The Flash, Arrow and the Problem with “For Your Own Good”
As The Flash closes out its first season and Arrow its third, each show is facing a problem with one of its female characters.
On The Flash, Iris is the only character left that hasn’t been told, or figured out, that her lanky best friend and sort of brother, the one she has seen pretty much every day for fifteen years, the one she knows has a crush on her, is also the skinny guy in the skin-tight suit that keeps flirting with her on roof-tops.
Meanwhile, on Arrow, Felicity, as a key member of the team, may be privy to most of Oliver’s secrets, including his identity, but after two years of growing respect and sexual tension, and a single date with a literally explosive ending, Oliver made the decision that they should just be friends, rather than begin a romantic relationship. Oliver was worried that she would be used against him.
Barry’s father figure, Joe, has known about his powers since The Flash’s pilot, as have the team at Star Labs. Even Barry’s actual father realized his son’s secret identity after a couple of brief encounters. But Iris has spoken to the Flash several times, seen him move, been in his arms. The Flash appeared almost as soon as Barry came out of a nine month coma. She is on a mission to find out the Flash’s identity, and she can’t figure out that it’s her best friend?
The problem with Iris is more serious than just her sort of silly inability to assemble a simple jigsaw puzzle. As annoying as it is that she hasn’t pieced together Barry’s secret identity on her own, the bigger issue is that nearly everyone in her life, not just her best friend, but also her father, and new friends Caitlin and Cisco, is actively conspiring to keep her in the dark, with the misguided idea that it will keep her safe.
Iris isn’t alone in this. Pretty much every superhero has a love interest they lie to, “for their own good.” And while that may seem noble in theory, it rarely works in practice. Iris may not know that Barry’s the Flash, but plenty of other people do, enough that Iris can still be used against him, that her safety can be threatened as a means to hurt Barry.
Arrow, too, has a single character that the team keeps in the dark, but when it comes to Detective Lance there’s still a certain amount of logic to the secret. No, it doesn’t make sense that Lance can’t tell from the Arrow’s posture, or his jawline, or his attachment to Felicity Smoak, that he’s actually Oliver Queen. And Lance is a detective. But lying to him has long been a way to keep Oliver’s mission safe. In early days he was a very real danger, because what Oliver is up to is illegal. Vigilantes aren’t actually a good thing, they operate outside of the law, and for awhile there Oliver was killing a lot of random bodyguards and lackeys. Lance had the power and the desire to put the Arrow behind bars.
But while Iris may have turned into an intrepid reporter, determined to get to the bottom of the Flash’s identity, it’s unlikely that she’d find out Barry’s secret and then put it on the record. Keeping Iris, not Barry, safe has been the root of the entire secret-keeping enterprise. And Iris is arguably less safe not knowing how easily she can be used to hurt her best friend. Because she’s kept in the dark she doesn’t know that she needs to protect herself, let alone why. And every time she is used this way she becomes, not a person, not someone he loves, but a device. She’s leverage.
This makes it difficult to care about her as a character, and to root for her and Barry as a romantic pairing.
And then there’s Felicity.
Oliver’s decision not to DTR, back in the season 3 premiere, doesn’t mean Felicity can’t or won’t be used against him. She’s often the most visible member of Team Arrow, and even if she’s not Oliver’s girlfriend, she’s still important to him as a friend and as support for his operation. They spend just as much time together as they likely would in a relationship, and not just in their underground lair. And he’s still blatantly in love with her. But Oliver decided he had to make the decision for both of them.
This sort of “for your own good” thinking didn’t seem noble and heroic when it was Harry Potter and Ginny Weasley, and it doesn’t seem noble and heroic now. What it mostly comes across as is a way to stall a romantic pairing out of a fear of what happens after they get together. While Oliver pines for Felicity as though he wasn’t the one to put a stop things, she’s stuck off in a side-plot with a new romantic interest, Oliver’s equally wealthy, handsome and tragic replacement as head of Queen Consolidated, Ray Palmer, a man with his own vigilante mission. The storyline doesn’t reflect well on either character. Oliver comes across as manipulative, and Felicity as shallow.
Arrow doesn’t shy away from physically and mentally strong female characters. Plenty of women (Sara and now Laurel, Nyssa, Helena, Amanda Waller, Shado…) have fought alongside or against Oliver over the last few years, and held their own, but I appreciate that Arrow has not attempted to turn Felicity into another female ass-kicker. Instead, the series has kept her at her computer, and allowed her to show that there are other ways to be a hero and to fight the good fight. She does just as much to keep the team alive as Oliver or Diggle, and, like Caitlin on The Flash, she does it using her own expertise. She also, more often than not, serves as Oliver’s conscience. She’s the person he talks to before he makes big decisions, and she tries to nudge him in the best possible direction, whatever that may be. Felicity has long been one of Arrow’s best characters.
And Iris has the potential to be a great character, too. She’s curious and friendly and prone to jealousy, because no one would want her to be perfect. She’s played by a charismatic actress. It should be easy to love a character that’s loved by puppy dogs like Barry Allen and Joe West.
Every unilateral decision Oliver or Barry makes to “protect” Felicity and Iris, though, undermines their agency, takes that decision out of Felicity’s or Iris’ hands. Whenever this happens, Felicity gets angry and goes off to help her stand-in Oliver Queen, and Iris continues on, none-the-wiser, chasing mysteries the audience solved months ago.
As of the end of last week’s episode of The Flash, Iris knows Barry’s secret, only because she happened to be there at a moment when he wouldn’t be able to make an excuse. But the revelation was immediately followed by Barry discovering his own ability to travel in time.
Time travel is a slippery device, one that allows for narrative fiddling and re-writing, and the moments before Barry went backward were full of potential events he could undo. The question is whether Iris’ discovery will be one of them.
Because of my own frustration, I really hope that Iris still knows Barry’s secret when the dust settles. I hope we get to see her get angry. She’s earned it. Even if she isn’t mad, even if, like Thea did on Arrow, she reacts to the information with understanding, Iris can only become a more compelling character once she’s aware of her own surroundings, once she’s caught up to the audience. Whether she knows the truth next week, or has to relearn it at some point in the future, I look forward to a time when I can root for her the way I do the rest of the citizens of Central City.
And as Arrow closes out its own season, I hope Oliver gives Felicity the opportunity to make some of her own decisions. That both Oliver and the show will get over their fear of moving forward with the relationship, or at least figure out a way to hold off on it that respects both the characters and the audience.