Arrow and The Flash are awesome shows. They brought two totally underrated characters from the DC Universe and turned them into great shows with characters that you care about, with writing that captures and reimagines the classic comics. But, like many shows, they sometimes fail their women characters. I love these shows, and I love their characters, which is why it’s important to think critically about them and compare their development (or lack thereof).
Arrow is based off the DC comics character Green Arrow, a millionaire who was shipwrecked on an island in the middle of the ocean somewhere near China for five years. He comes back to his home of Starling City a changed man with a mission to rid it of the rich who preyed on the poor. He’s basically a superhero version of Robin Hood. He’s not a character that is traditionally written as a lead. If you ever watched the animated Justice League in the early 2000’s, he’s most famously shown shooting an arrow with a boxing glove on it. Clearly he’s the best option for DC to expand their universe to television.
Like Green Arrow, the Flash isn’t known for being a leading character. He’s usually been portrayed on television as the comedic relief. The very first episode of the series reenacted probably the Flash’s most famous way of saving the day: running around the base of a tornado to stop it from destroying Central City. While the Flash is definitely a more popular character than Green Arrow, they’re both still punchlines in some comic nerd circles.
With the success of both Arrow and The Flash, DC broke into television and showed the world that superhero shows can be good and can be successful after the age of Smallville. Their success is due to both the writing and the great characters. The main heroes are excellent and fascinating, but their female counterparts are also important. There are four female characters that contribute greatly to the stories both in the shows and in the comics.
Every hero needs someone to support them and love them. For the Arrow and the Flash, those people are Laurel Lance and Iris West, respectively. Iris West and Laurel Lance are both introduced as the main love interests for the main heroes. In the comic canon, Dinah Laurel marries Oliver Queen aka Green Arrow after working with him for years. They start out as crime-fighting partners and end up falling for each other. Iris West is introduced as Barry Allen’s childhood love in the show. Canonically, Iris and Barry meet later in life and marry, becoming partners in life and professionally.
Both Iris and Laurel are introduced with little inner life. When The Flash had finished its first season, Iris West had made little to no development as a character. For the majority of the season Iris was kept in the dark about Barry Allen’s secret identity as the Flash. Joe, her father, claims it’s for her safety, but not telling her puts her in direct harm’s way. Both her boyfriend and Barry disagree; Barry, because Iris is his best friend since childhood; her boyfriend, because he doesn’t feel comfortable keeping such a big secret from Iris. If there are topics that you are not comfortable surfacing, “this might mean you are on the road to trouble”, according to the relationship experts at DatingPilot. If you are entering into a romantic relationship that could turn into a long turn partnership, you need to be able to talk about anything and everything. It doesn’t mean that you can’t have a differing point of view. But it does mean that you need to have a safe place to broach any topic. This is why telling Iris the secret is a point of contention for this relationship. There’s no real point in not telling her; it doesn’t make much sense plot-wise and doesn’t help with her character development or give us insight to who she is. From what we’re shown, Iris has no real life outside of Barry, her father, and her boyfriend. We don’t really know much about who Iris is as a character.
Plus Iris never gets to show the audience what her interests are. We’re told at the beginning of the season that she’s going to school for…something? And it requires a journalism class? And with one class and a blog she can get a job as a journalist? What? She just says, “Now I’m a serious journalist! Take me seriously!” But it’s hard when the only thing we’ve really seen her do is work at her old job at a coffee shop and have clandestine meetings with the Flash. By the end of the first season, Iris doesn’t have a large role to play, but that has to change if the producers want to continue honoring the rich history that Iris West has in the comics.
Laurel starts out in a similar plot line. She was Oliver Queen’s long-time girlfriend before he disappeared and was presumed dead. Since he cheated on her with her sister and caused the sister’s apparent death, Laurel understandably hates him. They go back and forth on their feelings for each other for a few seasons before she becomes truly independent as a person.
Her life outside Oliver Queen is more developed than Iris’; she’s frequently shown with her father who is a cop in Starling City and in the first season, her boyfriend, while friends with Oliver, has nothing to do with the Arrow’s activities. As the show goes on, however, Laurel becomes increasingly more tied in with Oliver’s life. She does manage to not revolve around him. She’s a lawyer at a legal clinic in the first season.
Laurel lives to help make her world a better place. She works hard, and for the first season, is successful. While her story arc brings her to rock bottom, it’s with the purpose of helping her character examine her life, bring her closer to her father, and ultimately make her more committed than ever to making her home better. After this, she also joins up with Team Arrow.
After her sister is killed (for real this time), she takes up her sister’s title of Black Canary. She actively contributes and challenges Oliver’s ideas, trying to make her own way as a hero. If the writers choose to follow the comics traditional arc for Black Canary and Green Arrow, then she will be a great partner for Oliver and the Arrow.
Laurel is the reason I have hope that Iris West will start to develop over the next season. Laurel now is a full fledged member of Team Arrow, kicking ass and taking names alongside the whole team. Iris is a fount of potential the same Laurel was. Laurel was once just a damsel, a shell of a character, but she’s gotten more independent, stronger, more confident in her abilities. Iris has the potential to be this as well, if she’s just given the chance.
After Iris and Laurel, Felicity Smoak and Caitlin Snow are the next most important female characters in the shows. In the show, Felicity Smoak is introduced as a sassy, smart IT worker at Oliver’s family’s company. He has her work some tech magic to get information off a computer. After a few interactions with Oliver, she figures out that he’s the Arrow. She joins the team and acts as Oliver’s eyes and ears when he’s out in the field. She also hacks into government agencies for intel. Basically, with Felicity’s help, Team Arrow becomes more effective. She won audiences over with how sarcastic and hilarious her character is.
Even though Felicity exists solely around Team Arrow, she stands on her own two feet. She is a voice of reason and comedic relief, but has no trouble standing up for herself. In the comics, Felicity Smoak was a CEO of a software firm who marries the father of Ronnie Raymond, one half of the hero known as Firestorm (who appears sporadically on The Flash). She’s still a smart, savvy character, but doesn’t play as a large role. In fact, she doesn’t have real contact with Green Arrow. Since Felicity isn’t a character with a ton of history, the show creators were fully able to make Felicity their own.
In the first season of The Flash, Caitlin Snow is a brilliant scientist who works at S.T.A.R. Labs as a biologist and researcher. Caitlin is a logical scientist who helps Barry think through plans and helps keep him from doing anything too risky. Her fiancee, Ronnie, is believed to have died in the explosion that turned Barry into the Flash. While this is understandably a large part of who Caitlin is and how she interacts with the world, it isn’t her only characteristic.
We’re led to believe that her work is her life, especially since her life was derailed after the explosion at S.T.A.R. Labs. She, Cisco (her closest thing to a friend), and Dr. Wells (her boss) work to right the wrongs they created with the lab exploded. When we first meet her, Caitlin is in mourning for Ronnie. With the help of Barry, she starts to move on and live more. However, she finds out that Ronnie is still alive, merged with Professor Martin Stein to form the superhero named Firestorm. With this knowledge, she has hope, even if for a few episodes it derails her into a spiral of only talking about Ronnie.
In the comics, Caitlin Snow is still a researcher for S.T.A.R. Labs, but in the Arctic. As the result of her research she becomes Killer Frost. Killer Frost is a warmth vampire. She has to feed on people’s lives to survive. She clashed with Firestorm and realized that the flames he causes satiates her need for warmth. She becomes determined to find Firestorm and use his powers to help her. It’s been confirmed that Caitlin Snow will become Killer Frost in the show, sometime in the second season.
Both Caitlin and Felicity are brilliant and independent characters. They act as logical, reasonable soundboards for their respective heroes. Felicity is a major factor in getting Oliver to stop killing his adversaries while Caitlin provides Barry with a confidant who can help him think through things logically. Both help provide behind-the-scenes support for their respective teams. Without their backup, it’s highly possible their heroes wouldn’t be nearly as effective. However, both still don’t have a lot outside the heroes they work with. Does Caitlin have friends other than Cisco and Barry? And who IS Felicity’s dad? What kind of doctor is Caitlin, specifically? Is she just a general genius doctor? We’re not really told. They’re still great characters though, and there’s still time for the writers to give them more of a backstory.
While Caitlin is the voice of reason, Felicity helps provide both reason and humor. This isn’t to say Caitlin isn’t funny; that’s just not her main purpose. Felicity is purposely written as comic relief to help balance out how serious and broody Oliver is. Since the tone of The Flash is considerably less gritty, Caitlin doesn’t need to play that role. Additionally, Felicity is a love interest for Oliver, while Caitlin’s love is with Ronnie, not Barry. Felicity is beloved because even though she was a love interest, she was still allowed to be independent and snarky. That changed in the most recent season when her focus changed from being her own person to just Oliver.
This change completely changed how she interacted with everyone else. She was consumed with either getting Oliver back or losing him. Her signature snark was gone and, more importantly, her independent spirit seemed to have disappeared as well. Even when her dead fiancee is shown to be alive, Caitlin still operates as an autonomous character. She isn’t shown following him around or moping. She’s still Caitlin Snow. Felicity wasn’t Felicity in Season Four. However, it’s possible this will change in the upcoming season since Oliver has officially retired from being the Arrow and she convinced him to leave Starling City for hopefully greener pastures.
Iris West, Laurel Lance, Felicity Smoak, and Caitlin Snow all are great characters that all have their own purposes within their respective shows. While it would be easy to write them off since they’re on superhero shows, they show that they can be interesting and necessary for the show. There are still quite a few questions that these shows pose us, like why is Iris the only main female character of color on these shows? There’s plenty of improvement to be done, but I’m just excited that there are some great female characters on shows based off of superheroes who aren’t Batman or Superman. Since both shows and creators seem dedicated to honoring the rich history that they’re drawing from, I’m hopeful these shows will continue to let the characters grow and live up to the potential they have.