Arrow Has a Violence Against Women Problem

This post discusses spoilers from the April 6, 2016 episode of Arrow, “Eleven fifty-nine.”

Despite my recent disdain for the Batman v Superman movie, one piece of DC’s media empire that I actually quite enjoy is its series of live action television shows.  I’ve been a regular viewer of both Arrow and The Flash for the last two years (I caught Arrow‘s first two seasons on Netflix), and I’ve also been keeping up with DC’s Legends of Tomorrow this season.  It’s a little exhausting maintaining a regular viewing schedule along with all my other responsibilities (the funny thing about committing to online viewing is that having so much flexibility in when you can watch recent TV means that it often drops lower on the priority list in comparison to other things that need to be done more immediately; mid-season breaks don’t help either), but I’ve enjoyed all the series enough to stick with them.  Among the three Arrowverse shows, Flash and Legends are definitely the two that I prefer; Arrow‘s always been a show that’s nominally about the dark, gritty side of being a costumed hero (while still serving the CW’s regular mandates that everyone on the show lead beautiful, glamorous lives), and while there’s a place for such things, it’s a lot more of a drag than its spinoffs which fully embrace the idea that superheroes should be fun.

Still, Arrow has its moments, so I continue to watch it.  Since I’ve been on spring break (and I spent twelve hours in an airport the other day; long story), I’ve had time to get all caught up, which means that I got to see the most recent episode of Arrow, “Eleven Fifty-Nine” this morning instead of having to squeeze it in sometime later this week after all the conversation about it’s passed.

Now, to give some context here, it’s important to know that in the fourth season of Arrow the show has been regularly teasing that one of its main characters was going to be killed off.  We had a fake out at the mid-season finale when Felicity, Oliver’s long time love interest, was paralyzed after their limousine was shot up by the henchmen of the season’s Big Bad, Damien Darhk.  I didn’t believe Felicity would really die (she’s perhaps Arrow‘s most popular character), but when they revealed that the attack left her paraplegic I did roll my eyes.  Felicity’s the closest analog the Arrowverse has to DC’s Barbara Gordon as Oracle, and actually putting her in a wheelchair struck me as a rather facile bit of fanservice (complete with problematic injury as a result of being collateral damage in the feud between a couple of guys!).  When they reversed the paralysis a scant few episodes later I rolled my eyes again, because God forbid you actually try to incorporate a character with a visible disability in a permanent way on a CW show.

Anyway, that’s a tangent.

Sorry, Laurel. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

The point is that Felicity’s shooting was a fake out.  I figured it was much more likely that they’d go with killing off John Diggle, Oliver’s best friend, because he’s a character who as far as I know was created specifically for the show without a comics analog.  The introduction of Curtis Holt (who will in all probability eventually become the DC hero Mister Terrific) struck me as a clincher, because I am a cynic about television and the capacity of a mainstream show to cast multiple Black actors as series regulars whose characters aren’t already related (no kidding, Agents of SHIELD did this very thing in season 2 when it killed off one Black character shortly after another one had been introduced).  For all the problems that I anticipated from making such a move, I figured it was probably the safest one to go for.  The only other unobjectionable choice I could see would have been Quentin Lance, who every season just begs to be killed by virtue of being the “old” unconventional looking guy.  I figured that Thea, Oliver’s sister, had already been near-killed the previous season, and Laurel Lance, who’s the Black Canary, a hero with a long history that’s deeply intertwined with Green Arrow, wouldn’t be a possibility.

Of course, I was totally wrong about that last one, since “Eleven Fifty-Nine” ends with Laurel dying in the hospital after she’s critically injured by Damien Darhk.  It’s a pretty affecting ending for what it is, but that doesn’t change the fact that it establishes a really consistent pattern on Arrow.

I break it down like this: In the four season history of the show only three series regular characters have been killed off.  Tommy Merlyn, Oliver’s childhood best friend, dies at the end of the first season; Sara Lance, the Arrowverse‘s original Black Canary, dies at the start of season three; and Laurel Lance dies in the most recent episode.  In addition to those three characters, the only other regular character to leave the show is Roy Harper, who fakes his death and assumes a new identity.  That’s an average turnover of one major character a season, and by that metric it doesn’t look so bad; a show about gritty vigilantism is going to have its share of dead characters.  Heck, Sara’s death got reversed in this season so that she could be a regular character on Legends of Tomorrow.

But when you factor in other ways characters have been victims of violence on the show, it gets worse.  In a series with an average of seven principle actors per season, the gender split is typically 4:3 male:female.  Among those principles, every major female character has been killed or maimed, often directly by a major villain.  In the third season, Thea was stabbed in the abdomen by Ra’s Al Ghul and would have died if not for mystical intervention.  Sara was shot to death by Thea under the control of Malcolm Merlyn.  Laurel, the most recent casualty, was also stabbed in the abdomen, this time by Damien Darhk.  Felicity isn’t shot up close and personal like the others, but she is hurt as a matter of course in the feud between Oliver and Darhk, just like Thea’s hurt so Ra’s can send a message to Oliver, and Laurel is killed to make Quentin pay for standing up against Darhk.  All of these incidents happen with the primary motive of shocking the audience and raising the stakes for the conflict between male heroes and villains.  We don’t get the same sort of scenarios in reverse on Arrow (by contrast, The Flash has killed off guys to give Caitlyn Snow sad feels like four times now; three of them happened to be the same guy which is kind of hilarious, and highlights just how differently we view the deaths of male and female characters).

I’ve been trying to figure out what this pattern of casually maiming and killing women for the sake of the male characters on Arrow says about the show.  I know that when you fully examine all the ways violence is employed in it, Arrow reveals itself as a pretty shallow series.  We’re watching for the melodrama and the action (Arrow continues to have very good action), but it would still be nice if there were more time spent grappling with the fact that Oliver is a hero who regularly severely injures his enemies and employs torture as a valid form of intelligence gathering (there was one episode in the third season that actually tried to question this habit of Oliver’s, but it hasn’t been revisited in a serious way); that season four has thematically been about Oliver’s struggle to embrace a softer, lighter version of vigilantism as the Green Arrow in the face of Damien Darhk’s pretty ubiquitous corruption of Star City only highlights how often the show misses opportunities to tackle genuinely difficult subjects instead of just making Oliver feel bad because he’s bad at adulting.

And for all this, I know I’m going to keep watching.

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