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Growing up, I had to search extremely hard to find superheroes that didn’t look like me. In my local comic book shops, movies, and on TV, the world of superheroes was filled with a staggering amount of white men adventuring in colorful costumes to escape the monotony of the lives of their boring, often ostracized, alter-egos. At the time, the tradition of white men saving the day was based off of the presumed makeup of both the superhero fanbase as well as the uniformity of the writers, artists, filmmakers, and producers working within the superhero-industry.
At least within the comic book medium, efforts were made at breaking the status quo. From the late 1960s to 1970s, Marvel had an influx of African-American heroes such as Black Panther and Luke Cage, as well as DC’s Black Lightning and Cyborg.
Unfortunately, those characters were rarely put on the pedestal often awarded to crusaders like Batman, Superman, or Captain America. But, fortunately, times have changed and so have our heroes, especially on the small screen thanks to executive producer, Greg Berlanti and his “Arrowverse” on The CW.
The superhero fandom that I remember from my younger years has long since exploded into the mainstream, and with that broader audience comes a renewed demand for a more extensive range of identifiable costumed champions. Not much earlier than the 2012 creation of Berlanti’s Arrowverse, the comic book industry led the charge ahead of movies and TV, as household characters like Spider-Man and Thor acquired all-new, all-different alter egos in the early 2010s bringing fresh, diverse perspectives to familiar personas.
While the progress has been slower on-screen, the gears are turning.
This past Fall, The CW, a network aimed at a younger audience, made a public promise regarding representation and inclusion on their network with the rollout of their “Open To All” campaign — but something more significant happened with its growing roster of superhero shows. Beginning with creating, writing, and producing ‘Arrow’ in 2012 and later accompanied by ‘The Flash,’ ‘Legends Of Tomorrow,’ ‘Supergirl,’ and ‘Black Lightning,’ Berlanti has quickly made The CW, one of the most inclusive places on television. Twenty years ago, Nick Fury looked like David Hasselhoff rather than Samuel L. Jackson, and the thought of a Wonder Woman movie or the Agent Carter limited-series was nothing but a pie in the sky. So was a “Supergirl” TV series, for that matter. The Girl of Steel took her first live-action flight in a (rightfully) poorly received 1984 movie that resides in the trash bin of attempts to launch female-led superhero franchises.
But, Berlanti sensed which way the wind was blowing and rebooted the character for the small screen. When ‘The Flash’ first premiered in 2014, a lot was made of Barry Allen’s (AKA the Flash played by Grant Gustin) relationship with his adoptive family. Joe, Iris, and later Wally West (Jesse L. Martin, Candice Patton, and Keiynan Lonsdale respectively) were cast as African-American despite them all being white in the comic books, and the audience saw this choice reflected in Barry’s character during the show’s first season. Very naturally, Barry being raised in a black family granted an extra layer of complexity to his familial connections. This is one of the many instances within Berlanti’s Arrowverse where diversity isn’t just present, but matters. According to a 2016 study done by USC Annenberg, just 33.5 percent of speaking characters on TV were female, despite women representing over half the population in America.
Only 28.3 percent of characters with dialogue were from non-white racial/ethnic groups, though such “minority” groups are nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population. Even less represented are LGBTQ+ characters as they are just 2 percent of characters with dialogue. I was one of those weirdos who cried after watching the pilot of “Supergirl.’ It just felt so satisfying to finally see a superheroine on the screen, especially one who was girly and badass to boot. Played by Melissa Benoist (known from “Glee”), Supergirl is groundbreaking simply because she is herself and she doesn’t apologize for it. Many saw her girlishness as a weakness as soon as the first trailer dropped, and I’m thankful the series proved them wrong. After the first season in 2015, it had proven to be a successful launch: the pilot scored the fall’s biggest ratings, and while the series didn’t maintain that velocity, CBS picked it up for a full season after the fall finale, with an eventual sophomore year renewal on The CW as well.
Berlanti’s team repeated their handling of the West family’s casting when they cast Mehcad Brooks on “Supergirl” as James ‘Jimmy’ Olsen — a traditionally white character. Additionally, outside of Jimmy’s race-blind casting, the cast of “Supergirl” is one of the most racially-diverse collective casts around. Ironically, Arrow, Berlanti’s show that started the whole Arrowverse, has had the most trouble with representation over its four seasons. But, since the show’s premiere, ‘Arrow’ was very much geared towards a traditionally male audience, and the shift towards LGBTQ+ romantic subplots in more recent years has seen pushback from that fanbase. When Sara Lance (Caity Lotz) returned to Starling City in season 2 of ‘Arrow,’ her bisexuality was treated as an aspect of her character without it defining her.
She became a powerful example of a bisexual character on television — arguably one of the most mistreated and underrepresented parts of the LGBT+ community on TV. Berlanti’s LGBTQ+ characters are rare in that they’re consistently shown to date or be in relationships. Both Curtis in ‘Arrow’ and Captain Singh from ‘The Flash’ are both married, and we get real glimpses of their home life. In the most recent season of ‘Arrow,’ we saw marital drama for Curtis as he became more involved with Oliver and his vigilantism. At this point, every show in the Berlanti’s Arrowverse now has an LGBTQ+ character, with the most significant addition being Nicole Maines in season 4 of ‘Supergirl.’
Maines joined Benoist in season four as the new character, Dreamer, who is the first trans superhero to appear on screen. What is arguably just as noteworthy as the addition of Dreamer is that Maines herself is a trans actress. Such authenticity seems particularly crucial to Berlanti right now after The CW recently announced Ruby Rose, a lesbian actress, to play Batwoman, a lesbian superhero, who will make her debut in the Arrowverse this weekend. Maines’ casting shouldn’t be revolutionary but, sadly, it is. Members of the LGBTQ+ community, especially the trans community, are often not given the same opportunities as others in entertainment. But, Berlanti knows that to create a show that looks and feels representative of the real world he must first hire a range of voices to work with him.
Given that in the comics and on TV Supergirl herself has been a role model for young girls everywhere, it is empowering to see that after over a decade of superheroes in the mainstream, young trans people will finally have a superhero role model of their very own. Berlanti’s TV-based DC Universe, taking over the network across four separate weeknights, is now monopolizing comic book television as Netflix’s Marvel shows recently got the ax. The loss of Marvel’s shows is unfortunate, but their fans will be looking for a new place to get their superhero fix, and Berlanti has something for everyone. Whether you like the dreary Dark Knight-esque world of ‘Arrow,’ the campy wit of ‘The Flash,’ the hopeful feminism of “Supergirl,” the down-to-earth “Black Lightning,” or the wild adventures of ‘Legends Of Tomorrow,’ you are accepted. That is the beautiful thing about what Greg Berlanti has created. It is a universe where no one is excluded.
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