Whatever Happened to “The Fastest Man Alive”?

The “D” Word

Whew, chile.

Look, I get that they’re trying. And I know that they certainly see what’s good about diversity. But the truth of the matter is, for as many steps The Flash has taken in terms of diversity, they have taken just as many steps backwards. More, depending on who you talk to. This problem with diversity is less to do with the representation onscreen, seeing as The Flash is one of the few shows with a Black woman as the leading lady, and one of the few on the The CW where the women of colour in the main cast outnumber the white women. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t stand to do much, much better, especially with regard to the West family.

(For my thoughts on how they should be doing better by Cisco, see his therapy session)

Let’s start with something that has bugged a lot of people about the Wests for a long time – their “Blackness.” In the past I usually avoided this conversation, as it seemed populated primarily by people who thought that Iris wasn’t Black because she doesn’t talk “Black enough,” that she wasn’t Black because she’s married to a white man, or that bizarrely wanted her to face racial discrimination at work to “prove” that she is Black. Let me be clear: every single one of these opinions is stupid, because Blackness is not a monolith, nor does the Blackness of Black women depend upon whether they’re in relationships with Black men. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t legitimate criticism behind the authenticity of the Black West family, and very easy ways to fix it. And that starts with some Black female writers.

Remember Grandma Esther’s recipes? They show up every once in a while whenever Joe mentions cooking. What’s the problem, you ask? Well, first of all, even though I’m not a Black American, I can throw a little more authenticity on the character by simply renaming her “Mama Esther” – because it exemplifies the way in which the Black community address their elder family members, especially elder women. Then there are her recipes themselves.

You guys.

Mama Esther was not making sushiritto in the 20th century. Stop it.

Again, not I’m not a Black American. But whenever I heard that Mama Esther was cooking and I didn’t hear sweet potato pie, macaroni and cheese, or pork chops, I started getting a little suspicious. When I heard that one of her famous recipes was meatloaf, I side-eyed my TV. But when I heard from Candice Patton that apparently one of her recipes was going to be sushiritto, not only did this confirm that there were no Black female writers in the writer’s room, but that the writers weren’t even consulting with the ones they might know in real life. Sushiritto is a fusion dish from San Francisco, a cross between sushi and a burrito. But most importantly, it was invented in 2011. Unless Mama Esther is yet another person who is faster than Barry and can therefore time travel, how in the name of heaven did she get this recipe? No, Black people aren’t a monolith, but there are commonalities in our experiences, and food and family are one of them. The fact that the writer’s aren’t working towards authenticity doesn’t give me faith in their diversity, it tells me they’re looking in the back of the book for the answers instead of actually doing any studying.

However, Black female writers wouldn’t only help with authenticity in the character’s portrayal, but problematic tropes in the show’s writing. After all, how many times have fans called out the fact the time that Caitlin gave Jax the bootstraps speech and then the team stole his blood? Or the time a white woman bragged about selling people into slavery, Caitlin willingly joined in, and the team acted like it was no big deal when she brought the slave-trader onto a team with Black people on it? Or all the times Iris has been gaslit, shouted out, and degraded by all the characters and no one – not even her husband – comes to her defence, but Caitlin cannot go three steps without being coddled because she doesn’t feel as popular as her villainous alter-ego? (and yes, the comparison between the Black leading lady and the white female supporting character feel deliberate because they are; the Arrowverse’s white feminism has been a problem since the first season of Arrow).

 

The Flash writer’s room, presented without comment.

The thing is, if you cast people of colour in front of the camera but make no effort to do the same behind it, not only do you hurt your show in terms of authenticity, but you risk coming off like you’re only in it for the trend. Like you know minorities want to be represented and so will leap at the chance, so you deign to cast them, but don’t need to make the effort to hire them in your rooms. Which is a cynical way of looking at it, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I mean, think about it. The Flash has had a Black leading lady for five years. This year, it has three Black women in the main cast. And yet, there are no Black women in the writer’s room. That’s nothing short of disgraceful.

But the writer’s room isn’t the only place where the show could stand to be a little more diverse. One of the more enduring misconceptions about diversity is that it only extends to the actors playing the parts – as if there aren’t people who write their words, who design their clothes, who light them and do their hair and makeup. One of the things that fans often complain about is that Iris often has the same hairstyle – and as I and many other Black women will tell you, that’s not realistic. Our hair is versatile, and with that versatility comes the freedom to experiment with different styles. Not everyday – because, who has the time – but enough that we have Instagram accounts dedicated to it. We treat it like art. It may seem trivial, but Black hair is one of our most powerful forms of self-expression and self-love in a world that refuses to love us, and even allowing Iris to be seen with Patton’s natural curls, or her hair in a bun, or experimenting with a cute ‘fro, would still be a transformative thing for young, Black, female fans to see.

*HARSH SIGH*

Colliding unfortunately with the need for Black women to be in positions where they can correct problematic tropes, I’ve heard that Patton has requested this but been turned down, but so far, at least two white female villains have been given cornrows as part of their hairstyle. The latest, Grace Gibbons/Cicada II, is even more unfortunate, as the cornrows come explicitly after she became evil. The other is the slaver I mentioned earlier. Quite apart from the fact that the show codes cornrows, a traditionally Black hairstyle, as something that evil characters do, it’s suspicious that the show’s producers have people on-hand to do white women’s her in Black hairstyles, but continuously deny Patton’s request for merely different hairstyles. It also comes on the back of Patton apparently being called a diva because she wants makeup artists who know how to do makeup on Black people. Which…isn’t an unreasonable request. When your leading lady is getting emotional over being able to fix her own makeup so she feels comfortable, you need to do better.

Whatever happened to “the fastest man alive”? Well, the diversity his show was praised for in the first season hasn’t moved forward with the times, and in times when we have much more choice, that doesn’t bode well for viewership. The Flash has a diverse cast. In a show that isn’t explicitly marketed to minorities, that’s still remarkable – because that means that racist fans have to reckon with sharing the stage. But for all the progress it has made so far, it needs to get out of its own way so it can make a lot more.

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