantly stare down the Wall Street Bull.
As French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir famously argued, a woman isn’t born a woman, she’s constructed by society to be a woman (same process for men). Similarly, American philosopher Judith Butler contends that we perform these socially constructed roles – they’re not natural, they’re the characters we play as women and men throughout our lives because society says so. I happen to agree with de Beauvoir and Butler, but I’m also interested in understanding why society creates our roles. For The 100, we can ask the following: What roles are necessary for women in a post-apocalyptic society? What roles are necessary for women when society returns to a primal state of nature? And how does this reflect or represent our real twenty-first century world? Perhaps the answers can be found by exploring the issue of necessity.
Everyone in Skaikru (everyone from the Ark) was born in space. Out of necessity, society constructed itself as a quasi-Marxist state. Everything is shared and repurposed based on need. People trade the limited supplies they have on a black market for various reasons, but for the most part everyone understands that everything in existence has a purpose, even people. If you’re born on Farm Station (they grow space algae), you’re going to learn farming. If, like Clarke, your mom’s a doctor, you’re going to be a doctor. Mechanics breed mechanics, engineers breed engineers and so on. Thus, the roles for women and men are created before they’re even born – out of necessity – because certain skills are vital, and the easiest way to ensure that the knowledge of these skills survives is to pass them on.
It’s the philosophy Clarke’s adopted because she’s never known anything else (there’s really never been another option) and it’s why, when she makes decisions on who lives and who dies, she’s always pragmatic. Young, healthy women capable of birthing children? Necessity. Young women capable of birthing children, but who are not healthy (because their genes indicate a possible malady or defect)? Not a necessity (sorry Harper).
Similarly, the various Grounder tribes, born in the radiation-soaked aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, constructed their society out of necessity. In their case, as a pseudo-feudal monarchy ruled almost entirely by women on every level. But here’s the interesting twist – the necessity didn’t have to do with survivors learning how to exist in a nuclear chaos, it had to do with Becca returning to the ground and recreating society so they could exist in a nuclear chaos.
As shown in flashbacks, Becca was the scientist who created an artificial intelligence that caused the nuclear holocaust that destroyed the world. To fix this, Becca traveled to a space station and transformed her own blood into nightblood (a dark, gooey substance resembling the alien “black oil” from the X-Files) so her body could withstand nuclear radiation. She then returned to Earth, appearing out of the sky like an alien goddess, endowed with the knowledge and ability necessary to save and rebuild humanity. In other words, Becca thrust necessity upon herself. The result created a society (and an interesting religion) structured around the power of “nightbloods” who, once identified, are trained to be warriors and leaders. We should note that not every Grounder has nightblood in them. In the century that has passed since Becca returned to Earth, nightblood has become a genetic mutation (because not everyone who is a “nightblood” is shown to be related to Becca) and those born with it are treated as saviors.
Thus, Becca’s necessity (wanting to save humankind) created the necessity of “nightbloods” so that humankind could continue to be saved. For de Beauvoir and Butler, this means that the roles created by the Grounder society and the Skaikru society are indeed fixed, but they’re not fixed because of a patriarchal ideology or hierarchy (which is what de Beauvoir and Butler were critiquing). They’re fixed because the necessity of nature, the necessity of survival, and the necessity of science mandates them.
Even in the current fourth season, in an environment where Grounders and Skaikru have intermingled, the necessity hasn’t changed. Both groups have had to accept one another (and one another’s differences), but the necessity of Becca’s nightblood solution remains – it’s what’s going to save everyone from the nuclear meltdown driving the fourth season’s plot (so long as Raven and Abby are as successful as Becca).
So, women on The 100 have become Wonder Women built by necessity for survival, capable of fighting men twice their size (like Octavia), out-thinking a computer (like Raven), leading an Army (like Clarke and Lexa), curing just about any medical problem (like Abby), and still managing to find time to maintain relationships and sometimes fall in love. (Yes, they can juggle that, too.)
What we’re saying, then, is that The 100’s women display an uncanny ability to be both masculine and feminine, sometimes simultaneously. While Lexa, Octavia, and Echo are the purest examples of this, it’s Clarke (who isn’t really one to stop and smell the roses) who’s had the most relationships. She’s had two serious lovers (Finn, then Lexa), a one-night stand that might develop (Nylah), a best friend who wanted more (Welles) and two friends (former enemies) that in the right circumstance could be her soul-mate (Bellamy and Roan).
What’s significant for Clarke is that she’s not following any prescribed role, she’s following her heart. Moreover, since she’s bisexual (a clear symbolization of masculine and feminine balance), the relationships she has aren’t about the potential for reproduction (they don’t conform to her usual cold logic) they’re about the need to love and be loved – perhaps the most important necessity for survival. What’s paramount, then, is that these traits have equipped the women of The 100 with an impressive array of skills needed to sustain humanity.
By contrast, while some of the men on The 100 seem equally equipped (Bellamy, Kane, Lincoln, and perhaps Monty), not all of them are as balanced as the women. For example, Jaha has never been able to deal with his son’s death, it has haunted and plagued him to the point that Jaha literally lost his mind in the second and third seasons – it was hijacked by the artificial intelligence because Jaha was emotionally vulnerable. Jaha still doesn’t seem entirely sane in the fourth season – he’s broken and lost on many levels (but we’re rooting for him).
Clarke, on the other hand, watched her father die (he was sucked out of an air-lock into space), killed Finn by literally stabbing him in the heart (to save him from a more horrible death at the hands of the Grounders – Clarkian logic), watched Lexa die, and is responsible for killing hundreds of people in Mount Weather (including children). Through it all, Clarke has kept her wits. Yes, she exiled herself after the second season but that’s actually a sign of being able to handle the pressure. Rather than compartmentalize or dismiss her trauma (or foolishly use it as fuel like Jaha did and Pike did and most men do), she dealt with it and it’s made her a stronger, more capable leader. Abby’s done this, Raven’s done this, and Octavia’s doing this (I take her recent decision to come “home” as a sign that she’s on the road to recovery).
To be fair, Kane’s done this, too, and he’s evolved from a snarky villain into a compelling hero. Indeed, Abby and Kane, who used to be fierce enemies (with a complicated history), are now in a loving, committed (and recently consummated) relationship. It’s a result not just of good acting and good writing but of good balance. Kane could’ve easily become Jaha or Pike or worse – Abby, too. Instead, their relationship symbolizes the balance of masculine and feminine that necessity requires for survival. While it’s mostly the women of The 100 who display this balance, Kane’s evolution sets an example that gives men hope (like Murphy). What remains, then, is how this relates to our real world.
We’ve always had strong female characters. Wonder Woman debuted in December 1941, and history has given us many fictional and real women to admire. Yet, if we look closely at the women of The 100, we can see that they’ve evolved a little differently than their predecessors. They’re more fierce, more capable, more intelligent, more passionate, and more cunning than perhaps any other group of woman at any other time in our history (as are the women of Game of Thrones) – Wonder Women 2.0. And if fiction represents and interprets reality, then we have to ask why society needs women to be this way in the twenty-first century.
What’s changed in our world? What’s the necessity shaping our women right now? What is it about our current culture that makes our Wonder Women necessary? Why do our little girls need to be capable of staring down a bull?
Edwardo Pérez, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Tarrant County College Northeast.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Vintage, 2011.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 2006.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today. Garland Publishing, 1999.