Monday, June 13, 2016

Masculinity Monday: 'The Flash's Joe West and the Superhero Family

Today's article is a guest post from our recurring writer Trey Stewart.


For all that The Flash is a TV show and comic series about the fastest person alive fighting various bad guys and saving the world, the series is also very much about family. Out of all the DC Comics superheroes, The Flash is somewhat unusual in that his family tree has, canonically, extended for more than a millennium into the future. It's a story that openly explores what it means to be a superhero and still be part of a family. 

I bring this up because today we're looking at that family. Specifically, we're talking about Barry Allen's foster father Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) in the recent television adaptation of the story. In this television series, Joe West is both the canonical father of Iris (Candice Patton) and also the adoptive father of Barry Allen (Grant Gustin). But more than just being some sitcom dad or bumbling father figure, the fact that Joe West is their father - and that he's a good father - is an integral part of the show. In fact he’s my favorite character because he embodies several things I want in fictional characters, masculine or otherwise.

The basic gist of the show is this: Barry Allen is a mild-mannered CSI tech working for the same police department as his foster father when a freak accident finds him struck by lightning during the explosion of a particle accelerator. Suddenly gifted with amazing super-speed, Barry decides to use his powers to fight crime and keep his city safe. But using his powers often brings him into conflict with his foster father, Joe, and frequently leaves Barry questioning if this is a secret he's going to be able to keep. Also he's in love with his foster sister, Iris, in a way that is both sweet and a little bit uncomfortable.

Now, given that we are only two seasons into the series, we don’t know that much about Barry’s possible legacy or the future generations of his family. But we do know a bit about Joe’s influence on Barry’s formative years. 

The most obvious means by which Joe West has influenced Barry is the fact that Joe is a cop. Not only is Barry Allen a forensic scientist that works for the Central City police department, he is also a guy that cares very much about helping and protecting others. You can see in him how much it mattered to him to see Joe as an example when he was growing up.

Male law enforcement characters in American television are typically an unrealistically violent bunch - mostly aside from the squad on Brooklyn 99. There are quite a few that make me feel scared more than protected. So it's worth noting that not only is Joe West a cop, he is a relatively positive departure from the aggressive male police officer trope. 

In the course of the series Joe has only killed two criminals. As a comparison, Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock from Gotham have killed two to three times as many people over the same number of seasons. Not only is Joe less likely to have fatal encounters with suspects than his counterparts, he is also more self aware about the cynicism that comes from years of being a cop and from looking for reasons to be suspicious of people.

Additionally, Joe West is notable for being an empathetic guy that cares about the people around him. He's an experienced detective with significant professional responsibilities. In his role as a senior detective, Joe West serves as a mentor to Patty Spivot (Shantel VanSanten) in season two. His relationship with Spivot is interesting because it's voluntary. As the head of the CCPD’s “metahuman task force” Joe wasn’t required to work with Patty. But after some convincing, he did so anyway.

Joe’s reluctance to work with Spivot wasn’t at all due to her being a woman. Instead it had more to do with her being inexperienced, Joe wanting to make sure she had the right reasons for wanting to work with him, and with the fact that Joe’s previous partners died in encounters with metahumans. 

Once they start working together, their partnership is treated as relatively normal by the narrative and Joe gives her the occasional bit of advice. It’s a natural rather than contrived mentorship. The major exception is that Joe doesn’t tell Patty that he knows and works with The Flash.

This is noteworthy in television. It's almost like Joe West is so fatherly and paternal that he can't turn it off. He finds himself mentoring even when he didn't think he was going to, even when his last partners all passed away in increasingly tragic circumstances. It's an image of the police officer as a trusted advisor and compassionate leader rather than as a man laying down the law. And it's especially noteworthy that Joe West is, well, black.

Before talking about Joe West as a father, I want to take a bit to talk about race as it relates to superheroes and their supporting casts. Around the time that Grant Gustin was announced as playing Barry Allen in The Flash, I remember having an online exchange with someone about how I wished that a person of color had been cast to play Barry Allen. The person responded that Barry Allen is pretty well established as white.

And that's true. Sort of. While it is true that Barry Allen is white, it's incorrect to say that The Flash is white. In fact, there have been several versions of The Flash that have been people of color (not just men). Also, the “a character should be portrayed by an actor of that character’s race/ethnicity” standard is applied inconsistently. Ra’s al Ghul is pretty firmly established as Arab but has yet to be played by an Arab or Arab-American actor. When whitewashing is the issue, purists seem to be less concerned.

So it wouldn't have been out of the realm of possibility to have a non-white Barry Allen or a non-white Flash. But while we have yet to get a person of color playing The Flash, we do have people of color playing both Iris and Wally West (Keiynan Lonsdale). This is significant both because of the importance of people of color being able to see individuals in media that represent them and because none of the negative consequences people seem to fear from adding diversity have come to pass.

In fact, with respect to Joe West, there is the opportunity to tell some really interesting stories. Iris West has always had a father but Joe is a new character created for the Flash TV show. In the pre-New 52 comics, Iris’ birth parents were Eric and Fran Russell. They are from the 30th century and sent Iris back to the 20th century to keep her safe from a nuclear war going on in their own time. Iris’ adopted parents were Ira, a scientist, and Nadine.

While Joe West is an original character, the writers of The Flash did adapt some aspects from the comics into the series. In the show, Barry is the adopted child rather than, so far as we know, Iris. Also, Joe’s late wife and Iris' mother, is Francine West, who shares her given name with Iris’ biological mother from the comics.

This isn't just random information. Legacy is a major theme in the Flash comics and probably will become one in season three and any future seasons of The Flash. Before discussing Joe’s place in a potential Flash legacy, however, it is worth talking about how Joe is kind of the opposite of the stereotypical black father. 

Now, it's worth noting before we get into this, that our media stereotypes about black fathers are scientifically very inaccurate. The culture paints a picture of black fatherhood as being absent and harsh, but according to the CDC, black fathers are actually more involved with their children’s lives than are their white and Latino counterparts. Obviously, Joe West fits in with the facts rather than the stereotypes.

In order to get a sense of how awesome Joe is, imagine that your biological father was accused of murdering your mother and that the man who arrested your dad for the crime raised you. You could be forgiven for hating your adoptive father, right? Or you would expect your adoptive father to try to turn you against your biological dad, right?

Instead, by all accounts, Barry loves and admires Joe, the man that arrested his biological father for murder. And similarly, we see that Barry still loves his biological dad too. Joe’s positive example of fatherhood even extends to his “Earth-2” counterpart. On Earth 2, Joe is a singer and his daughter Iris is the one that is a detective. He and his daughter are still close and love each other very much, even if he is suspicious of that world's Barry Allen.

Still, the interesting thing about Joe as a character is that, while he is a good father, he isn’t a perfect father. As is kind of a thing with comic book characters, Joe doesn’t tell his daughter, or his son, that Barry Allen is The Flash. Iris finds out on her own because, unlike some other women in comics, she exhibits the intelligence appropriate for a journalist.

Also, Joe lies to his daughter about her mother being alive. Apparently, Francine had left Joe and Iris after her latest overdose. At the time, lying about Francine being dead was easier for Joe than telling his daughter that her mother was kind of a mess of human being. Notably, during this storyline, the show depicts Iris as justified in being angry with her dad and gives her the time to feel angry before moving on to other plotlines. 

But it's important to see that even though Joe lies sometimes or keeps things from his kids, he does it because he cares about them and worries they'll get hurt. And the narrative is able to admit his good intentions while still establishing that what he did was wrong. In other words, it treats him as a human character rather than some dehumanized "perfect dad" or "terrible dad".

Joe’s impact on Iris, Barry, and to a lesser extent Wally can be seen in contrast with the origin of season two villain Zoom. As a child, Zoom saw his dad murder his mother. Rather than be raised by a stable adoptive father, though, Zoom was sent to an orphanage. Even before gaining super-speed, Zoom was a serial killer. By looking at Zoom's history, then, we can see how Barry might have turned out. He didn't in large part because Joe West was there for him.

My favorite part of Joe West’s character, however, in a purely emotional not really thinking about social justice sense, is what his existence means for a possible Flash legacy. Presumably, for the show, the Flash legacy would begin with Iris and Barry. 

As I’ve already mentioned, Iris and Barry spent many of their growing up years living in the same house. Thus, in contrast to many superhero couples, Barry and Iris have similar values and life goals. Also they just plain like each other. It makes logical sense that Barry and Iris would wind up married to each other and won’t be just a thing that happens because it is “supposed” to happen.

Assuming that TV Barry and Iris have children, grandchildren, etc, then the show will continue the trend, established in the comics, of the West-Allen family tree being comparatively diverse. I doubt the show will give us a thousand years of Flashes but I’m excited about the prospect of a major family of superheroes made up, largely, of people of color.

Even more than that, though, the idea of Barry and Iris getting married and starting a family and a legacy becomes less about carrying on Barry's legacy and more about Barry and Iris carrying on Joe's. Joe, in this version, is the central figure who inspires this dynasty of superpowered do-gooders, and it's amazing to think of that and think of it all tracing back to an African-American man who was just a really good dad. 

In pushing back against stereotypes, it's easy to feel like we have to invent whole new worlds and throw out all the old stuff to make way for new and better stories. But it turns out that sometimes you can radically shift a legacy (and the ideal superhero family) simply by casting a black man to play Joe West. 

It feels like such a little thing, but as you can see here, little things are often the ones with the most power.

Joe West isn't a perfect father, but he's still a man worth looking up to. He took in a child who wasn't his own, raised him and loved him, and supported him even when he thought that child was being an idiot. He taught all his kids how to have a stable, good life and how to protect the people around him. He created a legacy not by being the best or having great powers or by saving the world, but by being a good man. That's worth remembering.


Trey Stewart has his PhD in Educational Psychology from the University of Alabama. He recently started his own education research consulting/tutoring business. He wants to be like Joe West when he grows up.

1 comment:

  1. I've watched season 1 now, and was struck by how when Barry was faced with the possibility of averting his mother's murder and father's incarceration, he was *really* torn over the fact that it would cost him his relationship with Joe.

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