Monday, September 29, 2014

Strong Women Series #1: The Women of 'Arrow'


STRONG WOMEN SERIES #1: The Women of Arrow

When I was at LeakyCon, there was a panel titled "Leading as a Lady." At this panel, a handful of female actresses from all mediums -- television, web, movies -- had the opportunity to discuss what it is like to be a woman in their craft. It was an enlightening panel, as everything from racial identity to sexism was discussed. But one of the most interesting questions at the panel and one that has resonated with me ever since was this: "Do you think 'strong, female character' has become a buzz word in the business?" It was an interesting question and one that piqued my interest at the panel. I had to wonder... is it true? Has the phrase "strong, female character" become a fad? Or, worse, has it become just a string of words that people tack onto a character description without fully recognizing what they mean? Is "strong, female character" the new "gluten-free"?

I said in the opening of my Mona Vanderwaal Appreciation Post that I like my villains the same way I like my Starbucks order (complex), and the same holds true for not just villains but heroes as well. I like complex characters. I like layered characters. I like rooting for a character and watching them stumble; I like hating a character and watching them prove me wrong. As a woman who avidly watches television critically because she has a background in English and therefore cannot help but see characters and story as anything but complex, I've become frustrated when those who write about television completely dilute what the phrase "strong, female character means." When I become enraged, however, is when these people only classify certain females as strong and deem others to be weak or inconsequential simply because they do not fit a stereotype or a preconceived notion.

Before I get to the ladies of Arrow, let me first attempt to define what makes a "strong, female character" and why this terminology is constantly misused and mishandled within the scope of pop culture criticism. In order to explain what a strong female is, let me first explain what she is NOT: a woman is not strong because she wields a weapon; a woman can be strong if she wields a weapon but that is not what classifies her as "strong." A strong woman is not someone who merely serves to overpower men or take their positions of authority. In example: Oliver Queen still has near-ultimate authority in Team Arrow, but Felicity Smoak is a strong female character without ever directly opposing him or overpowering his position as "leader." A strong female character is not just a person who yells or who sits on a throne or who knows how to put a man in a headlock. We tend to think of "strong" as a masculine term which is problematic when we attach it to the phrase "female character," because then the presumption is that a woman has to have the physical strength or stamina or attributes that a man does in order to be worthy of the term. (And this is understandable because when you look up the word "strong" in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary, the first definition references physical strength.)

But what if... what if the phrase "strong, female character" simply meant "a complex, multi-layered female character who does not serve as a prop for a story, but an anchor." Strong women can be vulnerable. Wow, that's shocking, right? Strong women can be romantic. Again: are you surprised? Strength is not inherently tied to invincibility, nor should it be. A woman should be considered strong if she triumphs in the face of adversity, no matter what that looks like. She should be considered strong if she is flawed -- if she falls and makes mistakes and sometimes says the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong moment. A woman should be considered strong if she changes the course of her own future and destiny. A woman should be considered strong if she allows herself to love and to be loved because when you fall in love, you are allowing yourself to be open and vulnerable and that kind of decision requires enormous strength.

Are you beginning to see a clearer picture of this "strong, female character"? If Hollywood wants to present us with these types of women -- these multi-layered, complex heroes and villains and antiheroes -- then I would not be more thrilled to embrace them. But -- and this is a BIG but -- if Hollywood continues to decide that in order to placate women, they must construct a "strong, female character" and do so by handing a female character a gun or a sword, slapping a label on her one-dimensional personality and calling it good, then I will continue to take offense. Give me Felicity Smoak. Give me Leslie Knope. Give me Jessica Day and Merida from Brave and Donna Paulsen. Give me Abbie Mills and Laurel Lance and Annie Edison and Elizabeth Keen. Present me with examples like Lizzie Bennet, Emma Woodhouse, Clara Oswald, and Moira Queen. Take women like Thea Queen and Britta Perry, Lindsay Monroe, Sara Lance, Liz Lemon, and Monica Geller and show them to me -- all of their faults and flaws, their hang-ups and quirks, their strengths and weaknesses and let me embrace them. Because within each of those women listed is a kernel of strength that blossoms and grows because it is unique, just like them.

Those, dear friends, are the "strong, female characters" I need to see more of. And, transitioning away from my diatribe of an introduction, let's discuss some of the characters that I noted above from The CW's colossal hit Arrow. Each woman at the beginning of the post is is strong: Laurel, Felicity, Sara, Moria, and Thea alike. Their strengths are rooted in different facets of their personality, so if you don't mind, I would like to take time throughout this post to explain what each of those facets are. Ready? Let's do this.


Why she is strong: Her goodness, faithfulness, and loyalty

I'm kicking off this post with Felcity Smoak mainly because I have already said so much about her in my character appreciation post, so anything I write here will be more or less an abbreviated version of that. Felicity is a strong character because she is genuinely good: she cares about people and things when they cannot care about themselves. She believes and trusts and hopes in things like love and truth and good triumphing over evil. I said it a lot in her character appreciation post but the reason that Felicity is strong can be summed up by her response to Oliver in "Streets of Fire": she outright refuses to give up on people and she refuses to allow them to give up on themselves. She reminds Oliver of things he cannot see or bear to believe within himself: she sees how he honors those he has lost by continuing to fight; to give up would be to dishonor their memory. She sees his goodness and his love for the city. She sees and she believes.

Felicity is an IT girl who spends the vast majority of her time in Arrow behind a computer screen. She's an integral part of Team Arrow though not (as I also said in that post and was exemplified so beautifully in "Time of Death") because of her skill set but because of WHO SHE IS. Oliver doesn't care about Felicity because she can hack a computer. He admires Felicity because she can hack a computer but he cares about her because of the person that she is -- because she is loving and loyal and sweet. But sweetness and strength are not mutually exclusive. As I discussed in my LeakyCon interview with the cast of Emma Approved, the character of Harriet is meek. But as Joanna Sotomura and Dayeanne Hutton astutely then said: "Meek doesn't mean weak."

Just because a character is quiet or sweet does not mean that she is a weak character. It means that her strength is likely more in her emotions, her relationships, and her heart. Felicity is loyal and faithful and she believes in others when they cannot believe in themselves. She fights for herself, stands up for who she is and what she wants, and constantly puts her heart on the line. She is strong.


Why she is strong: Her resilience, her brokenness, and her intelligence

Contrary to popular opinion and belief, it IS possible to romantically want Oliver and Felicity to become an item but also like Laurel Lance. Admittedly, I found her to be less compelling and relatable during the second season, but during season one I was majorly confused as to why a number of viewers disliked her. Season one Laurel Lance was amazing. This is the woman whose home was broken into at gunpoint like, seven times. This is the woman who WIELDED A HUGE FREAKING GUN WHEN SOMEONE THREATENED HER LIFE AND THE LIFE OF A CHILD ("Home Invasion") and in that same episode, was extremely vulnerable in how much she cared for the little boy. I loved Laurel Lance a lot in that episode and I'm not sure how anyone could possibly hate her upon seeing her fight -- literally fight -- for the life of an innocent.

Laurel Lance isn't without mistakes and problems, however, but that's what makes her STRONG. She recognizes flaws in her own character and seeks to remedy them. She stumbles. She makes mistakes. But she always fights for justice and the side of the good. And though she's occasionally abrasive or standoffish, it's because she guards her heart. You know, the heart that has been broken multiple times by men. Geez, if I was Laurel, I would not have the strength to get out of bed, let alone fight for a city and still put her heart on the line when it comes to romance. (This is a woman who: has been cheated on by her longtime boyfriend... with her sister; fell in love with Tommy only to watch him die; fell for the future mayor only to learn that he's corrupt and a murderer. Yeah.)

Look, you don't have to love Laurel or even like her. That's okay. I never said above that strong women were LIKABLE women. (Which I think is something that gets confused quite frequently in pop culture.) But you should admire her strength: you should marvel at her desire to take back what her addiction stole from her -- to save what little pieces of her she can that existed when she lost Tommy and rebuild herself and her relationships from there. You should be able to take a step back and marvel at her resilience and her intelligence (yes, even when she's blackmailing to get her job back). You should see her as strong because I sure as heck do.


Why she is strong: Her ruthlessness, her vulnerability, her sacrifice

Moira Queen was a scary, scary woman to trifle with in Arrow. No, seriously, she had that quiet intensity that always terrified you -- you never knew whether or not she was trustworthy or if she would turn around and stab you when you least expected it. Moira was far from a faultless and upright character but if I'm being honest, THAT is why she was so compelling. She wasn't good, really, but when she needed to be GREAT, she was. When her family was being threatened, she would do anything to protect them (and did, ultimately). She was strong because she held her head high through her trials (both literally and figuratively) and never backed down, even when it would have been much easier to cower in fear.

Her ruthlessness is part of what makes her such a strong character -- that drive within her to do whatever it takes, however high the cost, to protect herself or the people around her, she was willing to do. But Moira had a conscience, too, and she knew when she crossed the line. What speaks the most about Moira Queen as a strong female character is the intense vulnerability she often exhibited when no one was watching (like the GIF above). I think she always believed in this perception of strength -- holding her head high, wearing crisp dresses and suits, meeting the public with her shoulders back and jaw clenched -- being necessary in the public and even within her home life. We very rarely ever saw Moira rattled and I think it's because she never believed she could be. This is a woman who made a lot of mistakes and paid the price for them heavily; vulnerability, to her, was a sign of a lowered guard and weakness. She would not have that.

Our actions often say more about us than our words ever could and our actions in the face of certain destruction say the most about us. The final moments of Moira's life exemplify why she is such a strong female: she put her own life on the line in order to save her children. She carefully deduced the scenario that Slade put Oliver in and instead of allowing him to make a choice, she stood up and chose FOR him. Moira may not have been a perfect character or even a good person most of the time. But her greatness and her strength is exemplified most clearly in the exact moment she put herself in the most vulnerable position she could to protect those she could not be without. That's a complex character right there, friends.


Why she is strong: Her heroism, her darkness, her sacrifices

I could write a novel on why I love Sara Lance/The Canary, but I'll spare you a novel and instead spend a few paragraphs detailing why, exactly, this woman is strong. Spoiler alert: it doesn't always have to do with the weapon that she wields. Sara is such a dynamic and complex character -- she's a person who fights for justice but who doesn't believe that she is a hero. She thinks she's too far gone for that because of the things that happened to her on the island and the things that she DID on the island. Sara fears her past, not in the way that most people do: no, she's afraid that every time she looks into the mirror, all she will be able to see is the darkness behind her eyes; the killer she fears that she is. She labels herself this way and it's haunting and heartbreaking because, as Laurel asserts, she was given the name Canary -- a name full of hope and light. Sara went onto that ship as a girl and she returned home not as a woman, but as a broken and scarred (literally and metaphorically) killer. She's jaded because of all she has seen, hesitant to trust because of all she has known, and terrified of herself because of all she has done.

(I told you Sara Lance was complex.)

What makes Sara such a strong woman is not just the fact that she is a combatant and a killer. I love watching Sara fight -- I love to see her wield weapons or jump over hurdles. I love to cheer for her as she expertly takes down the bad guys. But I really love HER -- Sara Lance -- as a person and a woman because she's more than just a person in a leather suit and a mask: she's a hero who doesn't believe she's a hero; she's self-sabotaging and cold because that's the only way she survived on the island. What's so heartbreaking about Sara is that she's convinced that she is a monster. I talked about this notion extensively in my Once Upon A Time review, but it breaks my heart to see characters like her (and characters like Regina Mills and Frozen's Elsa) who look into the mirror and only see the dark parts of themselves, the parts they regret and wish desperately they could change: the parts they are genuinely AFRAID of. Regina and Elsa are afraid of who they are because of what they have already done, and so is Sara.

But Sara's character is rooted in the foundation that she will go to any length to protect her family and the people she loves. And those people -- those people she vows to protect -- will always be there to remind her of the light and goodness within her own soul that she cannot see anymore. Sara's sacrifices and her darkness and her heroism make her strong. You'd think that these attributes would weaken her character, right? You would think that vulnerability is equated with weakness and that darkness is equated with villainy, but that's simply not the case. Sara Lance is amazing: she's a fighter who is desperate to harness the good left within her and will do so at any cost, even if it means pushing her own family away to keep them safe, because she is strong.


Why she is strong: Her struggles, her love, her stubbornness

I'll be the first to admit it: I didn't always like Thea Queen. I saw her as the spoiled, stubborn, superficial younger sister of Oliver who was the way that she was because her parents gave her everything in life and never expected much from her. And, truthfully, Thea was pretty reckless when we first met her in Arrow, doing drugs and partying without any sense or idea of consequence. She was a teenager whose only goal was to have fun. And I think that this behavior partially stemmed from her father and brother's disappearance at sea, but if I really examine why Thea is strong, one word comes to mind: her stubbornness.

Usually the word "stubborn" has a negative connotation and usually that's accurate. But stubborness doesn't mean negativity: being stubborn means that you are unwavering in your beliefs, your actions or your opinions. Thea is stubborn and that quality is what makes her so strong. It's what drives her into the nightclub business venture which she truly succeeds at. She's able to grow as a person because she refuses to give up, even when life is difficult. Thea isn't a person who readily accepts the word "no" at face value and that's what's so beautiful about her. She is resilient. She is a force to be reckoned with. But Thea -- with all of her faults and flaws -- is also a person who loves deeply, even when she cannot express it the way she wants to. She cares about her mother and about Oliver and about Roy. She trusts people until they let her down and then she holds her head high like Moira Queen does and continues to live, to exist, even when it seems impossible.

And when she finally breaks -- when Thea Queen finds herself, in "Unthinkable" unsure of who she really is when the dust settles because everyone she loves has either abandoned her or died -- Thea Queen is strong because she FIGHTS instead of fleeing or collapsing altogether. The bitterness and anger that so easily ensnares her makes her really complex and really layered. She, much like Sara, has learned to only see herself one way: weak, trusting, naive. But at the season's end, she realizes that she wants to rebel against everything she ever knew and believed about herself and embrace her identity as Malcom Merlyn's daughter, and not Moira Queen's.

I'm extremely excited to see where Thea's arc takes us in season three, because I do believe that she is strong and she is determined and that she is dangerous because when you peel back her layers -- when you take away everything Thea has ever known -- what is left is a woman who is unhinged and strong. Is there anyone more dangerous than that?

So there you have it: the ladies of Arrow are forces to be reckoned with and each are strong in their own ways. I'm so excited to make the Strong Women Series a monthly, or every-other-month occurrence! I'll be bringing in guest posters and friends in the future to talk about series like Hannibal and The Walking Dead and Doctor Who since -- shocker! -- I'm not an expert at all television there is. ;)

Thank you all for reading and hit up the comments with your own thoughts about the women of Arrow, the term "strong, female character," or suggestions for future TV shows in this series. Until then, folks! :)

1 comment:

  1. The world needs this. I could read this all day. I love the women of arrow. The thing you wrote about Thea is so true. Especially now that she went head to head with Slade. Totally badass Thea. The emotional strength that she showed in that episode. Oh gosh! The writers wrote such a beautiful character. I hated Laurel and Moira until now. Your thoughts about them changed my opinion. I never saw it that way. Thank you. Felicity Smoak! That girl is the heart of the show. I aspire to be her. Sara Lance. The way she rose from the ashes of her life and built a life as hero. She will be so missed. Great post!