During SXSW, I had the true pleasure of getting to see Candice Patton (The Flash), Nicole Mains (Supergirl), Vince Rodriguez III (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), and executive producer Nkechi Okoro Carroll of All American talk about diversity and representation at the Inclusion & Representation in Action in the Entertainment Industry panel.
It was a very enlightening conversation, with each actor highlighting the experiences they had before their big break—of being told they wouldn’t make it, of always being cast to play the friend, and always feeling as if their identities were being used as an after school special to teach, rather than just telling a story. Mains and Patton both talked about the hate/backlash they have received for their roles—Patton for being a Black woman playing the traditionally red-haired Iris West from DC Comics, and Nicole Mains being a trans actress playing Nia Nal on Supergirl, with some people saying it’s making their superhero products “too political.”
Because comics never were political, right?
During the event, I asked a question of Candice Patton (after, of course, fangirling for a moment), about what she thinks could be done by networks who are seeking to promote diversity and have diverse talent, to protect and make things easier for the actors. One of the things Patton mentioned was not feeling beautiful after being styled because the makeup person didn’t know how to work with her skin/hair, and having to try to fix it in order to feel comfortable.
“I do not want to be labeled a diva for asking for a stylist who knows how to do Black hair, knows how to do Black makeup,” Patton said. “I want to be able to call up my producers and know that they’ll have my back.”
As a longtime fan of The Flash and just someone who watches the way non-white—but especially Black—women are treated in fandom, the vitriol aimed at Patton is something that I have been acutely aware of and something she has been outspoken about. However, I was still impressed by her candor and bluntness about her reality.
While Iris always looks good, and Candice is, of course, a gorgeous woman, one of the things I’d seen on Tumblr from other Black fans of Iris and WestAllen is a commentary about why Iris’ style seemed stagnant for so long and why her looks tend to be things that don’t complement all of the unique styles that she could have with a stylist who understands Black hair (see Black Lightning or Insecure). The conversation about Black hair has been attracting mainstream attention not just because of the Vogue piece on the subject, but also Black actresses coming up to speak about their experiences.
Black people are hyper-visible in media, but that does not mean that we’re often given equal consideration, attention, and care in comparison to our white counterparts. Part of this, at least concerning Iris, is not helped by the fact that, as Patton brought up at the panel, there are no Black female writers on The Flash, despite there now being three Black female regulars on the show (Iris, Nora, Cecille).
Thankfully, the new showrunner for The Flash is Eric Wallace, a Black man, who was responsible for episodes like “Run, Iris, Run” and others that do a lot of justice in highlighting Iris’ importance to the team.
I think, more than anything, what Iris needs is someone who fully appreciates what the character has done for television and what she means for a lot of Black female viewers. When Brandy played Cinderella in the ’90s television adaptation of the musical, it put into the minds of many young Black women that Cinderella could be a dark-skinned Black woman. You still see Black women today say that their Cinderella is Black, referring to Brandy.
For many, their Iris West is Black because of Candice Patton being on the show—not just for being there, but being loved, treasured, and adored by her husband, father, and family. To watch a Black woman on television in a loving relationship, with a career, and being a part-time hero when needed is astounding. There has never even been an interracial longterm relationship on network television like this, front and center, since The Jeffersons.
The space Candice Patton occupies, love Iris or not, is culturally important, especially considering the genre she’s in, and I want her to be written by someone (preferably a Black woman) who wants to see Iris be her own character. That means giving her a meaningful B-plot that’s about her taking down a villain with her journalism skills that is separate from Barry’s own Flash business.
Superman has long learned to balance the need to show Lois Lane being a tough-as-nails career woman alongside being Superman’s true love. It’s time for someone to really give that to Iris West-Allen.
It’s also a call to all those who are looking to race-bend or add diversity to their roster. Do it from the top down. Have writers who understand that reality; if you think it’s valuable enough to be marketed, you can pay people who are capable writers that live in that space. Also, understand that the position you are putting these actors in is going to be contentious, so make sure they feel valued and appreciated as they fill these spaces.
P.S. Take everything I said and apply it to Kory from Titans, Josie from Riverdale, and for goddess’ sake, James from Supergirl.
(image: David Becker/Getty Images for iHeartMedia)
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