I'm a late comer to Arrow, which is good because it means I got to binge-watch the first two series in time to begin the third as it aired its mid-season finale. That should clue you in to the fact that I love Arrow, which I feel needs stating before I move on to my next confession - I also am really annoyed by Arrow a lot, because it's got a HUGE woman problem.
"What?" I hear you cry. Yes, Arrow has many fantastic women. Laurel, for all that she's really grating, is a successful lawyer who in the first series stands up for the little guy, and who continues to fight for the greater good after moving jobs. Felicity is super clever, and could wipe the floor with all the men on the show, whose combined brain power doesn't rival hers. Moira, even though she does some awful things, is both a strong mother and a strong, savvy businesswoman. Sara is of course a killer and a hero. And there are more examples where those come from.
But that's what makes Arrow's woman problem even more frustrating, the fact that it gives with one hand and taketh away with the other (and that it's sister programme The Flash actually has brilliantly drawn female characters). Perhaps it's because I binge-watched that Arrow's woman problem was so evident to me. Here are just a few of the ways in which I think Arrow sometimes fails its female characters, and its female viewers.
It might seem as though Arrow is a programme about a man saving his city, which is a bit of a mess, but actually Arrow is a show about one guy's manpain. Everything is geared towards making sure we, the viewer, know that Oliver has suffered, or it's geared towards making Oliver suffer more.
And the easiest way for the programme to make Oliver suffer is to make the women in his life suffer. It's also the laziest way, and two and a half seasons in it's bypassed boring and worked its way into really bloody annoying.
Oliver's pain over Sara dying (supposedly) aboard the Queen's Gambit was fine, because he was also in pain over his father dying aboard the Queen's Gambit. But when it was revealed that Sara had survived, that's when things started going a bit wrong. Oliver being made to choose between Sara and Shado was ridiculous - Shado's death served no purpose but to make Oliver suffer, both at his own hands because of the guilt and then later on at the hands of Slade Wilson.
One dead woman might have been acceptable, but then Moira also dies just to make Oliver suffer. Even though Thea also loses her mum, the focus of the show is completely on how much Oliver is suffering because his mother died. And again, he blames himself, because the suffering of a woman can't be a terrible event in itself, it needs to be about Oliver and his guilt and angst.
And then, and then, IT HAPPENS AGAIN. There is no reason for Sara to be killed apart from to get to Oliver. Sara, who is powerful and hugely capable of taking care of herself, gets felled not during a battle, but standing on a rooftop after saying goodbye to her sister. (Side note: Sara's killing is serving to turn Laurel into the Black Canary, but compare how much we hear about Oliver suffering to Laurel suffering over Sara's death, and it's not even.) Not only is Sara killed to get to Oliver but the writers of Arrow don't even give her the dignity of letting her die fighting.
Remember all those times that Diggle was kidnapped and threatened and Oliver had to rescue him? Or when Roy was helplessly tied up in a warehouse those many, many times? Wait, you don't. That's because they never happened. (Yes, Roy was sort of captured, but he was also brainwashed and stuff, it doesn't count.)
Instead, it's the women constantly being used as bait, in an extension of the show's bowing down to Oliver's manpain. Laurel spent a large portion of the first two series being kidnapped or attacked, or having her flat destroyed (seriously, how did she afford all those repairs?) by people who were ultimately after Oliver or who Oliver was chasing and then decided to use Laurel to hurt him.
And Felicity has been kidnapped at least twice now. Once, Oliver arranged it, and even used her feelings for him as part of the plot to bait Slade (yes, Olicity forever, but come on, that was low for Oliver). The second time it was Felicity's psycho ex who was clearly feeling inadequate and had to tie Felicity up in order to assert his manliness. She still kicked his butt, but had to call Oliver in to do the actual butt kicking.
Sure, Diggle and the other men get in trouble, but it's the women who are USED to get at Oliver/Arrow.
Powerful women don't cry
As I said right at the beginning, there are no shortage of good female characters in Arrow, but the way they're treated sometimes makes me angry.
Like the fact that most of the women on Arrow are either cold-hearted or overly emotional, with very little in between. On the bitch side we have Moira and Isobel Orchev (and Amanda), and on the overly emotional side we have Felicity and Laurel.
The only time we really see Moira cry is just before her death, up to then she's always maintained some calm (even when, in flashback, visiting Laurel and Quentin to tell them about Sara dying on the Queen's Gambit). Isobel is just a charicature of a mean, bitchy businesswoman (who then turns out to be psychotic), and she is a robot even before she's injected with mirakuru.
And Laurel and Felicity? Look, I love Felicity, but every time things get a bit much AND her and Laurel are in front of Oliver tears start springing to their eyes. It's like seeing Oliver, their hero, means they just collapse in a mess.
But wait, surely you're ready to tell me to look at characters like Sara (or Lyla, who a fighter and a mother), who are in the middle? Um, yes, unless Sara is drawn as a parallel to Oliver, in which case she's usually depicted as emotional and wanting revenge/bloody justice, while he wants to do right. Sometimes Oliver is called up by Diggle about his emotions getting in the way, but largely Oliver's emotions are portrayed as making him stronger, while Sara and the other women's emotions make them weaker.
What's on the outside
Ah, clothing. The women on Arrow sport some sharp wardrobes, but unfortunately they're commented on much more than then men's clothing choices, in a way that's clear that the women are being judged by what they wear. People comment on Felicity's outfits like they can't believe that a woman who's good with computers is actually allowed to wear dresses which show off her figure, which is absolute rubbish.
And I can't count how many times the camera panned up Laurel's high heels and bare legs during her scenes in season one, but it was enough to make me realise that that season of the show was catering to the male gaze.
But it's one incident in season three that incensed me - Palmer buying Felicity a dress in order to persuade her to accompany him to a business dinner. It's not just me that thought this was a bit Pretty Woman, right? Powerful boss man buys attractive female employee skimpy, expensive dress - when I put it that way, it sounds as wrong as the whole scene was.
And when we finally get to the dinner scene, Felicity's entire job is to rave about how amazing Palmer is so he can get a business deal. Ugh.
Love, love, love
I love Arrow. I've said that, right? And part of why I love Arrow is because I love Felicity, so seeing Oliver string her along is so annoying. The way their story plays out is boring, predictable, insulting to Felicity and to viewers, and like something from Dawson's Creek. There's nothing wrong with unrequited love, and it's certainly a characteristic of the superhero film or TV show to have the male hero tell the female protagonist he can't be with her because it'll put her in danger, but come on Arrow, you're better than this.
Firstly, there's the really patronising way that Oliver dictates that he and Felicity can't be together because she might get hurt. He takes all the agency out of her hands, treating her like a child who can't take care of herself. Yes, Felicity has to be rescued a lot by Arrow, but only because the show contrives to make it that way. She'd be capable of fighting her own fights if she was allowed to.
Secondly, Oliver's excuse carries no weight since he was fine having relationships with Laurel (however brief), Sara and that policewoman while being the Arrow. Yes, Sara is a trained fighters, and he did break up with the policewoman, but Felicity just needs to be given the chance by the show runners to fight her own battles. Instead, her attempts to learn to fight are ridiculed by just about everyone, and we're supposed to laugh at her struggles to do stomach crunches (there is no way she gets that figure without exercising).
Oliver and Felicity's entire relationship is controlled by him. He doesn't want to be with her for stupid, not at all noble, reasons, but he also sulks when other men flirt with her or just show an interest in her (see both Barry Allen and Palmer). And ugh, even Diggle, lovely sensible Diggle, is made to play into this when he goes to Felicity to tell her that her working with Palmer is messing with Oliver's head. Well, OLIVER SHOULD GET OVER IT THEN. Geez. Arrow somehow manages to infantilise both Felicity and Oliver. *slow hand clap*
The character that could have redeemed all of this previous nonsense was Thea. She chose to step up to the plate when Oliver left after Tommy's death (*sob*), and turned Verdant into a successful business, she chose to leave the man who lied to her, she chose to try and get to know her father, bad though he may be, and she was supporting herself and learning how to physically protect herself.
And then she was mind controlled by her dad so he could get Oliver to kill another guy and have his debts wiped out. Really? Thea, unlike Isobel, wasn't given the choice to become bad - she was brainwashed into killing Sara, again taking all agency away from a woman in order to further the plot lines of the men on the show.
But things aren't all bad. And I promise, the last few thousand words may not have made you think so, but I do love Arrow. It does have lots of amazing female characters who are, as I said at the top, clever and strong and funny and super cool and tough. It just needs to treat them a little better, to bring them out from under the shadow of Oliver, and to let them start making the decisions.