TV shows like Arrow or The Flash have always been superpowered soap operas – and there’s nothing wrong with that

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Arrow, from the beginning, was always about the personal lives of its characters. Yes, there’s the obvious angle of the love triangle between Oliver, Tommy and Laurel – but it’s not as though Oliver’s mission wasn’t deeply personally motivated, or inextricably tied to the affairs of his father. That’s demonstrably a soap opera plot, right from the beginning!

Superheroes keep secrets, living double lives, and hiding parts of themselves from those around them that they love. That can surely be considered a soap opera story, no? And surely no one would ever argue that these superhero TV programmes don’t rely on sensationalised and exaggerated plotting – lest you forget, the Flash fought a race of sentient gorillas just a few weeks ago. Besides, everyone loves a good scenery chewing villain, and that’s the epitome of melodrama.

I always thought it was pretty ridiculous when people complained that Arrow was like a soap opera – as if they’d only just noticed? So here’s a post explaning how Arrow has always been a soap opera, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

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Arrow, and the Disturbing Trend of Fridging Female Characters

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“Fridging” is a term which is used to describe the death of a female character to further the development of and advance the plot for a male character. It is typically the bastion of the lazy screenwriter, given that it is a tired and overused cliché. You need only take a quick perusal of this TV Tropes page, or indeed the Women in Refrigerators website where the concept was first defined, to appreciate quite how proliferated our media has become with this hackneyed trope.

More to the point, though, there is often an inherent misogyny and sexism to this trope. That’s very much self evident, really; when a writer kills off a female character to further develop a male one, then the implicit suggestion is that her story is one not worth telling. 

Arrow has engaged in this not once, not twice, but at least five times – this is in a show which hasn’t even begun its fifth season yet. For obvious reasons, that’s not really something to be proud of.

So, my most recent article for Yahoo is about Arrow, and their habit of fridging female characters. For obvious reasons, regularly fridging female characters isn’t a particularly good thing, so the article takes something of a critical tone.

I would really appreciate it if people were to share this article. I’m quite pleased with it, as it goes; I think I make a fairly important point, and that it’s reasonably well articulated. It’s something I’d like to reach a fairly wide audience, so please do share this article if you can.

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Defined by an Absence

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It is difficult for me to put into words quite how much it offended me – because it didn’t just offend me. It made me angry.

I knew it was coming, of course, because I watch the show in the UK, so that means I’m always a couple of weeks behind. It’s difficult to avoid spoilers at the best of times in that position, but this caused enough outrage across the pond that UK newspapers were reporting on it, just under a month before the episode was set to air here.

Even then, though. The death had been… not telegraphed, obviously. That implies a degree of foreshadowing had gone into it. That it had been planned out, considered, evaluated. That any degree of thought had gone into it.

It hadn’t. This death was not planned. The grave was empty when it was first shown to us – little more than a promise of angst, and darkness. Not an inspiring promise at the best of times, really. But the Powers That Be had decided it was a good way to get ratings. To inspire a buzz. Make headlines.

Shortly afterwards, they realised they would need to actually follow up on that promise. It was, it seems, a relatively easy decision for them to make, albeit one made very late in the day. The actress in question was informed, at most, just a few short weeks before the episode was to be filmed that she was to depart the series.

Organic storytelling at it’s finest, evidently.

Like I said, though. While it hadn’t been telegraphed, it had been eminently predictable. The character who was dispatched hadn’t exactly been getting much of a focus in recent episodes. Season four had seen her increasingly sidelined, with more and more focus diverted to another.

There was something cruel, then, in the way the episode was structured. After denying this character any real plotlines of her own for so long, the prospect of her receiving a greater focus was a welcome one. The suggestion of an ongoing character arc was dangled before us tantalisingly, with the implication of a greater role to come.

In some ways, then, it feels a mockery. Someone, somewhere, no doubt thinks they are very clever. They are wrong.

“Look,” they say, “we fooled them completely. What an intelligent twist! There was no way this death would be predicted, after we teased their future plotlines.”

It was a hollow plot twist. A hollow victory for a programme long since past its prime, with writers who have done better work, and actors who have long been denied material that befits their talents.

The death is self was far more egregious still. In some ways, it’s an achievement; the programme could well go down in history as having provided the most emphatic instance of callously stuffing a woman in a refrigerator ever.

Perhaps that was the aim. After all, it was at least the fourth time the show had engaged in such an offensive trope.

And yet, something felt different this time.

Certainly, it was compounded by the allure of change, the allusion to future character development, the promise of greater focus; all brutally cut down and dispatched. But the nature of the death itself. It was almost symbolic, really, in terms of how it was structured.

This character had come so far. Been there since the start. Developed, changed, progressed. (Up until the point she did not, of course; but then, no one did, bar one.) She had dealt with alcoholism. Built relationships with her father, her friends, her lovers.

She had become a hero.

And then she was stabbed to death. A simple act, which really has no reason to kill at this stage; it’s a program which has, after all, brought its entire cast back from the dead at least once.

Prior to that, though, she was restricted. The villain used his ill defined yet cheap magical powers to freeze the character in place.

To strip her of all agency. To strip her of all autonomy. To take away any control she had, to take away the development she was promised, and brutally cut her aside.

It was a death framed explicitly in terms of the male characters. The male villain wanted to get revenge on the character’s father, and this of course has the added benefit of providing that cheap, boring, generic angst that we were promised so many episodes ago.

Lovely.

Further still, the character was not allowed to have any real final words. Not for herself, of course; she was reduced to a soapbox, for the writers to speak through. An organ for their agenda. Denying this character a moment in character.

I was not sad. I was not surprised. I was angry.

For obvious reasons.

The sadness came later, though, because there was sadness. Not of the type that the writers had intended to elicit, naturally, but sadness all the same.

It was as early as the next episode. Not a bad one, as they go, but not a good one. A particular scene stood out. Two talented actors, working through their tragedy. Impressive. A tour de force in terms of their performance, undoubtedly.

But not a scene worth what we lost. Not a patch on all the impressive scenes we could, and should, have been allowed.

The sadness hit in the morgue, as is perhaps appropriate following a death. The programme felt the need to show us the lifeless, pallid corpse of the recently deceased. A questionable decision, certainly, but they felt the need to drive home the point.

It made me sad because that was when I realised, really realised, what we’d lost. Of course that was when I realised – that was when we saw her, quite literally, stuffed into a fridge. (Well, a freezer, which is perhaps worse, but at least serves to emphasise the point further.)

That was when I realised that the show – like this post – will now always be defined by an absence. By her absence. Not because she was the best character, nor because she was my favourite – because she was neither.

The show will be defined by her absence because of the shitty and offensive way in which it wrote her out. The way in which casually, brutally, tossed this character aside without a second thought, without any care or consideration, because the show did not care.

It did not care about how it treated a key female character.

It was cruel. It was poor writing. It was pathetic.

And it can never be forgiven.

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Arrow: The Rise and Fall of Felicity Smoak

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In the third episode of Arrow’s first season, we were introduced to one Felicity Smoak; an IT support girl at Queen Industries, she was initially intended as a one episode character who would provide a little bit of tech-related exposition before never really being seen again.

Despite these initial intentions, however, the character was revisited; the primary reason was that the Arrow cast and crew quite liked Emily Bett Rickards, who played Felicity. They weren’t alone in this, of course, as the character became something of a fan favourite.

Felicity was soon bumped up to a season regular, and had become a key member of the Arrow cast. She remained a fan favourite, of course; the third season saw a Felicity-centric episode, The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak, which contained flashbacks to Felicity’s college days, and introduced her mother, Donna.

For quite some time, Felicity was everyone’s favourite character. She could do no wrong. The audiences loved her.

Now, she’s near universally hated.

So what changed?

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It’s easy, of course, to blame it on “Olicity” – that’s the name used to refer to the relationship between Oliver and Felicity, which developed across the third season, and… was complicated, we’ll say, during the fourth.

Easy, but not entirely accurate, that is.

In theory, there’s little wrong with developing a relationship between Oliver and Felicity; certainly, in the early seasons, the pair had chemistry together, and that’s part of why the character of Felicity was so popular. Certainly, had it been written well, you likely could have convincingly depicted a relationship between Oliver and nearly anyone on his team – how different things would have been had we got “Oliggle”!

But the operative term of the sentence – “had it been written well” – is essentially the embodiment of the issue. Olicity is not well written. Felicity, of late, has not been very well written. Frankly, Arrow of late has not been very well written.

The problems here are twofold: one is a matter of emphasis, the other of contrivance.

The first problem, and arguably the greater of the pair, is the manner in which Felicity is treated by the narrative. Felicity is valorised by the narrative; constantly, we are told that she is great and strong and powerful, with nearly every other character having some dialogue about how wonderful she is. (Diggle in particular has fallen foul to this of late.) Obviously, on a surface level, this is just particularly unsubtle writing; the old maxim of “show don’t tell” is one which springs to mind in this instance.

More than that, though, is the fact that this narrative lacks any form of balance – given how insistent Arrow has become in beating the audience over the head with constant references to how great she is, there is rarely any acknowledgement of her character flaws. A good example of this is 4×16 Broken Hearts, in which Felicity is constantly sniping and making cruel digs at Oliver – but rather than her being criticised for this, Oliver is told simply to give her time.

Through not allowing Felicity to have character flaws (or, at least, ignoring the ones she does have) Arrow has fallen into the pitfall of a giving us a very superficial and shallow “strong female character” – as opposed to “strong” meaning well rounded, three dimensional and nuanced, a more literal interpretation of “strong” has been pursued, hence Felicity being shown as infallible and literally described as “strong”.

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The other problem (albeit one linked to the former) is that much of the drama surrounding Olicity is extremely contrived and very poorly written. A recent example of this was Felicity regaining the ability to walk, so that she could then walk out on Oliver, due to the fact he’d been lying about her – entirely ignoring the fact that, of course, she’d spent the episode prior trying to convince her mother that people in relationships can lie to each other if they love one another enough. It’s astonishing, really, how much Arrow is reliant on the use of lies and deception to further their plot; it’s as if the writers know of no other form of communication.

(Incidentally, on the matter of Felicity’s paralysis; it would take an entire post to properly break down the failings within this arc, as opposed to a single aside within a larger post, so I likely shall return to this subject in the future. For now, though, I think it’s important to note that this six episode paralysis arc was not only poorly written, but was so poorly handled as to be bad representation and quite disrespectful as well.)

You end up getting the indication that those involved with the show perhaps just aren’t very good at writing romantic arcs – except, then, how does that explain Diggle and Lyla, or Roy and Thea? Both of those stories were reasonably successful, and have added a lot to the respective characters.

The answer, then, is that the writers aren’t very good at writing a romance when they feel it needs to be the focus of the story; Diggle & Lyla and Roy & Thea were always subplots, forming part of something larger. Here, with ‘Olicity’, it takes centre stage – largely at the expense of other characters, who recieve limited screentime as a result of this.

Laughably, though, this brings up back around to the beginning – not just of this article, but of Arrow. We established earlier that Felicity became a fan favourite character – part of that was because fans were responding so poorly to the character of Laurel, and her romantic plotline with Oliver. That, in part, is why Felicity was written as the main love interest, with Laurel being simply a close friend of Oliver’s – and when “reduced” to this role, the character began to thrive.

At a remove from the program, it’s actually quite interesting to watch this all unfold; I don’t think I’ve ever really seen a character plummet from such heights to such depths before. Certainly, I can’t think of any fan favourite character who became quite so reviled so quickly – can anyone?

But, ultimately, within the program itself, it’s very disappointing. Arrow is far from its glory days, and it’s questionable as to whether it’ll ever really emerge from the shadow of its former self. The blame can’t be placed on Felicity, not really, nor Emily Bett Rickards; she’s a competent actress, and a very nice person as well. She deserves better material to work with than what she’s getting.

No, the real problem lies with the writers, who are struggling to bring any sort of coherent emotional or thematic arc to Arrow, or to their lead characters.

The writers of Arrow… have failed Felicity Smoak.

This article was previously published on the Yahoo TV website.

Related:

Was Arrow Season 3 really that bad?

Vixen Series Review – Arrow’s Animated Adventure

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