10:00 am EDT, April 12, 2016

How ‘The 100’ has facilitated important conversations about free will and rape culture

The 100 season 3 is raising some interesting questions, and facilitating some good discussions, about what it means to lose one’s free will and agency.

A lot of bad things happened in The 100 season 3, episode 10 “Fallen.” Most of them had to do with the loss of free will, and one of the most taboo topics in our culture: The lingering ambiguities surrounding rape culture. Both of these aspects will be discussed in this article.

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The importance of free will is something The 100 has explored with varying degrees of subtlety since the very beginning, tying it into the juxtaposition between order (limitation) and chaos (freedom).

Similarly to Battlestar Galactica, The 100 challenges its viewers’ morality by allowing the show’s “heroes” to make questionable decisions. It’s up to us to determine how far our goodwill reaches, and how much it takes before a character’s past crimes can be forgiven.

Credit: Reading By Starlight

In season 1, Bellamy’s “Whatever the hell we want” war-cry symbolized the delinquents’ break from their parents’ traditions. But as we know, Bellamy’s free love manifesto quickly facilitated Lord of the Flies-style chaos, culminating in the death of Wells, the near-lynching of Murphy, and the persecution of Charlotte. The delinquents went from one extreme to another, swapping out the Ark’s strict Big Brother society for a lawless anarchy. Clearly, neither situation was ideal.

And since then, the show has used various characters and situations to repeatedly ask the provocative question: Is “free will” really the better way? The obvious answer is yes, of course it is — and yet, a lawless society (such as Bellamy tried to establish in season 1) quickly led to war, pain, and chaos. Clarke served as the order to his chaos, the pair coming to symbolize the balance needed between the two extremes.

The 100 season 2 episode 1 Mt Weather leader

With the delinquents settled on the ground, season 2 introduced a new Big Brother, this time in the form of a much more obvious enemy: the Mountain Men. The delinquents were imprisoned, the Grounders were kept in cages, and ultimately, Cage Wallace (whose name very unsubtly included the words “cage” and “wall”) and his accomplices considered both groups ‘lesser’ than themselves, deeming it justifiable to torture and kill them to keep their own people alive. In other words: Treating them like animals, with no free will of their own.

In the finale, the sterile, colorless society that kept the delinquents like cattle, feeding them and watching their every move, was overthrown — again, symbolically, by a united Clarke and Bellamy. It seemed like all could finally be well, in a free Arkadia under leadership that finally understood how to strike a balance between order and chaos.

But then came season 3, which, as we all know, has pretty much been one long string of misery. I think it’s no coincidence that both Arkadia and Polis’ benign leaders were replaced by tyrants in the first half of the season: First, the dictator Pike overthrew Abby and Kane using their own method (democracy) against them, and then, Lexa’s death paved the way for Ontari — a power-hungry, “psychotic teenager” (thanks for that moniker, Javier Grillo-Marxuach), who has absolutely no patience for the free will of her subjects. Already here, the characters’ freedoms are being limited.

Enter Jaha and ALIE, and with them, a much scarier threat to our heroes. Because now, free will is not just being limited — it’s being removed from the inside out. Jaha even goes so far as to state, very plainly, that free will is the enemy of his supposed utopia.

Whether it be the symbolic rape of somebody’s mind (Raven, Abby) or the literal rape that occurred in Polis, when Ontari forced Murphy to have sex with her, The 100 season 3, episode 10 finally brought one of show’s central themes to the forefront.

The symbolic rape of Raven Reyes

In Raven’s case, we are (thankfully) not talking about a literal rape, but the symbolism is obvious — even more so when we look at her storyline as running parallel to Murphy’s in Polis. Both were in chains this week, and both were violated.

After realizing that ALIE wasn’t just taking her pain away, but also took her memories, Raven tried everything she could to get rid of the chip — to no avail.

ALIE invaded her mind, forcibly, and we had to suffer with her as she relived both mental and physical traumas. Then ALIE fully “entered” Raven, commanded her, and even sliced open her arms in a gruesome imitation of self-harm (made even more gruesome because Raven was forced to hurt herself).

The 100 season 3 episode 10 review

When ALIE became Raven, it was such a complete violation, we realized just why this AI threat is so dangerous to our heroes. Seeing Jackson, Abby, Jaha and the rest of ALIE’s meat-puppets ambling around, it became clear why the writers saved this storyline for the second half of season 3 — it is more gruesome than anything they’ve faced so far.

As great of a threat as the Grounder wars, Pike, and the human desire for retribution were, the removal of free will — the mental prison that the City of Light has been exposed to be — is more violating than all of the previous hardships put together.

I think that freeing Raven will become symbolic of the delinquents reclaiming their ‘freedom’ on the ground, to break with the authority (Jaha, the possessed Arkadians) who treat them like children, and who believe they know what’s best for them. Reclaiming their minds and bodies will signify the victory of free will over oppressive institutions, and the realization that on the ground, people need to be free — even to fail, and make bad choices. Free to live, free to die, and free to feel all the emotions that come with being human.

The literal rape of John Murphy

Now, here is where The 100 takes the conversation about free will and the loss of agency one step further, not only adding another layer to the over-arching theme of the show, but also facilitating some hard-hitting discussions in fandom. While there has been some uncertainty about whether the writers consider what happened to Murphy a violation or not (writers, let us know!), fans are now participating in some controversial — but important — discussions about a topic we don’t often feel comfortable engaging with.

The lens of fiction allows us to have a voice in this debate, and might just help clarify some uncertainties that evidently still exist about who can be raped, and what constitutes rape. And it is very, very important for us to have these discussions, and to clear up any misconceptions. If The 100 can help us do that, then that’s a good thing in my book.

Related: How The 100’s John Murphy became one of the best characters on TV

From my perspective, there is no question that Murphy was raped. It seems very straightforward to me: Even though he was already helping her, Ontari still put him in chains (a very blatant removal of his free will), threatened to kill him if he didn’t do what she said, and pulled him to her even when he resisted. When he finally gave in, it was not with a happy smile — in fact, this is the final shot of his face:

Credit: Tumblr

But believe it or not, the important part here actually isn’t that he was raped. It’s that while I am so convinced of what I saw, some fans are convinced of the opposite. They believe the scene was ambiguous enough that it’s somehow up for debate. And that’s why I’m so glad the narrative have provided us an opportunity to actually talk about this muddy, confusing, taboo topic.

Just take this gem found on Tumblr:


Now, I’ve seen two types of critical discussion of this scene in fandom. Some fans, even some of my fellow reviewers, have made the counter-argument (presented much more eloquently than the one above) that it wasn’t rape, primarily because Murphy somehow wanted it (the belief that it’s not rape if the victim expresses even fleeting interest is considered a Common Rape Myth. It has been widely dispelled but is still, unfathomably, believed). Meanwhile, skeptical fans/former fans recognize it as rape, but proceed to criticize the show for being too wishy-washy with such a serious topic, and for not treating it with the gravitas it deserves.

While there is no way for us actually to assert the latter, since we haven’t actually seen Murphy’s story play out yet, what the skeptics are completely right about is that Ontari forcing Murphy into a sexual act he was not comfortable with was not explicitly labelled as rape by the narrative — only in the sense that none of the ‘stereotypical’ red flares that usually tell the audience “hey, you’re watching something bad happen” were brought into play.

Despite the facts that John Murphy’s loss of agency fits perfectly into the overall theme of the episode/season/series, and of course that the scene in fact was a rape scene, people are still wondering whether the writers were intending for the viewers to interpret it that way, because of the following reasons:

– Murphy was smiling (albeit sarcastically)
– Murphy “went willingly” (as in, he didn’t physically struggle)
– He has previously shown interest in Ontari
– It wasn’t violent
– We didn’t see it happen (so it wasn’t gratuitous/exhibitionist)
– It wasn’t spelled out; no one on screen said this words “this is rape/non-consensual.”

And of course, the big one: Murphy is a straight man, violent and antagonistic himself. Unfortunately — terribly — this leads some people to very wrongly assume that this means he somehow can’t be raped.

All of these are very decidedly not valid arguments; in fact, they are textbook claims thrown back in rape victims’ faces. The only reason that scene can be considered ambiguous is because it did not comply with common assumptions about rape. Rather than signposting itself, the scene offered a very realistic scenario faced by many rape victims, who themselves are not sure they were raped.

Thus, rather than being gratuitous or meant to incite pain and anguish in the viewers, the scene actually achieved something much better: It pushed all the buttons in the on-going conversation about rape culture (the act of victim-blaming and the normalization of male sexual violence). It challenged its viewers to think for themselves about a very complex issue, giving us an antagonistic male and putting him in an sympathetic, vulnerable position, forcing him to do something he wasn’t comfortable without any signposted violence involved — and letting the scene fade out, leaving us to question what we just saw. Just like we would in real life, of course, where the lines around what society at large considers rape are still unfortunately blurred.

Like many storylines on The 100, the writers aren’t spoon-feeding us the right answers. Fandom, however, is more than willing to step in and contribute to what thus becomes a useful, pro-active debate (which is partly what fandom is here for).

One Reddit thread covers all the bases of the discussion. From aus100fan:

It was most definitely rape. And I believe that’s what the show is trying to get us to think about. Most rape when shown on screen is in the form of a man forcing himself onto a woman. I think the show is trying to get us to see rape in a different light – that it doesn’t have to be forced, it can be coerced, and most importantly, that it can happen to men too.

And from pardusca:

I also think that if the genders were swapped there wouldn’t be a discussion about whether a rape took place or not and there would be a lot more outrage about the scene. Imagine if Roan was in the place of Ontari and Clarke was in the place of Murphy.

Still there are fans like redautumnfall, from the same thread, who take another view:

Yeah, he was totally into it. His tone and smirk was one of pleasure.

And still others demand more responsibility for the show in clarifying (for the sake of viewers like above). From Vacatia:

The issue I have is that the writers included his line “the things I do to survive”…I hope they didn’t include that line to make the scene more ambiguous, or to make it NOT seem like rape. That would be really irresponsible. It was not OOC for Murphy, though. I’m mostly interested to see if they address this, ever again.

Ironically (but helpfully), by demanding the narrative to clear up the ambiguity for us, fans are essentially spotlighting the facts that a) Society still needs hand-holding when it comes to understanding the nuances of rape culture, and b) There are still way too many archaic misconceptions about rape coloring the conversation (as has been pointed out: if Murphy had been a woman, or if Ontari had been more physically violent in the scene, the message would have been a lot clearer because it’d have played into our preconceptions).

Related: Richard Harmon teases Murphy’s journey in The 100 season 3 (exclusive)

In contrast to the Raven-ALIE storyline, which was clearly a painful physical violation if not actual sexual assault, Murphy did not struggle, nor cry out — or generally comply with the myths about how rape victims should behave. Rather, he behaved like Murphy would in that scenario. The frustration comes because we want our media to erase all traces of doubt about what constitutes rape — but in fact, the acknowledgement that there is doubt is what will ultimately expand our understanding of the fact that rape isn’t just one thing, and it is not always clearly defined, neither by the victim nor the assailant. But, crucially: rape by coercion is still rape.

A rape scene doesn’t need to comply with any tropes to be considered as such. It doesn’t need to be violent, it doesn’t need to be scary, it doesn’t need to be signposted. It can be uncertain, and leave us asking questions. Because rape isn’t just one thing, it isn’t as clear as the movies would have us believe, and we need to stop expecting our media to treat it like it is (because then we expect that same clarity in real life, too). While I obviously want the show to address it, ultimately it can be left up for the audience — as well as the character — to question what happened and how they feel about it. That conversation is certainly doing a lot of good.

Whether or not The 100 meant to spark this conversation — and we won’t know until next week where they’re going with this story — I am very glad it did, because right now in fandom, young people are given the occasion to discuss rape culture, and to debate the nuances of consent within the safe confinements of fiction.

Murphy is a fictional character, and his struggles (albeit heartbreaking) cannot hurt us. If we were discussing a real person’s struggles and asking (or should I say: daring to ask) the question “Is this rape?”, that could have terrible consequences not just for the person in question, but for the credibility of rape victims in general. But because Murphy is a character on a TV show, our conversation can be more free, the repercussions of expressing an ignorant/blasé opinion are less severe, meaning that people feel more open about expressing their doubts and what might be more controversial opinions.

In other words: It opens up for complex conversations about real life taboos, just as science fiction is supposed to do. We’re talking about it. We’re asking potentially dumb questions. We’re getting answers we maybe wouldn’t otherwise have gotten, if not for a TV show trying to challenge its viewers.

Free will and the loss of one’s agency has been a recurring theme on The 100 since the beginning. But with the struggles faced by Raven and Murphy in season 3, episode 10, the show has allowed us to take the conversation one step further.

‘The 100’ season 3, episode 11 airs April 14 at 9/8c on The CW

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