On “Arrow” — Why *CHARACTER SPOILER ALERT* Bothers Me: A Meditation on the Integration of Strength and Vulnerability in Screen Characters

(Whew, that’s a long title.)



In honor of the conclusion of season 2 of Arrow, we have our first commissioned post! Alex Wittenberg donated and requested that I write about “any one aspect of the show.” So I decided to write about something that’s been bothering me, which probably doesn’t bother most people for the same reason, but there are probably other reasons people are bothered by this aspect as well.

Enough with the vagueness! On to the spoilers!

Seriously, don’t read past here if you intend to watch Arrow and haven’t yet seen up to Season 2 Episode 4. Major character spoilers ahoy. Okay, you’ve now been warned three times. I give up.  

So as you may have figured out if you recall what happens in Episode 4, I’m trying to say that I’m bothered by the characterization of Sara Lance, also known as Black Canary.

I was really excited when she joined the show, because I thought it was a great twist and I was looking forward to seeing what they’d do with her. But unfortunately my enthusiasm petered out when I discovered I just didn’t like the character very much. I found her fairly flat and unmemorable despite all the screen time they gave her, and I really can’t tell if it’s the actress or the writing or possibly even the directing, but I just barely remember anything interesting she did this season, aside from having a female lover (which the cynic in me says was a desperate attempt to combat her unmemorableness, as well as a ratings ploy even though it was pretty tastefully done). At this point, I couldn’t care less about her being on the show or not, but I’m glad they haven’t killed her off yet, because if they did, I’d be expected to care, as a viewer, and I just don’t. (Same with Laurel but this post is not about Laurel.)

But aside from her overall blandness, Sara’s characterization suffers from one of my personal pet peeves: what I like to call “the Strength-Vulnerability See-saw.” (And by “I like to call it that” I mean that I just now made up the name for the purposes of this post, of course.)

The Strength-Vulnerability See-saw is what happens when a character seems to me to have only two modes: 1) stoic, badass, and hyper-competent, vs. 2) emotional, weepy, and overly vulnerable.

Sara Lance could give the master class in this. When her mask and wig and cleavage-baring catsuit are on, she is unstoppable, a force to be reckoned with. As soon as the mask comes off? She morphs into this sad-eyed, angst-ridden, quivery-chinned mess.

Some might call this character depth and talk about how her superhero mode is her coping mechanism for all the emotional turmoil underneath. And I’m not saying that’s untrue, I’m just saying that it’s irritating to watch an ostensibly strong female character see-saw back and forth between such extreme versions of being a superhero and being a child. It feels lazy to me, as all extremes do. Nuance is where it’s at, y’all. Not everyone agrees with me that this is unnuanced, of course; some see it as a positive: “On the plus side . . . the show landed a performer capable of pulling double duty as both an emotionally wounded individual and someone skilled at taking down gang members with similar proficiency as Oliver,” writes Kevin Yeoman at ScreenRant. But I don’t care what he thinks.

Writers and actors often have a hard time integrating strength and vulnerability into a single character without resorting to extremes. That was one of my biggest problems with the second Hunger Games movie as opposed to the first one — I felt upon my first viewing that Jennifer Lawrence see-sawed too often between the stoic and the hysterical. (The second time I saw it, I didn’t feel that as much, but I still think it was an issue at points.)

It’s not a problem exclusive to female characters, either. In the early seasons of Supernatural, Dean Winchester was super macho, except in those moments when he wasn’t and went to the other extreme. Fortunately, as the seasons go on, either the writing gets better or Jensen Ackles got a better grasp on integrating the character’s emotional side with his macho side, so that he no longer felt like a see-saw.

Maybe if Sara were on the show for longer, the same thing could have happened. But if she’s not, I definitely won’t miss her. Apologies to all the Sara fans out there.



Agree? Disagree? Like my posts? Consider donating and commissioning more of them, via my GoFundMe campaign — http://www.gofundme.com/sm-automotive — and thanks for reading!


REVIEW: House of Cards — Episodes 7 and 8

One thing about binge-watching vs. regular week-by-week watching is that sometimes you don’t notice when a character or storyline is dropped or de-emphasized for a particular episode, because sooner or later they always come back, and since you’ve been watching everything in such quick succession, you don’t always have time to realize they’re gone.

I noticed this in this block of episodes because my schedule has been crazy lately and I haven’t had the time to sit down and binge-watch like a normal person — sometimes I don’t even have a chance to watch an entire episode in one sitting. But I’d decided before starting this pair of episodes that I would give some attention to Zoe Barnes (the journalist that Frank is using to leak information to the public strategically) because I haven’t discussed her since my initial post on the show.

This turned out to be not so simple. Because she drops out of episode 8 entirely. If I were lucky enough to just be binging, I probably wouldn’t have noticed, would have just clicked ahead to the next installment and she’d be back as if she’d never left. But since my viewing experience has been so truncated recently, and because I’d decided to focus on Zoe, I was very aware of her absence, although it makes perfect sense, given that the episode takes place on the road, away from Washington DC where Zoe is stationed.

Zoe is probably the part of the show I have the most issues with, which is possibly why I’ve avoided discussing her previously. I don’t like her, but in a much stronger way than I don’t like Frank or any of the other “unpleasant” characters on the show. I just don’t find her enjoyable to watch. Probably because she suffers from what I’ll refer to as Newsroom Syndrome, which is what I’ll call it when any character is obnoxiously self-justifying about their actions and never admits that they could be wrong or not 100% right. Zoe throws hissy fits, she disobeys instructions, she’s petulant and whiny. She happens to have brains and journalistic talent as well, but she uses those to justify her babyish moments, complaining that she’s being wasted and not given good assignments and yadda yadda, and I just want her to take a chill pill and do her work. Simply put, she’s a diva, and I only like diva characters when they are somewhat self-aware, and/or played for laughs, and/or get put in their place frequently. Zoe is none of these.

The relationship between Frank and Zoe turned sexual at the end of episode 4. Until then, it seemed like Frank had no interest in her in that way, and was simply using her for his own nefarious purposes, and she benefited from the exclusive scoops he gave her. I personally preferred the Frank/Zoe relationship when it was non-sexual — I thought the dynamics were more interesting, because in general I find platonic relationships between men and women to have far more dimension than sexual ones. I also don’t really understand why turning the relationship sexual was a smart strategic move on Frank’s part (it is made clear in the very beginning of episode 5 that this is “strictly a business relationship”). Maybe I’m naïve and sheltered, but I think he’d have a better chance of keeping Zoe under control if sex was not a part of the equation. Introducing sex means that more things can go wrong and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, etc. Perhaps someone more schooled in the discipline of sexual power dynamics could explain to me why this is anything other than a bonehead move.

As for episode 8, which did not include Zoe, I loved it. It humanized Frank in a way we have not yet seen, by sending him back to his alma mater, where we see him hang out with his old buddies and just have fun in a way that’s not mean-spirited, just reckless and immature and silly and male-bonding-y and totally entertaining to watch. There is also an obvious reference to Frank’s past sexual experimentation with one of his buddies and the attraction he still harbors, and since I have a running discussion going with a male bisexual friend in which we complain constantly about the lack of representation of male bisexuality on TV, that was nice to see. Even if Frank is a scumbag.


Rating: 4/5

REVIEW: Adaptation by Malinda Lo




I try not to go into anything with expectations. Having no expectations that something will be good means you’re free to absorb whatever it is — a book, a movie, a TV show, a game — with fewer biases, and are less likely to be disappointed, because hey, you never expected it to be good in the first place.

On the other hand, sometimes I can’t help but get excited about something before I even read or see it. This book was an example of that. A 40 page preview was released a few months before it came out, and I read it and it was fantastic. Intense, fast-paced, action-packed, with dozens of questions set up to be answered in the rest of the book. So I was excited about that.

I also knew a bit about the author, Malinda Lo, who is a Chinese-American lesbian Young Adult writer who is known in the YA publishing community for being a wonderful voice on issues such as racial diversity and LGBTQ portrayals in YA literature. Adaptation was nominated for a Lambda award, plus I knew there would be at least one major LGBTQ character, and I was looking forward to seeing how Lo would balance that aspect with the action-adventure plot. I was really excited to read a book with an LGBTQ main character that wasn’t ABOUT being LGBTQ, but rather having that as just one element of the character and the story.

And well . . . I should have known better than to have expectations. I was unfortunately disappointed.

The opening chapters are riveting, no doubt about that. The book starts with the main character, Reese, and her high school debate partner and their coach waiting to fly home from a debate tournament, and then suddenly planes start crashing all over the country. No one knows what’s going on, all flights are grounded, people start to panic, and to top it off, all information about the plane crashes is being systematically wiped from the internet. It’s intense.

But then . . . things slow down. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need nonstop action to keep me happy as a reader. But the problem is, when the action slows down, the faults in the characterization become more apparent. I really wanted to like Reese and be invested in her story, but I felt like I didn’t have a good enough handle on who she was as a person, what makes her tick outside of direct influences from the plot, and that made it difficult to empathize with her.

Perhaps this was because there was so much frantic action in the first few chapters — it’s hard to establish personality under those circumstances. But also, Lo seems to skimp on details that aren’t directly plot-relevant. For instance, Reese and her debate partner, David, just lost a huge tournament after making it to the finals. But we never once hear what the topic of the debate was. We never once hear about any topics for any debates, which presumably there have been a lot of if they made it all the way to the finals. We never see Reese use any possible knowledge she learned in her years as a debater. Research skills, methods of arguing, reasons why Reese was so driven to succeed in this particular area, specific memories relating to previous debates — none of these are demonstrated or explored. This was frustrating to me from a character perspective. I love when female characters are given passions that have nothing to do with romance (sadly all too rare), but this passion seemed sorely underdeveloped, to the detriment of the character.

And then I had issues with the romance. Not to give too much away, but toward the middle of the novel, Reese meets a girl who makes her question her sexuality, and they begin to pursue a relationship.

As someone who has close friends who identify as bisexual or fluid and have struggled with it, I was really glad to see it represented so matter-of-factly. Unfortunately, I didn’t think highly of the romantic relationship because of the underdeveloped characterization. Romance is a great way to reveal character — you learn about what a character values, what they need, what they respond to in another person, what they connect with. Disappointingly, it seems that most of what Reese is shown to connect with in her love interest is that she’s hot, like really really hot. And flighty and adventurous in the vein of the manic pixie dreamgirl. Not much substance to the relationship at all. And I guess being able to show that hormone-driven high school relationships (cough Twilight cough) have every right to be homosexual as well as heterosexual is a good thing, but it’s not very satisfying.

So overall, I really wanted to like this book. It had a lot of good ideas and interesting elements, but the execution was lacking. There’s a sequel in the works, and I’m on the fence about whether I want to read it or not. Characterization has been known to improve over the life of a series, though, so I might give it a shot.

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