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 part one of this series, I explored secret identities and how Barry’s Flash alter-ego was used to undermine Iris as a character. In part two, I gave a ton of examples on how Iris was gaslighted by the men in her life, as well as the writers and how time travel played a role. After part two was published, I got a lot of comments—way more than part one—and the commenters weren’t happy. I addressed it in the comments at the time, but I thought I’d use this opportunity to explore the main concerns they all shared before wrapping up this series and discussing the future of Iris West.
First on the list of concerns was my alleged confusion between how Iris was written and how the men on the show were written. For some reason, people think the two should be separated as though talking about Iris’ poor treatment on the show is a disservice to the character and that focusing it on the men in her life and their written misogyny would place blame where it deserves to be. There’s a problem with that; the difference being created here is false. As I said in the part two comments,
“The character that I glimpsed in those first few episodes was on track into becoming a dynamic and much needed cog in The Flash machine but we didn’t get that. Instead we got a character who (when she’s actually present) had her story funnelled through the actions and storylines of these men in question. Almost all of her actions led back to them and their wants which leaves Iris without a clear drive and motivation in what SHE wants. This needs to be explored on screen and not left to the audience to fill in the blanks. You underestimate how prioritizing these misogynistic actions of these male characters can undercut their fellow female characters in their development.”
The actions of the male characters influenced how Iris was going to be treated and that was how the narrative was structured. My series is called We Need To Talk About Iris West, because I wanted to give the character the courtesy of talking about her with her full involvement. Retitling it so it focused on the men in her life would be doing exactly what I’ve been arguing against in the last two parts.
The second thing that these concerns had in common was their belief that Iris is an autonomous character removed from the narrative’s gravitational pull. It was as though she was flesh and bone instead of being the pen-to-paper character crafted by actual flesh and blood people who created the show. These same people constructed—unintentional or not—those misogynistic men/actions. Any criticism of Iris here is ultimately a criticism of the writers who have the actual power to make changes. Of course, there were also valid arguments, like how Dr. Caitlin Snow isn’t treated all that well either—which I will discuss later on in this piece—but I chose to focus on Iris because she became a tool, more than a character, for almost all of season one. Just read Jess Plummer’s Superheroes and the Gender Politics of Anger article on just one of the many examples of Iris’ feelings being denied and thus any real expression of her personhood. I welcome a healthy debate and dissent against my words, since I’ve placed them here to be dissected by the public, but I do think it’s important to understand how a character is shaped by their narrative and the level of control a fictional character has over their own story.
So there you have it. I started this series after getting angry and fed up at Iris’ treatment in season one’s The Trap. Initially, I asked myself as I wrote part one and took notes for part two, “Will the truth being revealed to Iris and the resulting righteous rage that’s sure to come, make up for twenty terrible episodes of Iris mistreatment?” At the time, I thought I’d know only after I saw that episode, but the righteous rage I was promised was more like flash of lightning that came as quickly as it left, leaving no mark or trace of its existence. Now we’re about to head into the season two mid-season premiere, and I ask myself an important question: Have things changed? And if not can they?
I know I proposed other questions at the end of part two, but they fell away in favour of this narrowed focus, especially after witnessing the first nine episodes of season two. Do things get better for Iris? Yes and no. Iris engaged in the story a little more since she knows Barry’s secret and is invited to Team Flash. She has no romantic ties to Barry, which seems to mean she has more control over her actions (and it’s great because a romantic relationship between foster siblings is highly inappropriate), but there was a moment that felt like it belonged in season one.
Joe reveals to Iris that her mother, who she thought was dead, is actually alive. In fact, Joe has known it the whole time, and he explains his reason for lying, in tears, that it was to avoid having Iris grow up thinking she wasn’t enough for her drug addict mother to stay.
If I were to look at this scene in isolation, I’d give Joe the benefit of the doubt. Suddenly becoming a single dad to a little girl after your spouse heads down a spiral of addiction can lead to some tough and debatable choices. However, his actions in season one haunted me as I watched this scene play out. I expected Iris to be angry because why the hell not? Her father lied to her—a major lie—again! Unfortunately, just like the first time, she hasn’t given her moment. The relationship between her and her father was unchanged by this lie … again.
Now, anger can be expressed in a multitude of ways. It doesn’t have to be loud and dramatic. Iris placing her hand on her father’s and saying she understood why he lied can still work, but it would have also been nice to follow that up with a, “But you lied to me, Dad, and I need time to get over that,” and then just walk away. You can have an entire season of Iris dealing with her family: her open contempt for her absentee mother, her strained relationship with her father who lied (again), and a potentially awkward, newborn-like relationship with her newly discovered brother. Iris can have a truly fulfilling arc this season.
Yet, the writers once again denied Iris her anger (not a surprise for superhero shows it seems) and any consequence of that lie on the relationship between herself and Joe. Instead, they have her keep a big secret from her father—the existence of Wally—until she finally reveals it in the mid-season finale. She does the same thing that was done to her.
Do things change for Iris? Marginally. It’s hard to compare twenty-three episodes to just the nine we have so far.* I still think there is more work to be done, but I do see Caitlin slowly getting comfortable in her role as a love interest more so than a impactful member of Team Flash as season two progresses. This is worrisome since The Flash is more interested in the arc of its hero and its plot. It refuses to explore anything meaningful with Iris as a reporter (a one minute and thirty-two second reminder at the beginning of episode three isn’t enough) or Caitlin as a doctor (rather than the widower turned love interest of Jay Garrick). Cisco benefits from the current structure since his expertise as an engineer allows him to be in active (often onsite) situations way more than Caitlin, and he also gets to grow his arc through his new found meta-human status. Joe has his job as a cop, which makes him front and centre while also dealing family matters on the side. Wells is Wells and will always have a rich and meaty arc. It goes on and on. I think the only woman on this show who is active, in your face in terms of narrative access and has her own personal drive, is Patty Spivot. Even her relationship with Barry (so far) is far better than his interactions with Iris last season.
It honestly comes down to better juggling the supporting casts’ stories and arcs along with the plot and the hero’s journey. iZombie is a show that succeeds in almost all of the things The Flash fails at. The secrets still exist, but without undermining the agency of the characters in question or failing to have any meaningful character development. The Flash still has a lot of work to do but Iris is not in the same position she was last year …
… but then again, we still have fourteen episodes to go.
*I wrote this before the mid-season premiere, so it doesn’t include anything after episode nine.