She looks up at Barry and flashes a shy smile. Then she gives him a tragic backstory that formed on the same night our hero got his new powers. It’s a poignant moment and there’s something like longing between the two of them as they seem to share everything they each have to hide from the rest of the world. Viewers take to Tumblr to GIF, screenshot, dissect, and digest the moment. A new “ship” is launched and a new fandom born. A television show couldn’t ask for a better romantic set up for their lead.

The only problem? This scene is between Barry Allen and Caitlin Snow, a minor comic book character turned TV show Girl Friday played by Danielle Panabaker.

Canonically Barry had a love for the storybooks with Iris West. They fought crime, navigated secret identities and adopted kids together. Iris is up there with Lois Lane and Mary Jane in the annals of most excellent superhero lovers.

But not on CW’s The Flash.

There Iris is Barry’s adoptive sister. He has a crush on her and she’s as oblivious to it as she is his super powers.

It’s a familiar recipe to fans of CW superheroes. On Arrow Ollie was confessing deep secrets to Felicity half a season in while keeping canon love interest Laurel Lance at arms’ length for nearly two years. And back on Smallville Clark could tell Chloe by season 4 while poor Lana Lang ran around confused until season 6 and Lois languished in la la land until season 9.

Each show persists in putting the traditional love interest into a box, compartmentalizing her and keeping her far away from all the action, while the best friend (who happens to be a lady) is keyed in early, or even shifted to be the new love interest.

The question is why? Why are these women set up as painfully ignorant obstacles who will be immediately cast off in favor of more dynamic heroines?

The roots of this trope can be traced back to Superman’s first appearance in the 1938. Superman is an impervious god among men, but Clark Kent’s big weakness is the love triangle he, his alter ego, and Lois Lane are in. In early comics like that the ignorance of the heroine is an obstacle for the hero to overcome. Shorthand to give him flaws and foibles to face. When stories were told in 13-page chunks that shorthand made sense.

But in a 22-episode series told in 40 minute chunks already chalk full of convoluted backstories, mysterious motivations and a bevy of complex characters an ignorant girlfriend consigned to the damsel in distress ghetto stands out as lazy (or worse, misogynistic) storytelling.

Iris West may be the most egregious example thus. In the second episode she’s literally silenced by Barry’s powers so he can have an existentially pathos-loaded monologue concerning his new talents. She stands inert–no longer a character but an object he emotes in the general direction of. Even Clark Kent, with his god-like powers, didn’t turn his love interest into a whine receptacle.

And poor Candice Patton has to spend more than half of every interview defending Iris and insisting she’s not “just” a damsel in distress. While Danielle Panabaker, the show’s other heroine, gets to talk about the pathos her character possesses. She gets to be a character with sharp edges and important thoughts. She gets to call Barry Allen out and participate in his adventures.

It’s disquieting to watch. Particularly as Panabaker is white and Patton is black. The show can find time to flesh out the white heroine in just three episodes, while the black heroine is little more than a checklist of love interest tropes existing on the fringe of things–excluded from the inner circle.

It’s a more severe example of the treatment Laurel Lance has faced. Treatment that had people campaigning for Laurel’s death on Tumblr and complaining about her mere presence in recaps and reviews. Iris West is now facing a steep uphill battle that better-penned love interests have struggled to climb.

The CW has set another heroine up to fail, because at the end of the day she, Laurel and all the rest are still just obstacles for the big male heroes to overcome.


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