A version of this post originally appeared on a TV.com forum on March 12, 2015, under my Titan4lizife username.
DC’s live-action leading ladies (on male-driven series) tend to fall into one of two categories: lovable, plucky sidekick or hateful witch who needs to die. Intentionally or not, writers pit these women against each other by having one woman so well-written that the Grinch’s faith in humanity is restored, and his heart grows three sizes larger. She tends to get the wittiest dialogue, and is indispensable to the hero. The other woman, on the other hand, is usually a complete train wreck; she is given unsubstantial story lines that seem to gum up the hero’s trajectory for no reason; and rather than being a partner or sidekick who gets things done, she’s often the damsel in distress who derails an otherwise straightforward mission. While the fandom may ship the hero and his girl Friday, the writers may pair the hero with the hated Jezebel, who doesn’t want him for herself, having several other love interests, but who also doesn’t want him to be with anyone else.
Starting with the worst of the worst, if the above description of “the hated Jezebel” made you think of Smallville’s Lana Lang, give yourself a gold star because you have mastered this concept. Lana practically invented this trope. She was the bane of the Smallville fandom for six years until her celebrated death in the season-six finale. However, as with most deaths on DCTV, this turned out to be a ruse — curse you writers! — and she returned in season seven, and in season eight for an interminable six-episode arc, before finally vanishing from our lives forever.
From day one, Lana was presented as a stunt in Clark’s superheroic growth. One glance from her and he was reduced to a bumbling idiot; her jealous boyfriend (the first of many) strung him up in a cornfield in the pilot episode; and when he wasn’t saving her from tornadoes or aliens, he was saving her from herself. Whenever Lana and Clark managed to get together, some awful tragedy followed, some sort of reckoning.
Lana’s more grievous crimes include preventing Clark from seeing what a stellar gal Chloe was in the earlier seasons, creating even more tension between Clark and Lex’s bromance, and most heinous of all, being indirectly responsible for the death of Pa Kent. We could go on to blame her for world hunger and global warming, but you get the point: Lana was the worst.
As a costumed character and Oliver’s primary love interest in the comics, LL the Second really should have been the lovable go-to girl. However, as the writers pitted her against cute, quirky, brainy Felicity in season one, and against tough, jaded, spunky Sara in season two, she never really stood a chance.
Laurel’s vacillating feelings toward The Arrow, Tommy, and her formerly dead (but now actually dead) sister made it seem like all she did was complain. Her season-two story line was especially awful, and the only reason we endured it was to see if she would overdose. Unlike Sara or Felicity, she doesn’t have a unique skill set or an endearing personality. While she has used her position as an attorney to help The Arrow, she has also used it to hunt him down.
Like LL the First, she, too, is indirectly responsible for the death of a beloved character, and I’m not talking about Sara. Tommy might still be alive if Laurel had only listened to any of the three warnings (four if you count the news reports) about not going to the Glades.
As a Black Canary fan, I really want to like Arrow’s rendition of the character, but once a character has been cast as the “hateful witch,” it’s hard to change her role.
Honestly, I gave up on Gotham after its third episode, and I only went crawling back to it after the midseason break when I heard who would be playing Leslie Thompkins (because I love Inara Serra and will follow her to the edge of the Verse). So I missed most (all) of what makes Barbara so hated by the fandom, but I have noticed how much better the show is without her.
Maybe I’m just biased and Gotham had been steadily improving before Lee’s arrival and Barbara’s departure, or maybe I’ve seen enough DCTV to see dead weight walking. From what I’ve gathered, Barbara has relapsed into a drug-fueled lifestyle that makes Laurel’s season-two arc look delightful. She has returned to an old flame and has committed other drama-inducing acts. Meanwhile, Lee, since her introduction only a few weeks ago, has helped solve cases, has stood up to Gordon when he’s being a fool (ultimately making him a better man), and has been an all-round awesome companion (see what I did there) to the hero.
It only takes about half a season of shoddy writing for a character to be cast as the “hateful witch.” Unlike Barbara, Iris has managed to shy away from the title, but as Linda Park — who is just so adorable — rises in prominence and usefulness, there won’t be much that Iris can do to stop the fandom from wanting her dead.
Since neither Caitlin nor Felicity, who lives in a different show, is a direct rival for Barry’s love, Iris’ Lananess wasn’t as prominent in the first half of the season as it is in the second. She’s practically engaged to Eddie, but Barry, who is “perfectly perfect” for Felicity, is hung up on her. While all of Central City, including infants and mental patients, knows how he feels, she is oblivious. When he finally confesses, she turns him down; but the minute he finds Linda, she catches all the feelings and manages to innocently sabotage things.
To make things worse, Iris (and her other half) are the only main characters who don’t know Barry’s secret, meaning her story lines are separate from #TeamFlash’s, and are therefore considerably less interesting. Like Laurel and Barbara, her character development is epileptic. In the first 11 episodes alone, she has gone from working on a dissertation, to working as a waitress at Jitters, to working on her blog. Overnight, she became a professional journalist based on a blog and a few classes. We’re not quite sure where her character’s going since we’re still trying to figure out where she’s been.
Iris has potential to be a Chloe or a Felicity, but only the writers can save her. Right now, however, they are giving her unrealistic promotions not for the development of her character, but so that she can cause drama in the bullpen (why else would she be hired by the newspaper where Linda works?).
Okay, so she isn’t a live-action character, and she probably isn’t as loathed as Lana or Laurel or Barbara, but she’s definitely a “witch,” even more so than the daughter of Trigon. Like Lana, Terra did die for a hot second, only to be brought back in the series finale as an amnesiac (?). Her crimes include betraying the Titans to their archnemesis and, slightly more importantly, ruining the Lego Raven and Beast Boy ship that we were all building.
Update (March 4, 2017)
Oh, the difference two years can make. While Lana’s reputation is set in stone, many of the women on this list have been redeemed thanks to much-needed character development. On Arrow, Laurel not only overcame her addiction but also became a beloved, badass Black Canary. As difficult as her season-two story line was to endure, her addiction and self-doubt made her even more impressive when she finally found the physical and emotional strength to pick up her sister’s mantle. Of course, just when Laurel was coming into her own as a vigilante, the writers stuck an arrow in her and declared her done.
On Gotham, the tables have turned between Barbara and Lee. Now, neither of them is the Sandy to Jim Gordon’s Danny Zuko (thank God). Although Barbara is still a bit of a base-breaker, many find her newfound villainous nature to be a giant leap forward from her season-one persona. Lee, on the other hand, has lost her relationship with Jim, their unborn child, and her husband, Mario, in the course of a year. No longer an ally to Jim, and not quite a villain, Lee lives on the peripheral of this season’s central plot.
Both women need considerably more screen time than they are currently given, but we can assume that Barbara is always scheming, even when she’s not on screen. Who knows what Lee does in her spare time, as the show has done little to establish her wants outside of Jim and Mario.
The Flash, meanwhile, has steadily improved Iris since letting her in on Barry’s secret. While not as essential to the crime-fighting effort as the nerds at S.T.A.R. Labs, her journalistic skills have been known to be helpful from time to time. And, of course, her pep talks with Barry are invaluable. While she could still be considered a damsel in distress (the second half of season three focuses on preventing her death), she’s never hindered Barry from being a hero in the way Lana hindered Clark.
Ultimately, it’s easy to vilify women like Lana or season-two Laurel when it seems like every move they make derails the hero’s mission. But let’s not lose focus, the real villains are the writers who use these women as plot devices, or objects to be attained, rather than as characters.