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The Tougher Thing Is To Feel: "The Flash" and Masculinity

Beneath the intrinsic power of our stories about superheroes is an instructive image of the kind of men our culture values. The way "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" has been marketed illustrates just how restrictive American masculinity remains. Zack Snyder's film looks like it's taking a page from the work of comic writer Frank Miller, whose depiction of the characters during the 1980s and early 1990s has unfortunately defined much of them since. The way Batman and Superman are positioned on the looming billboards, and in bombastic trailers, is in the fashion of grim figures who solve their issues with a punch in the face before considering an extended hand. Batman, especially since Miller’s influence, leans far too heavily on the idea that for someone to be a great hero one must be disconnected emotionally from the world you’re trying to save. He’s not the only one. Watching everything from "Deadpool" to "The Avengers" to "Arrow," one can see a pattern in how the creatives that bring these adaptations to the screen have limited ideas about masculinity. Sure, the film and television adaptations of superheroes we’ve seen in the last decade or so vary greatly in tone, style, and intent at their core, but they have several troubling similarities in how they relate to masculinity. 

Watching these adaptations one after the other provides a very specific idea about how these men can and should operate: lone heroics, privileging violence as a solution, being emotionally shut off as the only way to be a hero. Sometimes this takes the form of detached irony like in "Deadpool" or an ego so large it causes an inability to be aware of the interior lives of others like "Iron Man." Perhaps this is why CW’s "The Flash" feels like such a breath of fresh air. In how the show approaches masculinity and heroism, it takes a subversive edge.

"The Flash" stands in opposition to the emotionally detached, toxic masculinity found in the adaptations of its peers. While the idea that a hero needs to be connected to the world he’s trying to save isn’t necessarily uncommon, "The Flash" takes it a step further by treating vulnerability and openness as a strength for its hero. Without his sense of empathy and his dedicated, loving team, The Flash/Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) wouldn’t be much of a hero.

When "The Flash" first spun off from its predecessor "Arrow" in 2014 it had a lot stacked against it. Would showrunners Andrew Kreisberg and Greg Berlanti make the ideas of legacy heroes and the abilities of its titular hero, which range from time travel to superspeed, believable in its world? Would the show capture the Silver Age zaniness that makes the hero great? Could it pull off villains like King Shark and the Reverse-Flash? The answer to all these questions is surprisingly a resounding “yes."

It’s fascinating to compare how the leading men of "Arrow" and "The Flash" are constructed. Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), in many ways, is basically Batman-lite, going so far as to lift several of the Dark Knight’s villains and storylines. But, most pronouncedly, Oliver portrays the worst of Batman’s worldview, which has often led him to emotionally shut down, gaslight the women in his life, and choose violence as the best course of action. He may be a good guy in what he’s trying to accomplish, but his inability to be fully honest with himself and many people in his life portrays the same stilted emotionality that holds back the narratives of many heroes. Oliver may have a team of people around him, but he struggles with asking for help even when he greatly needs it under the flimsy guise most heroes use of protecting those they love. 

On the other hand, Barry embraces his emotions and the help of everyone around him. His teammates are intrinsic to his success and growth as a hero. There are, of course, moments when he decides being closed off and dishonest is the better path, which is shown time and time again to be a mistake. But "The Flash" could have handled things much differently given the character’s tragic backstory. This sort of toxic, emotionally shut down masculinity easily slides into self-parody.

Through its first season, we watch Barry grapple with his newfound abilities (given to him thanks to a bolt of lightning and the particle accelerator exploding at S.T.A.R. Labs) and the responsibilities they carry, as he tries his best to be a superhero, with the aid of a dedicated team of friends and family by his side. Batman has Alfred and various Robins (although he’s often far more connected to the world than recent incarnations want him to be). Iron Man has Pepper Potts. Captain America has Falcon and Black Widow. Looking at these dynamics, it seems a hero is only as strong as the people he let’s in. But Barry’s comrades outnumber and out-diversify those of his peers. His shifting relationships with them provide the show’s emotional backbone. 

The essential group is: Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker), a bioengineer at S.T.A.R. Labs; Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) a mechanical engineering genius at S.T.A.R. Labs just coming into his metahuman abilities; Barry’s biological father, Henry (John Wesley Shipp who actually played The Flash in the 1990s TV adaptation), who has now been cleared of his charges and released from prison, but oddly disappeared for the rest of the season thus far; and Iris West (Candice Patton), Barry’s longtime friend and unrequited love interest. Given the nature of the show across its two seasons we’ve seen characters a part of this team come and go. But it’s the men who act as father figures to him that illustrate the show’s surprising deftness in writing masculinity.

In season one, much of Barry’s development as a hero is at the hands of the brilliant scientist Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanagh), who acts as a mentor at S.T.A.R. Labs. This is true even after it’s revealed he’s really Eobard Thawne/The Reverse-Flash who killed Barry’s mother and manipulated events for his vengeful benefit. The reverberations of this betrayal carry into season two when Barry, at first, can’t fully trust the Earth-2 Harrison Wells despite him being radically different and seemingly there to help with the latest Big Bad that comes from his world. Despite the reveal of Wells’ true identity in season one, his influence and confidence in Barry’s ability is incredibly important to both characters. Losing out on his childhood with his biological parents has left Barry often looking for mentors and father figures, sometimes in the wrong places. Instead of closing himself off from the world, Barry, unlike many heroes, dares to be a part of it, to be radically open. There’s a particularly poignant scene at the very beginning of season two in which Barry comes across a video of the now-dead Wells confessing to his crimes (which then gets Barry’s father exonerated). Barry is too overcome to watch it alone, so Caitlin remains at his side. Several emotions play across his face—longing, surprise, joy—that show just how conflicted he remains over Wells’ impact on his life.

While both versions of Harrison Wells have had a major impact on Barry, it’s the relationship with his adoptive father, Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) that has proven to be the most important model of masculinity for him. Watching "The Flash," I never expected to see one of the most poignant examples of black fatherhood on television, but here we are. Joe is tough yet kind, as comfortable in throwing a punch if someone threatens the lives of those he loves as he is with crying over tough circumstances. Toward the end of the second season premiere, Joe says something that encapsulates how the show approaches emotion: “The tougher thing is to feel.” While being in touch with your emotions may be difficult, it is the more worthwhile way to live.

Barry’s kindness extends even to the villains he encounters. He’s incredibly attuned to protecting the people of Central City, and even trying to reason with those who make up his rogue’s gallery of villains before resorting to violence. The most interesting dynamic occurs with the sometime-villain, Captain Cold aka Leonard Snart (Wentworth Miller). When Leonard is first introduced, he’s slick, cold-hearted, and seemingly always out for himself. While the way actor Wentworth Miller chews scenery has only become more fun to watch, the character has shifted from villain to anti-hero thanks to Barry’s influence. We’ve seen him maintain his promises to the Flash and sometimes even help him out. In season two’s third episode, the writers flesh out Leonard’s relationship with his scheming father who forces him into a dangerous heist by planting a bomb on his sister, Lisa Snart (Peyton List). Throughout the episode, Barry nudges Leonard to give up his life of crime. Even though Leonard tries to position himself as incredibly selfish he shows a strong connection with his sister and teammate, Heat Wave/Mick Rory (Dominic Purcell).

Actor Wentworth Miller commented on his character’s sexuality by saying, “So far he seems to be presented as straight. I’d like to believe there are a couple extra layers to unpeel [and] I instinctively feel like he’s probably pansexual and just gets a hard-on for your soul.” It is to be seen if either "Legends of Tomorrow" or "The Flash" follows this vision of Leonard’s sexuality, but the show has some queer representation in Police Captain David Singh (Patrick Sabongui), whose husband we’ve seen saved thanks to Barry and whose relationship is treated as just part of the fabric of the show.

Yet, despite the show’s surprisingly evocative emotional landscape in its treatment of masculinity it trips up where far too many superhero adaptations have before: how its hero relates to the women romantically in his life. We’ve only seen Barry involved with a few women, but the most important love interest, who is still mostly unrequited, is undoubtedly Iris West (Candice Patton).

In the comics, Iris is a vital part of The Flash mythos, acting as an amazing reporter while being married to Barry Allen and the aunt to the third man to take up the mantle, Wally West. In many ways, she’s a Lois Lane-like figure and misunderstanding her can cause issues when writing about Barry. She has, of course, changed quite a bit in traveling from page to screen. In "The Flash," after Barry’s childhood tragedy at eleven, Joe took him in and he grew up with Iris, becoming close friends. It took the show a while to decide how to utilize this character. It’s only in a recent episode (after the show somewhat sidelined her in favor of Patty), that the writers have leaned into her status as an ace reporter and highlighted her importance to Barry again. 

The main issue in how Iris and Barry’s relationship is written comes down to agency. Throughout season one, Iris is gaslighted by Barry, Joe, and then pretty much everyone else who has been let in on the fact that Barry is The Flash. Barry easily drops his secret identity when the crossover happened last season to more members of Oliver’s team yet couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell Iris the truth until she figured it out on her own toward the end of the season. This led to Iris being lied to, undermined, and kept in the dark, often making her seem incredibly naive.

And yet "The Flash" continues to surprise me. In season two, the show gloriously explores the alternative universe in its thirteenth episode, “Welcome to Earth-2,” after teasing it for several episodes. Watching the Earth-2 doppelgangers of Iris and Barry proves the show knows how to write a healthy, interesting relationship. On Earth-2, Iris is a tough, whip-smart detective who seems very similar in temperament to the Earth-1 version of Joe. She’s also married to Barry, who lacks superpowers and is incredibly awkward, geeky and dedicated to his wife. When we see Barry impersonate his Earth-2 counterpart, the dynamic in the relationship becomes clear. It’s Iris who is the dominant, more aggressive force between them. In an interview with Vulture, actress Candice Patton spoke about why it worked so well:

“[Earth-2 Iris West] had her own agency. She knew what she wanted to do, she was fearless going after it. And yet at the same time, she was vulnerable and tender in the moments when she needed to be with her father and Barry. It’s nice to see women be able to do both, to be very strong and unapologetic [about it], and being vulnerable when they need to be.”

It is nice to watch a relationship that not only had a lot of chemistry but felt real and healthy. Far too many superhero adaptations rely on the character’s need to keep his identity secret as a way to diminish their female characters and let the hero remain incredibly closed off. But how can any hero truly save a world to which they’re not emotionally connected?

It may seem a bit ridiculous to focus on the masculinity of these heroes considering their problems, abilities, and worlds loom so far above our own. Yet, no art is created in a vacuum. The longevity (and at times, dramatic changes) of characters like Batman, Iron Man, and yes, The Flash show how much they speak to what our culture values and what it ignores. While "The Flash" may not have the budget or reverence of the big screen counterparts, the show is crafting a more radical approach to what it means to be a man and a hero by illustrating how emotions aren’t a hindrance but a strength.

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