Jun 11, 2020
The Flash’s sexist “don’t tell the girlfriend” rule
Dear The Flash,
I like you, for the most part. You’re flawed, there’s no arguing that. You drag plotlines out long after they’ve overstayed their welcome, your dialogue tends to be rather bland, and you took about five episodes too long to actually call your main character “The Flash”. But you’ve got it where it counts, at least for me. You’re fun; genuinely, unapologetically fun, which is kind of rare in superhero shows these days. You’re not afraid to be silly, and that goes a long way with me. Just for Wentworth Miller’s repeatedly glorious appearances as the delightfully camp Captain Cold, you have a loyal viewer in me.
But it’s time for you to do something about Iris.
Even in a show where the heroes end every episode by locking untried (and sometimes nonviolent) super-criminals in indefinite solitary confinement in their own private prison basement, what you’re doing with Iris West is messed up. And unlike your other flaws, the Iris problem only seems to get worse with each episode.
Let’s recap. You were already on thin ice with Iris West when you first introduced her. She was the very worst superhero girlfriend cliché: The oblivious object of our shy, nice guy hero’s affections, forced into the Girlfriend Zone by Barry from day one. It was made even more uncomfortable by your odd decision to make her Barry’s foster sister, but we’ll ignore that.
Worse still, the only real character trait you gave her, beyond being the only person alive not noticing how hardcore Barry is crushing on her every second of every day, was obsessively blogging about and “investigating” the Flash. Effectively, you ensured that Iris would have absolutely no facet of her life or character that didn’t completely revolve around Barry.
Things got worse as the show went on, and it became clear Iris had basically nothing on her mind at any given time beyond which dude she was hottest for. If it wasn’t her love triangle between Barry and the Flash, or her new boyfriend Eddie, she was chasing after guest-star superhero the Arrow. Occasionally, she would attempt to make her journalism career about more than just the Flash, but you quickly reined her in every time she got it into her head to have a personality of her own.
But with these last two episodes, things have gone far enough. You’re being beyond unfair to Iris, even compared to what’s come before.
In “Out of Time”, it seemed like you were finally ready to cut the bullshit and do something worthwhile with Iris’s character. Barry finally revealed his secret identity to Iris, they confessed their love for each other, and actual character growth was achieved.
Then, in the very next episode, “Rogue Time”, you pissed it all away in a move so spectacularly bad, I almost rage-quit you, The Flash. If you hadn’t been smart enough to include Captain Cold to soften the blow, I might have given up altogether. Barry traveled back in time and ended up erasing his entire reveal/confession from history, sending both he and Iris back to square one (he also erased a damn gripping villain monologue/character death scene, but that’s beside the point). All that promise was erased, and Barry and Iris went back to their silly, pointless dance.
Hey, The Flash, that old “I can’t tell my girlfriend I’m a superhero because it would put her in danger” excuse every superhero show/movie’s been using since the dawn of time? It’s dead. No one’s buying it anymore. Especially since every superhero who ever says that (yours included) usually has a large support network of (mostly male) allies in on his secret. It’s a transparent boys’ club mentality, and all it does is isolate the hero emotionally from his love interest. It reinforces the idea of the wife/girlfriend as an “other” who must be kept at a distance emotionally, who must be lied to and coddled.
Worse than that, it’s an obviously flawed argument. After all, if Barry is keeping Iris in the dark because he’s trying to protect her, what does that say about Joe, Dr. Wells, Caitlin, and Cisco? Does he not care what happens to them? And wouldn’t knowing that Barry is the Flash make her more safe, not less?
As the show has repeatedly demonstrated, Iris is already a target. She’s a cop’s daughter, and the city’s most public “Flash expert”. Wouldn’t knowing she has the Flash on speed dial make her safer than having to use her blog to call him for help? And as of “Rogue Time”, the Flash’s most persistent enemy, Captain Cold, knows Barry’s secret anyway. The cat’s out of the bag. Yet Barry still refuses to unmask for Iris.
Even worse than being nonsensical, the way it’s framed, Barry’s continued deceit of Iris comes across as incredibly selfish. After discovering that his changes to the timeline have made it so that Iris won’t come to him that day and confess her feelings like the first time, Barry seems heartbroken, but never even considers going to her to tell his secret anyway. It really comes across as Barry seeing no point in confiding in Iris if it won’t help him get into her pants.
But that really gets at the heart of where this unspoken “don’t tell the girlfriend” rule of superheroes comes from, doesn’t it? It’s all about infantilizing and ostracizing the female presence in the boys’ domain. As of the latest episode, Barry has let yet another confidant (predictably male) into his support network: Iris’s boyfriend Eddie, who he barely even likes.
So at this point, every man in Iris’s life is lying to her. Her boyfriend, her best friend, and her father. This is beyond mere protectiveness: this is patronizing mistrust. It’s impossible to ignore the creepy “women can’t be trusted” vibe going on. There’s no reason left for Iris not to know, unless they just plain don’t think she can handle the information. As a woman, she must be coddled and protected from all this nasty man business. No need to worry her pretty little head.
If you’re going to continue, The Flash, you need to start treating your female characters better, starting with Iris. It’s not just her you’re doing a disservice to. You’re making your show and your entire cast look bad. I like you, and I want to love you, but as long as this shit keeps going on, my love for you will always need an asterisk.