Coming up on the end of The Flash's third season has provided one particular storyline of interest. In just the last few episodes, Caitlin has finally made the inevitable transformation into the villain, Killer Frost. This has been long in the making, not just since the start of the season (when we learned she had powers as a result of Flashpoint), but the start of the series. Killer Frost is a prominent villain in the comics, and this endpoint has always been in Caitlin's future.
In some respects, this is an exciting development. It is, far and away, the meatiest material Caitlin has ever gotten. Moreover, Danielle Panabaker is fantastic in the role, both as her Earth-2 counterpart and when audiences got their first taste of the villain earlier in the season. She is already a far more enticing antagonist than Savitar himself. She's a personal friend and a longstanding member of the team who offers a greater emotional threat to everyone involved.
On the other hand, there are problematic elements surrounding the storyline's execution. Unfortunately, they're indicative of the series' larger problems when it comes to the treatment and use of its women.
We're A Long Way From Smallville
Comic book film and TV has come a long way, even just in the last 10 years or so. One need only to look back to the 2000s, when Smallville was the lone stalwart in the genre, and the X-Men and Spider-Man films were ruling the cinemas. While it was a joy to experience the quality these products turned out, they all suffered significantly when it came to female characters. Smallville and Spider-Man in particular hearkened back to old style, traditional roles. No characters better embodied this than Lana Lang and MJ Watson — love interests who were rarely developed for their own purposes, instead acting only as emotional support, objects of desire and/or to be captured and used by and against more prominent male characters.
We've come a long way since then. Characters like Black Widow, Scarlet Witch and Gamora grace our screens; even the MCU is making way for Captain Marvel. The DCEU has upped its game as well — Amanda Waller and Harley Quinn were two of the best parts of Suicide Squad, a Joss Whedon-helmed Batgirl film is currently in the works, and a promising adaptation of Wonder Woman is due for release in just a few short weeks — the first superhero film in more than a decade to boast a female lead.
On television, things have taken an even more positive turn. Agent Carter, Jessica Jones, and Supergirl are all female-led and female driven. Surrounding companion series have proven satisfying as well. Netflix has given us characters like Claire Temple, Trish Walker, Misty Knight and Colleen Wing. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. boasts the likes of Melinda May, Daisy Johnson, Jemma Simmons. and Bobbi Morse. All of these women are far distant from the days of Lana Lang.
Even the rest of #Arrowverse fares better than #TheFlash. While none are perfect, each has depicted quality female characters as being full of agency, skilled, diverse, and complex, such as: the kick-ass Sara Lance, the morally dubious Moira Queen, the charming Kara Danvers, the snarky Cat Grant and many more.
The Flash Is Falling Behind
Yet, for whatever reason, The Flash falls behind the pack. The issues that other series have when it comes to female characters pale in comparison to the way The Flash treats its women. For some reason, while almost everyone else around it is spearing into the progressive future, The Flash is still flailing in the past.
It's difficult to think of good excuses for this. It can't just be that this a male-driven show with male relationships. Arrow is in a similar vein and has found plenty of room for women of all stripes, as well as relationships between them. Daredevil was even about masculinity and not only did it introduce the always awesome Claire Temple, but Karen Page had lots of personality and agency, even more so than Foggy when all was said and done.
Caitlin's transformation into Killer Frost is dispiriting because it's just further reflective of the show's ongoing incompetence in this particular area. Every other meta we've met that's gone bad has done so of their own volition; only Caitlin has powers that come with a transformation into a villain. It robs the character of agency, forcing external factors beyond her control, and gives her no say whatsoever in the matter. Instead of exploring why someone like Caitlin might turn to villainy, or even examine the possibility that Killer Frost is an expression of her inner nature, the show has left the issue largely unexplained. Killer Frost just comes with the powers, and that's that.
Unfortunately for Iris, things are even worse. Poor Iris belongs in the "Lana Lang/MJ Watson" class of character: defined solely by male relationships (especially romances), exists largely as an object of desire to be enacted upon by other characters, and has next to no agency. The back half of Season 3 has even recycled first season's plot line regarding Barry's mother in victimizing Iris (it would even be fair to say, fridging Iris) as the central conflict so that Barry can try to stop it.
What's worse, the show is largely indifferent to how Iris feels about her impending death, instead choosing to focus more on how it affects Barry and Joe. It probably doesn't help that the show has struggled to define Iris's personality outside of how much she matters to her father and the men that fall in love with her.
It's a recurring trend for almost every female character, no matter how promising: Gypsy has potential, but is largely defined by Cisco's crush on her. This is even more true for supporting characters like Cecile. Jessie Quick is arguably a more fun speedster than Barry or Wally, yet the other characters restrict her agency on behalf of her father, and then she gives up her entire life and moves across universes for a guy. Patty Spivot was excellent in almost every respect, but sadly she didn't last long. If she had, there's no doubt she would've become this show's Chloe Sullivan — that one character who became the best on the series almost by accident.
What's more, it's a trend that's likely to continue. Women close to Barry will be fridged, the show will forget that Iris is supposed to have a career as a journalist, Caitlin will fall in love with yet another guy (who will then probably die) and so on.
Maybe it's an odd topic to complain about, given the wealth of progression we've seen elsewhere. Not everyone's going to be perfect, and no doubt things will continue to improve all around. Yet, at the same time, it's important to call out those who are falling behind the pack and ask them to do better. It's also good to remind us all why we don't want our comic book adaptations regressing to the days of Lana Lang and MJ Watson.
In the meanwhile, Killer Frost's arc to end the season has enough promise to be entertaining all on its own. While it's not much — in the grand view of things — we'll take what we can get at this point.
Do you want to see The Flash do better with its female characters? Please share in the comments below.