Adi Tantimedh writes,
A spectre is haunting superhero TV series, and that spectre is the terrible girlfriend.
You know what I’m talking about.
In current superhero TV shows, the story loosely sticks to comic book canon, especially in setting up the hero’s romance. In Arrow, Oliver Queen and Laurel Lance are supposed to eventually end up as a couple, per comic book lore. In The Flash, Barry Allen and Iris West are supposed to eventually end up as a couple. In Smallville, Clark Kent’s high school sweetheart was Lana Lang. In Gotham, Jim Gordon is engaged to his Barbara Keane, the woman who’s supposed to keep him grounded and give him someone to fight for. This being television, there’s the need by the writers to keep them apart so that when they finally get together, they’ll have to go through x amount of years of conflict, false starts and other romances before they get there.
There’s only one problem: these girlfriends are all horrible.
It seemed to start with Smallville, the oldest show on the list. Lana Lang didn’t seem to have anything going for her other than that she was pretty. She seemed to be a princess figure, one that Clark worshipped and one set up for sympathy since she was an orphan. Then as the show went on, she constantly got Clark into trouble, got people killed, got his father killed, was responsible for setting General Zod loose, nearly got Clark killed countless times and was generally a walking death-trap for anyone who came near her. She often came across as self-preoccupied, whiny and generally a flaming idiot who did things that no sensible person would do and as a result caused massive amounts of chaos. You could argue that she, not Lex Luthor, was the most dangerous villain in the show. Fans came to hate her so much that they cheered when she finally left the show.
In Arrow, Laurel Lance is Oliver Queen’s love interest. The show sets them up as destined to end up together and she would become Black Canary to fight crime along with him. She’s supposed to be a dedicated attorney fighting for social justice, even becoming a prosecutor in the district attorney’s office. However, the writers have gone out of their way to make her an unlikable, impulsive, alcoholic idiot. She had become the annoying, nagging girlfriend and a thorough turn-off to many viewers. She often acts on impulse and reacts without thinking. Worse, the writers even had her sister turn up as The Canary, a highly- trained assassin and fighter. Sara was a much more likable and competent superhero that everyone groaned when she was killed off to motivate Laurel into replacing her and becoming The Black Canary. The problem is Laurel is almost completely incompetent as a street vigilante and superhero. She even keeps Sara’s death a secret from her father for fear that he would suffer a heart attack, which is one really stupid reason. She’s a victim of the writers, becoming a puppet of whatever plot contrivance they see fit to twist and turn her in.
Barbara in Gotham might be the worst girlfriend on this list. She is almost too stupid to live. She doesn’t seem to serve any real function other than to be a perpetual hostage for Jim Gordon to worry about. She nags him about not sharing what bothers him at work, and when she finds out the kinds of dangerous people and horrors he has to deal with, she freaks out and goes off the deep end. Like Laurel Lance, the writers gratuitously made her an alcoholic prone to relapse. They even had her in a lesbian relationship with Renee Montoya before she began her relationship with Gordon, which lends the show a weird tinge of male panic, making her bisexuality a sign of her flightiness and unreliability. When Gordon sends her away for her safety, she immediately returns to town to get taken hostage, the very thing he sent her away to prevent. She has run away from Gordon in what feels like a childish tantrum, and when she phones the apartment, she’s so stupid that she thinks Gordon is cheating on her when Poison Ivy answers the phone, never mind that Ivy here is still a child. When she returns to find the young Catwoman and Poison Ivy crashing at her apartment, she’s so stupid that she even takes romance and fashion advice from them, two little girls who have never even had boyfriends. I’m starting to wonder if Barbara might not be stupid after all but actually clinically insane.
In the comics, Iris West is Barry Allen’s wife. After an initial stormy courtship where she was often annoyed with him as he struggled to keep his superhero identity from her, they ended up in a happy marriage where she supported him in his work as The Flash and often provided crucial backup, even saving him several times. In the new TV show, she’s the adopted sister that he’s been mooning over for years. Now, that’s almost incest, but throughout the show, we’re constantly told how wonderful and smart and brilliant a reporter Iris is, but we hardly ever see that. She was completely oblivious to Barry being in love with her, and her supposed brilliance as a reporter seemed to be just playing groupie to The Flash. Quite frequently she fails to even ask the most basic questions as a journalist when she’s trying to interview witnesses. And given how suspicious Barry, his friends and her father keep acting around her, she comes off as bubble-brained in the way she keeps missing it. It’s a minor miracle that she hasn’t at least suspected that Barry might be the Flash. And now that she knows Barry was in love with her, she’s even trying to sabotage his attempts to date someone else, which puts her past being dumb and into being a horrible person.
Why do the writers keep doing this? Is there a rule that the girlfriends in superhero shows have to be horrible?
Do the writers know they’re doing this? Do they feel trapped having to write a character they really don’t give a shit about and are rebelling, consciously or otherwise? They prove they’re perfectly capable of writing likable women, since the others in the supporting cast are likable, and much more relatable characters than these main girlfriends. You end up wishing the heroes would date them instead.
These girlfriends are usually introduced as someone we’re supposed to like. The audience is expected to root for them to be with the hero. They’re pretty and have winning smiles, and are always introduced in ways that signal we’re supposed to like them and want them around. However, it seems they also don’t have any personality at all, and when the writers try to inject some in them, end up rendering them as these awful, unlikable idiots. It seems to be the problem that writers – and usually male writers – have with writing Girlfriends. Girlfriends in stories are often presented as prizes for the hero to win rather than have any character of their own. In these shows, they end up as puppets trapped in the strings of Plot where they end being the Idiots Who Do Stupid Things in Order for Plot to Happen. The problem with the Main Girlfriends in Smallville, Arrow, Gotham and The Flash is they really don’t have any motivation or reason for being other then to be The Girlfriend, which is a problem with stories written by guys. I feel sorry for the actresses playing these girlfriends, because they have to put up with millions of viewers hating them.
What I’m curious about is what the writers of the DC shows were thinking when they seemed to write themselves into this strange corner of turning The Main Girlfriend character into an asshole. Did they forget while trying to grapple with the pressure of hammering the plot structure of the series long arc into shape? Do their own hang-ups about girlfriends bubble to the surface as they write up the stories that need to be in front of the camera in a short amount of time? Is that attitude towards girlfriends one they take for granted as a default?
It’s interesting that these are shows from DC Comics. When you compare them with the female characters with those in Marvel shows, there’s a huge difference. In the Marvel shows, the female characters all have their own agency and personality, and are never relegated to just The Girlfriend. That’s oddly telling, and another indication of the difference in DC and Marvel shows’ writing and storytelling styles. It’s obvious that it’s guys writing these characters. Just compare these shows to Agent Carter, a show run by women where all the characters have an agency and individual personality and motivation. The DC shows have painted themselves into a corner with these Terrible Girlfriends, and the only way to get out of that is to break away from comics lore and have the hero actually end up with better love interests, but it doesn’t feel like the writers are going to do that, as if they’ve been straitjacketed into lore.
I don’t think viewers care about lore. They just want the story to be good. And for the girlfriends not to be horrible idiots.
Skating down mean streets at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow the official LOOK! IT MOVES! twitter feed at http://twitter.com/lookitmoves for thoughts and snark on media and pop culture, stuff for future columns and stuff I may never spend a whole column writing about.
Look! It Moves! © Adisakdi Tantimedh