Before superheroes were everywhere—before box office juggernauts and shared universes and crossovers—there was Smallville on the WB. I was ten when it premiered, and watched the first two seasons like clockwork. I don’t remember how it fell off my radar—I have a feeling Channel 4 stopped airing it in the UK, and this was before all TV shows were online—but a few years ago I marathoned the entire run.
Smallville isn’t the greatest show: for most of its ten years on air, nothing really happens, and it suffers from being made when producers were still afraid of going full comic book. (Clark Kent can’t fly. Nobody wears a proper supersuit. Kryptonite starts out being called ‘meteor rock’.) It has its moments though, one of which has been on my mind.
In one of the earlier episodes, Clark, who moves fast enough to stop bullets, meets a boy about his own age who outruns him. Bart is Smallville’s take on the Flash, and the story is about Clark’s response to meeting someone else like him for the first time. Preparing to leave town in the last scene, Bart notes how fast and strong Clark is and invites him to come along; Clark invites him to stay. When Bart says that he has no reason to, Clark tells him ‘You have me’—and then runs after him. Just as he’s about to catch Bart, the other boy turns back to grin, then speeds away, ten times faster than Clark will ever be. Clark grinds to a halt in the dust, staring in amazement. Then he just smiles.
The scene plays like an over-the-top teen romance because it is—commenters on YouTube observe how obvious it is that Clark’s smitten—but even the writers don’t seem to have noticed. You wouldn’t think anyone could miss it, but Smallville is insistently heterosexual: in its full run of 218 episodes, only two minor characters are explicitly anything but straight, and one of them is killed. This isn’t queerbaiting: it’s a series from 2001 that never caught on to the existence of diverse sexuality enough to exploit it, let alone to depict it realistically. The showrunners aren’t milking this scene to tease their audience: they really are that oblivious.
Fast forward to 2016 and things seem rather different. But are they?
When Smallville ended, the WB had become the CW. Adaptations of DC comic books now air on the network four nights a week, with an ambitious ‘crossover event’ currently in progress. The participating series—Supergirl, The Flash, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow—share a team of writers led by Greg Berlanti, and feature an array of queer characters. This month, after Berlanti’s announcement a prominent character would come out, Alex Danvers—adoptive sister of Kara Zor-El on Supergirl—has pursued a relationship with Maggie Sawyer, an out lesbian in the comics. When the character gave a speech about her troubled sexual history, praise for Chyler Leigh’s performance trended on Twitter. It’s not hard to see why.
Supergirl’s problem is with its main character. In its first season, the series launched a series of contrived love interests in Kara’s direction, none of which stuck: a love triangle involving James Olsen and Winn Schott was wisely ditched this year, while a suitor played by Melissa Benoist’s real-life husband failed to make an impact. A new addition to the cast is superpowered Mon-El, a native of Krypton’s sister planet with whom Kara has more convincing chemistry—but he’s not the one fans want her to date.
In Monday’s episode, Supergirl saves the life—not for the first time—of Lena Luthor, intercepting a concrete block tossed at her by a rampaging cyborg. After the credits rolled, this moment trended on Twitter as well, with fans shipping the two under the hashtag #QueerEl.
In other episodes, Kara vaporises flying objects with heat vision; here she lands in its path, arms crossed at the wrist like Wonder Woman and shoulders wide, forcing the cement to shatter. We’ve seen Superman do this countless times, and everything about the shot emphasises Kara is just as strong and indestructible as her more famous male cousin. And more often than not, when he saves a woman like this, it’s Lois Lane.
Played by Katie McGrath, this version of Lena Luthor is no more a damsel than Lois is, and pairing her with Supergirl would be symbolic. In the scenes where civilian-Kara interviews her, it becomes clear both women are struggling to emerge from the shadow of the men in their families. Supergirl is a show about female relationships: Kara and Alex, Kara and Cat Grant, the Danvers sisters and their mother and the women of the House of El. Why shouldn’t its hero be in a female relationship? And when so many fans see a spark between Kara and Lena, why don’t the showrunners?
When news broke that a character in the Arrowverse would come out, my money was on Alex Danvers—but I nursed a secret hope it would be someone else. Like Supergirl, The Flash has its share of queer background characters, including the local police captain and his fiancé and Andy Mientus as comics villain Pied Piper. But the background isn’t where I’m looking. I’m looking at Flash himself.
When Grant Gustin was first cast as Barry Allen—a different adaptation of the speedster from Smallville—men on the Internet complained. Gustin, a musical theatre performer, was best known at the time for playing a gay chorister on Glee, and—unlike John Wesley Shipp in 1990—looked nothing like the traditional musclebound Flash of the source material. Neither did he look like Tom Welling or Stephen Amell, the CW’s two preceding superhero leads, with their square jaws and heavy frames—and when the series aired, it became evident that he wasn’t like them. Smallville’s Clark Kent and Arrow’s version of Oliver Queen had been brooding quarterback-type orphans, but Barry was a nerd who’d been picked on at school; whose defining trauma was the loss of his mom and not his dad; who had feelings about it and talked about them; who giggled and sang karaoke; who cried. The Flash’s version of Barry Allen is someone who, if he existed, would be used to being called a fag. Then there’s the love interests.
Like Kara and seemingly all CW heroes, Barry Allen has had a string of perfunctory straight romances thrust on him. When he first appeared on Arrow, a mutual attraction with Felicity Smoak was hinted at, then dropped; on his own show, recent episodes have acknowledged the writers’ uncertainty about what to do with Iris West, who despite being Barry’s foster sister exists solely as the object of his love. Why Barry and Iris are meant to be is never apparent: newspapers from the future—yes, really—just inform us they get married, and critics commonly observe that the characters scenes together never resonate the way they should. The only romantic interest Barry has chemistry with is Patty Spivot, a detective in the second season—but when Gustin is made to portray him as a player, faking blindness to coax Patty into taking his hand and kissing him, it feels off. In my head, Barry likes women just fine, but not the way straight men are supposed to. As easy as it is to see him and Kara going to bed, it’s just as easy to see them waking up and discussing boys, or to see him dating Pied Piper or Roy Harper or Winn Schott. In my head, Barry Allen is queer.
That’s what I hoped to see, but not what I thought would happen. While queers can now exist on the CW, we still don’t get to be the leads—even when the insistent straightness it forces on them rarely succeeds dramatically, and even when audiences see same-sex storylines emerging naturally from characters. With one possible exception, the Arrowverse’s queer characters—Alex and Maggie Sawyer on Supergirl, Pied Piper and Captain Singh on The Flash, Obsidian on Legends of Tomorrow—play secondary roles at best, having been conceived for the purpose of LGB representation: the only characters allowed same-sex interests are the ones put there to exhibit them, while everyone else’s straightness is cast iron. The finest example is Arrow’s Curtis Holt, whose gayness is almost wholly an informed attribute. The man he’s married to only appears for long enough to remind us that he exists, and we never find out what Curtis’s relationships are like; how he felt as a gay Olympian; how being gay and black might have made vigilantism imperative for him. Curtis is gay only to ensure viewers see gay characters—if we weren’t told, we wouldn’t know.
Better and worse examples both exist elsewhere. In Star Trek Beyond, Sulu is shown with a husband for no reason except to depict a same-sex relationship. Fifty years in, it’s better than nothing, but if producers really wanted to make Star Trek gay, they only had to make good on decades of fan commentary about Kirk and Spock. Conversely, Penguin’s sexuality in Gotham reflects everything he is—a maladjusted, emotionally fractured person clasping at adoration wherever it is—and he and Riddler are two of the show’s most prominent characters: the only flaw in their relationship is that it’s not allowed to come to fruition.
With the possible exception of Alex and Maggie, the Arrowverse’s best queers are lovers Sara Lance and Nyssa al-Ghul. Nyssa, a minor character in the comics, is shown here as heir to the League of Assassins, a woman of colour whose feelings for Sara invite her father’s displeasure, while Sara starts as a supporting character in Arrow’s second run, but now leads Legends of Tomorrow’s cast: her stories often take the time to ask what visiting the past must feel like for a bisexual woman. I want more storylines like theirs, and I want the CW to let the characters its shows are named after be queer. I want to see Supergirl and Lena Luthor dating and Barry Allen kissing boys and Barry Allen kissing girls and Oliver Queen avoiding relationships altogether. I want writers to show me queer relationships and not just tell me about them, and I want them to see the stories I can see. I want characters’ sexuality to be about their characterisation, and I want queerness to mean something, not just be a token in the background.
It’s about time—that Smallville episode was twelve years ago, after all.