At some point last summer, I started watching The Flash. It was fun and was pretty light-hearted and had enough plot to keep my attention. I really started watching in earnest this past fall and was methodically working my way through the series until quite recently.
I like a lot of things about the show, but I’m not here to talk about those things, instead I want to talk about a pattern that I am finding more irritating and offputting the further I get into the show (I’m at about the midpoint of season 3).
And that pattern is this: the show’s writers have made the choice to center the show around Barry and his endless series of bad decisions; therefore, all the female characters are there as plot objects and not as people with interior lives and motivations of their own.
I understand that the show is about Barry Allen and his hero journey, but the show itself makes it abundantly clear that without the other characters, Barry would be more of a hot mess than he already is–so as far as I’m concerned, these women are deserving of narratives which expand and elaborate upon who they are.
“Run, Barry. Run.”
Barry’s big trauma–the inciting incident for the entire series–is that his mother is dead. Nora Allen was murdered by a mysterious man in yellow and the show is never, ever going to let you forget it. And Barry can’t forget, either.
We don’t know much about Nora apart from the barest of outlines: she loved Barry and she is dead. We know that Barry’s father, Henry, was convicted of her murder and Barry has been on a quest to exonerate his father ever since. Every choice he has made in his life has been with the goal of finding the man in yellow and getting his father out of prison.
The dead parent, as a part of character development, is a trope that can be done well. It’s not done well in The Flash.
Nora Allen is killed repeatedly on screen, which is really unnecessary. This repetition makes it clear that the most important thing about Nora Allen is her death. Not her life. Her death. She only exists on the show because Barry needs a reason for everything he does and his unresolved trauma over her death leads him to make so many terrible decisions. We see a little bit of who she is during “Flashpoint” (S03:E01), but that’s only in support of the alternate timeline Barry’s created where she doesn’t die–and then at the end of the episode, he asks Eobard Thawne to kill her and to restore the original timeline. So we close out the first episode of season 3 with yet another iteration of Nora Allen’s murder. I guess in this episode she at least got to be alive for a little bit?
I find the plot device of the dead mother to be frustrating and upsetting when played out on screen (particularly when it happens repeatedly) and I wonder how many writers who use it have actually lost a parent suddenly. It hurts to see something as major as a parent’s death used so casually, cavalierly. And it’s so often not just a parent, it’s a mother–a woman. Why are we so invested in killing our mothers in our fiction?
(Obviously, this is a much larger question than can be answered in an essay about a superhero television show; absent or dead mothers are one of the oldest tropes in the book.)
The thing is, that the dead parent is too often used as a shortcut for character development. Barry Allen is fucked up because he saw his mother die. Nora Allen is nothing more than the tool the writers used to fuck up the protagonist when she could have been so much more. In “Flashpoint” episode, we see her as a loving and supportive mother and wife and as someone who may very well have a life outside of those roles. In that episode, she is framed as the perfect mother and the Allen family as the perfect family, which is a bit on the over-egging end of things, but it is a welcome contrast to the endless scenes of her crying out in fear and dying on the floor of the Allen home.
“Wherever you need to go, whatever you need to do, do it, and when you get back, I’ll be here.”
Iris West is Barry’s adoptive sister and the object of Barry’s pantsfeelings. She’s also fiercely loyal, determined, and brave–she could be such a great character, but instead, she’s been flattened into someone whose main function is to provide motivation to the hero and as a prize, which is just gross.
Iris’s father, Joe West, took Barry in after his mother’s death and his father’s conviction for her murder; let’s not discuss how irregular it is that the responding officer took custody of a traumatized child and took him home from the crime scene. Without social services being involved at all. Right. This is totally a thing that could happen.
Anyhow. Iris and Barry were raised as siblings and even though they aren’t genetically related, this entire situation with the pantsfeelings is incredibly squicky, no matter how big a crush Barry had on Iris before he became a tragic orphan.
Iris, much like Nora Allen, is defined by her role in Barry’s life. She’s his sister, his girlfriend, and if the future of Eobard Thawne is true, his wife.
Iris works as a reporter and her beat seem to be The Flash–she doesn’t seem to report on much of anything else. She also must have the most understanding boss ever since she’s also never in the newsroom unless the plot needs her to be there. Even though Iris writes extensively about The Flash–even names him!–she is the last person to find out that Barry is The Flash. Why she just doesn’t leave and never come back is a question for the ages.
The only social life Iris seems to have is in the first season, when she starts dating Eddie. Of course, her relationship with Eddie only lasts until the plot requires him to die. The shitty thing about Eddie’s fridging is that it’s not even for Iris’s character development but for Barry’s. Eddie sacrifices himself so that Eobard Thawne fades from existence and is then forgotten by nearly everyone (except when the plot requires Iris to be sad).
(Contrast this to Carter’s death in Person of Interest: even a full season later in the show, her death still echoes.)
A partner’s death is an enormous loss, but Iris, as she is written, doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of grief unless the plot requires it and even then, the intensity of it is nothing like Barry’s endless mental anguish about his dead mother. There are times when Iris sits around and mopes or says she’s sad, but we’re not seeing Eddie’s death eleventy million times to really hammer things home–one of the reason’s Barry’s ongoing anguish about his mother is so pronounced is because we see or hear about it all the time.
It’s worth noting here that Iris also has a dead mother, one who she thought was dead her entire life but wasn’t–and after Francine came back into her and Joe’s life, she died of a comic book disease called MacGregor’s syndrome. It appears that this disease specifically affects drug addicts even though it’s genetic in origin. Isn’t that convenient?
Iris is basically Barry’s personal cheerleader. Her entire purpose in the show is to be a supportive presence and the object of Barry’s pantsfeelings. There are glimpses of what Iris could have been, specifically in the character of Iris West-Allen of Earth-2 who is her own person in a way that Iris West is not. Earth-2 Iris just seems to have more agency–she’s clearly set goals in her life and achieved them, since she’s a police officer and that’s not something you just fall into the way she fell into the reporting job, which is probably the most cliché job for the hero’s girlfriend. Even in “Flashpoint”, Iris has agency in a way that the original timeline Iris doesn’t.
“I cook and I eat and I read and I help you.”
Of all the women on my show, Caitlin Snow’s my favorite. She’s an accomplished scientist, a brave and loyal friend, and in many ways, the emotional heart of the show. Her personal life, however, is a neverending tsunami of grief.
In the very first episode, Caitlin’s fiancé, Ronnie Raymond, apparently dies in the particle accelerator explosion. And then he reappears , along with Martin Stein as Firestorm. After Team Flash figures out how to separate Martin and Ronnie, Ronnie and Caitlin wed. It’s a sweet and lovely moment of happiness.
It doesn’t last. Because no one is ever allowed to be happy on The Flash. After Eobard Thawne is defeated by Eddie’s sacrifice, a singularity forms. Barry’s able to stabilize it so Firestorm can close it, but Ronnie doesn’t survive.
Caitlin’s terrible luck in the romance department continues, as she becomes involved with Jay Garrick in season two. Without spoiling the plot, Jay isn’t who he says he is and during the last half of the season, he inflicts a tremendous amount of trauma on Caitlin.
At this point, the narrative could have taken the time to explore how this additional grief and trauma affected Caitlin. Instead of doing that, the writers instead chose to use it as a catalyst for her transformation into Killer Frost midway through the third season.
I’m not going to lie here: I’m having a hard time forcing myself to watch the episode where Caitlin turns fully into Killer Frost; I am extremely bothered by the show’s insistence that nearly everyone with meta-abilities other than Barry has had their moral compass eroded by these abilities.
It just doesn’t make sense; Barry isn’t more special than any of the other people affected by the explosion, but the show sure likes to pretend that he is (and okay, he is the protagonist, but this whole thing is super binary of the show and is a shitty piece of worldbuilding). Heck, even Cisco gets to be a good guy with his meta-abilities even though his Earth-2 doppelganger is, just like Caitlin’s, evil.
What I see in Caitlin is this: she’s a young woman who has been through some serious shit–just like many of the other people on Team Flash. Why is it that Caitlin is the one to turn evil?
From the very first episode, Caitlin has a lot going on emotionally. She’s grieving for her fiancé and when he turns out to not be dead, he dies again shortly after their reunion. Her next romantic interest is an evil motherfucker who delights in inflicting trauma upon her and other people. Any one of those things would mess a person up, for them all to happen to one person, is a lot. No wonder she dissociates in much the same way that Magenta did earlier in the season (S03:E03)–and with the exact same results. Because why do the split personality thing once when you can do it twice?
There are so many interesting things that the show could have done with Caitlin’s trauma and subsequent dissociation. Instead the writers went with the easy narrative choice: let’s have her turn into her worst self after Barry changes the timeline and she ends up with the same meta-abilities that her Earth-2 doppelganger had. Caitlin tries to fight becoming Killer Frost, but there’s a narrative inevitability to her losing that fight because it’s become a plot requirement.
It could also be argued that Caitlin’s transformation into Killer Frost is her way of dealing with her trauma and grief, that her dissociation from her emotions is manifesting as literal coldness. We see this as a possibility during Caitlin’s conversations with her mother, where her mother is emotionally distant in a way very similar to Caitlin’s distance after Jay’s death. And I would buy this as an explanation except until the introduction of Caitlin’s Earth-2 doppelganger, Caitlin’s emotional affect has been nothing but warm.
This also begs the question: is therapy not a thing in the world of The Flash? Can’t people learn to deal with their feelings without having those feelings manifest externally in ways that tend to cause loss of life and a lot of property damage? So many angry and vengeance obsessed metahumans out there in Central City.
The show could solve many of these characterization problems if they wanted to. The writers could center Iris and Caitlin’s points of view every so often–not only would this give us a glimpse of their lives outside of Team Flash, but it would also allow the writers to develop all the characters more fully. There are so many possibilities for all the characters to have richer and more emotionally resonant lives, for them to be more fully rooted in their community. They could also put Nora Allen to rest once and for all. Just like Batman, we know that the Flash’s mom is dead. We know.
We know more about Joe’s life and interests than we do his daughter’s. We have insight into Wally and his love of speed. Harrison Wells (all of them) has history and motivation. Even Zoom and Eobard Thawne are more than props to be moved around when the plot needs them to be moved. Why is the characterization of the male characters so much better than that of the female ones?
Why, I bet there are lots of women with writing credits on the show, right? A quick and dirty count tells me that of the 40 different writers on the show, 60% of them are men. If you pull out the creators of the show–Greg Berlanti, Andrew Kreisberg, and Geoff Johns[modern_footnote]Fun fact: I went to high school with Geoff! I have the yearbook photos to prove it.[/modern_footnote]–the percentage shifts by 3%.
Of the 78 episodes that will have been aired through December 5 of this year, only 16 of them were credited solely to women. That’s 19% for those of you doing the math.
I’m not a statistician, so I can’t say if that’s significant or not, and this is a very small sample, so that’s about as far as I’m willing to take this particular numerical analysis.
Obviously, this isn’t the only factor in why Nora Allen, Iris West, and Caitlin Snow are so poorly written on The Flash, but it certainly feels like it may be contributing to the issue; especially when you consider the reports about Andrew Kreisberg. Writing room composition in the entertainment industry is an issue across all axes of marginalization, but the fact of the matter is that the people with the most influence and power in television tend to be men.
Shows like The Flash start out centering the titular character, but over time they almost always become about the team instead. For me, this is a feature, not a bug. This could be a true ensemble show, one in which every character has agency and is essentially the hero of their own story instead of merely being there as scaffolding for Barry Allen’s.