He Said/She Said: Gendered Genre in Arrow and The Flash

It’s supposed to be the golden era of geek television with The Flash and Arrow leading the mass audience to superheroes.

But we have our issues with these shows. They’re decent but they could be so much better.

Once upon a time, I loved Arrow. The first season ended so well and yet ever since about midway through the second season, it floundered, and has never quite recovered. I  worried The Flash (from the same creative team) would have some of the same flaws. I was unfortunately, not surprised when that came to pass.

I can sum up one of my issues in my reaction to Ray Palmer’s explanation of why he was so driven: “Is there anybody on these shows who isn’t driven to do what they do by the memory of a dead woman?”

Or: “Is there any woman left on this show that is allowed to make decisions for herself or do they all have to be ‘protected’ from the bad stuff in their lives, even if they, say, have a right to know that their biological dad hypnotized them into committing murder?”

Arrow -- "The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak" -- Image AR305b_0260b -- Pictured (L-R): Willa Holland as Thea Queen and John Barrowman as Malcolm Merlyn -- Photo: Cate Cameron/The CW -- �© 2014 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
“So hey dad….can we talk about that?”

And let me point out, this plot isn’t even about Thea. It’s all about Ollie’s *angst* on Thea’s behalf.

But you could boil these problems down to an overall issue: Arrow and The Flash rely on overused comic book tropes that make their plots far too predictable. And no plot is more overused or more predictable than “girlfriend in peril” or “keep secrets from the women to protect them” or “I can’t be in a relationship because it puts you in danger.” Even though all the women on both shows are already in danger all the time, sexy times or not.

Absolutely. We really saw the first sign of this with Helena back in season one of Arrow. Think about it: The Huntress has a fairly similar origin to Oliver’s. She finds out her dad is a criminal and does something about it. Except in her case, she first tries to do it within the confines of the law and only turns to violence when her boyfriend is killed (fridged, even). Then at-the-time-murdering-people Ollie goes ape on her for being too violent. It’s okay when *he* does it, but not her. Sorry? That’s some messed up logic coming from a guy shooting arrows through random security guards.

Additionally, that entire date episode with Ray had me yelling “Call HR! Haven’t you ever seen a ‘What Harassment Looks Like’ video?” That was some textbook icky behavior. Yet… I still like Ray more than Ollie.

I just can't stay mad at that face.
I just can’t stay mad at that face.

Let’s not forget the flashback aspect, either. Arrow introduces Tatsu, who comic fans may recognize as Katana. She sort of hangs out as Maseo’s wife, occasionally nagging Ollie. Finally, when Maseo vanishes, we get a glimmer of hope that there may be a subversion of the damsel in distress trope. Instead, he’s just in hiding and come the season finale, it is Tatsu who becomes the damsel. Oh, and I’d put even money on her and Ollie touching naughties at some point in the second half of season 3.

As for Flash, women only exist to coveted or mourned, apparently. Even Caitlin, who is arguably my favorite character, is being thrown down the “it’s all about how a man relates to her” hole. How long will we have to wait for a female metahuman? Until episode 12, apparently (Vixen doesn’t count. She’s going to be magic). That female meta’s motivations? Her boyfriend. Because of course.

Source: DC Comics
To be fair, her motivation in the comics was saving her dad.

And, hey, let’s not forget Shado, who was fridged to add motivation to Slade and Ollie in season 2. A waste of a character.

In the beginning, Arrow had Moira. Moira had her own agenda. Moira had her own past and thoughts and dreams separate from her son. Not to mention her own secrets. The writers said in an interview that she was killed partially because they couldn’t figure out what to do with her. No wonder: he couldn’t sleep with her and he couldn’t protect her. And her death, of course, existed to motivate Ollie. A sad ending for a character who still had a ton of potential, especially as an uneasy ally willing to cut corners.

© 2014 The CW Network, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
So instead, they cut her.

And then look at Diggle’s girlfriend. Wow, she makes such an impression that I forgot her name. Instead of being a sometimes adversary, she’s now so busy being a mom that she sends *Diggle* out on her secret government missions. ::headdesk::

Diggle’s *second* girlfriend. Before Lyla we had his dead brother’s widow. Who he just mooned over, ala Barry. Yet this season he has the chutzpah to give Ollie relationship advice? There’s really no-one on either show healthy enough to do that.

Also, Moira’s agenda and past and dreams all got sublimated to a man again when we learn that her dark secret is that she got pregnant by Malcolm Merlin. Amazing how her family could forgive her for abetting mass murder, but having sex? NO!

At least on The Flash Joe West is about “protecting” more than just Iris. Think of how many cops are going to die because they have no idea that there are people out there with powers.

I’m waiting for it to be revealed in the flashbacks that Ollie has slept with Amanda Waller. Because every other woman’s story (assuming they’re not related) goes back to either being in love with Ollie or sleeping with him. Sara had agency with her choices of lovers and her own struggle about being an assassin but now she’s a plot point.

And Thea? What a horrible waste of a character. Ollie blocked Roy from being with Thea because of the Girlfriend Trope #2 that I quoted above, to protect her. So he’s even using trope-blocking for his friends.

And there’s the plot point that completely drove me around the bend in the mid-winter finale. Ollie accepts the duel with Ra’s to protect Thea. But if he loses, Thea remains in the hands of someone who brainwashed her into committing murder. If Ollie wins, then the guy who brainwashed her into committing murder is still part of Thea’s life. How is this protecting Thea? Only telling the truth will keep her safe in the long run. But I doubt Ollie will ever be called out for this. We’re instead supposed to sympathize with him for being backed into a corner.

The Flash has some stuff still going for it. The relationship between Barry and Joe is terrific and the lead is more open emotionally. I have a fondness for the lab science team though Caitlin is beginning to suffer from Felicity Syndrome–once an independent person now defined by a relationship. I predict we’ll get lots about Ronnie’s struggles and Cailin’s plot will be all about how to help Ronnie.

And Iris is the worst written character on both shows. She’s close to Barbara Kean/Gotham awful. (At least Iris gets to leave the house! But Gotham, much as I like it, is a whole separate article.)

I do somewhat disagree about Ray Palmer. Felicity doesn’t treat him like a boss; he accepts this and treats her as an equal, not an employee. I’d like to say this is good subtle writing but I suspect it’s just the Emily Bett Rickards sells this aspect of Felicity as interested/not interested in Ray while still able to tell off the supposed boss if she likes it.

I want to love both these shows. I loved Arrow Season 1. I love parts of The Flash, when they’re not being creepy about Barry using the Flash to stalk the foster-sister he’s always loved from afar. (Sooo creepy!). I want them to be better. But instead, what I’ve received is crumbs.

I didn’t know how much I wanted the whole cake until Agent Carter, where I got the crumbs, the whole cake, and the icing too.

Disagree that Felicity comes off as being able to tell Ray off. When he essentially pressures her with a necklace worth a small fortune and a dress (and by the way, how the heck does he know her size?), then no, that’s not an equitable choice.

Also, Joe West may be worse than Iris. Not only does he want his daughter lied to, but he wants her lied to by the guy who he knows has nursed an unhealthy crush on her for about half his life. That’s right – Joe knows the kid he’s raising as a sibling to his daughter has a thing for her, and never at any point sits him down and has a wee chat about getting a hobby. And let’s not forget how Joe (correctly, may I add) condemns both The Arrow and his activities until they get him what he needs – by doing the exact thing Joe condemned him for. Let’s face it, Detective West’s moral compass probably spins fast enough to achieve lift.

But yes, they both get so much right.

Even the bad science and plot induced stupidity (anything to do with Girder, really) aren’t as glaring an issue. Heck, half the fun is tearing that stuff apart. But when you have a show like Agent Carter pointing out the gender politics of the 1940s and then you tune to two shows that essentially feature the same nonsense, but with window dressing (see: Strong Female Characters)? Even sadder when you consider that the 1940s Flash comics featured Joan, Williams, who was (in most stories) an outlier for expecting The Flash to treat has as an equal, not usually the one in distress, and even packed heat.

Kinda racist, but mostly an equal. {Image taken from Flash Comics #22 (October 1941) , DC Comics]
Kinda racist, but mostly an equal.
[Image taken from Flash Comics #22 (October 1941) , DC Comics]
On the other hand, both shows are better than Gotham.

Gotham is like crack. If you go with it, it can be a wild ride. And it has Fish and Selina, who have their own agendas and agency too. Not to mention the waif that’s infiltrating Marcone’s crew.

But that sounds like our next article.


Correction: I forgot about Plastique. There has indeed been a female metahuman. However, you can also argue that her conflict boiled down to “two men fight over her.” She has more agency than Iris, but still suffers.

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