‘The Flash’: How Sexism Impacted the Women on the Screen

Even the best and strongest of female characters can be undermined by sexism and misogyny behind the camera. Executive Producer of The Flash, Andrew Kreisberg, was suspended this week by Warner Brothers following allegations of sexual misconduct. As much as I adore the show, wish I could claim to have been more surprised than I was by these allegations. While I did not know of any particular incidents, I have frequently been disturbed by the show’s treatment of its female characters. I have also had to wonder what the writing for these women has implied about those behind the scenes, in charge of the narrative.

Fandom is often a zero sum game. Particularly when it comes to shipping, there tends to be this fallacy in fandom that to like one woman on a show, you have to hate the others. With this week’s revelation that, it’s more important than ever to remember that appreciating women doesn’t have to be an either/or. We need more strong women, and we need our sons and daughters to see more strong women represented in media. In light of all of this, I wanted to take a moment to reflect upon the ladies of The Flash and the ways in which the narrative (and the show runner) has failed them.

Born to Die

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Given DCTV’s focus on the importance of family (and the family-oriented nature of the Flash narrative), Henry and Nora Allen should be at the heart of Barry’s story. Even though their characters are no longer living, their presence should be felt in the way they guided Barry to be the man that he is today. In the first season, Henry was in jail and thus on the outskirts of the narrative. Still, the audience was given a sense of the impact his life has had on his son.

By contrast, Nora’s impact has almost exclusively been through her death. She exists in The Flash series so that she can die. Even in Flashpoint, her survival in the alternate timeline was significant only to make it even more poignant when she died. Again. I don’t know how much screen time the actress has, but I would estimate 95% of it has been spent filming varying versions of the same death scene.

Michelle Harrison has done a fantastic job in every one of her episodes. She’s brought heart to her character and made it impossible not to mourn with Barry at her loss. That said, the character deserves to be little more than a recurring death – a motivation for Barry to be the hero.

More Than Just a Pretty Face

Let me make one thing clear: Every single woman on The Flash is more than just a pretty face. Every one of them is smart. They are all capable. And, rather wonderfully, each of them is also different. It is refreshing to see such different women on screen.

From the first season, The Flash has been lauded for having a woman in STEM. And, lamentably, seeing a woman in STEM is still all too rare. However, while the show should be congratulated for taking this step, it has failed to recognize that women in other professions can be (and are) equally as valuable. It has failed to really utilize these other professions to expand their role and give depth to their story. And – even worse – too many people in too many fandoms seem to believe in turn that having a college degree or working in the sciences or in IT are the only ways for a woman to be intelligent.

A woman does not inherently lose value if she does not work in STEM or IT or any singular type of profession (or any profession at all) – just as she is not inherently more valuable if she does.

Every woman on DCTV has been intelligent – from Linda (a sports reporter) to Jesse (a teenager from another Earth) to Iris (a news reporter) to Caitlin (a biochemist). That the women are all intelligent is one of the things that first drew to me to the show. I think it has been a strength of the show that Iris, Caitlin, Jesse, Patty, and Linda have all been such different characters. Be it in profession, in interests, in virtues, or in personality, women shouldn’t be expected to be one specific thing to have value.

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But as smart and capable as each of these women are, they have too often also been objectified or their abilities ignored within the narrative. This week’s episode was a glaring example of the point, when Dibney referred to Caitlin (and other women on the bus) by her measurements. I recognize this episode was written and filmed before Kreisberg’s suspension. However, it is in particularly bad taste in light of them (and would have been disgusting regardless of circumstance). Yes, both Iris and Barry did call out this behavior as being inappropriate, but hanging a lantern on his disgusting behavior doesn’t really make it better. Particularly since Dibney is supposed to be (or become) a hero. Not much later in the episode, Barry would also tell him that he has the makings of a hero, when I’m pretty sure he just really has all the makings of a future lawsuit.

Knowing what we know now about allegations against the Kreisberg, it’s impossible not to think about the more cringeworthy moments in The Flash. For example, with the exception of teenage Jesse, each of the women has been stripped to at least a bra in front of Barry. Even Arrow’s Felicity had a gratuitous shirtless scene early in the series. Linda and Barry dated for approximately twenty seconds, and the show still managed to strip her down to her bra for five of them. (Jesse hasn’t been forced to strip to her bra, but she has once decided she wouldn’t join the boys in some hero action so she could fawn over Iris’s engagement ring. That brought a cringe all its own – and is the kind of scene I cannot imagine they would ever write for a man under any circumstance.)

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There was also the divisive exchange in first season’s Crazy for You, in which Caitlin told Barry that his heroic actions mean he deserves a peek at her breasts. While there are those who celebrated the exchange for being a possible romantic hint, the line was still objectifying for Caitlin. Love her or hate her, she isn’t a prize at Chuck-E-Cheese. One doesn’t “win” the right to look at her body by collecting a certain number of hero tokens. That they would write her in to express this – even in the interest of serving a ship – is disturbing and hints at a mentality that makes the current allegations somewhat less surprising.

In discussing problematic treatment of women within the show, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Kiss by Impersonation. This is another divisive issue in fandom. The Snowbarry fans celebrate the kiss between Caitlin and the shapeshifter in Barry’s form, and from a purely fandom perspective, I can understand why. For those who support the ship, it provides a visual that can be used in endless fanvids. It can also suggest that Caitlin might have entertained romantic feelings for Barry, in that she returned the kiss.

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But let me be clear about this: Regardless of how lovely the visual for those who otherwise are not getting to see their ship play out on screen, it’s still wrong. I don’t want to get into a long legal lecture (although I could), but was unfair to Caitlin’s character to put her in that situation and then not give her character a moment to process or get payoff for it. She didn’t even get to slap him for his deception.

Even if she consented to the kiss with Barry Allen, she didn’t know that wasn’t the man she was kissing. Therefore, she lacked the capacity to consent to the kiss. Her partner was tricking her into thinking he was someone to whom she would give consent. Actual laws exist in some states to clarify that this behavior is a crime, and I will never understand anyone who would argue that it shouldn’t be.

On that note, it was wrong for Barry to kiss Earth 2s Iris, letting her believe he was the man she’d married. Visually, as a Westallen fan, the kiss was great! But given the circumstances within the narrative of the kiss, it was a disservice to her character. Worse, Iris was afforded no more opportunity than Caitlin was to address the kiss. Whatever ship one supports, it’s inarguable that neither woman would not have engaged in the kiss, had they known the truth about the man they were kissing. And neither woman was really given a payoff for it.

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I am not the first person to speculate on what these kinds of moments might reveal about the show runner’s views of women. For many I have spoken with in fandom, the allegations against Kreisberg were appalling but not entirely a surprise. As great as the women of The Flash are, there have been too many moments of problematic writing for them to entirely ignore. Since the beginning of the series, I have seen fans speculate on what these moments might be revealing about one or more people in charge of the show.

These are not the only moments that have been a disservice to the amazing women of The Flash. Jesse Quick has more degrees than a person would ever reasonably need. I don’t know for certain how many times those degrees have been utilized on the show. However, I would guess I could count them all on one hand. Iris West is a reporter – a profession that has been an integral part of superhero stories since their inception. And yet, this has rarely come into play. According to actress Candice Patton, there are no plans to explore or develop this arc at this time. Linda Park’s job was even less utilized before she was unceremoniously shipped off on a bus out of town.

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It is true that the show hasn’t always done an exceptional job of highlighting the professions of all of their male characters, either. Wally is an engineer, though this is rarely shown. I cannot remember the last time that Barry Allen did actual CSI work at his CSI lab. Joe’s role as a cop has arguably come into the play than either of the above. However, he has also been underutilized in this role. While this might not be exclusive to the women, when considered along with the other moments of neglect or problematic writing, it is a searing indictment.

The Perils of Love

As I have written before, romance stories are an integral part of superhero tales. They are also often among some of my favorite parts of these stories. I love the way they often bring out the humanity in otherwise superhuman characters. I adore romance, particularly Westallen’s love story. Barry and Iris have a rich history and an incredible bond. They have come together as friends, as partners, as lovers, and as Speedster and Lightning Rod. And I’m definitely going to celebrate their upcoming wedding.

But The Flash has admittedly also had its share of ups and downs in terms of its romantic storylines. Specifically, there have been issues with how women have been written within these stories.

The most obvious example of this has been in the treatment of Caitlin within her romantic plots across the series to date. Fans aren’t entirely tongue-in-cheek when they note that Caitlin has had a new love interest every season and that said love interests tend to die. Her character was thrown into a sort of flirtation with Julian last season. It did more to tie Julian to the team and give them something to do with his character (and to have a romantic partner to worry over her after her change into Killer Frost) than to grow her character.

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In the second season, she and Jay Garrick née Hunter Zolomon were thrown into a romance. That integrated him into the team and gave him something to do until he became the Big Bad. On paper, it could have been an interesting plot. They could have used the story to explore Caitlin’s grief and denial over losing her husband. Twice. Jay/Hunter could have been a means of escape for her. Just as Barry was ostensibly losing himself in his relationship with Patty to forget what he had lost since becoming the Flash, she could have lost herself in an exciting new romance to forget her own sorrow. But once again, the story didn’t give her character the proper focus to acknowledge, come to terms with, express, or accept her potential motivations. It certainly failed to do so to the degree her character deserved.

Arguably the romance they have handled the best in terms of Caitlin’s story has been her love story with Ronnie. True, he was abruptly written off the show, but that was perhaps a bit outside of the writers’ control. Robbie Amell wanted to move onto other projects, and they had to justify him leaving the show somehow. But even in this – their best romantic plot for Caitlin – there were serious oversights in how they treated her character.

In the first season, Ronnie was introduced to the audience through his backstory with Caitlin. She made us care about him even before he officially joined the show. Their love story had some interesting potential, which was sadly never fully realized.

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Even while building that ship, they decided to do an episode that was ship bait at best. (In retrospect, it was possibly a creepy Kreisberg self-insert). In doing so, they rewrote Caitlin as necessary to justify the episode. It was previously established that she was deeply in love with her dead fiancé. In fact, she had fundamentally changed after his “death.” She was destroyed by his loss. She was also a doctor who had taken an oath to help people.

Then, inexplicably, for the course of one episode, she wanted to leave the man she loved to suffer alone. More, she was angry at Cisco for wanting to do otherwise. She kissed a Barry imposter. But she never really explored why she did either of these things. She never even expressed how this kiss or moment of doubt impacted her after the fact. And she was deeply devoted to Ronnie once more in the very next episode.

A focus on Caitlin’s character before and after the kiss could have provided valuable insight into her feelings and motivations. It also could have provided tremendous character growth. In the past, I have read various head canons to explain this seemingly contradictory writing for Caitlin. People have explained that she could have been acting out of fear or wanting to run from her own trauma. Several of these explanations have been entirely plausible. However, the audience shouldn’t have to spin these kinds of head canons to make sense of the narrative. Caitlin’s perspective could have been explored, had they focused on her character. In doing so, it would have provided interesting character growth. She would have struggled with her internal conflict, giving the audience a motivation for her actions. We would have felt for her as we watched her do so.

Sadly, giving proper focus to their female characters’ perspectives hasn’t always been The Flash’s strong suit. At the end of the third season, Killer Frost teamed up with Savitar and tried to kill Iris. Actress Danielle Panabaker recently admitted that she has no idea what would compel her own character to do such a thing. She was never given a reason for her character’s actions, though she asked many times. Frankly, I think the writers never bothered to ask themselves why she would do such a thing. They certainly never pondered a way to use the answer to grow her character. And it shows.

But Caitlin isn’t the only one who has been painfully overlooked. Throughout most of last season, Iris knew she was going to die at Savitar’s hand. She had an initial moment to process and grieve. Then the narrative quickly shifted back to make Barry the center of that story. The focus became on his fear of losing her. His grief. His pain. And, to be fair, he would and should have been impacted by that knowledge. His determination to do everything in his power to prevent that future was completely understandable.

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Still, at the end of the day, it was Iris’s life on the line. Yet she was too often denied a voice in the story about her own death. She encouraged Barry as a her and reminded him that others – like Caitlin – were also in need of his help. She also declared that she would rather die than have Barry give in to darkness. But the focus very firmly remained primarily on Barry’s loss and fear and grief instead of her own. In an odd way, she was frequently an object in her own story. Too often, she was a thing for Barry to fight to save, rather than a woman with her own feelings about a seemingly certain future.

With Friends Like These…

This season, it is glaringly obvious that the show has overlooked its female characters. In planning Iris’s wedding, it became apparent that there was a lack of female friendships on the show. They have simply not bothered to develop any relationship between Caitlin and Iris. At this point, it doesn’t really make sense for Caitlin to be attending Iris’s wedding, let alone participating in it.

I have seen my share of Iris bashing in fandom because the show hasn’t really established other female friends. However, they sadly haven’t bothered to give Caitlin a life outside of the lab, either. Iris was Caitlin’s maid of honor in season one – and they knew each other even less then than they do now.

It is downright egregious that it has taken four years (and a murder plot without motivation) to establish this relationship. Iris and Caitlin are the only two regular female characters on the show since the very beginning. They have interacted one-on-one an average of perhaps once a season to date. Compare that to one-on-one scenes of Barry with Cisco or Cisco and Harry. There is a painfully obvious disparity between the two. There are allegations the writers have avoided writing Caitlin/Iris interactions because of a rift between the actors. I have also seen it suggested that they are writing the two to become friends now for shipping reasons. Neither hypothesis seems at all likely.

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In fandom, I don’t think the writers care if there are opposing shippers. I don’t think a show has ever aired where that wasn’t the case. On screen, Caitlin has been supportive of Barry’s relationship with Iris since the first season. In fact, she often offered him relationship advice in the past. Fans will always dissect and speculate, looking for support for their ship. It’s what fans do. But in canon there has been no real indication that Caitlin and Barry have ever seriously considered each other romantically. At best, Caitlin considered the prospect for the span of a single episode. Barry never has. That would hardly be a best case scenario for her character, all things considered.

While I don’t know what kind of relationship Patton and Panabaker have behind the scenes, it doesn’t matter. If they get along, there would be no reason to separate them. If they vehemently hate each other, it wouldn’t be the first time a show has expected its actors to suck it up. Actors are paid to do a job and are expected to deal with any interpersonal issues to get it done. The fact is, if a friendship between women had been important to the writers and/or show runner before this season, they would have written one.

Also, given the allegations against former show runner Kreisberg, I find it laughable to think that he would take the actresses’ personal preferences into account in crafting a story. Even if they conveyed such personal preferences to the people in charge.

Ultimately, The Flash has suffered from an odd dichotomy in its treatment of female characters. On the one hand, they are smart. They are capable – even able to kick ass. They are, at times, loving and supportive, strong and brave, witty and charming, scared and lost.

But the women have been underutilized in ways that their male counterparts have not been. They have been objectified. They have been overlooked. This could not have been more obvious than it was this week. Ralph Dibney was almost a perfect encapsulation of all the problems in The Flash’s writing of their women. One cannot help but see these flaws as symptoms of an underlying problem – a fundamental lack of respect for and objectification of women by one or more people in charge of the show.

Given that, the allegations against Kreisberg could hardly be a total surprise. The question remains, however…was he alone, or will there be further revelations about other men in charge down the line? This season may end up being more revealing than the writers ever would have expected.

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