Femslash Crisis: The 100

Warning: Spoilers for The 100, episode 3×07

As a researcher, my primary interest lies in digital communities, often those built around media properties such as video games or TV shows. My secondary interest is in the LGBT community. At the intersection of these two interests is the femslash1 community on Tumblr. This is what I consider my primary fieldsite.

Last night, that community was dealt a serious blow. Not only did the Bury Your Gays trope rear its ugly head, it was at a particularly devious time after what could be the most insidious use of queerbaiting in a generation.

When two fictional women enter into a well-written relationship, this corner of the internet practically explodes. Femslash fans tend to go from fandom to fandom, following those relationships, seeking validation and the experience of seeing people like them on the screen. Since there are so very few of these relationships, word about them spreads quickly. A post circulating for several hours overnight asking how many people started watching The 100 for the Sapphic2 relationship representation had over 2000 notes and it is still spreading quickly, with over 700 reblogs in the time it took to write this post. (Author’s Note: As of a day and a half after the original post, it has been reblogged over 5000 times.)

These fans were especially hooked by the fact that one of the characters, Clarke, was the main character of the show. Usually Sapphic relationships are side stories easily pushed off-screen. The producer, Jason Rothenberg, seemed to be on their side, offering what most of these fans have never had.

Most upsetting is the timing and method of the character’s death. Most of the fans were aware, at some level, that Lexa would die. It was foreshadowed and hanging over them at every turn. What Rothenberg gave them, though, was a tender, romantic scene complete with a post-coital cuddle, and the very next moment Lexa was on screen, she received a stray bullet to the torso meant for someone else. An accidental death in no way worthy of the Commander of Twelve Clans happening directly after consummating her love with a person of the same gender.

As the show ended on the East Coast and fans flocked to social media, soon joined by other fans as the show became available to them, the response almost predictably followed the classic stages of grief.

There was denial, theorizing that Lexa, the lesbian post-apocalyptic Commander of the Twelve Clans, wasn’t really dead. One of the story-lines this season has been a City of Light where death may not mean the end of life. Theories abound, bolstered by leaked stills of Clarke and Lexa in the City of Light itself.

Then, and still, there was anger. Queer fans upset to see yet another queer character killed, moments after finding happiness. Upset that they felt betrayed by a producer and writers that seemed to understand them, that seemed to offer them what they wanted.

Perhaps most heart-breaking was the utter defeat and self-blame. “I thought you were different.” “I should have known better.” Fans were circulating self-care guides and suicide hotlines. Many were crying uncontrollably and couldn’t sleep.

Now, this might seem excessive to many, to have such an adverse reaction to the death of a fictional character, but there a few things to keep in mind. First, mental illness, particularly anxiety, depression, substance abuse disorders, and suicide are higher among queer people than among heterosexuals, with these higher rates correlated with discrimination. Second, these fans often follow their shows with a passion rarely seen outside of the most dedicated of sports fans, but instead of wearing body paint to a match in frigid temperatures, they are writing, drawing, and dressing in costume.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, one must put themselves into their shoes. Imagine, if you will, a world where people like you are less than 4% of the characters on screen. Now take those characters and imagine half of them are villains. Of those that are left, half are killed. Another large percentage are left heart-broken or damaged. In an article from three years ago, the Guardian made a claim that only four LGBT characters have had happy endings in the last 19 years worth of movies. People like you never get a happy ending. Repeat this message year after year and you might start to understand how this could affect the LGBT community.

Lexa’s death was not simply losing a favorite character to many of these fans. She was powerful, intelligent, strong, agile, beautiful, commanding, strategic, and a lesbian. She was one half of a well-written, extremely well-acted Sapphic couple. Now that this relationship is over, those fans cannot simply turn to one of hundreds of other relationships to experience a love built for people like them. There simply aren’t any.

There have been four confirmed queer female characters in the show. One was killed for loving Lexa and has never been seen on screen. One was beaten up immediately following a sex scene with Clarke. Lexa was killed immediately following a sex scene with Clarke. And Clarke, the main character, a bisexual teenager, has had two of her lovers die as she kisses them one last time. At some point, a pattern emerges.

There is still hope in the community. Like any crisis, there have been those who seek to help and heal. In the same space where people are venting, crying, screaming, are posts validating women who love women as beautiful and important. There are posts of the few successful Sapphic relationships, untainted by Stray Bullets. There are people who have opened their ask boxes, their metaphorical shoulders, for people to cry in and offer solace. There are already fix-it fanfictions in the works, allowing fans to continue engaging with the characters, even if they cannot do so within the show itself.

One author, Rae D. Magdon, offered to give copies of her books, guaranteed to have Sapphic women with happy endings, to people who needed a pick-me-up. Since the first offer, she’s had many followers donating Amazon gift cards to continue the give-away and has so far donated around 200 books to the queer fans who need to see that they are loved and can have a happy ending too. With her royalties, she plans to make a donation to an LGBT charity such as the Trevor Project.

I will continue to observe and document the digital lives of these fans with the hope that Hollywood and their counterparts do eventually hear the message these fans are shouting: “Stop killing us.”

1. [Femslash is a term used to encompass any fictional romantic or sexual relationship between women, distinguishing it from “slash” meant for male characters.]
2. [Sapphic is this researcher’s favored term for women who love women, preventing unintentional erasure of bisexual, pansexual, questioning, asexual, and other queer women by simply using the term “lesbian”.]

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Internet Communities as Safe Spaces (mini-paper)

This paper is a bit more straight-forward and short, so I’ll let it speak for itself.

Internet Communities as Safe Spaces

The internet, and the anonymity inherent in it, can be used for both good and bad. One particular use is as a safe exploratory area for people just realizing same-sex attraction.

With a focus on keeping our children safe as well as keeping rowdy teens away from businesses, young people are often excluded from public spaces (Hillier & Harrison, 2007). This leads to a lack of community when these young people discover their attraction to other members of the same sex. Same-sex attracted youth are overwhelmingly likely to have heterosexual parents and find a lack of support there, leading to increased homelessness, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide attempts, and violence both at school and in the home (Hillier & Harrison, 2007).

The Internet has become a place where same-sex attracted people can meet, communicate, and even arrange for a face-to-face meeting (Hillier & Harrison, 2007). LGBT friendly internet communities allow for youth to “lurk,” or observe without being observed (Ross, 2005). In so doing, these youth can start their socialization into gay culture by watching interactions, learning some of the language, and gain an understanding of what it means to be gay (Ross, 2005, p. 348).

These internet communities allow people to explore parts of their identities that they may be too afraid to explore in “real life.” Safe spaces provide “a place where marginalized people, in this case young people who are same-sex attracted, can take up subject positions as they wish without fear of persecution for their difference and where the usual damaging stereotypes are not acknowledged or used to alienate and exclude” (Hillier & Harrison, 2007, p. 86).

This is true of the Korrasami fandom on Tumblr. The community itself is based around two bisexual women together in a canonically romantic relationship from a cartoon shown on a children’s network. As such, it is largely comprised of women who are attracted to women, due partially to a lack of positive representation for same-sex attracted women in media. It is not uncommon to hear people talk about how Korrasami (the portmanteau/ “shipping name” of the two characters, Korra and Asami) changed their lives, helped them realize their same-sex attraction, or helped them feel better accepted. The community itself is very supportive of a wide array of sexualities.

As Hillier and Harrison explain, safe spaces are not necessarily created with that intent in mind (Hillier & Harrison, 2007), and that is what we see in this fandom. It was originally created as a place to share fan created media featuring two characters who were initially positioned as romantic rivals, vying for the affections of the same boy. As the show and the characters grew, eventually culminating in this same-sex romantic relationship at the end of the final episode, the fandom grew as well, and the safe space grew organically from the disposition of the members within.

References

Hillier, L., & Harrison, L. (2007, Feb). Building Realities Less Limited Than Their Own: Young People Practising Same-Sex Attraction on the Internet. Sexualities, 10(1), 82-100. doi:23904358

Ross, M. W. (2005, Nov.). Typing, Doing, and Being: Sexuality and the Internet. The Journal of Sex Research, 42(4), 342-352. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/3813787

Gender and Ethnic Identity in Online Spaces (a mini-paper)

Before modern social media sites started bringing people together online, computer-savvy people could meet in Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). These were sometimes persistent role-playing game worlds, sometimes social spaces. One in particular, code named BlueSky, was studied during the 90s.

BlueSky was populated almost entirely by straight white men, possibly due to the earlier barriers to entry. Even those who were *not* still performed to that identity, distancing themselves from the aspects of themselves that didn’t fit. During this time, high value was placed on meeting other members face to face, almost to verify each others’ identities.

My primary academic interest at this time is in the Korrasami fandom on Tumblr. It is a shipping community that is part of the Legend of Korra fandom that celebrates the canon female/female relationship of Korra and Asami Sato, two bisexual women of color. Likely due to the peculiarities of this pairing, the fandom has a high percentage of women who are attracted to other women. There is likely also a much higher level of diversity within the fandom than in BlueSky, but the specifics will need to be investigated further.

I want to use this BlueSky study to compare how people identify in a more diverse setting and whether they still perform to a particular, assumed majority or not. From what I have observed so far, the members of the Korrasami fandom tend to celebrate their differences, whether it is in the joy of finding other Filipinx fans or discussing the struggles they’ve faced due to gender or sexuality.

Continue below the cut to see the actual paper, complete with references.

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