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 the first part, we discussed the concept of secret identities: why Barry’s doesn’t work and how it hurts Iris as a character. This was a frustrating point of contention for me as a viewer but it wasn’t a deal breaker yet. The dynamic antagonist, Harrison Wells, and the show’s fun, campy nature were still a draw but my annoyance had tipped over into full blown rage thanks to episode 20: The Trap. In it, Detective Eddie Thawne asks Detective Joe West, his partner and the father of his girlfriend, if he could ask Iris for her hand in marriage. Joe declines. He doesn’t elaborate until Barry asks him why much later in the episode on behalf of Eddie. Joe responds that if he gives Eddie his blessing and he proposes, Iris will “get caught up in the moment and the romance and she’s going to say yes”. A very confused Barry asked what could be wrong with that scenario and Joe responds:
“Because one day she’s going to wake up and realize she married the wrong guy but she’ll stay anyway because she made a promise. I don’t want that kind of life for her. Or him. She’s got feelings for you, Barry. She may not know how to deal with those feelings right now but…I know her. They’re there. Always have been. You know that too.”
First, Joe insinuates he know Iris’ feelings better than she does and rather than have the discussion about her feelings with her, he has the discussion with Barry instead. Not Iris–the person in question–but Barry. Second, he suggests that Iris would not only be trapped in a loveless marriage–after the supposed eureka moment that Joe has foreseen in a vision we aren’t privy to apparently–but she also won’t leave Eddie because she has made a “promise.”
“THE TRUTH IS, IT DOESN’T MATTER BECAUSE IF YOU LOVE SOMEONE, YOU TELL THEM EVERYTHING. SO IF YOU LOVE ME, EDDIE, YOU’LL TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON WITH YOU”
There’s a pattern throughout the season of Iris’ lack of agency but I’ll touch on big moments like in episode eight, Flash vs Arrow. In it, Barry is affected by the metahuman known as Rainbow Raider and has no control over his rage. He rips Eddie out of the moving car that Iris is driving and starts to yell at him:
“Who the hell are you, huh? You think you can just come along and get to have whatever you want? What gives you the right?”
What he’s referring to when he says “get to have whatever you want” is Iris. Barry has feelings for Iris and he’s angry that Eddie is the one who’s in a relationship with her. So what gives, Eddie? The answer isn’t what gives him the right but who, and the who isn’t Barry, it’s Iris. Everything Barry says in this episode is in anger–unfiltered anger–but it’s also truthful anger. Whether or not Barry is a viable love interest for Iris is a whole other discussion but at the end of the day, this exchange is once again between two men in Iris’ life who are discussing Iris’ feelings, her thoughts, and her relationships while never actually asking Iris. Both Eddie and Barry have perceived stakes in this exchange, while Iris is depicted as an object to be won. She’s consistently owned by the other characters which prevents an emotional connection with the audience and this is exacerbated by the introduction of time travel.
Time travel is fun especially in the context of a superhero show but in The Flash, time travel has not only been used for the big plot points–mother’s murder, dad falsely imprisoned and the Reverse Flash–but it also plays a role in Barry’s relationship with Iris. There have been two instances of time travel that have been applied to Iris, with the first occurring in episode sixteen, Rogue Time. When Barry goes back in time by one day, he uses that advantage to change the future or–in the case of Iris–ensures that it remains the same. In the episode before–due to a whole host of variables including the stressfulness of the situation–Iris declares her love for Barry and soon after he reveals he’s The Flash. However, he undoes the day by traveling back in time by accident (as one does when one is super fast). Dr. Wells finds out and being the expert in time travel, he tells Barry not to change anything and let things play out. Of course, Barry doesn’t listen. I was less concerned with how he used this knowledge of time travel as The Flash, and more with how he used it as Barry with respect to Iris. Pre-time travel Iris still had agency since she was the one who made the decision to tell Barry how she felt. Post-time travel Iris doesn’t, because Barry is the one in possession of that information, and rather than let Iris come to that realization on her own, his impatience leads him to abuse that information in his attempts to court her. This obviously blows up in Barry’s face but it becomes part of a long list of time travel offenses against Iris.
In the beginning of The Trap, Barry, Cisco and Caitlin find Dr. Wells’ secret future room houses an A.I. named Gideon and a 2024 newspaper headline with the byline reading “Iris West-Allen.” This information–which is never shared with Iris–is once again another instance of agency removal by feeding this information to everyone else but Iris. Barry is given advance knowledge of his marriage to Iris and this allows him to court her with this information which leads to very inappropriate moments like in the following episode, Grodd Lives. In it he asks whether there’s a chance for the two of them once Eddie–her boyfriend who has been kidnapped–is rescued, and this comes across as incredibly creepy. Barry’s persistence in pursuing Iris comes from a place of ownership from which all the men in her life seem to be working. Iris is not treated like a person. She has no power over her story and has power acted upon her whether it’s through these instances of time travel, the secret identity being kept from her or not being able to be truly angry when she finds out she was being lied to. The only solace I had with regards to keeping Iris in the dark about Barry’s secret was her response to it when she ultimately finds out. That’s when we’ll get to see some agency! That’s what will make twenty episodes of lacklustre and sometimes insulting character development worthwhile because we’ll see consequences! None of this happens. Iris is upset for a hot minute before her feelings and thus the consequences are trampled by the danger her father and Barry face against psychic Gorilla Grodd. Obviously, Iris can’t be angry and concerned for their well being because that would require her to be a fully realized character.
I’ve talked about ownership of Iris in how the show treats her as property, a plot device and an emotional outlet for the men in her life. Believe it or not, there was a moment when these men had blatantly stated this fact in episode 18, All Star Team Up. Eddie is visibly distressed by the secret he’s been keeping from Iris (Barry’s Flash alter ego), he tells Joe that he wants to tell her since it’s affecting their relationship. Joe, of course, is set against it because he wants to protect her. Eddie states that he doesn’t agree and Joe counters by saying that he’s her father.
Eddie: ”And I’m her boyfriend. When does my vote outweigh yours?”
Joe: “When you become her husband.”
With marriage, Joe is suggesting old school transference of ownership and responsibility from the father to the husband. If this doesn’t encapsulate Iris’ role in season one of The Flash, I’m not sure what does. Having an actress like Candice Patton depict a character like Iris West is a big deal and seeing this character so horribly misused doesn’t sit well with me at all but I like to look forward. What does the future hold for Ms. West? How is she viewed outside of the show? Can her character be salvaged and should she be with Barry? I want it to be better but can it be? I ask myself these questions in the third and final part of this series.