Felicity Smoak, the Comic vs Manic-Pixie Dream Girl and our Inability to Handle Complex Women

July 16, 2016 Written By Aadya Sinha

Like most die hard comic fans, I am somewhat shamefaced when mentioning my weekly guilty-pleasure that is CW's Arrow. Not only does the show ignore many of the diverse minor characters mentioned in the (already predominantly white and heteronormative) comics, but there are also some gaping plot holes and inconsistencies. Still, it is an hour of mindless fun that I can binge watch without getting a headache, also I've come to have a small soft spot for the bespectacled-nerdy-IT girl that is Felicity Smoak (portrayed by Emily Bett Rickards).

felicity-smoak

Image Source

Felicity began as a stock character, a repurposed usage of a minor character from a different series in the same universe. She was the innuendo spouting computer hacker/sidekick (Chloe Sullivan, anyone?) with an inappropriate crush on the boss, a wildly popular one at that. Initially meant as a guest appearance, Rickards was promoted to being a recurring character and then a series regular, based on popular demand. Skip four years ahead to 2016 and Felicity is one of the most divisive and hated characters on mainstream television. The words "annoying", "whiney" and "bitch" can be found in many-a-posts and comments in relation to the character.

Now, this isn't meant to be a defense of a single character or a rant about how much one should appreciate babbling nerds, (which they really should!) but a critique of how society perceives female characters that step beyond their designated two-dimensional mold. As problematic as it is that Felicity is a straight-white female who really is only a token nerd, with the gorgeous Rickards essaying the role, this makes the argument all the more poignant. As a character, Felicity embodies none of the social issues that come with being a woman, yet the response to her character evolution makes a decidedly political statement. In the domination matrix, conventionally attractive straight white women find themselves pretty high on the totem pole, benefiting from institutional and perception privileges. Their idiosyncrasies and experiences are consequently viewed less critically and with more sympathy than the rest. It's interesting then, when someone fitting all those criteria faces such intense backlash.

black-canary

Image Source

As mentioned, Felicity began her journey as the nerdy sidekick who used her supreme hacking skills to aid Oliver Queen in his quest to save Starling City from its corrupt and decrypt elite. She was the comic-relief, her uncontrolled rambles providing the perfect foil to broody Oliver and the gritty tone he set for the show. She disagreed with him just enough for a single pep-talk to be the conciliatory remedy. All in all, she was a plot device, a colourful and good looking one at that, but a plot device all the same. This was the height of Felicity's popularity with majority of the hate being aimed at Laurel Lance (alter ego: Black Canary), Oliver's crime-fighting partner and love interest from the comics. A brief glance at the comments regarding her too, will reveal being "whiny" and "annoying" as her main offences. Rewatching the show (for research purposes of course) the timing of these comments coincides almost entirely with the times that Laurel had her own-independent storylines, disagreed with Oliver or called him out on his behaviour. The criticism wasn't regarding the writing or the story-arch, it was entirely heaped on the character. Similarly, the moment Felicity evolved, had her own story lines or refused to make excuses for the men in her life, she became a "bitch".

As it often did while reading comics, this realisation took me back to a creation of one of my favourite comic writers, DC's Gail Simone and her site, 'Women in Refrigerators'. The satirical website brought into focus what came to be known as 'fridging', or how often female characters were killed/raped/maimed/depowered in the comic-verse, often seen as a bastion of masculinity, simply to further the plot for their male counterparts. The point was to highlight not only how dispensable female characters were, but also how unimportant their stories were when compared to men, how interchangeable each of their tragedies were. Inspired, Arrow too, liberally disposes off the women in Oliver's life, his mother, his sister or lovers, whoever may be required to refuel his broodiness meter.

arrow

 

What incentive then, does one have to develop a character whose only purpose is justifying their (male) 'hero's' tortured and brooding personality?

It's not just DC and CW though, media archetypes for women have long been pre-decided, often in terms of neat binaries. It's like our collective imagination refuses to fathom complex women who can be multi-dimensional. Hell! Even the "physically strong female" is a token tribute to women now. The last few years have seen the rise of the anti-hero with shades of grey, yet a significant female characterisation of the same is conspicuous only by absence. Even as male characters find the space for transformation and growth, the same for females is severely lacking.

Let's look at, for instance Marvel's 'Jessica Jones'. Rated highly by critics and viewers alike, the show spends a good amount of its time developing her love interest and adversary, delineated by Luke Cage (Powerman) and Zebediah Killgrave (Purple Man) respectively. The show has now become a ready response for complex female roles on television, and a lot of that nuance comes from sharing space with well developed characters around her.

It can be argued that 'Arrow' isn't about empowerment or the show one should look at for strong female characters, that it's a single show on one network. Really though, 'Arrow' is a stand in for the emerging multi-million industry dedicated to reproduction of comics on screens. These endeavours are almost exclusively targeted at the 18-25 demographic. Furthermore, enjoying the fruits of globalisation, American network shows are no longer limited to the anglo-sphere. According to IMDB, six of the fifty most watched television shows released in 2015 are comic book reboots. While 'women-centric' shows also feature on the list, it is important to understand that even male stock characters are a lot more developed than those for women.

jessica-jones

Image Source

 

And so? We're unused to having independent female characters co-existing with men. It's not that we don't want women. They must remain, in their impossibly tight clothes looking badass and gorgeous all at once, but they must abide by the rules we set. In a tragic modern day rehash of the sexual division of labour and confining women to their households, women are now confined to certain personality types. The manic-pixie dream girl has transcended the screen and manifested herself as a prototype women are meant to abide by. She can come in many forms, her main purpose however, remains to support the men in her life; always as the enabler. If she dare step beyond that? Well she's no longer the dream girl, is she?

With the dialectical relationship between demand driven media and society along with their constant mimicking of one another, our inability to produce innovative and strong female characters with sustained popularity is very problematic. Indian poet, author and societal commentator Amrita Pritam once said, if a woman calls society's currency counterfeit, it begins to foam at the mouth and "..puts aside all its theories and arguments and picks up the weapon of filth to fling at her". Perhaps, but I'm done watching tropes and fantasies masquerade as women in media.

Felicity Smoak, the Comic vs Manic-Pixie Dream Girl and our Inability to Handle Complex Women

July 16, 2016 Written By Aadya Sinha

Like most die hard comic fans, I am somewhat shamefaced when mentioning my weekly guilty-pleasure that is CW's Arrow. Not only does the show ignore many of the diverse minor characters mentioned in the (already predominantly white and heteronormative) comics, but there are also some gaping plot holes and inconsistencies. Still, it is an hour of mindless fun that I can binge watch without getting a headache, also I've come to have a small soft spot for the bespectacled-nerdy-IT girl that is Felicity Smoak (portrayed by Emily Bett Rickards).

felicity-smoak

Image Source

Felicity began as a stock character, a repurposed usage of a minor character from a different series in the same universe. She was the innuendo spouting computer hacker/sidekick (Chloe Sullivan, anyone?) with an inappropriate crush on the boss, a wildly popular one at that. Initially meant as a guest appearance, Rickards was promoted to being a recurring character and then a series regular, based on popular demand. Skip four years ahead to 2016 and Felicity is one of the most divisive and hated characters on mainstream television. The words "annoying", "whiney" and "bitch" can be found in many-a-posts and comments in relation to the character.

Now, this isn't meant to be a defense of a single character or a rant about how much one should appreciate babbling nerds, (which they really should!) but a critique of how society perceives female characters that step beyond their designated two-dimensional mold. As problematic as it is that Felicity is a straight-white female who really is only a token nerd, with the gorgeous Rickards essaying the role, this makes the argument all the more poignant. As a character, Felicity embodies none of the social issues that come with being a woman, yet the response to her character evolution makes a decidedly political statement. In the domination matrix, conventionally attractive straight white women find themselves pretty high on the totem pole, benefiting from institutional and perception privileges. Their idiosyncrasies and experiences are consequently viewed less critically and with more sympathy than the rest. It's interesting then, when someone fitting all those criteria faces such intense backlash.

black-canary

Image Source

As mentioned, Felicity began her journey as the nerdy sidekick who used her supreme hacking skills to aid Oliver Queen in his quest to save Starling City from its corrupt and decrypt elite. She was the comic-relief, her uncontrolled rambles providing the perfect foil to broody Oliver and the gritty tone he set for the show. She disagreed with him just enough for a single pep-talk to be the conciliatory remedy. All in all, she was a plot device, a colourful and good looking one at that, but a plot device all the same. This was the height of Felicity's popularity with majority of the hate being aimed at Laurel Lance (alter ego: Black Canary), Oliver's crime-fighting partner and love interest from the comics. A brief glance at the comments regarding her too, will reveal being "whiny" and "annoying" as her main offences. Rewatching the show (for research purposes of course) the timing of these comments coincides almost entirely with the times that Laurel had her own-independent storylines, disagreed with Oliver or called him out on his behaviour. The criticism wasn't regarding the writing or the story-arch, it was entirely heaped on the character. Similarly, the moment Felicity evolved, had her own story lines or refused to make excuses for the men in her life, she became a "bitch".

As it often did while reading comics, this realisation took me back to a creation of one of my favourite comic writers, DC's Gail Simone and her site, 'Women in Refrigerators'. The satirical website brought into focus what came to be known as 'fridging', or how often female characters were killed/raped/maimed/depowered in the comic-verse, often seen as a bastion of masculinity, simply to further the plot for their male counterparts. The point was to highlight not only how dispensable female characters were, but also how unimportant their stories were when compared to men, how interchangeable each of their tragedies were. Inspired, Arrow too, liberally disposes off the women in Oliver's life, his mother, his sister or lovers, whoever may be required to refuel his broodiness meter.

arrow

 

What incentive then, does one have to develop a character whose only purpose is justifying their (male) 'hero's' tortured and brooding personality?

It's not just DC and CW though, media archetypes for women have long been pre-decided, often in terms of neat binaries. It's like our collective imagination refuses to fathom complex women who can be multi-dimensional. Hell! Even the "physically strong female" is a token tribute to women now. The last few years have seen the rise of the anti-hero with shades of grey, yet a significant female characterisation of the same is conspicuous only by absence. Even as male characters find the space for transformation and growth, the same for females is severely lacking.

Let's look at, for instance Marvel's 'Jessica Jones'. Rated highly by critics and viewers alike, the show spends a good amount of its time developing her love interest and adversary, delineated by Luke Cage (Powerman) and Zebediah Killgrave (Purple Man) respectively. The show has now become a ready response for complex female roles on television, and a lot of that nuance comes from sharing space with well developed characters around her.

It can be argued that 'Arrow' isn't about empowerment or the show one should look at for strong female characters, that it's a single show on one network. Really though, 'Arrow' is a stand in for the emerging multi-million industry dedicated to reproduction of comics on screens. These endeavours are almost exclusively targeted at the 18-25 demographic. Furthermore, enjoying the fruits of globalisation, American network shows are no longer limited to the anglo-sphere. According to IMDB, six of the fifty most watched television shows released in 2015 are comic book reboots. While 'women-centric' shows also feature on the list, it is important to understand that even male stock characters are a lot more developed than those for women.

jessica-jones

Image Source

 

And so? We're unused to having independent female characters co-existing with men. It's not that we don't want women. They must remain, in their impossibly tight clothes looking badass and gorgeous all at once, but they must abide by the rules we set. In a tragic modern day rehash of the sexual division of labour and confining women to their households, women are now confined to certain personality types. The manic-pixie dream girl has transcended the screen and manifested herself as a prototype women are meant to abide by. She can come in many forms, her main purpose however, remains to support the men in her life; always as the enabler. If she dare step beyond that? Well she's no longer the dream girl, is she?

With the dialectical relationship between demand driven media and society along with their constant mimicking of one another, our inability to produce innovative and strong female characters with sustained popularity is very problematic. Indian poet, author and societal commentator Amrita Pritam once said, if a woman calls society's currency counterfeit, it begins to foam at the mouth and "..puts aside all its theories and arguments and picks up the weapon of filth to fling at her". Perhaps, but I'm done watching tropes and fantasies masquerade as women in media.

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