In these four shows there are two main characters who are women in STEM. Felicity Smoak from Arrow and Caitlin Snow from The Flash. In Arrow Felicity, played by Emily Bett Rickards, is the only woman in STEM. Granted, there aren't a lot of other women, period. The other two characters in STEM are both men: Ray Palmer and Curtis Holt. Ray is no longer on the show but he was primarily a love interest for Felicity until they gave him a superhero storyline and moved him over to Legends of Tomorrow. Curtis was introduced in season four of the show and his sole purpose is to be the new “Felicity” since she is now in a higher position.
Depictions of Women in STEM: Felicity Smoak and Dr. Caitlin Snow
Written by: Alicen Ricard
This post contains spoilers for Arrow and The Flash.
In this month’s Depictions of Women in STEM post, I am profiling and comparing hacker extraordinaire and former CEO of Palmer Technologies, Felicity Smoak and the brilliant, and occasionally villainous Dr. Caitlin Snow. Superhero shows have really taken off in the past five years or so. Both Marvel and DC have been moving their content onto the small screen - DC has practically taken over the TV network the CW with the “Arrowverse.” The Arrowverse started with the TV show Arrow and later spun off into three other shows as well: The Flash, Supergirl, and Legends of Tomorrow. However, it isn’t the superheroes themselves I’m talking about here, it’s the women in STEM who help these heroes catch the bad guys.
Felicity is a quirky, bubbly, and intelligent woman, who often has trouble standing up for both herself and her job no matter how qualified she is. She has a degree in computer science from MIT. When she was in her senior year her boyfriend, Cooper Seldon, got both of them into some trouble which made Felicity “reinvent” herself from a hacker to a “good girl” (“The Secret Origins of Felicity Smoak”).
Felicity's career starts to take off when she goes to work at Queen Consolidated where she meets Oliver Queen (the Green Arrow). Oliver immediately ends up using Felicity as a plot device to get information. Felicity works in a tech company solely to be able to supply the male superhero (the protagonist) with the information he needs to catch the antagonist. She and Oliver have a complicated relationship over the course of the show and sometimes it seems like he forgets that she's an intelligent woman in a STEM career and not just his love interest. As the show goes on, Felicity stops being a character who makes cameos only to help Oliver, and actually becomes a main character.
There are some positive aspects to Felicity's portrayal, despite the fact that sometimes she’s only there to be a love interest for the male protagonist. The audience sees her become more and more successful in her career as she becomes more prominent of a character. When the show started, she was an IT girl. In season two, not only did she become a series regular, she also gets promoted in her job to Executive Assistant. After Queen Consolidated is bought and becomes Palmer Technologies in season three, she becomes Vice President. In season four Ray Palmer “dies,” and Felicity becomes the CEO of the company. This is so important to see on television since off screen, there are fewer women CEOs than there are CEOs named John. Along with her career progressing, her confidence in what she does also progresses. By season four she knows that she's good at what she does and she's no longer afraid to stand up for herself.
Everything is looking up for Felicity until she gets shot and paralyzed. She continues to run Palmer Technologies while emotionally dealing with being in a wheelchair and trying to help Oliver catch who shot her. Felicity’s employee, and biochemist Curtis Holt, creates an implantable bio-stimulant that enables Felicity to walk again. Sadly, Felicity's position as CEO doesn’t last. Towards the end of season four, she is voted out of the company by the board of directors for neglecting her duties as CEO to help Oliver. This doesn't give the audience a positive portrayal of a woman balancing her career and personal life, and shows that you have to choose one or the other, even though that is not true. She works her way up to CEO on her own merits, and then loses her position at the whim of the patriarchy (even if it was to save the city).
Felicity doesn't let that stop her though. After some unfortunate misteps that result in Felicity becoming a hacker again, Felicity takes her skills and creates her own tech company.
Bio-engineer Caitlin Snow, played by Danielle Panabaker, was introduced in season two of Arrow (“The Man Under the Hood”) when Slade, who was one of the “big bads” at the time, killed one of the security guards at S.T.A.R. Labs (where Caitlin and fellow engineer Cisco Ramon worked). Felicity and Caitlin meet when Caitlin informs her that Barry Allen, who Felicity had previously worked with, is still in a coma after a particle accelerator explosion at S.T.A.R. Labs (which gave him powers that later made him become the Flash). When the Flash became a separate show, centering on S.T.A.R. Labs, Caitlin became a main character.
Caitlin Snow is meek and reserved, and at her core just wants to help people. Caitlin’s parents were both doctors which inspired her to become a neurosurgeon. After becoming estranged from her mother, she chose to take a job at S.T.A.R. Labs instead. Caitlin, in her role as a bio-engineer, teams up with collegues to start Team Flash to help Barry (the protagonist of the show) with meta-human related cases.
In season one, Caitlin doesn’t have much of an arc past being a scientist to help Barry. We don't really get to know her much about her personality yet as she is closed off to everyone due to her husband dying, and doesn't want to get too close to anyone for fear of losing them. In season two, the audience sees Caitlin come into her own as a character more, and a completely different side of her is revealed. When Team Flash travels to Earth Two, a parallel universe Earth, they see that the Caitlin from Earth Two was also affected by the particle accelerator explosion and in this world she is no longer a scientist, but instead a meta-human turned villain named Killer Frost.
Later on Barry goes back in time and mistakenly sends them into an alternate timeline, where Caitlin never became an engineer. Barry tries to fix the timeline to send it back to normal but some things could not be fixed. Caitlin is back to being a bio-engineer, but the time travel affected her so she is now a meta-human like her Earth Two doppelganger. She dies and is brought back to life, but Killer Frost takes over and she ends up helping the villain of the season. Caitlin is finally given the choice of curing herself of her Killer Frost persona and helping her friends, or remaining as Killer Frost and watching the people she loves die. She helps them, but does not take the cure, proving true to Caitlin's personality. In the end, she works with Team Flash and S.T.A.R. labs as both the scientist, Dr. Caitlin Snow, and Killer Frost (now using her powers for good). She not only becomes a strong character physically, but her convictions become stronger. The "good" parts of her personality shine through the "evil" persona and win, proving just how strong she is.
Do Arrow and The Flash meet the goals set out by the White House for better representation of women in STEM fields?
The former Obama Administration's White House fact sheet lists 3 goals for fictional representation of women in STEM. We are noticing a trend in the movies and television shows we have reviewed - they meet some of the following goals better than others.
1. Include diverse STEM role models (past and present): In Arrow, Felicity is the only person in STEM who is a woman. Everyone else in STEM is a man. The show does have many “strong female characters,” many of whom are even superheroes, but as they are not in STEM, this show does not meet this goal. The Flash is a more STEM-centric show than Arrow, but Caitlin is the only main character who is a woman in STEM. For a couple seasons, they also had a woman biochemist named Jesse on the team, but her run on the show was short. Despite that, the Flash does not meet this goal either.
2. Highlight the breadth of STEM careers and social impacts: Felicity is a hacker, which is something that has become fairly popular in media and is often negatively depicted. However, we see her go from a hacker to eventually being a CEO in a tech company, which is a refreshing situation for a woman on television. Therefore, Arrow does meet this goal. In The Flash, it is awesome to see Caitlin as a woman engineer, who is also a doctor, so The Flash meets this goal.
3. Debunk STEM stigmas and misconceptions: Arrow actually does debunk the stigmas and misconceptions of STEM, but when we get right down to it, they play up a lot of stereotypes. At first it was refreshing to see the “pretty blonde” character as wicked smart with a degree in computer science from MIT, instead of being portrayed as an airhead. Unfortunately, this was ruined when her backstory is shown, in which she is a stereotypical “goth girl” getting into “hactivism” because of her boyfriend. In this regard, the show does not meet this goal. In The Flash, Caitlin makes engineering seem really cool and interesting. However, the fact she is also a villain from time to time might play up to the “mad scientist” stereotype. Overall, Arrow and The Flash do meet this goal.