Framed

Stranger Things is the hit of the summer (if such a show can exist anymore). It’s talked about by everyone, seemingly everywhere you go—maybe even in the upside down place! But it’s also just the latest in a long line of sci-fi that perpetuates classic privilege structures.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoyed Stranger Things a lot. But it’s also one more nostalgia-laced artifact popping up in 2016. This year there’s a lot. It seems like a convenient way to get back to “the good ol’ days,” without having to say “I don’t want to take on the burden of diversity and inclusion in my pop culture.” Returning to the 80s is a prime way of achieving just that without having to explicitly not make room for more, let’s say, liberal ideals.

Paying serious homage (like Stranger Things) or rebooting shows whole brand (Boy Meets World, X-Files, Fuller House) from bygone eras in the name of nostalgia is essentially making pop culture great again—with all the baggage that phrase carries with it. The philosophy is not inherently misguided, but may and often gets a hall pass to ignore people or issues that were invisible in the 80s, 90s, and even 2000s.

It’s something that pops up a lot in science fiction: The framing of the narrative or reality of a given world is used to cut out and around marginalized people. The X-Files came out in the 90s, before modern campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite or Peak TV which have allowed for more voices on TV. But even there the show is framed so that viewers take Mulder’s less desirable traits—bullheadedness, propensity for throwing himself into danger, and (perhaps most importantly) skepticism towards Scully’s ideas and credentials—as all in the service of the greater good. The audience doesn’t have to acknowledge that Scully has been fighting this fight all her life to get preeminently educated and informed. Mulder knows about aliens! Which are real! Don’t interrogate any internalized misogyny any closer.

Two words: Really Mulder?

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99 problems and they’re all teens with authority problems

Unto every generation a teen sci-fi/fantasy drama is born. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Smallville. Dark Angel. To be effective these shows have to clearly identify (and sometimes go out of their way) to establish why the teens are the ones bestowed with these powers, this narrative. But rarely is a show as effective as establishing why the story’s narrative falls on a sixteen-year-old as The 100. 

The plot comes at you fast: Mankind has been relegated to space decades after a nuclear war left Earth uninhabitable. On the space station all crimes are punishable by death, unless you’re under 18; in that case you’re just put in solitary confinement until you reach adulthood and get your case reviewed. But as “the arc” runs out of life-support, the leaders concoct a risky plan: Send the 100 youth prisoners to Earth to check its habitability. Either they die on radiation impact, or they can send up an all-clear.

When they hit the ground the best laid plans go a bit awry, but anyone who’s familiar with Lord of the Flies knows what can happen when you leave kids in the wilderness to their own devices. For starters, that title number starts gets whittled down pretty fast. During its first season the show negotiates the arc’s survival with the kids’ as the primary drivers of the narrative: What they do, how they survive, and how they build a society are the decisions that impact everything we know in the universe.

As more of the arc population follows, and adults make their way down to Earth, so does the traditional power structure from the arc: There’s an elected chancellor, a council to weigh decisions, etc. But the kids have had a taste of the good life. They know how they would run it if given the chance, and they know the terrain better than anyone who could legally drink. A lesser narrative might shrug that off and return to traditional roles. Not The 100.

The 100 season 2 cast (all kids)
None of these people could vote against Trump if given the chance.

The world of The 100 ripples with trauma. The show lives by the mantra that no one is safe, killing swiftly and effectively across the board. Characters don’t have time to fully deal with their trauma, and that means that traditional norms of adulthood and age fall by the wayside. It’s more compelling than your average teen drama, when a sixteen-year-old whines to their mother that they’re 16 and they can handle it, Mom. In this case “handling it” is the difference between a literal life and death, war and peace. And that whiney teen might actually know best, because no one knows anything.

It’s important that The 100 chose to acknowledge this head on. When the adults land on Earth they’re ready for business as usual, and largely operate as such. And for the first handful of episodes on the second season the kids abide, in some way or another, biding their time and taking stock of the new era. But soon their subterfuge and secret missions become more than just the driving force of the show, they become the driving means of diplomacy for all the characters.

By the time Lexa is on the scene, Clarke and her gang of former prisoners are more than just a thorn in the side of the adults in charge or the projection of the teen audience. They’re leaders of the pack.  And once the adults realize that, the last semblance of societal norms fall away, and The 100 establishes itself as an effective teen, sci-fi thriller.

Abby: [The grounders] are being lead by a child.

Kane: So are we.