DC’s Arrow & Disability Representation

SPOILER ALERT: Analysis of Arrow (Season 4)

Arrow focuses on the billionaire vigilante Oliver Queen the DC superhero Green Arrow. It has a wonderful cast of allies and villains (various stolen from the Batman universe), fascinating storylines and memorable fight scenes. Arrow now in Season 4 has become so popular that several spin-off shows were created, Flash, Vixen (animation) and Legends of Tomorrow added to the ever-expanding Arrowverse.

The current character arc of Oliver Queen’s love interest Felicity Smoak is a significant one for disability representation on TV. We can now examine how realistically or effectively Arrow’s writers have handled disability representation, if the narrative relies on typical negative disability concepts or if something amazingly progressive has occurred.

The conclusion of episode 9 “Dark Waters” left Felicity Smoak permanently paralyzed by a gunshot to her spine on the orders of the villain Damien Darhk. This narrative could allow Arrow to stand out from all the other superhero shows and explore an important minority group in society. There are many pitfalls to adding a disability narrative into the superhero genre through a tragic event. Felicity’s injury needs to transcend the ‘box’ of the usual disability plot devices into genuine character development. If handled wisely Arrow could become the benchmark for positive disability representation on TV.

The episode 10 “Blood Debts” responded to Felicity’s paralysis surprisingly (for an American TV series) without overdramatizing it or devolving into simple revenge motivation for the hero Arrow to protect the clinched ‘poor disabled person’. The episode decides to focus on the reaction of the hero, which is initially worrisome as it seems that the writers dismiss Felicity’s character development now she’s disabled into just to illustrate the importance of defeating Season 4’s big bad. In actuality, focusing on Oliver’s view displays the different stages of grieving loved ones go through after life-changing events: anger, loss, avoidance and acceptance. Oliver spent the majority of the episode avoiding Felicity’s bedside but during their meeting, they had an honest conversation about Felicity’s fears that Oliver’s avoidance was due to wanting to break their engagement because of her disability. This narrative is a good acknowledgement of real-life fears disabled people may have in relationships; striving to conform to society’s need for perfection sparks these fears. Uncommonly on television Oliver had no problems with staying with her, which is a profound moment for disabled women in a positive romantic role.

Episode 11 “A.W.O.L” is a pivotal episode focusing on Felicity returning home from the hospital, trying to figure out her value on the team as a paraplegic. Many disability clichés are challenged and overcome fairly effectively here with only a few missteps. The writers did not let Felicity’s humourous demeanour fade into the background, illustrating how personality is not linked to any disability and that disabled people can achieve true happiness. Team Arrow all rally around Felicity reminding her that she’s still a capable integral part of the team, that her superpower is her brain but this idea is fairly typical in a disability narrative. This episode cleverly gives form to Felicity’s doubts, fears, and anger allowing the audience to see her emotional journey through an adjustment to her new way of life. It culminates with a powerful reconciliation with her past self and taking her new tech role as Overwatch to lead Team Arrow to victory. Felicity’s monologue about her value in the team was empowering, demonstrating that she has the same goals in life as before such as helping people as part of a superhero team. Reflecting on her reasons for why she wants to stop Damien Darhk, not due to vengeance but because that’s what hero does which enables her to break out of the pity box disabled people are usually placed. Oliver uses the usual disability cliché “You’re the strongest person I know” but in this case it’s true, Felicity showing her courage to carry on is a true strength. The new curved ramp allowing Felicity to access her computer terminal in the Arrowcave was an inclusive addition for accessibility awareness, indicative of the social model of disability that suggests removing barriers that restrict life choices for disabled people is necessary. However, in practical terms, a curved ramp could be difficult to get up quickly in an emergency.

There were a few problems with certain narrative conceptions regarding disability in episode 11, relating to the perception of ‘normal’ and disability being ‘fixed’. This medical model of disability works when talking about temporary injuries like breaking bones but not for permanent disabilities. It is a common feature on TV shows to assume that all disabled people are ultimately always “dreaming of a cure”, in actuality that is not always true. On a personal note, my disability is only a fraction of my personality but an important fraction that I would never want to lose. Oliver voices the view of society that has the need to categorize people into the deterministic notion of normality.

“I just thought that if you got back behind a keyboard again, that things would change, that you’d feel normal again”

Oliver Queen

“But there’s no way back to normal”

Felicity Smoak (Overwatch)

The writers seem to forget that disabled people are normal but are only restricted by accessibility and lack of disability awareness. This shows that able-bodied people wrote the storyline without consulting with disabled people so disability is unintentionally portrayed only through the eyes of society’s negative misconceptions.

Episode 12 “Unchained” was an effective narrative focused on Felicity combating the villain Calculator and his defeat as a metaphor for her to finally take back her confidence and character agency. As a disabled person, it is initially difficult to ask for help from people especially after such a sudden paralysis, I understand the sense of uselessness and lack of independence she would feel but time teaches you how useful you still can be to other people. Furthermore, hopefully, the writers do acknowledge the permanence of paralysis that it is a life-long change so Arrow could consequently develop into an incredibly powerful piece of entertainment by embracing that fact.

Unchained” interesting included Felicity facing discrimination in the workplace due to her disability by a Palmer Tech executive. Somehow, under the impression that her paralysis has not only lowered stock prices but also diminished her effectiveness at corporate presentations. These are the types of difficult and ignorant challenges regularly blocking disabled people trying to build a successful career. Disabled people in the workplace are often seen through the lens of perfection and supposedly unable to be a ‘normal’ functioning part of a team. Society perceives a wheelchair as an impediment to intelligence or efficiency; physical disabilities only restrict disabled people physically nothing more. Felicity ignores this roadblock and delivers the presentation perfectly from her wheelchair.

“Anything less than a perfect launch, and we are sunk”

Mr Dennis: Palmer Tech executive

A note on Episode 14 “Code of Silence” Felicity is offered a gift of a spinal biomechanical implant that could potentially help her walk again from Curtis Holt a Palmer Tech employee. I had a feeling that Felicity would somehow be cured, through foreshadowing in “A.W.O.L” by Oliver acknowledging the universe of miracles that they live in, a man that can shrink (Atom), run faster-than-light (Flash), fly (Hawkman & Hawkgirl) and resurrect from the dead (Sara Lance).

“I will not stop searching it until we find a way to make you walk again”

Oliver Queen (Arrow)

Thematically within the confines of the show, the above quote does make sense that Felicity would want the chance to walk again, but it just seems a strange narrative choice this quickly only 7 episodes after her injury.

Episode 15 “Taken” totally derailed Arrow’s positive disability representation through all of Felicity’s nuanced characterization by firstly having her adjusting to all of this change far too quickly: she had two episodes of angst, and one episode of workplace issues, before apparently making a complete psychological adjustment to a wheelchair, without therapy. Secondly, Felicity’s ‘cure’ happened too quickly, suggesting the writers again have used injury/paralysis as a typical plot device.

Not only does it seem pointless to paralyze Felicity only to have her walking again within the span of a few episodes, it also implies that a disability is something to “fix” or “get over.” That is simply not possible for most people. In a wheelchair, Felicity represents a group of people who don’t often get to see themselves in superhero narratives. This narrative choice completely diminishes the trauma and its consequences. Instead, her strength should come from Felicity accepting herself by becoming a key member of the team and living her life with a successful job and fulfilling relationships — all while being in a wheelchair. Disability is an important part of disabled people’s lives and these pointless portrayals on TV affect how society views us. Disability should be portrayed in a progressive and constructive manner not spreading the notion that wheelchair users ultimately want to walk again or be normal. Most disabled people find a wheelchair empowering, not as something that holds us back, but as objects of freedom to enable us to live life as equal human beings.

I do want to end on a positive note because Arrow is a brilliant show and it was great to see a strong disabled female character on screen. Initially, Arrow started with excellent acting and positive representation of disability, looking at what everyday problems are faced by disabled people. The writers unfortunately wrote Felicity into a corner by ‘fixing’ her paralysis ridiculously quickly; they should have developed her character arc as a disabled superhero rather than forcing a cure on her, it should have been her choice by giving the opportunity to decline.

Representation of disability on TV needs to evolve, we need characters that are disabled from the start, focus on the broad spectrum of disabilities rather than just paralysis and TV should become an opportunity to spread disability awareness and debunk misconceptions or prejudices society, unfortunately, have regarding disability.

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