The Flash - Season 1
“At its best, the first season of The Flash is a rebuttal of toxic masculinity. On the flipside, women remain marginalized and disability is mishandled.”
Title: The Flash (CW)
Episodes Reviewed: Season 1
Creators: Greg Berlanti 👨🏼🇺🇸🌈, Geoff Johns 👨🏼🇺🇸, and Andrew Kreisberg 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Andrew Kreisberg 👨🏼🇺🇸 (6 eps), Grainne Godfree 👩🏼🇺🇸 (5 eps), Kai Yu Wu 👩🏻🇹🇼🇺🇸 (5 eps), Aaron Helbing 👨🏼🇺🇸 (5 eps), Todd Helbing 👨🏼🇺🇸 (5 eps), Brooke Eikmeier 👩🏼🇺🇸 (5 eps), and various (7 ♂, 4 ♀, 3 POC)
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
Read the Season 2 review here.
I would never call myself a fan of superhero shows. The simple archetypes and mundane action of comic book movies just never interested me. BIFF! WHAM! POW! Snooze, more like. Give me intricate fight choreo, à la kung fu or samurai movies. And the cookie-cutter, often privileged men who populate these universes appeal to me about as much as a lukewarm glass of milk does.
But a few months back, someone made a rousing case for The Flash on Twitter, calling Barry Allen, played by Grant Gustin in the CW’s adaption, one of the few superheroes who exhibit vulnerability and compassion rather than toxic masculinity. I was intrigued, and so I booted up the show and suddenly found myself tearing through Season 1 in about a week. And then through Season 2. And through Season 3.
I can’t say the same for 2 and 3, but Season 1 feels like a breath of fresh air. It pleasantly contrasts with its darker DC brethren, Arrow and Gotham, and feels worlds apart from the destructive alpha males stomping around the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the time of its 2014 release. While the genre has thankfully grown since then, through sorely-needed works like Wonder Woman (2017), Black Panther (2018), or Marvel’s Runaways on Hulu, The Flash was a prior step in the right direction.
Add to the mix some decent art direction and well-paced storytelling, and you’ve got yourself a watchable superhero show. But when you factor in the fantastic performances by supporting characters, you quickly realize that fan favorites like tech geek Cisco Ramon, the nervous doctor Caitlin Snow, or the warm, effusive father-figure of Joe West (played by Carlos Valdes, Danielle Panabaker, and Jesse L. Martin) add up to more than the sum of its freewheeling parts. Without them, The Flash would just be another cheesy teen drama featuring B-movie action sequences.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? MIXED—about half the episodes pass
Women are vastly outnumbered by men and while their roles are great on paper, they’re about as empowered as Barbie dolls. Just because their boxes say they’re doctors or journalists, it doesn’t make them anything more than figures to be played with as their owners see fit. I keep wishing the writers would give them something to do besides talking about boys, or wringing their hands over boys, or comforting and nurturing boys, boys, boys.
This ever-present male gaze reveals itself in a myriad of ways. For one, you’ll hear record-rewind scratches like having a female journalist saying to another: “I thought you were just doing that thing women do to each other,” or having a villain coyly say she wants a weapon that’s “pretty and toxic...like me.” In what world do women talk like this?
It isn’t all bad, though. A closer look shows some well-intentioned decisions, albeit with mixed executions.
- Iris West, played by Candice Patton, is a fantastic character who should be a strong leading lady, the Lois Lane to Superman’s Clark Kent. Unfortunately, she is consistently shackled by poor writing and awful characterization that paints her as an unattainable love interest for the hero, Barry. She’s also his adoptive sister, which, I’m not going lie—kinda grosses me out. Regardless of your thoughts on that, however, Barry is 100% Iris’ ball and chain. The story keeps her in orbit around Barry as he drags her into his emotional journey. Who are her friends? What does she do for fun? And how is she coping with her major career changes? Alas, the show has no interest whatsoever in Iris West. Just in what she means for Barry Allen.
- Caitlin Snow is a doctor whose title belies her less commanding portrayal. Sure, she swoops in from time to time, patching up Barry and having the occasional scientific breakthrough. But tellingly, she spends way more time hovering in the backgrounds of scenes, wearing tight dresses and high heels as the lone, female eye candy in male-dominated scenes. Much of her episode-to-episode dialogue involves murmuring in agreement with what the boys are saying, or playing the cautious naysayer to some of their more outlandish (read: fun) plans. Caitlin does receive some welcome backstory, but that, too, remains tied to a man as she copes with the death and rebirth of her husband.
This gender inequity is reflected in minor roles as well. Of the 22 villains who roll through the first season, just 4 are female.*
I do want to celebrate the most “feminist” episode of the season, however. ‘All Star Team Up’ (Season 1, Episode 18) is credited with two female writers, Grainne Godfree and Kai Yu Wu, and I’m sure this didn’t hurt in the writing of intelligent women whose lives don’t revolve around men. In the episode, recurring guest Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) gets into a hack-a-thon with the metahuman of the episode, Brie Larvan (Emily Kinney). It’s a joy to see two women compete by coding prowess, making this easily the most female-centric episode of the season. That being said, women still speak for less than half the amount of time as men speak—8:28 minutes to 17:31 minutes. This is much better, however, than the Season 1 average where men get the lion’s share of the dialogue at 22:26 minutes, leaving just 3:49 minutes on average for women.**
Like the vast majority of superhero franchises, The Flash is a white man’s world. However, I was pleasantly surprised by just how much inclusion there was, and not simply through surface-level representation. Instead, Barry develops deep relationships with multiple characters of color. I’ll chalk this up to the CW effect, which has a consistent track record of racial inclusiveness, whether it’s the Dynasty reboot, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, or Jane the Virgin.
- Iris West, the aforementioned love interest, is played by Patton who is half-black. Her role is tropeish from a gender standpoint, but she happily refrains from falling into any stereotypes about black women. This may be attributed to the fact of her original character being white in the comics; at which point, more kudos to the CW for casting with diversity in mind.
- Joe West, Barry’s adoptive father, is played by Martin who is black. He is a fantastic father and incredibly complex, with flaws and strengths and above all, so much warmth that proudly defies stereotypes about black men being absent fathers.
- Cisco Ramon, a key component of “Team Flash”, is played by Valdes who is Colombian. His role subverts Latino tropes in several ways. He’s geeky and adorably pint-sized rather than a Rico Suave; he has a great sense of self-preservation instead of being a macho hardass; and he comes from an estranged family instead of a massive, multi-generational one. This latter distinction provides ample backstory as we see Cisco unearth a complicated relationship with his older brother.
But as great as these supporting characters are, they remain just that: supporting characters. When we start to look at narrative space, it quickly becomes obvious that people of color (POC) trail white characters by proverbial miles.
The show focuses instead on the conflict between Barry and his nemesis, the Reverse-Flash, who is played by two white actors, Matt Letscher and Tom Cavanagh. By the time you get into the “meat” of the show, towards the finale, white characters dominate the screen time.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, minor characters are also overwhelmingly white. The revolving door of baddies in The Flash include just 3 POC among 22 villains. And of those 3 POC, at least two of them are mixed-race white. That’s stunning homogeneity for what’s supposed to be modern show.
I assume much of this is baked into the original 1940s source material. But the thing is, the creators of The Flash aren’t afraid to make structural changes. Iris West was white in the comics and Joe West is an original character. Episodic villains would be an easy opportunity to inject some more color at all levels of the show. I’m not sure where this disconnect occurs—why put in the harder work of writing integral characters of color, only to refrain from plucking the low-hanging fruit? Yes, a couple of other POC filter in and out of the show, as short-term love interests or coworkers. But fully 20 of 22 villains are white, or can pass for white. Yikes.
I was happy to see the inclusion of LGBTQ characters—better yet, an LGBTQ character of color. Captain David Singh, played by Patrick Sabongui of Egyptian descent, is openly gay. Singh is a minor character but doesn’t fall into stereotype. He’s totally “masc”; almost to the extent of trying too hard, in fact. Luckily, the show gives his character a bit of depth by dropping occasional asides about his fiancé into conversation. This fiancé even appears briefly in an episode where The Flash saves him. All the portrayals are positive, but it’s a very light touch.
A third character, Hartley Rathaway played by Andy Mientus, gets a bit more screen time but also falls into stereotype more. He’s a wily metahuman who turns almost every single one of his lines into sexual innuendo. This promiscuous, manipulative persona reminds me of others—Thomas Barrow from Downton Abbey or Jack Benjamin in Kings come to mind, all of whom are gay white men. However, while Rathaway’s characterization might normally lower this category grade, the fact of having three outwardly gay men means none of them are really tokenized. On their own, each would be distastefully flat. Together, however, they balance each other out.
The next step for The Flash is to either include women and other sexualities, or to go for depth and further explore their existing characters. In an ideal universe, the show would do both.
Deduction for Disability: -1.00
The portrayal of disability is deeply problematic in The Flash. Dr. Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh), the morally ambiguous mentor of Barry Allen, appears to use a wheelchair for much of the first season. However, it is eventually revealed that he just pretends to need it, using the wheelchair as cover-up for his true identity of Eobard Thawne, the evil Reverse-Flash metahuman who hails from another universe.
Right away, seeing a disabled character suddenly develop the ability to walk feels tired. But to understand how poorly The Flash serves disabled communities, Kim Sauder, a PhD student in Disability Studies, gives a rundown of how the show crashes from trope to trope in her fantastic blog post, ‘Hey DC Comics and The Flash, Diversity Covers Disability Too!’.
In the post, Sauder lays down some context:
“Disability and evil are closely connected in film. Villains in the James Bond franchise are so frequently disabled or disfigured that the producers unapologetically refer to it as a plot device. If a disabled person shows up, you know they’re bad.”
Not only does The Flash dive headfirst into this negative association, they worsen it through the plot development of having this be a pretend disability. Sauder explains:
“Thawne capitalizes on the stereotype of disability as victimhood to achieve his nefarious goals. He counts on people underestimating him or accepting that his paralysis is a just punishment for the explosion at Star Labs that killed many people. For a show that so publicly prides itself on nuanced portrayals of people of colour, sexuality and gender, they are more than willing to throw disabled people under the bus.”
Mediaversity Grade: C 3.31/5
At its best, the writers of The Flash offer an A+ rebuttal of toxic masculinity and they obviously have good intentions on inclusiveness. But you can’t good-intention your way out of a script where men hog 80% of the dialogue. The writers can’t expect to be called inclusive if they appropriate disabled experiences for plot points. Furthermore, it’s near impossible to create an empowering work product when one of the key creators are sexually harassing women behind the scenes.
I see so much potential for this show, but in order to reflect modern audiences, the real-life Team Flash needs to find a way to make their vision more authentic, perhaps by further diversifying their writers’ room or running their scripts through a consultant if they plan on using minority experiences. The show will only be stronger and more compelling for it.
* The villains I counted for Season 1 include: Clyde Marton, Danton Black, Kyle Nimbus, Leonard Snart, Mick Rory, Bette Sans Souci, Tony Woodward, Grodd, Farooq Gibron, Roy Bivolo, Eobard Thawne, Lisa Snart, Hartley Rathaway, Shawna Baez, Ronnie Raymond, Martin Stein, Mark Mardon, Axel Walker, James Jesse, Brie Larvan, Hannibal Bates, and Jake Simmons.
** I timed the gender share of dialogue with arementalkingtoomuch.com for 7 episodes of the 23-episode season. They were randomly selected and include episodes 11, 12, 14, 15, 18, 19, and 20.