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“Arrow-versity” A Look at Inclusivity & Diversity in the CW Superhero TV Shows

ETHNIC DIVERSITY

Oliver’s epic, five-year odyssey on the remote island of Lian Yu, offered the character opportunities to cross paths with ruthless Russians, murderous Aussies, and assassin Asians to name a few. In fact, many of these frenemies became recurring foils like the conniving Bratva crime lord Anatoly Knyazev (David Nykl), Triad drug queen-pinChina White (Kelly Hu), Oliver’s other half-sister, Emiko (Sea Shimooka), and one-man-army killing machine Deathstroke / Slade Wilson (Manu Bennett) and their associated villainous fraternities, including the Oriental-based League of Assassins. It’s definitely worth mentioning the sheer breadth of the show’s international scope throughout its run as commendable.

Sea Shimooka as Emiko Queen. Photo credit The CW Network.

The show also portrays two Jewish characters; the first of which was the adorable Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) who was also a series staple along with John Diggle who premiered in season 1. Fans of the show need no introduction to the lovely and talented Ms Smoak, later Mrs Queen. Having her wind up the ultimate love-interest and wife of Oliver was a huge deviation from the comics. Complimented tremendously by Emily’s presence and performance, the budding romance between the two over the many seasons and their eventual nuptials were wholeheartedly embraced by loyal viewers who were given their bitter-sweet ending as the curtains closed on the finale.

The next was Roy Regan/Ragman (Joe Dinicol), a supernaturally empowered vigilante, who joined Arrow in season 5. In terms of the hodgepodge tattered fringed hero, Joe’s character made the ultimate sacrifice by the end of his debut season, only appearing for a cameo in the obligatory final crossover season.

SEXUAL ORIENTATION

In terms of gay and lesbian representation on Arrow, we have the aforementioned Curtis Holt/Mr Terrific, as well as the very introverted William Clayton (Jack Moore [kid] / Ben Lewis [adult]) who is Oliver’s illegitimate son, and ostensibly the show’s version of Connor Hawke (from the comics). While his half-sister Mia Smoak takes after her father, William is more his adopted mother. While not a fan of fisticuffs, he works best on the sidelines providing support to his family and teammates. Though open with his sexuality in his adulthood, William still struggles with not having his father’s approval – having been essentially abandoned after the conclusion of season 7 and before his baby half-sister is born. Father and son however are able to have a touching reconnect in the season finale.

We also have Sara Lance (played by Caity Lotz after the pilot) who is bi-sexual. The show’s original Black Canary, one of many who would claim that moniker, Sara would eventually settle on “White Canary” upon her joining the crew of the Waverider on “Legends of Tomorrow” – and later become a captain in season 2. Lotz’s character came into her own on Legends, being a capable leader and mainstay on the cast for all of its seasons. She has since started a steady romantic relationship with Time Bureau agent (later director) Ava Sharpe (portrayed by Jes Macallan) ever since they met in season 3 of “Legends”.

Lastly, while not gay on the show, Colton Haynes, who plays Roy Harper/Arsenal is in real life gay. Although a series regular in season 1, his appearances would progressively decline from a main cast member, to a recurring to finally guest appearances. The reason behind this was very personal. Colton was closeted for many years which resulted in chronic anxiety. Pressured due to his growing popularity as an actor, and suspicions of his sexual orientation, led him to take a hiatus from the show to sort his life out and finally come out. Ironically, his secret drug and alcohol addiction (a result of his anxiety disorder and homophobic fears) poetically mirrored the tragedy and elongated recovery of the character from the comics he played.

THE FLASH

Coming out only two years after “Arrow”, “The Flash” would be the second time the scarlet speedster would grace the silver screen in his own self-titled series (a fact the show’s creators and writers would take full advantage of later on). Much like how the grounded, nocturnal vigilantism of Oliver Queen/Arrow was a stand-in for Batman, in many ways, Barry Allen/The Flash (Grant Gustin) would be the Superman substitute, embodying the more outlandish, super-heroic adventures with a positive, morally astute daily do-gooder leading man. Like “Arrow”, “The Flash” took a lot of considerable liberties right off the bat and had a strong presence of African-American characters as mainstays throughout its ongoing run…no pun intended.

Candice Patton as Iris West-Allen. Photo credit The CW Network.

Iris West-Allen

The most striking change from the source material was having the leading lady love interest be Black. When this was announced, there was “backlash” to having a woman of color portray a traditionally Caucasian character. It’s not a far stretch of the imagination or plausibility that the majority of the vitriol for the very talented Candice Patton playing Iris West was motivated by racist bigotry. This skin-tone swapping was nothing revolutionary or unprecedented; in the critically panned films like Kingpin was played by the late Michael Clarke Duncan in “Daredevil” (2003), original character Patience Phillips (Halle Berry) in just as awful “Catwoman” (2004), and Perry White (Lawrence Fishbourne) in “Man of Steel” (2013) and “Batman v Superman” (2016). Like with the shows’ creators, I view these changes as reflective of modern times and how well diverse and integrated modern society has become over the eras of racial intolerance and segregation when these comics were originally written.

Without a doubt, from day one Candice and Grant had perfect romantic chemistry, which has only grown on the show ever since, culminating in their marriage at the end of season 4. I cannot see a better person taking that role. Candice’s already excellent acting talent is complimented by the writers’ devotion to making Iris a strong, capable, resourceful and complex woman. As far as reporter wives of superheroes go, Iris/Candice has an advantage over Lois Lane.

Jesse L. Martin as Captain Joseph “‘Joe” West. Photo credit The CW Network.

Joseph “Joe” West

Barry’s surrogate father, CCPD detective Joseph “Joe” West is played by veteran actor and singer Jesse L Martin. On the show, Joe raises both Barry (after his mother’s murder and his father went to prison) and his daughter Iris as a single father. I cannot emphasize the significance of Joe’s character or Jesse’s portrayal, as a positive role model of a single-parent father-figure. Combining humor and fun-loving, with the sage wisdom that comes with experience, Joe is hands down a well-articulated Nubian embodiment of what it means to be a loving father, in spite of the hardships his character faced in the past. Jesse exquisitely brings Joe to life, exuding a wealth of paternal acumen. No matter how old Barry and Iris get, the character of Joe is an ever-present source of council and encouragement.

While not as spritely as his other cast members, Joe isn’t above risking his life for his family time and again, and as an officer of the law no less (an image that has become an effigy lately). Over the growing seasons, Joe has seen the return of his estranged terminal wife and previously unknown son Wally, recently falling in love and starting a new family with fellow Nubian actress Danielle Nicolet (who plays empath Cecile Horton) and recently been promoted to captain. While taking a hiatus in season 5 due to a back injury, even his absence is felt and touched upon by everyone on The Flash. Joe is an indispensable fixture of the show since season 1, one I honestly cannot imagine being without as one of the best examples of Black fathers on television.

Keiynan Lonsdale as Wally West/ Kid Flash. Photo credit The CW Network.

Wally West

Traditionally, fan-favorite Wally West/Kid Flash, protégé of Barry Allen who later took on the mantle after his death as the de facto Scarlet Speedster for roughly two decades, was a Ginger, with his own eventual family and rogues gallery of villains. After DC’s “New 52” publishing-wide reboot, this Wally West was excommunicated from canon (an in-story plot that would lead to “Rebirth” retconned-reboot in 2016). In his “absence”, the character was “reintroduced” as a Black teen in 2014. The following year, this Nubian Kid Flash was introduced on “The Flash” played by Keiynan Lonsdale. Iris’ long lost and wayward brother (instead of nephew in the comics), Wally was the speed-obsessed rebel who was saved by having a relationship with his father Joe.

While the show has been bemoaned for having an exorbitant amount of “speedsters”, having a “dynamic duo” of Barry and Wally was an interesting dynamic. Playing the mentor/apprentice role, Wally suffered sort of the same fate as Roy Harper on “Arrow”, where the show found it difficult to incorporate him in subsequent seasons. There was an attempt to have Wally start a romance which, when it ended, his character left the show only to migrate to “Legends”. Wally would continue to make guest appearances for family events here and there, but sadly, there just didn’t seem to be any room left for Lonsdale’s character, which is a shame. As for the actor Keiyana himself, he has stated to be attracted to persons of both sexes; however, he does not ascribe to the label of “bisexual”.

Jessica Parker Kennedy as Nora West-Allen/XS. Photo credit The CW Network.

Nora West-Allen / XS

It’s hard not to notice the coincidental departure of Wally in season 4 and Nora West’s appearance the following season. Played by actress Jessica Parker Kennedy, the bi-racial Nora West-Allen is the daughter of Iris and Barry from the future. Making an awkward cameo at her parent’s wedding, Nora offered greater dramatic and emotional heft for the newlyweds. The dilemma comes with her father’s impending prophetic demise and Nora trying to avert it, or at the very least have time with the father she never knew. The interplay between Nora and her parents is what drives much of season 5 emotionally. Her perfect idolizing of her father is only contrast by her resentment for her mother. Praying on her whimsical aspirations, Barry’s eternal nemesis the Reverse-Flash preys on Nora’s emotional instabilities, turning her to the dark side. It all culminates in a tear-jerking climax that results in Nora being erased from existence, leaving both her parent bereaved.  Speaking on Jessica’s acting performance, I’d say it perfectly mirrors a “younger” version of Candice, making it apt, being Iris’ daughter and all on the show.

ETHNIC DIVERSITY

Unlike “Arrow”, “The Flash” doesn’t really lend itself much to having different nationalities or ethnicities appearing on the show. Outside of Columbian-American Carlos Valdes, a show staple from season 1, who plays the go-to nerdy tech guy and sometime superhero “Vibe”, the only other noteworthy example would be Hindu actor Sendhil Amithab Ramamurthy, who plays the main villain of the first half of season 6, the immortality-obsessed haemo-kinetic Dr Ramsey Rosso (aka Bloodwork) – a “Carnage/symbiote” looking one-shot villain in comics back in 2017.

SEXUAL ORIENTATION

The only gay character on the show is CCPD Captain (later Chief of Police) David Singh. He is portrayed by Egyptian-born Canadian actor, Patrick Sabongui. A tertiary guest character, David Singh being homosexual is a non-issue on the show, as he serves as kind of the “Perry White” day-job boss for both Barry and Joe. His role on the show is upgraded slightly when he becomes a “mirror replicant” in the latter half of season 6.

While not gay on the show, the ice-themed super-criminal Leonard Snart (aka Captain Cold), is played by the talented veteran gay actor Wentworth Miller. Wentworth/Snart would carry over onto “Legends” (season 1) where he would have a more prominent role as a regular on the cast. Sadly, the season 1 finale of “Legends” would be the last time we really see this Captain Cold. However, with the current reboot of the “Arrowverse”, the door is now open for his uncomplicated return and the formation of the infamous gadget/element-themed criminal gang “The Rogues”.

On a side note, I would be remised if I did not address the recent firing of Hartley Sawyer from the show at the start of this month. Playing the fast-talking rubbery gumshoe, Ralph Dibny/Elongated Man, Sawyer was a part of the show since season 4, and has grown to be a regular part on Team Flash. This firing from the show was based on a series of offensive, racist and misogynistic Tweets posted between 2009 and 2014. In response, executive producer Eric Wallace offered this sync statement of what these superhero shows stand for and represent, both in front of and behind the camera:

“we do not tolerate derogatory remarks that target any race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, or sexual orientation. Such remarks are antithetical to our values and policies, which strive and evolve to promote a safe, inclusive and productive environment for our workforce.”

As would be expected, Sawyer offered an apology on Instagram, but the damage had already been done. This could not have come at a more inopportune time, as the writers had started exploring Ralph’s budding romantic relationship with his future wife, the eccentric thief with a cause, Susan Dearbon, and has become a relationship guru for the other heroes on the show. There is still the possibility Sawyer’s character can be recast to salvage continuity, but how significant this upset will impact “The Flash” come its eventual return in 2021 is yet to be seen.

In closing, with the first two shows having such a strong…running start, here’s looking forward to how well the other four series fair; following up with “Supergirl” and “Legends of Tomorrow” next time in Part 2.

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Hailing from the eastern-most Caribbean island of Barbados, Fabian Wood has long since been fascinated by the power of storytelling to inspire and invoke emotions – whether in film, comics or videogames. No longer content to be just an avid comic book reader and videogamer, he’s eager to exercise his literary acumen as an aspiring writer and reviewer.

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