We Need To Talk About Iris West: The Problem With Secret Identities

We Need To Talk About Iris West: The Problem With Secret Identities

I had no plans to write about the depiction of Iris West on The Flash because I thought my grumbling tweets were enough and that other people who were more moved by it could take it on. I didn’t think I needed to be the person because to be honest, the fun of the show

I had no plans to write about the depiction of Iris West on The Flash because I thought my grumbling tweets were enough and that other people who were more moved by it could take it on. I didn’t think I needed to be the person because to be honest, the fun of the show overall overpowered my reservations. Gradually, I went from troubled to annoyed and then frustratingly irritated as the show progressed but I still didn’t think I had anything to say beyond in-person rants to friends. It wasn’t until episode 20, The Trap, that I…hulked out. As I wrote about Iris and her place in the show, I realized I had a lot to say which prompted a multi-parted look at Iris. Hopefully, I can get in every example and feeling I have about the character in this series.

In superhero comics, there’s a tradition where the superhero creates a secret identity for themselves and keeps it hidden from loved ones – especially their love interest – under the guise of protection. Protection from those who would hurt the hero by hurting those they care for. This trope began with Superman and Lois Lane and many have followed suit ever since. It’s even made the jump to other media such as television, movies and books that are adopting and adapting the genre and its stories. The problem, however, is that this trope is just that: a trope. It’s an overused idea and recurring literary device. It’s difficult to make it work without coming off as weak storytelling or – in the case of The Flash – a hindrance to a character’s development. It’s been more than 75 years since Superman and Lois Lane made their debut in comics and, along with them, the superhero genre; so the trope needs to be reworked. It needs to be pushed beyond its initial set up and address the drawbacks. One drawback is the “for your own protection” excuse that superheroes use to justify their deception. 

THE PROBLEM, HOWEVER, IS THAT THIS TROPE IS JUST THAT: A TROPE. IT’S AN OVERUSED IDEA AND RECURRING LITERARY DEVICE. IT’S DIFFICULT TO MAKE IT WORK WITHOUT COMING OFF AS WEAK STORYTELLING OR – IN THE CASE OF THE FLASH – A HINDRANCE TO A CHARACTER’S DEVELOPMENT.

There are a few situations where the trope is appropriate and works well. For example, it makes sense to me that someone like Peter Parker would keep his Spider-Man alter ego from Aunt May. Both she and Uncle Ben were Peter’s parents when his biological parents died and therefore, he’s her responsibility. It’s not unrealistic for a parent to want to tell their child to stop going out dressed like a spider person who goes up against the likes of Green Goblin, Doc Ock and The Kingpin because of the danger that would bring. By not telling her, Peter avoids the inevitable part of the discussion where she tells him to stop being Spider-Man. He doesn’t want to stop. He wants to keep being a hero. Keeping the secret is easier because it removes conflict.

The danger of having that knowledge – being in the know of the “secret identity” – lies in the connection to the superhero. That connection remains whether or not the individual knows the truth, which could result in unsuccessful and useless attempts in getting that information (blackmail, torture etc). So this excuse makes even less sense when applied to a character whose job puts them in sticky situations regardless of their status in the knowing or not knowing. That’s where Iris West comes in. Iris’ character development in The Flash is frustrating to say the least. As the show progresses, you see more and more people in her life find out about Barry’s secret alter ego as The Flash before she does. Why? They want to “protect her” from what the danger of knowing could bring. If that’s the case, then Team Flash hasn’t been doing a great job this whole season:

  • In Episode One, Iris is almost hit by a police car that’s in pursuit of the first Weather Wizard aka Clyde Mardon.
  • In Episode Two, Iris and Barry attend an award ceremony honouring Simon Stagg where Multiplex, Danton Black, attacks the event in search of Stagg.
  • In Episode Six, Barry’s childhood bully and supervillain, Tony Woodward aka Girder, kidnaps Iris because of her connection to The Flash via her blog. Also in that episode, Reverse Flash threatens Iris’ life to get Joe to back off of the investigation into him.
  • In Episode Eight, The Flash is filled with rage thanks to Rainbow Raider and goes after Eddie because he’s dating Iris (I’ve added this because if the Arrow and the others hadn’t intervened, I’m not sure what would happen once Eddie was out of the way and Iris inevitably shoots down The Flash’s advances).
  • In Episode Ten, Iris shows up at the police barricade during the fight between The Flash, Captain Cold and Heatwave despite the danger.
  • In Episode Fifteen, Mark Mardon aka Weather Wizard #2, threatens to go after Iris as revenge against Joe.
  • In Episode Sixteen, Iris drinks the champagne that the Tricksters poisoned at an event that she’s covering for her job.
  • In Episode Seventeen, Hannibal Bates aka Everyman nearly shoots Caitlin and Iris when they find proof of Eddie’s innocence in the shooting of two cops.

In all of these situations, Iris is put in danger because of her connection to the Flash, her cop father, and her job at Central City Picture News. Ignorance doesn’t play a factor in her safety despite what other characters say about it. Ignorance robs her of knowledge that will enable her to better protect herself from these threats and she says as much in episode twenty-one when she finds out out Barry’s secret.

Iris West. Candice Patton. The Flash. "Plastique". Photo by Cate Cameron 2014. The CW Network.

Secret identities are never really about the safety of the individual. They’re about trust. The hero asks themselves: Do they trust the people in their lives enough to keep their secret even after a falling out, threats and torture? Can they trust them enough not to freak out and leave them behind? The hero is at a crossroads when they start to think about how much of themselves they want to share with the people in their life. They’re putting a lot on the line by exposing themselves in their entirety to the very people whose opinions matter most to them. People who could ask them to stop putting themselves in danger or have them second guess some of their decisions*. Secret identities are never about the people that superheroes love but about the superheroes protecting themselves from getting hurt. In regards to The Flash, Barry does operate out of this old school reasoning but we quickly see that for him, it’s weak. Iris is his best friend, foster sister** and the love of his life so there are a handful of times where he’s wanted to tell her the truth. What stops him isn’t the notion of her safety but rather a person: Detective Joe West.

SECRET IDENTITIES ARE NEVER REALLY ABOUT THE SAFETY OF THE INDIVIDUAL. THEY’RE ABOUT TRUST.

Joe, like Barry, was a character I loved at the beginning of the series, but who slowly morphed into someone who infuriated and creeped me out. At the end of the first episode, Joe finds out that Barry is The Flash after he stopped the first Weather Wizard (Clyde). After that situation was taken care of (courtesy of two bullets in the chest from Joe), Joe asks Barry to promise him that he won’t tell Iris about his powers. That’s a weighty promise. This person who is in a position of power as both a guardian and a cop has planted the idea in Barry’s head that keeping this secret from Iris is somehow an act of protection. You have a parent telling one child to not tell the other one about a secret that puts them all in danger just by association. I understand that a parent wants to keep their children safe but as I’ve established, that isn’t working, so why put your daughter in a position where she can’t protect herself? The knowledge would be the equivalent of teaching her to shoot a gun or basic self defense especially as a child of a police officer. Rather than protection, it seems like Joe is working from a place of ownership. In fact, a lot of interactions between him and Iris (as well as Barry and Iris) seem to come from a sense of ownership or entitlement (but we’ll get to that in part two). Right now, you have two of the most important people in Iris’ life conspiring behind her back and that’s not the worst part: her lack of agency is.

Secret identity is just one part of the problem of Iris West–although as you’ve seen, it does play a significant role. Detective Eddie Thawne is kept in the dark about Barry’s secret until episode 17, but the difference between his situation and Iris’ is agency. Eddie is still a cop and he’s given opportunities to be active in the storytelling even though he’s unaware. Iris isn’t. As the episodes progress, Iris is relegated to prop status where she’s bequeathed “the motivation” for the men in her life to act, or to help Barry’s emotional development. This lack of agency becomes blatantly obvious when time travel gets thrown into the mix–and that’s when Iris became a grossly mistreated character.

 

 

*That second part is important given the lack of oversight that superheroes/vigilantes have as seen in “CW’s The Flash & Due Process: Do Supervillains Have The Right To An Attorney?

**I initially wrote “adopted sister” but in episode thirteen of season one, Barry refers to Joe as his foster dad.

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