White Feminism Is Killing the Arrowverse

The Flash

Diagnosis: Type II, Type III

Under observation for: Type I

The Flash has no shortage of WoC – the problems are that they need their voices fleshed out outside of the men they orbit, and they have utterly failed in the LGBTQ+ department. However, they have a couple more problems that are more dire.

 

Type II: R.E.S.P.E.C.T., Find Out How to Write For Me

The Flash’s colourblind approach to race can grate, but I can appreciate that it lets its Black characters live without butchering issues like gun control, feminism, environmental racism, and classism like some other shows I know. So while I’m as ready as Candice Patton for the show to explore the lighter side of Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) being married to a Black woman – and not just because I find the idea of Grant Gustin doing the Electric Slide wildly entertaining – I’m grateful that they’re not biting off more than they can chew. However, that doesn’t mean they haven’t screwed up in many, many ways when it comes to how they write their women of colour versus how they write their white women. With the most glaring example being Francine West (Vanessa A. Williams) and Dr. Carla Tannhauser (Susan Walters).

Francine West is the deceased mother of Iris (Candice Patton) and Wally (Keiynan Lonsdale), who abandoned Iris as a child. After being diagnosed with McGregor’s disease, Francine returns to Central City to reconcile with her daughter before she dies. Why does she have this disease, and why did she leave?

Well, because she was a drug-addict who put her child’s life in danger while she was high. Of course.

Francine’s backstory played into negative stereotypes about Black women.

Yes, it was nice that Iris reconciled with her mother before she died. Yes, it was nice to see that raising Wally seemed to have turned her life around, and that he loved her so much he was willing to break the law. And it was nice that at the end of the day, Iris and Wally know that they both have parents who loved them. But the fact of the matter is that when the show decided to bring in Iris’ mother, they went with one the most offensive stereotypes that Black women face: that we’re irresponsible and weak-willed, making us prone to vices like drugs and alcohol. And when you contrast that with the way Caitlin’s (Danielle Panabaker) mother, Carla, is treated by the narrative, it becomes yet another example of the show’s white feminism.

Carla was introduced as a cold, emotionally distant woman who wanted to use Caitlin for her powers – which sounds much worse than the warm and supportive Francine who wanted nothing more than to reconcile with Iris. But the key difference is that Carla’s failings as a mother are ascribed to the loss of her husband while Francine’s drug addiction is unexplained, as if it’s something inherently wrong in her.

If you strip everything down, Francine was the irresponsible and poor Black woman who almost got her daughter injured because she thought drugs were more important before leaving her family, while Carla was a wealthy white woman with a scientific research company. During season 3, Iris is afraid that if Savitar kills her, she’ll have left nothing behind to show for her life, like her mother. Because according to the show’s narrative, Francine never did anything but marry Joe West (Jesse L. Martin), do drugs, have kids, and then die. A deleted scene from season one implies that she was a writer, but the show has never confirmed this. The only thing we know for sure is that she must have been extremely intelligent and possibly descended from Harry Houdini, since she managed to hide from a detective in the next city over for 20 years.

By contrast, Carla had a more sympathetic reason for being estranged from her child.

I have no doubt that the writers intended both women to be sympathetic – in fact, they probably wanted

Francine to be more sympathetic since they knew they were going to kill her. And I’m not going to say that I wasn’t affected by the story – but then, I’m a Black woman who doesn’t have trouble relating to Black women. And I don’t attach stereotypes to them when I see them on television, because I know how harmful it is. The same cannot be said for science fiction fandoms which, let’s face it, aren’t nearly as welcoming to women and minorities as they like to pretend they are. That’s why this instance of The Flash’s white feminism is so harmful – because it perpetuates the same stereotypes that representation is supposed to combat, while still taking care with how white women are presented, which shows where their priorities lie.

The Flash has helped the portrayal of Black women by casting Iris West, for which it should be praised. But if it’s just going to go back to tired and offensive stereotypes for Black women who aren’t Iris, we’re just back to square one.

 

Type III: White Knights For White Girls

This final problem is unique to The Flash because it’s the only show in the Arrowverse with a Black leading lady and a white woman as a supporting character – which is why this section is the longest. It’s well-known The Flash is revolutionary for allowing a Black woman to be the princess in the tower awaiting her knight in shining armour (although Iris doesn’t need rescuing as much as people think). However, the essential kernel of white feminism is comparing the minority woman’s treatment to that of the white woman’s, and when we study just how much White Knighting is done in the name of the white Caitlin Snow, we can see where white feminism is truly debilitating The Flash. The white feminism surrounding Caitlin can also be boiled down to her elitism, classism, and treatment of other characters – especially characters of colour. And how she’s hardly reprimanded for her actions.

One of the worrying aspects of the storyline was how nobody seemed to think there was much wrong with Caitlin’s behaviour.

Let’s start with the elitism. During season 2, the team located two candidates to join the Firestorm matrix  – Jefferson “Jax” Jackson (Franz Drameh) and Henry Hewitt (Demore Barnes), both of whom are Black men. Jax becomes a mechanic after the Particle Accelerator ruined his hopes of a football scholarship. Henry Hewitt is a scientist. That’s all that matters to Caitlin, who literally says that even though Jax has the physical attributes, Hewitt is “clearly trying to make something of himself.” She also reprimands Jax for not going to college, and implies that he gave up because things got hard. When Henry turns out to be dangerous, she actually blames herself for being horrible to Jax until Barry rushes to say it’s not her fault (we’ll get there). And the final nail in the coffin, when she goes to apologise to Jax, her reasoning basically boils down to her being sad about Ronnie before switching right back to saying she should help. Jax, of course, forgives her immediately.

In case anybody missed that, a white woman disregards a potential candidate because he’s not the smart Negro she was promised and since he works a menial job, he doesn’t have any drive. She essentially calls him lazy and worthless since he isn’t willing to give up his independence to a group of strange white people who stole his blood and kidnapped him to make him merge with an old man (does Jordan Peele owe The Flash some of that Get Out money?). Her apology is lacklustre and it’s barely over before she’s trying to get him to work for them again. Because without her and her white friends, he would never get the opportunity to be anything great. Ever the grateful Black man, Jax forgives her as soon as she says sorry, and then at the end hugs her to let her know everything’s fine.

The kicker is how Caitlin is treated throughout the whole thing. Caitlin essentially gave him the bootstraps speech, but the narrative treats it like it’s a natural reaction to her grieving Ronnie. Barry doesn’t blame her, Jax forgives her, and nobody comments on what disgustingly snobby behaviour she displayed. The show treats it as nothing major, so it becomes nothing major.

The Killer Frost arc is a prime example of how the writers don’t have Caitlin face accountability. Caitlin and/or Killer Frost has knowingly endangered Wally and Iris, tried to murder Barry and Cisco, kidnapped Cecile (Danielle Nicolet), and helped Savitar (Grant Gustin) murder H.R. (Tom Cavanagh) – even more unfortunate because she thought it was Iris – and willingly worked with a slave-trader. Nobody holds her accountable – and if they do, it’s for a few seconds at most. Unlike practically every other character on the show, people rarely express their disappointment with Caitlin; there is never any expectation that she should make amends or do better. Whenever she expresses guilt, either the narrative will justify her actions, or someone will pat her on the head and tell her that it wasn’t her fault. And it’s not like the show doesn’t know these things are bad – when Wally kept a secret that endangered Iris, he got scolded and kicked off the team; when Caitlin did the same thing, Barry practically gave her a hug. So the implication is that bad things are only bad unless Caitlin does them.

The show is reluctant to have Caitlin or Killer Frost face consequences, which harms her character.

 

All of this harms the authenticity of her character, as it treats both as victims rather than having them own their actions so they can grow from them. The show resorts to repeated retcons so that Caitlin can do terrible things as Killer Frost but get away with them because Caitlin is sorry, resulting in an unclear understanding where one ends and the other begins. Because her actions have no consequences, they have no weight; therefore, all the tension around Killer Frost has evaporated, and having her go evil again will ring hollow because we know everyone will forgive her and try to save her again. The optics become worse over the course of the seasons, because Caitlin and/or Killer Frost has harmed three women of colour but hasn’t directly apologised to any of them, either apologising to the men they’re involved with or ignoring it completely. Because the show is more concerned with protecting Caitlin’s status as angelic and virtuous rather than acknowledging that she caused other characters pain and should make amends for it.

Moving on, I said that the essential kernel of white feminism is comparing the minority woman’s treatment to that of the white woman’s. Some will say that since Iris is Barry’s wife – and thus, narratively speaking, the most important woman on the show – it’s nominally impossible for Caitlin to be treated “better.” And I think most people know what certain fans mean when they complain that Barry treats Iris better than Caitlin. However, we’re specifically speaking on how their vulnerability and pain is treated by the show.

The first thing we’re going to talk about is what Jessica Merriweather of the Ladies With Gumption podcast (hi, Jess!) points out during her analysis of the The Flash’s fourth mid-season finale, which is that Caitlin and her emotions are handled with very obvious kid gloves in comparison to Iris. During the episode, Barry and Caitlin are kidnapped by The Thinker and Amunet respectively, and Iris has to decide who to save – and it’s here that Jessica highlights the differences in how they’re treated. While the crux of the episode was to have Iris getting used to make hard decisions, Harry pretty much told her to suck it up, not offering anything in the way of comfort even though Iris’ brand-new husband had been kidnapped. I’d chalk that up to Harry’s gruff nature, but as Jessica pointed out, Harry was telling Caitlin that she was a still special snowflake without Killer Frost few scenes before.

Couldn’t fit them all in, but here’s another.

And when Caitlin is kidnapped, her fellow kidnappee tells her what a special snowflake she is, even though they just met. About ten minutes later, Amunet reminds her that she’s a special snowflake. And then in case anybody missed the point, Ralph Dibny ends the episode by telling her that she’s a special snowflake. Perhaps I’m still amazed – as Jessica was – that The Flash managed to fit four pep-talks consisting of the same thing all delivered to the same person in one episode, but the fact that Caitlin got sympathy because she was jealous that people liked Killer Frost more than her while Iris got berated for being a bad leader while her husband was kidnapped is ridiculous.

Compare that to how Iris is treated during “Run, Iris, Run.” While it was one of the better episodes of a lackluster season, one of the sore points was Ralph whomp-whomping all over it with his insecurities. But what was worse was that on a team that consists of her husband, her father, and her friends, none of them saw fit to defend her. Ralph demeaned her, threw her failures in her face, and accused her of cowardice even while he himself was running away to hide, and though Iris had only been a metahuman for a few hours, everyone lets her take it. Countless times Iris has defended characters during conflict, but when the time came, nobody did the same for her. And it would have been mitigated by Ralph’s apology had it not been a case of Iris mammying Ralph through his never-ending insecurities and pep-talking him out of being scared. Again.

Many people feel that Iris puts more effort into their friendship than Caitlin does

The there’s Caitlin and Iris’ relationship. Season 4 saw the show try cultivate a friendship between them, which many have pointed out is long overdue. However, their “friendship” mostly consists of Iris running around after Caitlin making sure she doesn’t hurt herself. After Caitlin rolls her eyes when Iris suggests that she could have talked to her about her problems, Iris then has to prove that she’s Caitlin’s friend by convincing Killer Frost that she’s a good person. As Cisco says in the episode, that’s not how feminism works. That’s not even how friendship works – especially given that Iris continually reminded Barry that Caitlin needed saving but Caitlin didn’t think twice about endangering Iris’ life to save herself because she was scared. Meanwhile, Caitlin couldn’t even be bothered to ask Iris how she was doing while her husband was in prison or after her fight with Marlize, and at times is rudely dismissive of Iris’ concern. For far too many – myself included – Iris is more Mammy than friend. Which is an example of white feminism because the only person who gets any type of support out of this is Caitlin; other than that, this “friendship” is superficial and one-sided.

All of this capped by the fact that Caitlin has yet to verbalise an apology to Iris for all the trauma that Killer Frost caused her. This is probably one of the worst of The Flash’s white feminism transgressions because of how many microaggressions are packed into it. Caitlin’s alter-ego can drag who she thought was Iris off to be murdered, yet Iris is the one who should feel guilty for not being a good enough friend to Caitlin. Caitlin’s only acknowledgment of the pain that she and/or Killer Frost caused Iris are implied apologies to Joe about “everything she’s done”, as if apologising to the nearest West she can find is good enough. And finally, the implication that of course Iris is fine without getting an apology. The implication that Iris doesn’t even need one, since the show is treating the whole thing like Killer Frost merely crashed her new car. The implication that Caitlin needing to do better by Iris comes far behind the need to make sure that neither Caitlin nor Killer Frost need trouble themselves with the burden of guilt for more than a few minutes of screentime. After all, Black women are used to holding our tongues, to smiling through mistreatment, to bear whatever bullshit the world has decided to give us that day, so why would Iris be written any differently? If creators have picked up that some fans are less than enthused at their idea of a strong female friendship between Iris and Caitlin and aren’t sure why, they might want to consider that Black women lost any and all patience for white women who don’t show concern for us but still expect us to save them sometime in November 2016.

Iris and Felicity bonding was lovely, but the show missed an opportunity for deeper friendship by not having Felicity ask about Iris’ year.

This pattern even extends to the whole Arrowverse, with one example being the recent crossover, “Crisis on Earth-X.” Given that everyone is pretty much in agreement that Oliver and Felicity were atrocious wedding guests and even worse friends, we won’t rehash the double wedding or the horrible optics it brought about. Much like Iris’ bachelorette party was about making Caitlin and Killer Frost feel better about themselves, Iris’ wedding was apparently to make Felicity feel better about her relationship with Oliver. Then there’s the fact that Iris didn’t really react to her wedding being crashed by white supremacists – who, in case you didn’t know, do not like Black people. Again, I didn’t want Iris to make a speech worthy of the late Dr. King and I’m certainly not trivialising the horrific treatment of Jewish people under Adolf Hitler, but if this were Nazi Germany, the nicest scenario is that Iris would have been kidnapped and forcibly sterilised for trying to marry a white man. And honestly, you’re going to have a Nazi version of Kara Danvers wax poetic about the glory of having white skin, you can stand to have Iris say more about it than “hashtag melting pot.” Watching the two women bond was lovely, but it would have held some deeper meaning if Felicity had asked about the hellish year Iris had, giving some indication that their friendship goes deeper than crossovers, or have them acknowledge that they were both vulnerable because of who they were rather than their lack of powers. But again, any vulnerability that Iris may display is unacknowledged so that she can better take care of the latest white woman she’s paired with.

The Flash has perhaps the worst example of white feminism and it’s these examples that harm the show the most, simply because at times Iris’ pain is ignored or unacknowledged in favour of a white woman who doesn’t offer her the same care. Iris’ feelings tend to be acknowledged and supported only by Barry, and she’s also the character who is always understanding, always patient, always strong enough to rise above mistreatment and not take it personally. This near-inhuman level of strength is far too close to the Strong Black Woman for many viewers, a harmful and dehumanising trope – that we have talked about – that the show should be working to dismantle, not uphold.  Even though the show did well to subvert it by sending Iris and Barry to therapy and having Iris leaning on Barry while he was in prison, it’s pretty clear that’s their default. Yes, Iris is a strong, patient, understanding person, and those are admirable traits of her character, and not ones that I want the show to change. But she’s not Jesus. And here, The Flash’s white feminism too often makes Iris into someone who must usually ignore her own tears so she can wipe away someone else’s.

And given that Black women have been doing it from time immemorial, we’re sick of seeing it.

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