Why Felicity Smoak is important for women and the STEM field

This essay contains minor spoilers for seasons 1–4 of “Arrow”

Felicity Smoak of the hit CW television show “Arrow”, based on DC Comics’ superhero “Green Arrow”, represents a person that we do not see enough of on-screen, or in real life. Portrayed by Emily Bett Rickards, she was intended to be a one-off character. After a full season of guest appearances beloved by both the network and audience, she was promoted to series regular. Her character brought light, relateability and humor to an otherwise dark show. She also happens to have acclaimed on-screen chemistry with Arrow’s male lead, Stephen Amell aka Oliver Queen.

Felicity Smoak was first introduced as a genius IT-girl for the show’s tech company, “Queen Consolidated”, who graduated at the top of her class from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) with a dual Master’s degree in Computer Science and Cyber Security at the young age of 19.

Felicity’s storyline throughout the series thus far (seasons 1–4) is unique to television in that the viewer is able to watch her grow professionally and break through the glass ceiling, which refers to the invisible impenetrable barriers faced by women as they attempt to move up the corporate ladder. In season 1, she was an IT-girl and guest star. In season 2, as the actress was upgraded to series regular, the character was promoted to Executive Assistant and fulfilled the role of “girl Friday” to the show’s lead. In season 3, the company she worked for was bought out and renamed “Palmer Technologies” where Felicity was re-hired to serve as Vice President. Finally, in season 4, Felicity serves as “Palmer Technologies’” CEO. Over the course of the show, viewers have seen her go from feeling overqualified for her position, to successfully running an entire company.

Women currently occupy more than half of all management and professional positions, make up nearly half of the entire U.S. labor force and earn nearly 60% of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Yet, women remain drastically underrepresented in positions of higher power. Women currently hold only 4% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies. Which means that only 20 women hold CEO positions at these companies. (Catalyst) This statistic has only increased by 1% in the last 7 years. According to HuffingtonPost.com, there are so few women CEOs that if you do a Google image search for “CEO,” the first woman to pop up is CEO Barbie, a doll invented by “The Onion” in its article titled “CEO Barbie Criticized For Promoting Unrealistic Career Images.” In addition, there is a similar gender gap present in Felicity’s specialized field of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math in regard to careers as well as degrees. According to GirlsWhoCode.com, in middle school, 74% of girls express interest in STEM, but only 0.4% of them will select computer science as their major in college. Surprisingly, over the past few decades, the presence of women in the field has decreased. In 1984, women made up 37% of computer science graduates but now they only represent as much as 18% and although women now make up 50% of the workforce, they hold less than 25% of STEM jobs.

Other shows like CBS’ Criminal Minds and ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have introduced female characters specialized in the STEM field but the reality of the situation on television is that females make up only 16% of characters established with STEM careers and only 14% of characters in executive positions. (Feminist Frequency) CW’s Arrow is the first show that I know of to explore a woman’s rise to power in the field.

In her first episode as an official CEO, Felicity notes that she feels as if she is being questioned as to whether she is fit to inherit the title, alluding to our society that has similar questions. Felicity is consistently expected to fail, especially by the men that make up her board of directors. My favorite episodes explore her ability to break through stereotypes and live up to her own expectations. She negotiates, she asks for what she wants and she’s confident and assertive while maintaining her bubbly, kind-hearted nature and morals. These are traits that we don’t often see women embrace in the real world. Additionally, women in powerful positions are often perceived as unlikeable, so it is extremely powerful that the show has explored this rise to power with one of its most liked characters.

In addition to serving as a CEO for Palmer Technologies and love interest to the show’s lead, Felicity also serves as a hacker on Green Arrow’s team, code-named “Overwatch”. On a show full of masks and super suits, Felicity Smoak wears neither but displays her strength in her own way. Actress Emily Bett Rickards touches on her special role in an interview with Hypable during 2015’s San Diego Comic Con, “I think it’s authentic to her and women out there. We can all be strong and we can do it a hundred different ways. You don’t need to be the patriarchal definition of strong to be strong.”

Season 4 of Arrow introduced storylines for two other females that saw them pursue training and become vigilante/superheroes fighting alongside the Green Arrow. While I appreciate the fact that “Arrow” is seemingly dedicated to developing strong women, I am grateful that the show also seems to be dedicated to keeping Felicity as the brain of the “Team Arrow” operation. There are so many different ways for a female character to be strong, as there are many different ways for a real person to be strong. As a superhero fan and a woman, I love that her mental abilities are appreciated as a super power and that while Felicity consistently finds herself in danger, she never falls too deep into the damsel-in-distress trope, always maintaining her value and place on the team.

Media controls and influences every aspect of our real lives, especially how we perceive things. Media has the power to make a difference and to force change for the better, which is why representation is invaluable. In this specific case, Felicity Smoak has the ability to represent and inspire the millions of women and girls who tune into CW’s “Arrow” and the ability to push others to accept different representations of strength as well as different representations of women. Felicity Smoak is a funny, socially awkward genius, a romantic interest, an invaluable member of a superhero team, a leader of a multi-billion dollar company and a strong role model for the audience and for other media texts.

Citations:

Beede, David N., Tiffany A. Julian, David Langdon, George Mckittrick, Beethika Khan, and Mark E. Doms. “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation.” SSRN Electronic Journal SSRN Journal (n.d.): n. pag. Web.

“Girls Who Code Works to Close the Gender Gap in Technology.” Girls Who Code. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.

Kranz, Kristen. “‘Arrow’ at SDCC: Talking Dynamics in the ‘Arrow’ Cave and Damien Darhk.” Hypable. N.p., n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.

Peck, Emily. “Do You Realize How Few Women CEOs Exist? These Executives Don’t.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.

Vivek, Uncanny. “DC’s Arrow & Disability Representation.” Medium. N.p., 09 Mar. 2016. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.

“Women CEOs of the S&P 500.” Catalyst. N.p., 03 Dec. 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2016.

“Ordinary Women | Seed&Spark.” Seed&Spark. Feminist Frequency, n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2016.