Not Just an OTP: An Ugly Truth and a Confession

In the following sections, we’re going to look at the racism that Iris West and her actress, Candice Patton, face. But first I want to be a little more open.

A Confession

I’ve often wondered (especially doing a full day of school, hours of work, and then coming home only to have to trawl through tweets, tumblr posts, and subreddits for research) why I bothered to write this. It’s not like I have a massive following – this entire thing has been anonymous. And I can’t imagine an in-depth analysis to the reactions to women in the superhero genre is something that everyone would want to read. I originally wrote this on TVTropes.org, and after some positive feedback I decided to expand it with more analysis and publish it on a larger platform. But, to be honest, even though I of course appreciate the kind words and even the not-so-kind ones (everyone needs a laugh), I was really writing it to get out my own frustrations with fandom. Specifically, what happens when a Black woman is a prominent character in the science fiction/fantasy genre.

Fans of Iris West, Westallen, and Candice Patton (self-named the Iris West Defense Squad) have, from what I’ve seen, a somewhat negative reputation in fandom. They’ve been described as aggressive bullies who attack anyone who doesn’t praise Iris, Patton, or Westallen, as well as psychotic and cult-like.

None of this is particularly surprising to me. My first experience in any fandom was One Direction, so I pretty much assume that all fandoms are psychotic and cult-like until I’m proven wrong. I certainly don’t think that the Iris/Westallen fandom is worse than other fandoms I’ve seen, and while I have no interest in defending those in the Westallen fandom who have apparently lost the good sense that God gave them, I’m not going to pretend that I’ve never seen that kind of behaviour before. I can definitely understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of it, and since that fandom is one of the more passionate ones I’ve seen, I’m not surprised that they have that reputation.

Perhaps they mean that Iris fans flood any article or tweet that mentions her with positive comments. Or that they will push back whenever someone speaks negatively about her. Apart from the fact that it gets pretty comical reading the same things over and over again, I’ve never had a problem with this. Perhaps it’s just because I studied economics in school, but to me, it just seems like signalling. Which, despite their reputation for obsessive behaviour, women in fandoms figured out a long, long time ago.

While in economics, signalling is generally limited to agents using their CVs to signal their skills so employers know who to hire, in fandom it’s about fans signalling to producers and media what they like so those people know who to have at the forefront of the show and who to talk about on their websites. It’s always been here in the form of ratings and reviews, but in the age of social media it’s become easier to track. Fans have figured out a unique method of enjoying their favourite person, promoting that person, and engaging with fellow fans, creators, and promoters in order to get what they want.

In a world where men are rewarded for the bare minimum, this promotion of women by women is not only beneficial, but necessary. And it isn’t just that these women are talking, it’s what they say when they talk. Laurel Lance fans talk about how it’s important that Laurel is able to overcome her addiction and become a hero. Iris West fans talk about the importance of a Black woman having her feelings validated by the narrative. Felicity Smoak fans talk about how important it is that she is not given a mask, and instead allowed to become a hero for her skills. Caitlin Snow fans talk about how wonderful it is to see a woman in STEM. And what’s more, it works.

It’s also worth mentioning that all of this is happening in the science fiction genre. These women are passionate not because of some deep-seated madness that male fans tend to sneer at, but because they know how expendable they are. There’s a whole trope about women being killed for manpain, or killed so the hero can go on being one. This is even more prevalent with minorities, who are killed after bonding with the white protagonist so that the audience recognises it’s Serious Business. And given the Arrowverse’s reputation (especially Arrow) for stuffing women in the refrigerator, it’s not surprising that these fandoms are so passionate.

Some of the abuse Patton was warned about. Unfortunately, it still continues.

I wasn’t in the fandom until very recently, but I do know that the IWDS was set up partially in response to the fear that the same thing would happen to Iris. Not to mention that Candice Patton was told to stay off the internet by the producers who knew how people would react. The racism was immediate and vitriolic, and while it has abated some, it still happens four years later.

There was also the treatment of the Arrowverse’s other leading lady. When Patton was cast as Iris, Laurel was essentially being written out of Oliver’s story. Those fans didn’t want their leading lady demoted or the canon story changed, and are probably grateful since the fact that Arrow has strayed so far from its source material is one of that show’s main criticisms.

Second, there was Nicole Beharie’s Abbie Mills on Sleepy Hollow. While The Flash was in its first season, fans watched as Abbie was repeatedly sidelined in favour of Katrina Bennett, Ichabod’s wife. Fans recognised creators’ familiar penchant for demoting a Black woman in favour of a white one, especially on a network that’s known for killing or sidelining their minorities (Wally West, The 100’s Lexa, and all the non-white people on Riverdale say hello. Or don’t, because their lines were cut). Eventually it got so bad that fans trended “Abbie Mills Deserves Better” several times to try to get the producers’ attention, but to no avail. Beharie eventually asked to be let out of her contract and Abbie was killed off at the end of the third season.

Now, my Spanish isn’t quite what it used to be, but I believe that says “Notice the difference?” Because what would racism be without the old “compare Black people to monkeys” bit?

Third, there was the treatment of The Vampire Diaries’ Bonnie Bennett. Bonnie was the only prominent Black woman on the show, was regularly side-lined in favour of the white women, barely had romantic storylines, and kept sacrificing herself. She also was treated horribly by the fandom every time she got near one of the “desirable” white guys. Given that The Flash was going to be on the same network, fans were worried about Iris’ potential treatment.

More generally, the treatment that Black women in the fantasy/science-fiction genre face from the media, the fandom, and even their own creators prompted fans to mobilise early.

You would think, or hope at least, that fans don’t need to do this. That Patton’s Iris would be judged on her own merits, rather than subject to different standards than characters who weren’t Black or weren’t women, but this wasn’t the case. From the beginning, for some reason, there was an abundance of erasure, dismissal and disdain that, in my opinion, didn’t really line up with what was going on onscreen.

There were the attempts to paint both Patton and Danielle Panabaker as the leading ladies of the show. Journalists asking Panabaker when Snowbarry would happen because everyone wanted it, while asking Patton to justify her character’s love story. Articles talking about diversity that didn’t include Patton until her fans asked about it. Praising Gustin’s chemistry with all of the white women on the show, while using Patton’s entry to diminish her character. White female journalists starting a hashtag to get Iris killed and then complaining about the fans who called them out, or the white male journalists who trolled fans with misogynistic comments and then cried about it afterwards. Reviewers appeared to be engaged in a Herculean effort to leave Iris out completely, relegating her to a cursory line when they couldn’t avoid it. A popular site called for Patton to be fired and Iris recast or rebooted (dog-whistle translation: replaced by a white woman). Westallen shippers went after a Snowbarry-shipping journalist who asked Panabaker about being bullied, while Patton had to dodge journalists’ attempts to call her fans bullies. Panabaker has never been asked to comment on her fans spreading rumours about Patton doing sexual favours for the producers, distributing photoshopped porn images with her face on them, and routinely begging for the producers to kill Iris throughout the first season – among others. Patton wasn’t asked about the racism and bullying directed towards her until the second season of the show. 

 

Taken separately, these things don’t constitute racism. But together, they paint an uncomfortable picture. Only the Black woman earns enough vitriol for hashtags to be killed off. That despite being specifically cast as the leading lady, Patton had to share her status. That the white women being “bullied” should be talked about, while Patton is asked to condemn her fans and justify her character’s existence. That diversity means white women and Latinos in STEM, but Black women are invisible. Taken together, it paints a picture of systemic, normalised racism.

Supporters of Iris have a reputation of being bullies, and some of them are. That is just a fact, and I have zero interest in defending the people who do to others what they complain about being done to them or to Candice Patton. They’ve also gotten the reputation for calling everyone who doesn’t like Iris racist. This frustrates me because the issue is more complicated than that, but I don’t like saying “not all Iris haters are racist” because it absolves those guilty of subconscious bias from facing it. No, not everyone who hates Iris is racist, but Snowbarry shippers have gained such a reputation for racism that there must be some truth there. 

I’m a Black, heterosexual woman, and if a lesbian keeps telling me that I’m being homophobic even though I swear up and down that I held the door open for a gay person once, I at the very least should listen to her, because I have privilege that she doesn’t. Supporters of Iris West don’t argue racism because they like way it sounds. They’re saying it because they think it’s true, and the fact that there are people out there who genuinely think that Iris fans are so sensitive that they can’t take criticism without crying “racism” has to be the most insulting thing I’ve ever experienced in fandom. When these fans stick their fingers in their ears and refuse to listen to other fans who are talking about discrimination, they indicate that they don’t understand the complexities of racism and don’t care to learn. Refusing to educate oneself in a time as politically-charged as this one when everyone else is asking you to makes you irresponsible, because society’s collective ignorance about how deep racism goes is exactly how the United States ended up having Nazis marching around with tiki torches in Charlottesville. Being accused of doing something racist doesn’t make you a bad person, because everyone has ingrained bias that systemic racism has taught us. Refusing to do anything about it or denying that it exists? Yeah, that makes you an asshole.

Perhaps if I possessed some “racial privilege,” Everybody Hates Chris wouldn’t have gotten cancelled. Sadly, people of colour can never seem to find this mysterious privilege.

Iris West is the only superhero love interest opposite a white leading man on network television, and one of the few leading black women on a network television show not produced by Shonda Rhimes. Executives don’t need much of an excuse to kill women or people of colour, so a Black woman is in a precarious position. It’s like people who complain about minorities being defensive when it comes to microaggressions, or say they’re “pulling the race card” (…which I still haven’t gotten, by the way. Does it come with benefits? Do I need a co-signer to apply for one? Does it expire when we get another Black President?). When you’re consistently told you are lesser, held to higher standards than everyone else, and picked apart for extremely trivial reasons, you’re gonna get a little defensive.

It’s easy to throw up “#intersectionalfeminist #BLM #ally” on your Twitter profile, or call Viola Davis “queen” on a daily basis, or use pictures of Zendaya or Taraji or Leigh-Anne from Little Mix as your icon. But if you’re still behaving in racist ways to people of colour on television, then you don’t actually believe that they are equal to white people. You’re just saying that you like the idea in abstract, where it can make you look #woke and get you likes and retweets, but you’re not really big on walking the walk.

Another concept some Snowbarry fans don’t understand: misogyny. You can’t slutshame someone and then complain about sexism; pick a struggle.

The reason I chose to write this is because I’m realising that the pushback against representation doesn’t just come from fans complaining that Rue should have been white, or studios not thinking that brown people in Africa sell. It comes in the form of white fans hating women of colour for taking their position as the most desirable woman, in media attempting to derail a Black woman from her leading lady status. Because studios listen to ratings, but they also listen to fans. Snowbarry isn’t just an OTP; it’s representative of a myriad of problems that include sexism, misogyny, and racism in fandom spaces, which in turn influence creators and who they choose to represent because of the conversation that’s happening around characters of colour. And I thought that if I at least could educate one person about that, we might get more representation, and less asinine, white feminist tripe about Asian women in leading roles being “gimmicky,” fewer Black men being called perverts for wanting to date white women, and less butthurt boycotts because there’s a girl and Black and brown people in Star Wars.

That’s not to say that there is no justified criticism of a character like Iris. But when you are not white, straight, or male, it becomes hard to separate criticism from ingrained bias. Especially when white guys are always getting the sympathy everyone else has to fight for. And especially when the reviewers, podcasters, journalists, and moderators are mostly white, straight men. Not everyone who dislikes a Black character is racist, not everyone who dislikes a gay character is homophobic, and not everyone who hates a female character is a misogynist. But we live in a world where the United States elected a racist, homophobic, xenophobic serial molester because it was traumatised by having a Black President, and utterly terrified of having a female one.

You will forgive me for being a little pessimistic.

The first section, In The Beginning, Fandom Created Snowbarry, will be published shortly.

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