The 100, The CW’s post-apocalyptic tale of survival, has garnered much (deserved) recognition for its consequence-laden depiction of violence, its representation of a bisexual protagonist, and its kickass feminism. But one of the (many) other ways in which this show trounces most other TV fare is its rare representation of millennial-aged characters as competent, engaged citizens of their world…
What we mean when we talk about millennials.
As with all generations, who or what makes a millennial is hard to quantify. Loosely, it is any person born between 1982 and 2004. Millennials tend to be more liberal than their parents’ generation with 55 percent hoping for another Democratic president in the next election cycle. We are the most diverse generation in the history of the U.S., with 43 percent of us identifying as non-white. Millennials are less religious, slower to marry, and are predicted to be the first generation in U.S. history to do worse than our parents financially.
However, if you spend any time at all on the Internet, then you’ve probably seen a different description of millennials. It seems that not a day can pass without someone writing a “think piece” bemoaning the tragedy that is the millennial generation. We are entitled, lazy, and don’t understand how the world works. We spend most of our time with our faces stuck to our phones (probably on our parents’ couch), texting each other solely on the topics of celebrity, gossip, and macchiatos. We expected the world to fall at our feet and, now that it hasn’t, we will explain to anyone over the age of 35 how it is their fault.
The reinforcement of the entitled millennial trope.
Much of media reinforces the idea of the self-absorbed, entitled millennial. When millennial-aged characters do make their way onto TV, they are most likely man-children or woman-children, as this Guardian article points out, or are barely informed by their age at all. They have the same concerns as those of Generation X — almost as if a member of Generation X were writing them. This Mic article on the dearth of 20-something TV characters who represent millennial reality phrases it well…
Twenty-somethings may count themselves among the millions who tune in to Modern Family, or American Horror Story, or Revenge; I certainly do. But these shows are not for us; they speak a language and serve a meaning-making machine that excludes our generation. I want to look at a few popular TV shows that make a point to skim, if not skip altogether, the millennial question, and consequently ask what it might mean that mainstream TV, which for half a century has served as the hearth of American culture, finds it so difficult to write us into its scripts.
This generational tension — and, at times, millennial absence — is no doubt a reflection of one generation’s anxiety over the inevitability of letting another generation slowly take power. This is a transition as old as civilization itself and, right now, is one defined by the current election cycle (for the first time, millennial voters make up the same amount of the electorate as baby boomers — both at 31 percent).
This relative dearth of millennial interests in media is what made the appearance of Girls on the scene such a big deal. With the rare example of a millennial (Lena Dunham) as its showrunner and a focus on a 20-something friend-group, Girls was hailed as the voice of its generation, as if there could be just one voice or that it would undoubtedly be white, affluent, and part of the urban elite. Though the HBO drama makes some salient points about young people, it is very much defined by the very specific socio-economic demographic it represents. Sure, its characters are millennials, but much of their personality and perspective is representative not of their age, but of their privileged status when it comes to race and class background.
The 100 as a tale of millennial grit.
The 100hasn’t been presented as a solely millennial story, but its airing on The CW certainly suggests the targetting of a younger-skewing audience. It is based on a young adult book series, and has young people as its main (though not sole) protagonists. Unlike shows like Girlsor Broad City, The 100doesn’t have its young characters living in relative wealth with oodles of leisure time to spend angsting about identity. Instead, its protagonists are fighting for survival in a world that seems increasingly predisposed to their failure.
I’m not saying that the life-or-death stakes of The 100‘s protagonists are ones that its millennial viewers can all directly relate to, but science fiction has always hyperbolized real-life anxieties. Here, it isn’t hard to interpret the Sky Teens’ fight for survival as tapping into a real-life anxiety millennials have about trying to find a sustainable, stable, and moral way of living in a world that doesn’t seem to have a place for them — especially if, like the Grounders, you are deemed as a “them” instead of an “us.”
Combatting the narrative of an apathetic generation.
Or perhaps you read The 100‘s war for survival as an allegory for the very real violence that young people in American are politically (if not personally) exposed to on a daily basis. The millennial generation has largely grown up in a post-9/11 world in which war has been carried out on our behalves (or, in the case of millennial soldiers, straight-up carried out) since we first started coming-of-age as a generation.
The 100is one of the few shows that addresses this western legacy of war, and potentially the only show that addresses young people’s potential feelings of culpability in it. From my personal (admittedly biased) perspective, this legacy of imperialism is something many of my millennial peers take seriously — especially as a generation that has greater access to information and alternate voices (via the Internet) than ever before.
Fittingly, The 100‘s complex depiction of young people isn’t read as a defense of the millennial generation by all. This Washington Post review of early episodes saw The 100’syoung people as a testament to a future, fictional generation, rather than the current youthful one, writing…
But here’s a silver lining: The millennials are all dead! They either were annihilated or died of old age on a last-resort orbiting space station called the Ark. Gone with them is a certain millennial inertia that seeps into so many of our TV shows; here at last is an action-adventure series that is about desperate, futuristic teenagers and young adults who aren’t burdened with questions of demographic identity or hopelessly drifting between a niche and hard place. They’ve just got the hard place.
To this Washington Post reviewer, the millennial malaise that is representative of an entire generation has been replaced by what the next generation could look like. However, I don’t see it as a vision of what young people could look like in a future world where Buzzfeed quizzes no longer exist. I see it as an alternate perspective on how empathetic, competent, and informed the millenial generation is.
A diversity of millennial experience.
This frustrating, stigmatized representation of millennials as incompetent narcissists has been replaced with another, more encouraging (though not simplistically glorifying) depiction of what young people can — and, often times, do — look like. There is Clarke, the young, bold leader whose empathy and compassion aren’t presented as at odds with her ability to strategize or reason. There is Raven, a young women mechanic who is defined by more than her “troubled” background or mid-series disablement — though these things do inform her identity, in part making her the determined, clever, and loyal character she is. There is Jasper who has been broken by the choices he and his society have made, but who is not only presented as worth saving, but as potentially correct in his condemnation of most of the series’ protagonists.
Like these fictional, hardened young people, real-life millennials are not ignorant of these hard places. We are not fairy tale dreamers who have never worked a day in our lives. We are looking for alternate, moral ways of survival in a world where the status quo doesn’t always take into account the welfare of the entirety of our number, let alone the people whose identities are deemed “other” — the Grounders of the real world.
Subverting the generational clash narrative altogether.
What’s doubly refreshing about The 100‘s tale of survival is that generational strife is not presented as a black-and-white narrative. It’s not as if the young people are always right, always competent, or always heroic — far from it. And the millennial-aged characters are just as likely to make good or bad decisions as the older generation. Clarke stumbles and falls just as often as Abby does. Bellamy does the wrong thing just as often as Kane does.
Ultimately, The 100has taken a much more complicated perspective on the generational clash (because this show tries not to look at anything too simplistically). While recognizing that the Sky Teens are angry about a mess they feel they have inherited from a previous generation — first, their situation on the Ark, then the council’s decision to send them down to a potentially-uninhabitable ground — this isn’t a simple us vs. them narrative.
In the world of The 100, intersectionality reigns supreme. These characters are defined by their age, their allegiances, their class (and, in the case of former Ark residents, their station). The young people of The 100aren’t all well-to-do rich kids who believe they are owed something by the world. Even the most privileged of characters — Clarke “Princess” Griffin — was born into a life of limitations and sent down to the ground with the rest of her working class delinquent comrades. Now, she is Clarke “Commander of Death” Griffin. How’s that for subverting some blonde teenage girl tropes?
Furthermore, the theme of inheriting a former generation’s problem isn’t confined to the youngest generation. After all, Kane and Abby’s generation didn’t have much say about their situation, either. They were born onto a space station because the generations before had destroyed the world. Until the failure of the space station, they were living in a world very much defined by the decisions their parents and grandparents made (as do we all). With the introduction of artificial intelligence character Allie and hints at what led to the destruction of the world 100 years ago, perhaps the topic of generational strife will rear its thematically-rich head again. It is never far from focus — and The 100is all the more fascinating for it.