This paper was presented at the Superheroes Beyond conference held at ACMI, Melbourne, Australia from 6-8 December 2018.
At the Superheroes Identity Symposium in 2016, I presented a paper on the conceptualisation of Felicity Smoak — a previously minor character on DC comics turned leading character on the CW’s Arrow — as a superhero, or a “hero without a mask”, as fans have dubbed the character. I was fascinated by what Felicity represented to fans: a background character, introduced as a one-episode guest star turned regular cast, lead character and fan favourite in the Arrowverse, particularly by fans who have never professed to be traditional or ‘hardcore’ comic book fans of Green Arrow. My paper at the time suggested that fan responses to Felicity was symptomatic of the lack of smart, young, positive and personable female characters on television for fans to identity with.
In her article on Felicity Smoak, Ashley Lynn Carlson remarked on how Felicity is a positive example of a successful female computer scientist who is not only at the top of the food chain (being regularly called a genius, celebrated as an MIT graduate and often acknowledged as the brains of Team Arrow, valued for her technical skills), but also presented without any of the usual “nerd” and “geek” stereotypes normally associated with tech-savvy characters on television. Furthermore, Carlson added, in Felicity’s first encounter with Oliver Queen in season one, “she makes a joke about Hamlet that Oliver does not understand, demonstrating a broad education and a level of cultural competence…” (p. 125) that the main character clearly lacks.
Arrow’s success on the CW has also left a legacy, reflects Iaccino, Barker and Wiatrowski in their introductory chapter to the edited collection on the show (2017). The show’s critical acclaim and its clever combination of “recent Green Arrow comic storylines, the Christopher Nolan Batman films, Smallville, and even LOST” (p. 2) in the early seasons paved way for 3 other spin-offs set in the DC TV universe: The Flash (2014 —), Supergirl (2015 —) and Legends of Tomorrow (2016 —), all under the stewardship of producer Greg Berlanti’s Berlanti Productions. These shows demonstrate that to be a hero is a team effort, exemplified through the influence characters like Felicity Smoak and Iris West have on Oliver Queen and Barry Allen respectively in their journey to be the superheroes they were famed for in the comic books.
That these shows exist under the branding of CW is also interesting. Perhaps it’s the targeted demographics of CW (teenagers to young adults), but for a considerably mainstream American TV network — in comparison to streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, for instance — it is relatively less ‘tone-deaf’, in comparison, to online fan discourse. Which is to say, criticism aside (and there are many) , under the Arrowverse DCTV banner of adaptations on CW, two shows (Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow) out of four are female-driven. While these female characters are still predominantly white, blue-eyed and blonde, these shows categorically feature more diverse female characters, in terms of representations of race and sexuality.
Even if Green Arrow and the Flash may be title characters of their shows, we are seeing female characters who are also saving the world — and maybe even the DC Universe — each week. Whose actors, while fulfilling the CW’s young urban looks (and lifestyles), are also social media savvy with large, vocal and equally media savvy fan bases who will not hesitate to confront producers about the direction of the show and their female characters. This also extend beyond the screen when the DCTV universe were beset by news of sexual harassment committed by one of the executive producers, Andrew Kresiberg at the height of the MeToo movement in 2017.
Kreisberg was initially suspended, but pressure from fans and later, public statements by main cast members of all the shows in support of the allegations resulted in his firing. Fans came out in defence of the female actors who were vocal in their criticism of Kreisberg’s suspension (as well as producer Marc Guggenheim’s comment about ‘reverse sexism’); praising the bravery of their statements, seen to be made at the expense of their jobs and alluding these actions to the acts of heroism their characters perform on screen every week.
At around the same time, this same group of women launched Shethority on social media (Instagram and Twitter). This was followed by a website about a year later, which has become a sharing platform for, as the website declares, “everyone who desires to be a part of the movement towards equality regardless of gender, sexuality, religion, race or ethnicity”. Shethority’s social media celebrates female heroes, both on screen and off, as well as inspirational quotes, while its website shares anecdotes — including videos from the actors themselves, speaking about different issues like race, feminism and identity. Media coverage on the movement has commented on how these women seemed to have taken their ‘superheroism’ offscreen into real life.
In 2016, Melanie Bourdaa, Nicolle Lamerichs and myself argued that the transmedia practices of cult and scifi TV (using the reimagined Battlestar Galactica as an example) go beyond the usual paratexts of games, comics and web series. In the article, we argue that actors who have active social media presence and the characters they are best known for play off one another — often in the social media space — and become “almost one and the same” (p. 199).
We noted that this is also a form of world-building, arguing that it is a collaborative process that happens between actors (who inhabit these characters) and fans, heightened through interaction on social media where there is an expectation for these actors to at least emulate a semblance of their character’s persona: “fans see actors as their characters just as actors embody essence of their characters in their public persona. This suggests that the notion of world-building extends beyond industry-sanctioned texts such as a digital games, comics, and web series; that the actors’ interaction on social media…help to strengthen the characters’ presence for the fan” (2016, p. 201).
This arguably extends to social activism through websites such as Shethority. It is not the only celebrity-driven site — HelloGiggles being another example to draw on here, although the look and feel of both sites are remarkably different, with HelloGiggles having moved to be more lifestyle-centric with echoes of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop. Shethority, on the other hand, has focused on things like identity, sexuality, mental health, feminism — questions and debates that fans are constantly discussing among themselves; that’s seen reflected through the characters these actors play on screen.
I would like to draw to a close buy reflecting on this: on one hand, we can view this as an extension of transmediation, where it goes beyond the text to include the actors, who face a level of fan expectation to be like their on-screen counterpart whether it be interactions at fan conventions or on social media. On the other, I’d like to point back to the CW network, as well as WB, which have both embraced Shethority through the official launch, seemingly lending credence and legitimacy to the work these young actors are doing, reaching out and providing a platform for young women, specifically fans of these DC superhero TV shows. Therefore, it may be prudent to question whether it is CW/WB which is legitimising Shethority or the other way around; that by lending support, is Shethority in effect legitimising WB? And if that were the case, is the network, through their support of Shethority, then silencing criticisms of their position on representation?
 Chief of which is the treatment (by fans and by the producers) of Iris West, especially surrounding criticism of race and representation.
Bourdaa, M., Chin, B., and Lamerichs, N., 2016. The Transmedia Practices of Battlestar Galactica: Studying the Industry, Stars, and Fans. In: A. Hutchins and N.T.J. Tindall, eds. Public Relations and Participatory Culture: Fandom, Social Media and Community Engagement. London ; New York: Routledge, 195–205.
Carlson, A, 2017. Simians, Cyborgs and Smoak: Felicity’s Gendered Roles. In: J.F. Iaccino, C. Barker and M. Wiatrowski, eds. Arrow and Superhero Television: Essays on Themes and Characters of the Series. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 124-135.
Iaccino, J.F., Barker, C., and Waitrowski, M., 2017. Introduction. In: J.F. Iaccino, C. Barker and M. Wiatrowski, eds. Arrow and Superhero Television: Essays on Themes and Characters of the Series. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 1-10.