Home Entertainment Television CW’s ARROW is Mistreating its Female Characters, and It’s NOT Okay

CW’s ARROW is Mistreating its Female Characters, and It’s NOT Okay

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Note: this article contains spoilers from the latest episode of Arrow.

During last week’s episode of Arrow, Amanda Waller was killed. Despite being in 16 episodes, Waller’s death barely affected the cast members of the team. Given the amount of time the writers spent developing Waller as a powerful and imposing character, they gave her an incredibly unceremoniously send off, shooting her in the head so a male character could live. Cynthia Addai-Robinson generally portrayed Waller as a dubious, morally grey individual who was consistently able to stay one step ahead of her opponents. It felt like a betrayal of her character to have her be sent away so anti-climatically rather than having her get outwitted in a fair fight.  Disturbingly though, Waller’s death isn’t just out of step with her personality; it’s also yet another in a long list of moments where the Arrow writers treat women as expendable characters who can be used to further the male leads’ stories.

Nearly every major supporting female cast member on Arrow has been a damsel in distress at some point. Laurel and Moira Queen were both kidnapped several times in season one. Shado and Moira were killed to raise the stakes between Oliver and Slade in season two. Sara Lance has been killed countless times throughout the show, seemingly because the writer’s have absolutely no idea what to do with her as the series moves further away from its original premise. While Arrow‘s writers have spent some time building a sizable cast of female supporting characters to fight alongside Oliver Queen, when the going gets tough, it’s always the women who get the short end of the stick. It’s always the girl who ends up temporarily or permanently incapacitated to raise the stakes. In both instances within season two, it was a women that motivated the fight between Slade and Oliver. Moira died in the present and Shado died in the past, why did Arrow have to kill off two key cast members just to ignite the tension between Slade and Oliver in both time periods?

After being shot during the mid-season premiere by a faceless group of thugs, Felicity Smoak suffered permanent nerve damage to her spine. Afterwards, the writers turned her into the hero Overwatch.  While there is value to having an Oracle-type character represented on TV,  Felicity’s demons are glossed over. We’re only shown minor psychological ramifications from her painkiller pills and don’t have to deal with psychosis of what’s really going through her mind.  She went through a traumatic experience, but Arrow isn’t interested in exploring storylines that divert attention from Oliver Queen’s journey. Even he can come back from the dead and be back to fighting form in very little time.  This begs the question, why cripple Felicity at all, if the representation is only a check in a box rather than a character beat to explore in depth?

At least The Killing Joke, the Batman story that crippled Barbara Gordon and inspired Felicity’s story, was willing to delve into some of the horrific emotional baggage from Barbara’s injury. The trauma Barbara has faced has been discussed again and again by many writers and artists since then.  Felicity was given one episode to try to recover before being pressured to come back to work by Oliver Queen. Then, last night’s episode of Arrow provided an easy hand-waving resolution to Felicity’s feelings of inadequacy as a paraplegic. One inspiring speech from a Palmer Tech I.T. guy gave her the ambition to deliver a giant speech to a board meeting full of investors. The writers didn’t give Felicity’s suffering or anxiety its proper due at all, choosing to rush past it rather than give it the space and emotional impact it deserves.

As a person who struggles from intense anxiety (some of the same emotions that Felicity Smoak emits on Arrow), I felt cheated when the culmination of the episode resulted in her magically sticking up to the boardroom of investors.  She’s risked her life for this man and it cost her a great career in technology and most importantly; her spine. It’s cost her so much, yet the ramifications for her life have been explored so little. It leaves her character feeling hollow and the viewers feeling cheated, but what else did they expect? It’s not like the writers did right by Moira, Shado, or Amanda, either.

Is it possible that rape will be the next scenario propelling the plot forward — the idea might sound preposterous at first — but season three’s episode Canaries came dangerously close. The show stuck Thea with someone in a dangerous sexual situation with someone who was deliberately lying to her. To be completely one hundred percent fair and transparent, Oliver faced a similar situation with Summer Glau’s character in season two — but that doesn’t change the fact that Thea is nearly half his age. Ultimately, Arrow would be better served avoiding the rape, fridging and crippling of characters in the immediate future unless the writers commit to exploring the psychological consequences of these events.

22 COMMENTS

  1. I suspect that Waller’s death was management-mandated: there was a rumor, when Deadshot was killed off last season, that DC/Warner was clearing the decks and didn’t want any of the cast of the Suicide Squad movie appearing in Arrow anymore. I dismissed the theory at the time but Waller’s sudden and anticlimactic death leaves me much more inclined to believe it.

    That doesn’t mean your premise isn’t valid, though; the pattern you’re describing is real, regardless of how any individual example originated or was executed. Hell, your list isn’t even exhaustive; what about last season when Oliver kidnapped Lyla, and the betrayal was explored entirely in terms of how it affected his relationship with Dig?

    I think the show’s gotten better in its portrayal of its female cast, by leaps and bounds (look at where Thea and Laurel are now, for example, compared to early in the series where they were addicts and their lives were a mess), but it’s still got a long way to go.

  2. The Suicide Squad killing rumor is interesting. If so, it’s curious they would bother to bring Katana back this week. And if so, what her fate may be in the next few episodes.

    A major difference between the Barbara and Felicity comparison: after being shot, Barbara wasn’t able to be Batgirl and sought out a new manner in which to fight crime, reinventing herself as Oracle. Felicity was already in that role, so the shooting is a personal struggle. Finally giving her the title “Overwatch” could have (and should have) come at anytime beforehand.

  3. I read your piece with great interest, particularly given the headline. You actually forgot a few instances, like when Slade Wilson killed Shado or when Sara Lance was murdered.

    You also might have forgotten when Robert Queen killed his (male) aide before committing suicide. Or when Tommy Merlyn died. Or all the times Diggle has been in jeopardy. Or the two times Roy was kidnapped. Or, y’know, when Oliver was stabbed through the chest and kicked off a mountaintop.

    To date, we’ve removed the eyeballs of two characters on Arrow — both male.

    To date, we’ve tortured scores of people — especially Oliver — all male.

    It’s hard to escape the reality that Arrow is a dark show where bad things happen — often to good people.

    But your focus on what’s happened to our female characters is selective to say the least. Your ignorance of convenience also extends to turning a blind eye to the strength of Laurel Lance, Felicity Smoak, Sara Lance, Thea Queen, Helena Berinelli and Nyssa al Ghu — four of them costumed super-heroes in their own right. And we haven’t even debuted Vixen on the show.

    I appreciate you watching the show. I just wish that you weren’t being so selective about it.

  4. Interesting read. While I agree with some aspects I also disagree with others. Don’t feel like debating it though. Also, maybe it doesn’t bother me as much b/c while I love the Flash I feel like their female characters are reduced to solely love interest roles. So, I often find myself enjoying the females on Arrow more because we see them in the action. They are all strong on their own right. Arrow is also female heavy so yes the females are in danger more often thus damsel in distress feeling but men have often needed rescued as well. Roy particularly this episode. Ray an episode. And how often in the flashbacks has often been rescued by a women often Shado whether hallucinating or not. It goes both ways.

  5. This reads to me as not coming from a place of “female characters should be treated better”, but more from “female characters should not be harmed at all–i.e., since women in real life have been legitimately treated poorly in a myriad number of ways over the centuries of human history, we should completely eliminate the suffering of women in our fiction”. The former can be a valid point; the latter is an utterly unrealistic expectation–good and bad things happen to women and men all the time, and any character, of any gender, who doesn’t experience strife of some kind in their story is, quite frankly, so uninteresting as to be pointless.

    Furthermore, this particular assertion baffles me:

    “….’Arrow’ isn’t interested in exploring storylines that divert attention from Oliver Queen’s journey.”

    Next, I suppose you’re going to complain about how “The Flash” mistreats Caitlin Snow and Iris West because it focuses too much “attention” on *the character whose name happens to be the title of the series*. We can argue all day about how there should be more examples in TV, and particularly those adapted from comics, of shows with a female central character, but it’s, again, unrealistic to expect that any series will spend any great length of time on storylines that don’t in some way involve and draw focus to the main character. The show’s still called “Arrow”, not “Team Arrom”, and it’s still Ollie’s story at the end of the day.

  6. 1. Waller clearly sacrificed herself to save Lyla.
    2. Nobody on Team Arrow actually liked Waller. She committed (or ordered) five horrible acts for every one grey/good action on this show. Giving her a big touching send off would have been very, very out of place. Diggle and Lyla may have had some respect for her, but for everyone else she was only tolerated when it was absolutely necessary. Frankly, I was surprised that they gave her a solemn toast instead of saying ‘good riddance’ and throwing a party.
    3. Every male character has played damsel in distress as well. Roy much more than the rest, but Diggle, Tommy, Maseo, Ray Palmer, Yao Fei, Detective Lance, Curtis, and Oliver have all had turns. Acting like this is only a problem for the women on Arrow is hilarious.
    4. Sara has died countless times? You can’t count to two? Once on the boat (she didn’t actually die then, but whatever) and once by Merlyn via Thea.
    5. I felt they spent an adequate amount of time with Felicity’s feelings in last week’s episode, but the little inspirational speech Curtis gave last night rang hollow to me as well. I don’t think the narrative should revolve around her injury given this is an action-oriented superhero show, but you’re right in that it’s being glossed over and tidied up a bit too quickly.
    6. That last paragraph is mostly speculation, so I’m going to leave it alone.

  7. “At least The Killing Joke, the Batman story that crippled Barbara Gordon and inspired Felicity’s story, was willing to delve into some of the horrific emotional baggage from Barbara’s injury. ”

    What? No it didn’t. The biggest flaw in The Killing Joke, that it’s roundly criticized for nowadays, is that it doesn’t deal at all with the impact it had on Barbara at all, only on the impact it had on her father (and to some degree on Batman).

    Alan Moore had her crippled and sexually assaulted only to motivate the male characters. It was Kim Yale and John Ostrander who explored how Barbara felt about it.

  8. Tried to score points with the “look at me I’m an ‘in-tune to women’s issues’ male” but was shot down with facts.

  9. Kate said: “Alan Moore had her crippled and sexually assaulted only to motivate the male characters.”

    Mark Millar has his female characters routinely raped for the same reason — to give the male characters an incentive to kick butt.

    OTOH, too many people on the Internet want EVERY female character to be a triumphant hero, and they’re offended when one is not. I’ve never felt that every protagonist should be a role model, but a lot of people out there DO feel that way.

  10. Hey Guggie, Slade didn’t kill Shado, Ivo did. Slade wasn’t even in the vicinity. Also, the dude Robert killed was not his AIDE, he was a sailor from the boat. Do you watch your own show, at all? Or have basic reasoning skills? Based on seasons 3 and 4 of Arrow, I’m going to guess no.

    Also, I know you forgot this too, or maybe never knew, but Oliver is fluent in Mandarin. Enough that he can pass as a native speaker to other native speakers, see S1 of YOUR OWN DAMN SHOW.

    Moron.

  11. “Alan Moore had her crippled and sexually assaulted only to motivate the male characters. It was Kim Yale and John Ostrander who explored how Barbara felt about it.”

    Exactly, and Alan Moore himself tries to write off the work too. The Killing Joke, for all its style, is very short on substance.

  12. Mistreat? All of the female cast has been transformed into one type of badass or another, and the risk of being a badass is that some badass villain may take you out. Also, don’t female characters outweigh male characters, if you count characters like Nyssa Al Ghul?

    So I think that any other show (The Flash, for example, which I also love, regardless of its missteps) would just have women constantly in danger, with no ability to fend for herself.

    Mr. Terrific (that “some IT guy”) only reminded Felicity of how great she always has been. She’s a supernerd who can do anything with a computer, runs a corporation, got shot and said “let me get back into this dangerous world again” Felicity is awesome. She’s so awesome that she broke free from being some side character to a main character who is invaluable.

    Oh, BTW, isn’t The Killing Joke reviled by some because Barbara Gordon is horrifically abused, damseled, and is used as motivation for male heroes to act?

    I think that Amanda Waller was suddenly killed off by the show because of the Suicide Squad movie. This will be the first conspiracy theory I ever sign on for, and I don’t think it’s really a theory. Katana did show up in the latest episode, but we don’t know her fate. I assumed she was going to be killed, but they didn’t go there.

    I can’t deny that women have been captured more than men, but ALL of them, like I’ve said before, have become stronger and aren’t damsels anymore.

  13. Waller was killed because Cynthia Addai-Robinson is a horrible actress (at least in this role — never seen her before).. And the wife and I hope Felicity is next because we are tired of her whining/crying voice.

  14. I don’t know why anyone would make political hay out of Waller’s death. She was never presented as a sympathetic character, The comics original had a strong, distinct character, but the TV version was just a plot device, the same as many MALE plot devices.

  15. Mark Gugenheim certainly called this writer out on her selective judgement of the show’s treatment of female characters. The male characters have all had there share of pain and suffering. She does have a point about how quickly Felicity seems to have recovered after being paralyzed though and I do think that should be explored more and I was pretty shocked at how abrupt Amanda Waller’s death was.

  16. The bigger problem is there are far too many female characters on this show. Laurel sucks the most. She should die and the show would improve greatly.

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