RIP Amanda Waller
This week Arrow offers a tutorial in age-old gender tropes by demonstrating what happens to angry women who don’t comply with traditional femininity. Amanda Waller and Goth Felicity both meet their end in “A.W.O.L.” with Amanda taking a bullet to the head and Goth Felicity burning to death like all the witches before her. Meanwhile Felicity embodies a less upsetting and, in turn, less powerful femininity by avoiding anger and quickly returning to adorkable form in the face of life-changing paralysis.
Ever since we first met Amanda Waller, we have seen her exhibit business-like ruthlessness in the face of evil. She aptly commands a massive military organization with shrewdness and skill. Arrow routinely juxtaposes Waller’s unfeeling [read: masculine] decisions against the compassion of Team Arrow as if she should or could have run A.R.G.U.S. with a lighter touch. Her uniform of dark-skirted suits with hair severely pulled back emphasizes the character’s masculine features over feminine ones. Lyla, in contrast, represents a dominant non-threatening version of femininity.
She also works for A.R.G.U.S., as an agent, yet she has the heart that Waller seemingly lacks. Lyla wears her hair loose and her clothes form-fitting. She often begins an op by supporting Amanda, but soon comes to see that Team Arrow’s altruistic plans improve upon Waller’s cold efficiency. Lyla’s nurturing version of femininity yields traditional rewards – husband, daughter, and domesticity complete with a pork roast she finds time to cook between dodging bullets.
And where does Waller’s masculine performance of gender leave her? Arrow barely digs deep enough to find out, deciding instead to limit its depiction of Amanda to the workplace, further emphasizing her impersonal qualities. Then, without warning, a one-off male character shoots her in the head and leaves the more feminine Lyla to run the show, rendering Waller’s death anti-climactic and unworthy of her place in the narrative. She deserved a more meaningful end akin to the one Arrow (unforgivably, I’m still not over it) gave the equally-ruthless and wonderfully-complicated Moira Queen. I am sensing a pattern.
As for Felicity, she spent much of the previous episode, “Blood Debts,” grinning through a drug-induced haze from a hospital bed while her fiancé ran around Star City trying to avenge her. He failed, and she fretted that he might leave her once doctors determined that she will never walk again. Oliver, neither a fool nor a monster, never considered parting ways with his better half.
Fast-forward to “A.W.O.L.” where Felicity wheels around the loft feeling trapped and useless despite Oliver’s words to the contrary. As a result of pain medication, she hallucinates the college-hacker version of herself in corporeal form. Goth Felicity’s arrival holds out the promise that Felicity will respond realistically to her medical condition – that is, with a hell of a lot of justified anger. Instead, the doppelganger mocks Felicity for pitying herself rather than getting back into the superhero game pronto.
Felicity’s choice to turn her inner turmoil and feelings of irrelevance into a positive, ‘let’s go get ‘em attitude,’ in the span of an episode, without one powerful “this really sucks” moment undermines the character’s complexity. It also moves her dangerously close to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who wouldn’t think of bogging down her friends or the narrative with self-indulgent anger. This handling made me wonder how Melinda May or Bobbi Morse would navigate the same situation.
All of this acceptance wouldn’t feel so cloying had the writers not added a commentary on gender by deliberately contrasting Goth Felicity’s appearance with Felicity’s. Goth Felicity with her “unfortunate fashion choices” dyes her hair black and refuses to show off her figure. By contrast, Felicity embraces shapely pastel dresses and dyes her hair blond, embracing that ultimate symbol and stereotype of American beauty.
Goth Felicity accurately describes Felicity’s post-Cooper Seldon look as a mask. Rather than peal back the layers of that mask to move Felicity a little closer to her pre-heroine self, the writers eschew the suggestion that Team Arrow’s Felicity isn’t the real Felicity. Goodness and compassion come with bright pink lipstick and stiletto heels, not with black lipstick and combat boots – the two shall not meet. To reinforce this message, Felicity goes so far as to burn a picture of her former self, lest we forget that anger and femininity don’t mix.
Perhaps the writers are holding out, keeping Felicity’s anger buried, only to have it build throughout the second half of the season into a boiling rage that will destroy Damien Darhk. We have seen Felicity use her anger in the past to lead the team, most memorably after Oliver’s “death” in a moment that takes on new meaning with Felicity now confined to a wheelchair.
She’ll need that kind of anger and strength to defeat “a man who can move things with his mind.” Felicity’s superpower doesn’t come from her legs or her blond hair, as Oliver notes, it comes from her brain.
Amanda Waller’s did too, though it came clothed in a suit of subversive femininity. She deserved better. And so do we.