Why do girlfriend characters on superhero shows suck so much?
Hat tip to Atrios for this Bleeding Cool article by Rich Johnston about something that bugs the ever-living shit out of me, too: The crappy girlfriend problem on superhero shows. I haven’t watched Gotham yet, but I’m a big fan of both Arrow and The Flash, but for the horrible girlfriend character on those shows, Laurel Lance and Iris West, respectively. These characters are such drags that you resent them every time they show up onscreen. Laurel is an idiot and they shoehorned some implausible alcoholism into her character in a pathetic bid to give her grit. Iris may be an even bigger idiot, a supposed journalist who is too inept to handle even the basics of her job. These characters are in the way more often than not, and you often end up just wanting to shake them. It’s really terrible.
Johnston has a theory about why this keeps happening:
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.
To be clear, I reject the idea that female characters necessarily have to be likable. This isn’t a feminist version of the “men’s rights” whiners who are dumb enough to think that every male character has to be a strong-jawed hero without any flaws, which would, if writers actually committed to it, mean that only female characters could have conflicts. As a feminist, I think women should be able to play the full range of possible characters, from villains to comic relief to anti-heroes to heroes, etc. etc.
But Johnston is right: Girlfriend characters are supposed to be likable, and not because they’re supposed to be some fantasy girlfriend for the dweebs in the audience. It’s because to be plausible love interests for the lead characters, they have to have something to recommend them. Oliver on Arrow and Barry—especially Barry!—on The Flash are both smart, good-hearted guys. It’s just implausible that they would be in love with bumble-headed idiots, just because said idiots are pretty. After all, this is TV. Everyone on it is pretty. So why wouldn’t they want someone who is pretty and has something, anything personality-wise to recommend them?
I agree with Johnston that the problem here isn’t that the writers are misogynists or even necessarily sexist. Both shows (and I’ll take his word on the others) have plenty of female characters that are well-rounded and interesting and have believable relationships, both romantic and otherwise. All the not-Laurel women on Arrow are fantastic, whether they are good or bad or morally ambiguous. The Flash mostly has Dr. Caitlin Snow, but she is also fantastic, managing both to be a genius researcher and a human being. So they can write women who feel like actual people, but for some reason, choose not to when it comes to the “girlfriend” characters.
To be entirely fair, the Arrow writers seem to realize the pooch is screwed and have moved the romantic tension away from Oliver/Laurel and towards Oliver/Felicity. Lately, Oliver treats Laurel more like she’s his daft younger sister than a love interest. But The Flash continues to push this stupid Barry/Iris storyline and nope, not buying it. Barry is supposed to be a genius scientist and an avid reader. The notion that he would be sick with love with someone who is as daft as Iris is implausible in the extreme. It’s insulting to men and women.
I think the issue here, along with what Johnston notes about the problems of making a character a “love interest” instead of a character, is that the writers feel like they need to keep coming up with romantic conflicts. And so they artificially make the girlfriend characters stupid and inept, so that their bad decisions create conflict. Thus, you have Iris rejecting Barry and then setting herself to ruin his chances to date someone else. It’s clear they want to draw out the will-they-or-won’t-they tension, but all that actually results in is making her seem like an asshole and making you wonder how this otherwise smart guy can’t cut his losses with this one. The solution, then, is obvious: Give up trying to create artificial romantic conflicts, and let the conflicts in the story come from somewhere else.