There’s something wrong with “strong female characters.”
First, it’s the fact that this needs to be a separate category—that female characters aren’t always strong or that strong characters aren’t often female.
Second, the “strong female character” has become a trope—and here I’m speaking specifically about action TV series—that no longer feels believable or interesting to me.
[see bigger chart here]
Let’s run down her composite characteristics:
She’s athletic, unsympathetic, guarded, and she’s usually surrounded by tough men. She’s often treated—or desires to be treated—as “one of the guys;” she wears pants and is good at fighting. She can’t make meaningful connections in her life—with friends, family, or lovers. She maybe experienced some trauma and this has left her fucked up for life. The people who surround her pity her and frequently urge her to seek help.
This trope is unoriginal and it prevents characters from becoming truly dimensional. Backstory serves instead of character development. For an excellent parody of this trope, see Rosa on Brooklyn Nine Nine.
Now that we’ve set that up, let me turn to the subject(s) of my post: the CW shows Arrow and The Flash, in particular their treatment of Laurel and Iris respectively.
Both shows exist in the same DC Comics universe, and originally set up these women as the love interests for the titular superhero leads, Oliver (the Arrow) and Barry (the Flash). Now I know nothing about the original comic books (nor do I care), but in the shows, Laurel and Iris are weak main characters.
Laurel begins as a defense attorney working pro-bono cases, but as the show and its conservative law and order politics develop, she becomes a prosecutor. Despite this high-powered job, Laurel constantly gets lectures from her police detective father, her millionaire boyfriend, her millionaire ex-boyfriend (Oliver), and the Arrow (Oliver incognito). She appears incompetent, reckless, and she frequently is the damsel-in-distress and needs to be saved by one of the aforementioned male characters around her.
So this season when they decided to make her into the Black Canary, filling in for her dead sister (who was the trope of a strong female character), I was angry. Everyone around her still thinks she’s incompetent as a fighting superhero (which she is). When she does have a strong moment, it seems unearned; they have done everything in their power to make her weak. They’re transitioning her from one trope to the other, and they’ve painted themselves into a corner.
This is just the tip of the what’s-wrong-with-Arrow iceberg, but I’ll stop here for now. #gendertrouble
Now to The Flash. First a confession: I thoroughly enjoy The Flash because it remembers what people like about comic books—they’re fun. But from the beginning, they wrote Iris as a weak character who needs to be protected. Like Laurel, she has to be saved by her police detective father (a much better parent than Laurel’s), her police detective boyfriend/fiancée, and the Flash (incognito Barry).
Iris is a reporter with gumption, but she constantly needs help and things explained to her. Her main role is Barry’s unrequited love, the girl of his dreams who he grew up with. Honestly, I found myself confused about Barry’s infatuation with her. Hopefully in future seasons they’ll play with the idea that the Iris of Barry’s dreams is not real.
Near the end of this season when she finally discovers that Barry is the Flash, she gets to join the superhero team to find her role in the quest of taking down bad guys. Instead of making her a superhero like Laurel, she takes the role of emotional support and caregiver. This is more in line with the character they’ve created, but it’s still frustrating to see a female character that is unable to escape a stereotypically feminine role.
Perhaps part of the problem is the prevalence of tropes in superhero stories: there are good guys and bad guys. But each show has managed to write some rich and nuanced characters that are enjoyable to watch: Diggle and (debatably) Felicity in Arrow
and Cisco and Caitlin in The Flash. Neither show has found a way to write a female superhero who has not fallen into the trope of the disaffected strong female character.
Is this a problem with the genre? With the trope? With patriarchy?