“The 100” and the Toxic Tropes of Romantic Comedy

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Alicia Debnam-Carey and Eliza Taylor before the horrible cliché happens.

Like many previous episodes of Girls, last night’s episode was about how romantic fantasies are often destructive and unrealistic rather than fulfilling. An uneven, frustrating show, the best episodes of Girls are usually the ones that abandon the conceit that the four titular girls actually like each other (with the exception of last season’s “Sit-In”) and instead try to focus on what drives each individual young woman. Focusing solely on the character of Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), the episode follows Marnie as she escapes her apartment following yet another fight with her supremely irritating new husband Desi and runs into her ex-boyfriend Charlie (Christopher Abbott), who had devastated Marnie earlier in the series (off-screen) when he broke up with her by saying he never loved her.

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The rest of the show follows the couple’s impromptu adventures: buying Marnie a cocktail dress, attending a fancy party where Charlie sells cocaine, being mugged, and stealing a rowboat at Central Park Lake, where they kiss before tipping over into the water. These are the staples of romantic comedy – impromptu, not-quite-couple adventures, which usually involve a startling amount of criminal activities, that knit the couple at the middle of them into soulmates after one eventful night.

marnie
Marnie ponders herself. Allison Williams on HBO’s Girls.

Instead of happily ever after, the fantasy ends when Marnie finds a heroin needle in Charlie’s pants the next morning. His weak lie about being diabetic forces her to see what she has been willfully ignoring and, illusions stripped away, she heads home to end her marriage to Desi and spend some time on her own. The last moments of the episode feature her crawling into her best friend’s bed, to what seems like little surprise from Hannah (series creator Lena Dunham,who wrote this installment) and her boyfriend Fran.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Grim sex scenes are a prestige comedy cliché.[/pullquote]

In her review of Netflix’s underwhelming and smug Love (like Girls, produced by Judd Apatow), Alyssa Rosenberg identified that prestige comedies, with their grim sex scenes and misanthropic leads, are developing as many clichés as prestige dramas. Leaving aside how the term “prestige comedy” seems even more purposefully vague than the term “prestige drama” (I know they are prestigious, at least), one of the recurring themes of the new, more ambitious romantic comedies is a conscious reversal of the tropes that used to define the genre. Girls does this regularly.

The Mindy Project spent its most recent season challenging the notion that opposites attract by slowly eroding the relationship of its central couple, Mindy and Danny, who started off the series hating each other and ended up in love. The last scene of Master of None features Aziz Ansari’s character unexpectedly boarding a plane, not to chase after the girl of his dreams but to enroll in cooking school in Italy. Every episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend undermines the notion that romantic comedies are a blueprint for your romantic life, as following them only brings chaos and embarrassment to the lead character Rebecca Bunch (Rebecca Bloom).

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Marnie’s ability to ignore reality stunts her.[/pullquote]

What all these plot lines have in common is the assumption that romantic comedy tropes are both destructive and believed by the people who indulge in them (mostly women, but as Master of None shows, not always). Girls’ Marnie is the perfect example of a young woman stunted by her ability to ignore reality in order to chase the romantic fantasies she has built up in her head.

The end of the episode is supposed to mark a moment of growth when Marnie finally realizes that the fantasy never translates into reality. It’s a wonderful showcase for Williams, who gets very little credit for being the only consistent actress on Girls, probably because the character of Marnie is generally agreed to be something of a shrill, manipulative pill. But in light of the recent controversy over the CW’s The 100, it was also a reminder: Not everyone gets told their romantic fantasies will come true.

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In case you don’t live on the internet or indulge in post-apocalyptic shows about teenagers (which means you and I have nothing in common), the March 3rd episode of CW’s The 100 featured the death of a lesbian character, Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey), moments after she consummates her relationship with the show’s lead, Clarke (Eliza Taylor). The outraged fan response provoked by this particular instance of the Bury Your Gays trope – wherein gay characters are more likely to be killed than straight characters, especially if the gay character’s death can advance the plot or teach the heterosexual characters a lesson – has been well cataloged in other publications.

So has how Lexa’s demise also fits into the larger history of queer female deaths on television. The last month alone has seen queer women killed off on The Walking Dead, The Magicians, and Jane the Virgin. The CW is watched by an audience made up heavily of young women, who latched onto Clarke and Lexa as strong, young women who functioned in their society as leaders and warriors. This rare instance of positive queer romantic representation made the audience outcry seem more tragic.

After three weeks of conspicuous silence, The 100’s creator Jason Rothenberg wrote a letter to fans explaining his thinking and apologizing for the manner of Lexa’s death, saying that he finally understood that in a world where LGBTQ teens face discrimination, depression, and elevated rates of suicide, the death of Lexa could not exist in a vacuum. Sincere or not, this is the sort of apology that proves once again how important inclusion and representation are at all levels of television production. Comments by the writer of the episode, Javi Grillo-Marxuach, make it clear that concerns were brought up in the writer’s room, but they were ignored. Only in the aftermath was Rothenberg forced to grapple with what Lexa’s death would really mean to fans.

In critically depicting a young woman like Marnie, television shows examine the tropes that tell us love always works out and that every action in pursuit of love is justified because a happy ending is guaranteed. But these tropes are set in a world where heterosexual love takes center stage. There is a large segment of the audience who doesn’t need this reminder, whose love stories have never had the stereotypical endings that prestige comedies seek to undermine.

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There is, of course, a difference between romantic comedies, where people rarely die, and adventures set after the end of the world, which tend to have high death tolls. Where they intersect is in the way they depict the love lives of their queer characters as beside the point. Romantic comedies have for years told straight audiences that they could have the ending they wanted, while pushing gay characters off to the side so that they could function as sassy advisors and support for the main heterosexual pairing. Whether in the post-apocalyptic future or the apartments of New York City today, there is no genre in which the queer love stories of television consistently get a happy ending.

UPDATE: A few days after this column was published, The CW’s April 1st episode of The Vampire Diaries,“Days of Futures Past,” ended with the simultaneous deaths of both of its lesbian characters, vampire witches Nora and Mary Louise, who were engaged to be married. In this episode they sacrifice themselves in order to destroy a Terrible Magical Thing, whose fate is tied to one of the straight male leads, Stefan (the character, as of this writing, is still alive).

In a blog post at EW.com, Vampire Diaries creator and showrunner Julie Plec claimed she had only recently become aware, mostly through fan response, of the Bury Your Gays trope and that she hoped she and the television community would do better telling “stories that honor and are inclusive of the LGBTQ community.” Here lies the heart of the problem: how little thought writers and showrunners have given to anything beyond the needs of their straight audiences. Inclusiveness means more than just adding a few gay characters to the supporting cast; it means actively engaging with a history of exclusion and invisibility.

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Liz Laurie
Liz Laurie is getting her Ph.D. in Theatre and Drama at Northwestern University after receiving her MA in Theatre from Hunter College. She enjoys hats of all shapes and sizes, has a soft spot for fictional sociopaths and can smell a warm baked good at a hundred paces. She is definitely what a feminist looks like. Follow her on Twitter: @LizzyLaurie