Despite all fandom arguments to the contrary, The 100 isn’t actually bad at representing women’s sexuality. The show has some glaring flaws, but in my opinion, representing a diverse cast of women who all explore different facets of their sexualities without being demeaned or slut-shamed by other characters isn’t one of them.
For example: we’ve seen three of the women on this show use sex as a means of dealing with grief or loss, which is something that we usually see men do. When women use sex as a tool, they are demonized for it, but surprisingly not on The 100 — all three of these women have and enjoy sex in order to move on from a catastrophic emotional blow and not one of them is criticized (in canon) for doing so. It’s honestly really refreshing, despite some of the issues that exist elsewhere in these scenes.
[The rest of this post contains explicit spoilers for the most recent episode, 4×07, “Gimme Shelter”.]
In last week’s episode, we saw Octavia Blake — who was chomping at the bit for attention from boys in the pilot, then fell deeply in love with Lincoln — continuing to deal with her all-consuming grief over Lincoln’s death. We’ve seen Octavia go through hell as she’s tried to process his murder at the hands of Pike in season three. She’s turned against her brother for his role in Lincoln’s death, turned her back on Arkadia, killed Pike in an attempt to avenge Lincoln’s death and even become an assassin on behalf of Azgeda.
Octavia’s grief transforms into anger, a thirst for blood that gives her the nickname Sky Ripper — “death from above”.
In episode 4×07, we saw Octavia take all of her anger and hurt try to turn it inward, rather than outward. While (almost) everyone is sheltering indoors to hide from toxic black rain, Octavia is in a cave with her horse Helios and grounder Ilian, whom she nearly executed in episode 4×06 for setting fire to the remains of the Ark. What stopped her was the reminder that if she killed Ilian that way, she’d be no better than Pike — who shot Lincoln while he was on his knees, in the mud, in a disgusting display of power.
In the cave, Ilian tries to draw her out of the hard outer shell she’s put up by talking about his tragic past. When he asks about hers, Octavia shuts him down. He persists: “I think the person you were before this happened is still in there.”
The statement is a direct contradiction to what Octavia said to her brother in episode 4×06: “Octavia is dead. She died when you killed Lincoln.”
Of course, she’s grieving. The home she found in Lincoln while he was alive was one she never thought she would have. Octavia Blake broke the law just by existing and spent her childhood living in the floorboards of the Ark so no one would find her. Then when she was found, she was locked in the Sky Box and sacrificed as one of the hundred delinquents who were sent to Earth to see if it was habitable for humans again. Before Lincoln, the only person who truly cared about Octavia was her brother Bellamy. And after Lincoln, Octavia can’t bring herself to patch things up with Bellamy because he played such an integral role in Pike’s rise to power.
Is it rational for her to blame Lincoln’s death solely on Bellamy? No. Is it rational for her to fall apart when the person she loves is murdered in cold blood? Yes. Grief is simultaneously irrational and rational, an amalgam of feelings too complex to separate or even understand.
But the Octavia we see in the cave with Ilian is one who (supposedly) believes that her life is no longer worth anything. She believes that she can kill without having emotions about it because all she is now is just a shell with an assassin’s creed. When she attempts to walk out of the cave, into the acid rain — the third time we’ve seen a character attempt suicide on this show — she believes it’s all that’s left for her.
But as an audience member, I don’t believe that. The simple fact that after she fell to her death she came crawling back to Arkadia, determined to save her people, tells me otherwise. Even though she fights tooth and nail with Ilian when he drags her back into the cave and insists that she “needs this”, I don’t buy it. It seems more likely that Octavia is just trying to feel something other than all-consuming rage. Involving Ilian in that struggle is uncomfortable, because we don’t really know Ilian yet. He’s been propped up as a grounder with a tragic past, which makes him a less than creative tool to make Octavia feel again, since she’s shown over and over that she feels more at home with the grounders than with the people from the Ark.
And when she ends up on the cave floor with Ilian on top of her, both of them only in their underwear because they shed their clothes to stop the burning from the acid rain on their skin, it’s obvious where the scene is going. From suicide attempt to seduction: a scene archetype we’re used to seeing, usually with a man taking the reins. In this instance, Octavia kisses Ilian and tells him to make her feel something else.
Octavia takes total control of her body in this scene, starting with when she tries to walk out into the rain. Although Ilian restrains her and she ultimately loses her tussle with him, she still exercises her right to do what she wants with her body, which is so important. She continues to do that when she kisses Ilian, and when she jumps into his arms. Octavia uses sex in this scene as a tool to feel, as a coping mechanism for her grief because death and destruction thus far haven’t given her what she needs to move on.
There are still consent issues here. Ilian is reluctant to kiss her back and seems even more reluctant when he backs up against the wall of the cave and she jumps into his arms — but when she kisses him again, the camera zooms in on him grabbing her waist, pulling her closer. The show has already sort of shown us that he has feelings for her. He chased after her when she left Arkadia, for example, and as I said before, it’s easy to prop him up as a love interest for her. I would still argue that his pulling her closer still does not count as enthusiastic consent, which is an issue, especially since he seems to be interpreting her actions as an ultimatum. The scene reads, from Ilian’s point of view, as “if you don’t have sex with me, I’ll commit suicide.” And that’s definitely not okay.
Ilian is clearly going along with whatever Octavia wants, rather than exerting any control over the situation himself, but I’m not sure that if he’d rejected her, she would have tried walking into the rain again. We won’t know, because he didn’t, but Octavia doesn’t seem concerned at all about his feelings, which isn’t okay even if she’s grieving. It’s also not okay that she essentially uses Ilian for pleasure after he refuses to let her commit suicide, but he doesn’t explicitly say no. He doesn’t even push her away. And if we had watched this scene with the roles reversed, we would have believed that Octavia was overcome with lust for Ilian in his moment of tragedy. So seeing Octavia as the aggressor shouldn’t change our reading of that — though I would argue that in either instance, it should make the audience pause and question consent.
Even with these issues, it’s still remarkable to see a female character using her sexuality to get what she needs without being demonized for it canonically. As I mentioned before, Octavia’s cave sex with Ilian isn’t the first time we’ve seen a woman on The 100 use sex as a coping mechanism. We’ve seen it twice before: once in season one, with Raven, and again in seasons three and four, with Clarke. In all of these instances, the audience is meant to root for the woman in question — she’s been wronged, or she’s experiencing grief, and she deserves something for herself so that she can move on.
When Raven waits in Bellamy’s tent in episode 1×11, “The Calm”, she’s looking for comfort because she thinks Finn and Clarke have run off together. Bellamy doesn’t give her what she wants — he tells her that it’s time to move on and then goes back to what he’s doing, assuming she’ll leave. Instead, she starts stripping, tells him she’s never been with anyone but Finn, and tells him to take off his clothes.
Bellamy hesitates, so Raven goes first. She counts sleeping with someone else as “moving on” because, presumably, that’s what Finn and Clarke are doing. At this point in the series, Bellamy has established himself as a total playboy — he’s shown post-coitus with several women in his tent, including two at once in one scene. If Raven is looking for rebound sex, Bellamy should be her man.
He says as much: “If you’re looking for someone to talk you down, tell you that you’re just upset and not thinking straight, I’m not that guy.” Raven responds simply, “Good,” and then they’re off. Unlike Ilian, who doesn’t vocally protest Octavia’s coming onto him in a moment of extreme emotional distress, Bellamy gives Raven expectations for what’s about to happen and then goes with it.
In both instances, we see these women take control of their bodies. Raven, in particular, sees Bellamy’s suggestion to move on as an invitation to prove that she doesn’t need Finn Collins to be happy — until that point, her anger and betrayal over his sleeping with someone else seems to carry a lot more weight. After sleeping with Bellamy, it’s clear that her feelings haven’t been resolved at all, but she’s proven a point. For Raven, that’s a motivating factor all the time.
There doesn’t seem to be a desire, for Raven, to feel pleasure in this scene. She doesn’t go to Bellamy looking for sex, but decides that’s what she wants while she’s there. She uses sex with Bellamy as a conduit for her anger and betrayal and a means to prove that she can be with someone else as easily and carelessly as Finn can.
When Clarke sleeps with Niylah — first in episode 3×01 and again in episode 4×06 — the motivating factor seems to be just pleasure. Like Octavia, who’s desperate to feel something other than nothing, Clarke uses sex as a means of feeling non-destructive emotions. Her first time with Niylah is when she’s on her own after she leaves Arkadia following the death of the people inside Mt. Weather, which is one more tragic event on top of a dozen others that Clarke has had to face since coming to Earth.
The second time we see her sleep with Niylah, it’s after Lexa’s death and the discovery that another death wave is coming, faster than any of them could have predicted. Clarke’s relationship with Niylah is casual, based in friendship and trade — Niylah doesn’t expect emotional commitment from Clarke.
Although Ilian and Bellamy are both hesitant to sleep with Octavia and Raven, respectively, Niylah is as much of an aggressor as Clarke the first time they hook up. It’s a balancing act, which is interesting given that it’s the only casual sex we see between two women. Where Ilian is clearly more invested in Octavia than she is in him, and where Bellamy doesn’t want Raven to get attached if they have sex, Niylah doesn’t expect anything more from Clarke than what she herself is willing to give.
All three of these dynamics are really interesting, but they share one important thing in common: women taking control of their sexuality and using that as a coping mechanism to deal with grief. And that’s a good thing, even with the other issues we encounter in these scenes. When Raven slept with Bellamy, I fully expected her to be demonized for it because that’s how the media has trained me to view women who use sex as a tool. But that didn’t happen, and it hasn’t happened with Clarke or Octavia either.
I’m eager to see if the issues of consent are explored more in-depth in future episodes now that Ilian and Octavia seem to be paired up for this arc, but I’m not counting on it. One thing The 100 tends to lack is emotional follow-through unless it’s extreme angst used solely for dragging out guilt or murderous intentions. However, I do think that Octavia may finally be allowed an arc that isn’t dependent on her feelings for Lincoln, finally, which will hopefully give us some meaningful interactions between her and other characters (like her brother!). Raven and Clarke were both able to move on from tragic romance plots and their consequences after they took control of their sexuality to use it as a coping mechanism. This pattern shows that Octavia will likely get the same treatment, which is awesome.
Sex has been used as a tool for male characters to get over tragedy for what feels like eons; not once have I ever seen one of those male characters demonized for this behavior. It’s incredibly refreshing to see women on The 100 use sex in the same way without being canonically slut-shamed or otherwise villainized.