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The 100

The 100’s Clarke Griffin: A Case of Designated Protagonist Syndrome

Credit: The 100/The CW

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More often than not, the main character of a television show isn’t the fan-favorite.

If you look at some of the most popular teen shows of the past decade, the character that got the most media attention and had the biggest fan base is never the protagonist. Elena Gilbert and Scott Mccall from The Vampire Diaries and Teen Wolf, respectively, were overshadowed by characters like Damon Salvatore and Stiles Stilinski. Viewers tend to place certain standards on the main character of a show that snarky, secondary characters can avoid. Their actions aren’t constantly critiqued the same way. Ensemble cast members often become more popular with the audience than the lead due to the amount of time we spend with them and their overall importance to the narrative. It’s much easier to get sick of the character with the most screentime, especially if you don’t find their storylines as compelling as others. One notable case study of what is dubbed as “designated protagonist syndrome” is the leading lady of The 100, Clarke Griffin.

The 100's Clarke Griffin in her prisoner cell.

The 100/The CW

Clarke Griffin is the first character we’re introduced to in the pilot of The 100, yet in my years as a fan of this show, I’ve seen more critiques of her than I have of nearly any other character on the show (male lead, Bellamy Blake gets his own fair share of undeserved hate, but that’s another story).

If you’re unfamiliar with the premise of The 100, it’s a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series on The CW. The CW is known for young adult shows usually characterized by cheesy romances and ridiculously attractive 20-year-olds trying to pass for teenagers. The 100 is definitely a sucker for both of those things, but it also created a revolutionary character in Clarke.

Clarke is one of the most multi-faceted female characters I’ve seen not only on The CW but on television in general. Most of the time teenage girl characters only have storylines centered around male characters and aren’t given the space to develop into their own person. On the other side of the spectrum, you have female characters whose only given attribute is that they’re “tough” and never allowed to show any emotion or empathy. When I started watching The 100 as a young fourteen-year-old girl, Clarke was a breath of fresh air.

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I had never gotten to see a character like her before. She became the leader of her people, not through force, but through earned respect. People trusted her because she was honest and kind. However, she wasn’t just some sweet girl that they could walk all over. Clarke’s ultimate goal was always to protect the people she cares about and do things for the greater good, yet she wasn’t afraid to be ruthless to do so. 

The 100 is heavily laced with themes of morality and difficult choices, yet seeing a young woman having all this power to make life or death decisions was incredibly empowering. Throughout the series we see Clarke commit unspeakable acts and we watch her deal with the consequences. Because most of the big decisions lay on her shoulders, she receives the brunt of the blame in the show and in the fandom. 

She gets labeled as “Wanheda”, which means “the commander of death” in the show’s fictional language. In the show, the term is thrown at her constantly to remind her of all the deaths she has caused. In the fandom, she’s consistently labeled selfish or presumptuous. 

Clarke in season 3 when she was known as wanheda.

Clarke as “Wanheda”/The CW

I’d like to argue that while everyone is entitled to their own opinion, that a lot of the hate Clarke receives has to do with the fact that she is the main character of the show, and is mostly unfounded.

Clarke’s actions throughout the show typically have the most repercussions because she’s the lead. She’s had the most opportunities to cause destruction and usually faces more obstacles than most of the ensemble cast does. She never actively chose to be a leader, but she was forced into it by her circumstances in the show. And yet somehow when things go wrong, all the blame automatically falls on her. Of course, that’s the normal struggle of a leader, but when you’re just a young girl forced into the role it seems to be a bit of harsh judgment. 

As seasons progress, more and more people abandon Clarke. A lot of this has to do with several plotlines separating Clarke from the rest of the main cast for extended periods of time, but the ultimate theme the show seems to be reinforcing over and over again is that “leadership is a lonely pursuit”. Her love interests die while most of her friends have decided that she’s no longer apart of their so-called “family”. 

As a dedicated fan for years, the constant critiquing and isolation of the main character gets old. In the most recent season of The 100, John Murphy, a fan-favorite character, actively put Clarke’s life in danger and was ready to let her die for his own selfish reasons. Murphy has been on the show since the beginning and has gained a cult following because of his quick remarks and sharp one-liners. I never had much of a problem with him until this past season.

He spends the first two episodes complaining to the rest of the ensemble cast about how Clarke is selfish, makes bad choices and is dangerous. However, when you fast forward to the middle of the season, he is completely capable of saving Clarke from a life or death scenario and chooses not to for a chance at immortality. This is far from the first time Clarke has ever been in danger on this show, yet I found this betrayal especially cutting. Clarke and Murphy had never really been friends, but always kept each other alive when they could. Now, it’s been shown that nearly everyone Clarke has had any kind of relationship with on the show considers her to be disposable. 

Clarke and Murphy standing together.

Clarke and Murphy/The CW

Frankly, Clarke Griffin deserves better. She’s called selfish when time after time she has sacrificed herself and her happiness for the safety of others, even leaving herself to what she believed would be certain death in the finale of season 4. Her former friends and allies treat her with no respect and no gratitude for saving their asses multiple times. The fandom still complains that she’s annoying or hypocritical when all she’s done is try her best to keep the most people alive that she can.

Clarke is such a complex, enjoyable character that I find it so hard to believe so many people don’t like her. She cares deeply about the people she loves and isn’t afraid to go to bat for them. She’s incredibly intelligent and diplomatic, helping create essential alliances that no other character in the show could have achieved. Whenever there are brief moments of happiness on The 100 we get a glimpse at her fun side, who’s able to relax and enjoy herself with the people she loves. Yet almost immediately, that glimpse of happiness and hope always slips through her fingers.

Unfortunately, Clarke doesn’t always get back what she puts out into the world. She does have a few strong relationships still, but she has by far experienced the most loss on this show and been given the least amount of time to grieve. She’s lost her best friend from childhood, her parents, two romantic partners, and several other friends. Yet somehow she’s still supposed to be an all-knowing leader who never makes any mistakes.

One important aspect that cannot go unmentioned when talking about Clarke Griffin is the groundbreaking representation she provides. In season 2 of the show, it was revealed that Clarke is bisexual. This shocked viewers, specifically fans of the book series the show was based on since she wasn’t bisexual in the novels. However, the choice to include this aspect of her in the show lead to one of the best examples of a bisexual woman on television. She became the first LGBTQ+ lead on The CW network and the first bisexual lead on major network television. How can people not love someone breaking down boundaries for bisexuals everywhere?

Clarke and Lexa/The CW

Fans have expressed how Clarke’s bisexuality on-screen has helped them figure out their own sexualities. Although The 100 is guilty of falling into problematic LGBTQ+ tropes on television with the infamous death of the character Lexa, Clarke and the representation she provides has always been a bright spot in the show.

Clarke Griffin is a dynamic character who makes hard choices and will always do what needs to be done to protect her people. She’s committed unspeakable acts and she owns that. But she’s also the person who sacrifices herself to save her friends on more than one occasion. She’s also the girl who stepped up to take care of a group of 100 teenagers when they were dropped on a new planet. She’s the girl who took in a six-year-old girl to raise when she was still a kid herself. Impossible choices are forced onto her and no matter how she handles it, she’s always the one blamed in the end, on the show and off.

I don’t know why Clarke isn’t a fan-favorite character. Usually, the Designated Protagonist Syndrome occurs when the ensemble cast is made up of such captivating characters that you get sick of the main one you’re forced to spend the most time with. But from my perspective, there would be no The 100 without Clarke. She has the most interesting storylines (besides that long stretch in season three when the whole show hit a rut), has the most compelling relationships, and has had a real-world impact on LGBTQ+ viewers. Clarke Griffin has been carrying this show since it premiered in 2014.

She bears it, so they don’t have to.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Melanie Mayes

    January 21, 2020 at 9:38 am

    I for one love the character of Clarke. I agree with your observations about how she is always condemned for everything she does. No one ever seems to have complete loyalty to her; however, they’d all be dead long ago if not for her and the things she’s had to do to keep “her people” alive.

    I hate the way the Lexa character was killed off on the show. She and Clarke were equals, and Lexa is the only person who was always on Clarke’s side and understood the choices and decisions she was forced to make. I know, I know ADC had a contract for Fear the Walking Dead; however, that whole situation could have been handled so much better. But it wasn’t, so again Clarke had to suffer needlessly while trying to do the right thing for her people.

    I’m hoping she’ll get a happy ending in the final season, but certainly not counting on that happening!!

    • Jillian Pugliese

      January 26, 2020 at 7:27 pm

      Fingers crossed for that happy ending!

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