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

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.

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

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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