The CW’s expanding collection of DC Comics shows have been my favorite for a while. I’ve deeply admired the ways showrunner Greg Berlanti and his staff write strong female characters, aren’t afraid to have POC love interests, and have — again and again — cast their shows with actors who more accurately reflect the ethnic diversity in our nation. Having all these elements in a show is rare. Add in non-stereotypical portrayals of the LGBTQ community and a better-than-average track record on objectification, and I’d be tempted to call Greg Berlanti and Co. real-life representation and storytelling superheroes.
But here’s the thing: looking inclusive and sounding inclusive are not enough. It’s also important to consider: Who holds the power? Who makes decisions? Who has control of funding?
Per Variety, a publication that reports on the entertainment industry, “Warner Bros. TV Group has launched an investigation into allegations of inappropriate behavior by Andrew Kreisberg, an executive producer on the CW shows Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, Variety has learned. Kreisberg, who has been suspended by the studio, has engaged in a pattern of alleged sexual harassment and inappropriate physical contact over a period of years, according to 15 women and four men who have worked with him.”
All 19 people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from their employers. Kreisberg is very high ranked at Berlanti Productions, where he serves as an Executive Producer to many of showrunner Greg Berlanti’s projects.
The article states, “According to sources who either witnessed this behavior or were subjected to it, Kreisberg is accused of frequently touching people without their permission, asking for massages from uncomfortable female staff members, and kissing women without asking. Almost every source cites a constant stream of sexualized comments about women’s appearances, their clothes, and their perceived desirability.”
Sexualization and objectification
One of the things that initially drew me to The Flash, which for years was my favorite show on television, is the show’s completely counter-cultural refusal to objectify its male lead. (Its parent show, Arrow, constantly objectifies its male lead — Stephen Amell has been shirtless more times than is possible to count, and his abs got more screen time in season one than a lot of supporting characters.) But Grant Gustin’s Barry Allen (aka the Flash) has only shown shirtless a handful of times five seasons. He doesn’t look like he spends every free moment lifting weights at the gym. He isn’t treated like a piece of meat.
Supergirl, as well, takes a more modest approach to its superhero attire, and goes to great lengths to show its female characters as strong, independent women who don’t need to be over-sexualized to be beautiful (or powerful).
Back before Arrow launched a million spinoffs that I liked better than it, Arrow’s Felicity Smoak was my favorite character. Created as the typical nerdy tech genius, her sideline role was expanded to that of a series regular when producers saw how popular the character had become. People have strong feelings about whether or not her romance with Oliver Queen (the Green Arrow) is a good idea. But Felicity is incredibly intelligent and consistently hilarious. We also both wear glasses, have the same hair color, and her personality reminds me a lot of my teenage self—so I’m also probably not the most impartial observer.
As soon as producers realized how popular Felicity’s character was, they began making a few not-so-subtle changes to her appearance.
Suddenly, Felicity went from wearing simple button-up blouses to a wide array of form-hugging bodycom dresses and mini-skirts that looked straight out of Forever 21. She suddenly stopped putting her hair in a ponytail and opted for glamorous curls. The show later self-referentially called itself out on the change.
Likely because I identify with Felicity more than I probably should (did I mention we both wear glasses?) I was immensely bothered when Arrow insisted on sexualizing her before she could be an acceptable series regular (and later love interest for Oliver).
The fact that 19 current and former Kreisberg employees cite “a constant stream of sexualized comments about women’s appearances, their clothes, and their perceived desirability” doesn’t surprise me. When those in power believe certain behavior is okay, and normalize treating people a certain way, this is reflected in the work they produce and the art they create.
When late night host Conan O’Brien tweeted about the need for more women in leadership roles in U.S. government, one of Kreisberg’s fellow Arrow producers commented:
Emily Bett Rickards, the actress who has played Felicity on Arrow for six seasons, tweeted later that day:
News that Kreisberg has been placed on suspension was first published two days earlier. The incident has prompted a number of the actors from Berlanti’s DC Comics shows to respond on social media.
Legends of Tomorrow’s female lead, Caity Lotz, tweeted:
Supergirl Melissa Benoist wrote:
The next day, her boyfriend, Chris Wood — who plays her on-screen boyfriend, as well — wrote:
Arrow star Stephen Amell posted a Live video on Facebook the same day as Wood, saying he’d spoken with the cast and crew of the show, and supports his co-stars who have spoken. Amell said he believes that being silent is being complicit with wrong being done, and stated that he will go with and support any person who feels a need to report behavior they’ve experienced.
The Flash star Grant Gustin wrote a statement the same day:
Both Amell and Gustin seem completely unaware that their coworkers were feeling sexualized at work or experiencing harassment. Amell notes that he had listened to his show’s cast and crew before speaking publicly. He clearly states that not speaking against harassment and abuse is being complicit in it. Of every actor in the Arrow universe, he is the one with the most power. He is the impossibly fit leading man with abs of steel. If anyone has power and credibility — the ability to speak and be listened to — it is him.
Wood, too, speaks out specifically to encourage other men to speak against and help stop this behavior. Particularly important, is the fact that his Supergirl character has an attitude towards women that is very objectifying and de-valuing. For Wood to speak against these actions is powerful, because he is so closely aligned with the narrative they perpetuate. Part of his character’s development has centered around learning to respect women, and while that is still an arc in progress, it’s grounds for showing that the frat bro stereotype isn’t a one-way ticket to power and an enviable life.
Gustin’s response is the only one that took time to clarify both his innocence and his ignorance of any wrongdoing in his immediate environment. (This is a posture I know I’ve taken before when talking about race — making sure to clarify my that I haven’t seen racism around me and that of course it’s something I would never perpetuate.) I’ve been told before that this need to clarify my own innocence isn’t the most helpful response, and can sometimes rub people the wrong way, but I don’t think I fully understood how it feels until seeing it play out here. Wood and Amell’s word choice didn’t include the go-to buzzwords like “privilege” and “ally” that, when used with frequency, can feel more like a PSA than an authentic conversation.
(This puts me at somewhere near reason #764368745 why intersectionality is key to any discussion of equity and inclusion. Also, no disrespect meant towards Gustin. I’ve been following his rise to fame since 2011 and he’s one of my favorite actors. And especially if Gustin is earlier along in this process of understanding equity and intersectionality, his decision to speak and not say silent out of fear of saying the wrong thing is definitely appreciated. If his choice of words, often used in discussions of race, prompt more people to think of these discussions from the lens of intersectionality…brilliant.)
Appearance of equity vs reality
Just because my favorite shows have chosen to cast ethnically diverse actors, sometimes choose not to objectify every character, and have storylines that highlight a non-stereotypical view of what it means to be a strong and powerful woman — that does not make these shows perfect. And it does not mean that power is being used fairly or that the realities present off-screen are equitable inclusive.
I learned a while ago to stop looking at a business’ videos, spokespeople, and ads, or even to fully trust their eloquent and inspiring words. Those things are great to have, but the real test of equity is to see who hold the real power.
Is the group of decision makers as diverse and inclusive as the people they hire? Or is a powerful-but-homogeneous group still calling almost all of the shots? If a significant number of cast and crew members experience uncomfortable and sexual language, physical contact, and otherwise feel unsafe, then all their efforts towards the appearance of inclusion ultimately come across as hollow.
Does Kreisberg negate the shows’ positive impacts?
At the end of the day, the allegations against a powerful producer don’t erase all of the important work that shows he works on are doing. The series in the Berlanti universe are still at the front of important work.
They are still consistently creating characters intentionally subvert stereotypes. They are still committed to equity and inclusion in there hiring and writing. But when individuals are doing positive work, it’s easy to put them on a pedestal. Despite what social media dnd our current clickbait economy want us to believe, most people, groups, and organizations aren’t 100% perfect or 100% evil.
What matters is how they respond when confronted with reality. Do they work to address systemic inequities and power issues? Do they work — know it will take time, energy, and resources — to work for actual change? Or do they simply make all the right PR moves: say all the right things, do what needs to be done to give an appearance of addressing the issue, but go back to the comfortable, familiar, and deeply engrained way that things have always been done?