Vixen: The CW Goes Multiracial

By Valerie Estelle Frankel

Vixen 2015: The CW Goes Multiracial

Vixen, from executive producers Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim and Andrew Kreisberg, is an online show, which debuted on August 25, 2015, on The CW’s online streaming platform. Thus it emphasizes the network’s attempt to hit new media.

Like The Flash, it takes place in the Arrow universe and Arrow (Stephen Amell) and Flash (Grant Gustin) send it off. It gains points for being possibly the first show about an African-American comic book superheroine. (Indeed shows about solo superheroines at all are basically limited to the incredibly short list of Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, Sailor Moon, Dark Angel, Witchblade, and the new Supergirl, also from CW).

Its being a cartoon might gain or lose it points, but this way it seems unlikely to attract live-action Arrow fans as live-action Flash does. Of course, this format shows a lack of confidence — they ordered six five minute episodes rather than twenty-six fully acted hour-long ones. As such, many people aren’t hearing about this one. In fact, with CW shows including Arrow and Flash on summer hiatus, it’s unclear who besides serious comic book fans even got the word.

DC Character Mari McCabe, Vixen (voiced by Megalyn Echikunwoke) is a costumed superhero crime-fighter with the power to mimic the abilities of any animal. Her outfit is simple and respectable in contrast with her cleavage-revealing halter of the comics. The character is semi-obscure, but she’s made frequent guest appearances on the cartoon Justice League Unlimited, voiced by Gina Torres. In this incarnation, her skills as she flips through martial arts while the shadow of a panther roars on the surrounding walls are sufficiently badass. She uses elephant power to lift a table, summons a jaguar to help her run, and channels hawk power when launching herself off a roof (though she wimps out the first time). She has camouflage. The power is potentially cool, though more complex and confusing than simple archery or speed. Nonetheless, kids can harness their fannishness and creativity playing her, as in the comics she can use extinct animals like dinosaurs as well.

Vixen was intended to be the first African female DC superhero to star in her own comic book series, but the first issue was canceled in 1978. It was 2008 before she got her own series rather than appearing in massive lineups. Thus she’s a fitting choice to hit the small screen at last, though clearly chosen for her multicultural representation. In the comics, she had occasional problems as her animal instincts took over and grew too violent — a bad metaphor for women’s uncontrollable primitive emotions that one hopes won’t reappear on the show.

The plot in fact does lose it points as the heroine is less-than-all powerful. She begins episode one hurling shadowy magical animals at her foes as the Arrow shoots arrows. As such, she appears a calm, competent superheroine. Then unlike the strong Arrow, she plunges off a rooftop, and, screaming, hurtles to her doom. She next appears in jail (unclear how she got there, but apparently she’s wussy enough to get caught), with her foster father bailing her out. Unlike the cool superheroes, she has only twenty-six dollars to her name and just got rejected (again) from design school. More interestingly, her quest to find her mysterious parents also failed.

Flashbacks involve her as a crying little girl — a state in which super boys are rarely seen. Still, her love for her foster father and his for her helps to make the character sympathetic, as does her quest for parents and origins. Unfortunately, like many “strong women” her character lacks a sense of humor or fun.

Episode two sees her researching her magical amulet, though the professor she consults is secretly working for the villainess Kuasa complete with Disney black and purple. He may be intended as a love interest. Episode three throws Vixen in with Flash and Arrow (of course) as they arrive investigating her. Flash’s sidekick Cisco tracks down their “first metahuman” and names her Vixen because she’s hot. This treats her as an object for the male superheroes to leer at. Episode four is all acrobatic chase scene as Vixen flees the heroes (who only want to speak with her). This sequence of course allows all of them to show off their skills. When they chase her off a roof, she falls, (as seen in episode one) then flies at last. It’s a nice moment, if unnecessarily antagonistic. “Show up at my father’s house and you’re gonna get a really good idea what it’s like to be devoured by a lion,” she finishes, showing the superheroes she’s as tough as they are or more.

Weirdly, everyone’s desperate to acquire Vixen’s necklace. While it’s looks simple, it’s called an “Anansi totem” named for the shapeshifting spider trickster of folklore. The show adds that it grants her a link to the ashae, the animal lifeforce. Anansi tales are real folklore from the Ashanti people of present-day Ghana. They indeed valued magical totems. However, Vixen’s totem is more complex. Many West African religions have each person sharing their soul with a jungle animal, who lives as a sort of partner — either hurts when the other is injured. The animal spirit aspect is harder to track down. In African religions, lifeforce is called emi (Yoruba), yiegh (Nuer), kra (Akan) or ava (Lugbara) — the principle of life in man or animal, the spiritual side. The Ashanti inherit an ancestral soul (okra), while they believe sunsum is the spiritual force inside animals. Thus the ashae appears simply made up, an awkward moment of disrespect for African religions.

Despite the awkward mythology and power dynamic with Arrow and Flash, it seems an acceptable show, a fair attempt by the CW to offer an African-American superheroine in the too-short list available. The comic book character, while living in the US, also travels to Africa to find the source of her powers and defends it in times of danger — a potentially educational globe-spanning adventure. Two more episodes remain, adding up to a single thirty minute story — short even for a web miniseries. The most popular criticism online seems to be that this is an acceptable pilot…now where’s the rest of it? In fact, a half hour a year emphasizes how this show, like its heroine, is still stuck in minority status.

Valerie Estelle Frankel is the author of many books about feminism and pop culture including From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey through Myth and Legend and Empowered: The Symbolism, Feminism, and Superheroism of Wonder Woman. Her works are available at her amazon page.

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