When I first heard back in late December that the CW’s Arrow would be putting charmingly awkward IT girl turned CEO Felicity Smoak into a wheelchair I was a bit dismayed. No, not because Arrow was
ripping off er, that is, finding inspiration in the Batman mythos again instead of, I don’t know, finding its own plots. And not because something terrible was happening to one of my favorite characters. Something terrible is always happening to someone on Arrow. I just make sure that I always have something alcoholic on hand.
No. It was because, as a wheelchair user, I cringed at the thought of how Arrow, with its checkered history with characters from marginalized groups, might handle this plot.
As it turns out, as a wheelchair user, I’ve loved almost every minute of it.
True, the first episode in the storyline, “Blood Debts,” was not all that encouraging. Starting up just seconds after Damien Darhk’s minions shot bullets right into Felicity’s spine, right through a limo (memo to Star City residents: perhaps investing in bullet-proof limos is in order, given the number of people in your city who like to shoot at things), Arrow decided to focus on how Oliver reacted to her injury and diagnosis, not how—to pick a character at random—Felicity reacted to her injury. Not helping matters, Oliver spent the majority of the episode avoiding Felicity’s bedside, since four seasons in, Oliver is still an emotionally stunted and traumatized man whose superpower is bad decision making. And when he did come to visit her, most of their dialogue was about forgiving him.
After this misstep, however, Arrow gave us:
In “Blood Debts”:
- An honest conversation between Felicity and Oliver, where she—painfully— pointed out that they hadn’t yet exchanged vows, so that whole for better and worse thing didn’t apply, and voiced her fears that the reason he was staying away was that he was planning on dumping her. To his credit, Oliver pulled her engagement ring out of his pocket (a nurse had removed it earlier), and put the ring firmly back on her finger. It was both a nice acknowledgement of the fears people can have about their relationships after a disability, and a moment featuring a disabled woman in a romantic role—something still uncommon in television. (The exceptions that immediately came to mind—Artie from Glee, Jason from Friday Night Lights, and Kevin from Joan of Arcadia—are all men.)
- Oliver once again carrying Felicity, only this time, carrying her down the stairs to her wheelchair, bringing Felicity close to panic, in a realistic demonstration of the frustration and panic wheelchair users can feel when a lack of accessibility forces them to be be lifted or carried—when, of course, they can be lifted or carried at all.
- Felicity’s wheelchair, which looks like either a TiLite or Quickie ultralight titanium wheelchair, is a realistic example of a wheelchair spinal patients actually use, as opposed to the chairs most television shows apparently believe that spinal patients actually use. I am a little surprised that she managed to get a customized model that quickly—they often take a couple of weeks to be assembled and arrive—but she is a billionaire CEO, after all. That’s gotta come with some perks.
- Medication with unexpected side effects.
- Goth Felicity, a manifestation of Felicity’s doubts and fears.
- Felicity’s fear that her injury hadn’t just affected her physically, but mentally as well.
- Felicity’s fear that she wouldn’t be able to do her job in a wheelchair.
- Felicity voicing her frustration that her disability made simple things—like heading out for a cup of coffee—difficult.
- Felicity voicing her gratitude towards elevators.
- Felicity acknowledging that, at least for now, she needed other people to drive her.
- Felicity realizing that she couldn’t reach her computers in the Arrow Cave, because they were on a raised dais that lacked a ramp.
- Felicity pushing past all on this to help take down Shadowspire through superhacking—and getting her very own code name.
- An acknowledgement that one episode wasn’t enough to restore Felicity’s confidence, whatever the previous episode had implied, a nice touch showing that adjusting to a disability can be a long term process.
- A ramp in the Arrow Cave, looking so cool that I was even willing—sorta—to overlook just how hard that curve would be to navigate on a regular basis.
- Felicity facing—and defeating—Batman villain the Calculator from her wheelchair. While snarking.
- A Palmer Tech executive concerned that Felicity’s injury has not just lowered the company’s stock price, but also left her unable to do corporate presentations.
- Felicity initially agreeing with this, until her triumph over the Calculator and a pep talk from Curtis convinced her to deliver the presentation from her wheelchair anyway.
In “Sins of the Father”:
- Felicity confronting and handling the Calculator (who, in one of those twists Arrow loves, turned out to be her father) almost entirely on her own. Was I slightly stunned and even mildly horrified to see the rest of Team Arrow react to the news that Felicity’s father was the same guy who just tried to kill 8000 people with a, huh, interesting, but we’re all kinda busy right now, so can you deal with it? Sure. But I also couldn’t help feeling a tiny thrill that Team Arrow knows that yes, a wheelchair user is badass enough to take on a Batman villain by herself. Especially if that wheelchair user is Felicity Smoak.
- Related to this: a plot centered on a wheelchair user that had virtually nothing to do with her wheelchair.
- Felicity joining Team Arrow up on the rooftop in her chair, a full member of the team.
- Felicity greeting her father’s gift of a mobile ramp with the announcement that she was sending the giver to jail anyway. You go, Felicity. You go.
- And Oliver, in my hands down favorite moment of the episode, assuring Felicity that she didn’t have to be funny for him—in a nice counter to the message that wheelchair users so often hear, that disability is a matter of attitude, and that wheelchair users need to be sunny and cheerful.
Most of what I saw in “A.W.O.L.” and “Unchained” spoke to me. Oh, not the codename or the supervillain fighting—I do try to fight my cravings for chocolate, but that’s about as far as my personal superhero fighting goes. But otherwise, I’ve been that person, carried up and down stairs because I couldn’t get up and down them on my own, and it’s terrifying, even when I completely trusted the person carrying me. I’ve had the frustration of getting the weirdest reactions to medications (though Felicity’s hallucinations were considerably more entertaining than any of the side effects I’ve had). I’ve faced the immense frustration of inaccessible work and living places, of being unable to get to a place where I needed to be because it lacked a ramp. I’ve had people assume I couldn’t do something because of the wheelchair, or couldn’t join a group because of a wheelchair. And I’ve felt the self-doubt that I wouldn’t be able to do other things, things that technically had nothing to do with the wheelchair. Sure, Felicity can hack whether or not she’s in a chair, but reaching that understanding took time.
And then, this conversation:
Mr. Dennis, Palmer Tech executive: We need to put our best foot forward.
Felicity Smoak, Completely Awesome Palmer Tech Overlord: Well, that’s not something I’m exactly able to do right now.
Mr. Dennis, Palmer Tech executive: Sorry. Poor choice of words. What I mean is, perhaps it would be better to have someone else do this presentation.
Felicity Smoak, Completely Awesome Palmer Tech Overlord: And by someone else, you mean someone who’s not in a wheelchair.
Mr. Dennis, Palmer Tech executive: This is about doing what’s best for the company. Anything less than a perfect launch, and we are sunk.
I’ve had this conversation. I’ve been this conversation: people using phrases like “best foot forward” to me, or other phrases that involve walking, or stairs, or running, slipped into conversation by people who, like Mr. Dennis, aren’t really thinking about how they’re coming across. People telling me that really, I shouldn’t be doing something because of the chair. It’s all for the best.
Meanwhile, Team Arrow—aka the heroes—built Felicity a ramp, and put her right next to Green Arrow, Black Canary and John Diggle as they faced Malcolm Merlyn on a Star City rooftop. Superhero inclusivity for the win.
Has it all been perfect? No—I’m not sure why Felicity isn’t wearing wheelchair or bicycle gloves. I also rather wish that Arrow had hired a physical therapist to train actress Emily Bett-Rickards, who in a couple of scenes, doesn’t seem to know how to push the wheelchair properly—although that too, I guess, is a realistic element. It surprises me that Oliver and Felicity aren’t looking for a new apartment, or at the very least, installing a stair life for Felicity’s use; I know Oliver has said that he won’t stop until Felicity is healed, but meanwhile, it would be great if you were staying in a place where she could get to her own bedroom on her on, Oliver. And while Arrow has been great about showing the issues with ramps and stairs, I couldn’t help noticing that the doohickey thing Felicity needed in “Unchained” was on a shelf that she could reach at wheelchair level, instead of—as happens so often—a shelf that can only be reached by standing, or by one of those wheelchairs that moves a user into a standing position. I laughed, but also cringed a little at the Oracle joke, implying, as it did, that one wheelchair user is much like another, and that Felicity Smoak is somehow the same as Barbara Gordon, instead of a full fledged character in her own right—even if Arrow does rip off the Batman mythos so frequently that I suspect this particular plotline was inspired by the comic book Barbara Gordon.
More importantly, Felicity is adjusting to all of this far too quickly: she had two episodes of angst, and one episode of workplace issues, before apparently making a complete psychological adjustment to the wheelchair, without therapy, which, well. No. Not even a superhero like Felicity Smoak.
But against this, Arrow has done something pretty amazing, not to mention strangely realistic for a show where dead people jump out of hot tubs to go on killing sprees, a secret group of assassins agrees to have a rooftop duel in plain view of the windows from the many taller buildings nearby, and a single small battery can power electric cars for thousands of miles and single-handedly power a large building. Arrow has forced Felicity to meet the regular obstacles faced by wheelchair users every day: stairs, a lack of ramps, the feeling of powerlessness and often panic when circumstances require people to carry you, stairs, condescension, getting underestimated, unexpected reactions from medications, stairs, frustration, self-doubt, and—did I mention—a lack of ramps.
All while helping take down supervillains.
Felicity wasn’t the only Arrow character dealing with a disability in these episodes. In “Sins of the Fathers,” uber-evil doer Malcolm Merlyn lost a hand. So far, he seems to be handling his new condition the same way he handles everything else—with evil plots—in another acknowledgement that disability is a change, not an end, though I’ll have to see more of this to see where it goes before passing judgment on this plot.
And Oliver’s sister Thea, for reasons that make sense only to the Arrow showrunners, and possibly not even them, developed bloodlust—a powerful desire to kill that, if not satiated, will kill her. Rather than kill again, Thea’s willing to face death, and irritably tells her relatives to refer to her as a person, not by the impersonal term “the host.” When Oliver tells her that he’s willing to make a trade with supervillain Damien Darhk to save her, Thea not only calls him out on the complete stupidity of this plan, but tells Oliver that this isn’t his choice to make, asserting her rights to make her own medical decisions. Thea’s bloodlust may not exactly be a typical sort of disability, much less as visually obvious a disability as Felicity’s wheelchair, but in its demand for bodily autonomy and respect for individual choices, it may be an even more powerful one.
Unfortunately, Thea spent much of the very next episode unconscious, thus leaving Malcolm and Oliver free to make those medical decisions for her. This could be read, I suppose, as a metaphor of sorts for the way people with disabilities often find other people—medical personnel, insurance companies, caretakers—making medical decisions for them. It happens, and in an episode that showcased another disabled woman taking control of her decisions and personal relationships, I suppose it’s important to acknowledge that not all disabled people have that control. At the same time, I found this profoundly dissatisfying, especially since it happened just one episode after Thea’s powerful demand for bodily autonomy.
Like Thea’s bloodlust, and pretty much everything else on Arrow, Felicity’s use of a wheelchair probably won’t last long. After all, as Oliver pointed out, the Arrowverse is a world where some people can run at super speeds, shrink, fly, and travel through time, so as much as I dislike magical recovery stories, I guess I’ll accept it in the Arrowverse.
But until that happens, I’m going to squee just a little as I watch a wheelchair user be a superhero.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida.