The Women Of Arrowverse Get Honest About Pushing For Inclusion In The Industry — And In The Fandom

by Sydney Bucksbaum
The CW, Kristin Mahler/Bustle

It doesn't take superpowers to change the world for the better. Sure, it doesn't hurt to have super speed or assassin-level fighting skills or a sonic scream or a magical amulet to help kick some ass, but that only happens on TV. When it comes to combatting sexism and fighting for equality and inclusion offscreen, the women of The CW's DC superhero shows (Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and Supergirl, altogether dubbed the Arrowverse) are in a unique position to help cultivate these conversations, occupying a space both as women in Hollywood and playing comic book characters for a fandom infamous for sometimes toxic trolling.

Knowing their position of power, the women of DCTV joined forces to create Shethority, an online global collective looking to inspire a step forward for women everywhere because of how inclusive it truly is. On the official Shethority website, the intersectional feminist movement declares that it's for "cis women, trans women, genderqueer women and non-binary people who are significantly female-identified" to share and participate in conversations highlighting the issues women face both inside and outside of Hollywood.

Bustle spoke with a few of the Arrowverse women including The Flash's Candice Patton, Arrow's Juliana Harkavy, and Legends of Tomorrow stars Caity Lotz, Tala Ashe, and Maisie Richardson-Sellers for a discussion about their experiences in Hollywood, what it's like to be women playing characters on comic book series, and how Shethority will help them (and others!) fight for equality, inclusion, representation, and more on a global scale.

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You all play roles that mean a lot to an entire audience, but it's especially impactful for young women to see their interests and passions portrayed on screen by strong role models. When was the first time you realized how important your character is to viewers in terms of representation?

Tala Ashe (Zari Tomaz, Legends of Tomorrow): I never saw myself represented on any television, until I was an actor myself and encountering the reasons why, or the limitations that existed in the media. When the closest thing you can identify with is Aladdin, that’s a problem. That’s been one of the most powerful things about playing this character. I’ve heard from so many young women reaching out to me saying, "Thank you for representing a Muslim-American character or Middle Eastern character, one that isn’t a terrorist," because five, 10 years ago, that’s all we were seeing. What I really worked on was that we’re painting a character that’s really nuanced; her immigration status or religion is a part of who she is, but not all of who she is. That representation is the next frontier.

Candice Patton (Iris West, The Flash): The Flash has been around for many, many decades, and Iris has been there since day one as a white, red-headed woman. For me to be cast was groundbreaking for so many young women of color seeing themselves as ingenues. My experience in the business so far has been [portraying] a lot of best friends, sidekicks — I think that’s where a lot of people of color find themselves. And my casting, for me and I know for so many girls watching, it was a nod to this idea that black women especially are beautiful and are desirable. We also can be the love interest, we can be desired by the superhero, the main character, which is something that we don’t see very often.

Juliana Harkavy (Dinah Drake, Arrow): [The importance of representation came] to my awareness more when I booked this role because I am a different Black Canary [than] the way that she’s originally written. She’s a blonde, and I’m multiracial. So for a lot of girls, that was a huge deal.

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Ashe: Social media has also been this place where fans can reach out to us and can send me these really, really moving messages. Small, little things like having an episode where we just mentioned Ramadan is something where so many people reached out to me and were like, "I’ve never seen this on television," which blew my mind.

Caity Lotz (Sara Lance, Arrow and Legends of Tomorrow): Yeah, the fanbase is super supportive. I saw it for the first time going to Comic-Cons and meeting girls that were from the LGBT community, and how important it was for them to have a character that was bisexual on television because they had never seen it before. They have a lot of family that they watch the show with, and they hadn’t told their parents about their sexuality. To be able to have Sara [Lance] be on TV and them getting to meet an LGBTQ character that they like, and they feel like, "OK, this is an OK person," and that helps them come out to their parents, is really, really impactful for me to hear.

Maisie Richardson-Sellers (Amaya Jiwe, Legends of Tomorrow): When I was in London at the London version of Comic-Con, this young woman came up to me and burst into tears. She didn't even speak but she handed me this letter that she'd written me. I gave her this big hug and she explained her story about how much she'd been ostracized by her family for her sexuality and that she'd been sent to a conversion camp. Basically through watching this show it helped her realize that it was okay and she didn't have to feel this shame she had felt her whole life over who she was. That just completely ripped my heart apart.

"We did a great job in casting a black woman as the love interest to this superhero, but now let’s give her a job."

Patton: I think it’s great — the diversity in the superhero genre — that we’ve seen over the last five years even, but it’s one thing to just hire diverse talent; it’s another thing to write for them and fully flesh those characters out. Because fans no longer want to see a [checked box], you then have to also write for them and develop them and make them fully rounded characters that they can identify with.

Richardson-Sellers: You don't just want characters who are queer and all they talk about is being queer, you want characters who are queer and that's only one facet of their identity. They're also powerful, happy, and human. I think that's the next step, moving beyond just tolerance and moving towards acceptance and love.

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What has the fan response been to your casting and how has that affected you?

Patton: It’s been mixed. I think the people who were really excited about me being cast as Iris West have been excited since day one and they’re still excited, and they’re still fighting to see more character development. But in the beginning it was hard for a lot of people to imagine a black woman playing Barry Allen’s future wife, and people were very vocal about it. Comic book fans are very passionate, and a lot of them had no problem speaking out about their dislike of my casting, and you still see it today. It’s getting better as the years go by, but we still see the reticence of people embracing these actors playing these characters.

Harkavy: It was definitely mixed. You do have fans who want it by the book, and are like, "Black Canary’s blonde — period." Maybe one person that I was aware of said that she also needs to be white. For the most part, [the response] was quite positive about changing up the character. Because why should she have to be one thing? It’s fantasy and make believe. I think the essence of her is not a physical thing. If you capture what’s inside of her, and her ferocity and her strength, that’s the part that’s really important.

Patton: I naturally have pretty thick skin; I think that helps. I also have a great support system around me, people that remind me of what’s actually important. The internet is a cesspool for people who want to voice their frustrations and anger and a lot of it, I’ve realized, has nothing to do with me, and I can’t take on other people’s anger. A lot of it comes from me being genuinely sad for people who have embraced the internet as a place to bully people.

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The comics world is often misunderstood to be a space only for men, especially by those within the fandom. What has your experience been like on your show and being an outspoken feminist in your personal life?

Lotz: I think a lot of men, like if I post feminist stuff, a lot of men are feeling attacked right now. That highlighted for me the need to take the feminist movement in a way where we’re trying to bring men on as allies, not just leaving them out. And if our goal is equality and trying to get on the same level, we need those male allies.

Ashe: I think the feminist movement feels like it’s a female movement, but we need men because the reality is, like in our industry, and in any industry, men are still the ones running the show at the top, for the most part.

Lotz: The gender roles are just as damaging for men as they are for women. And letting men voice their issues and be able to talk about those problems will only help the feminist movement if men are less restricted by trying to fit into this alpha male box.

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There are a lot of tough topics that you are tackling on Shethority — all conversations that women need to have and should feel safe having. Was there ever a topic that you shied away from discussing at first?

Harkavy: At first, I was unsure of how to talk about body issues and the struggles that I’ve had with my own body. I’ve kind of shifted my perspective, just seeing how open this community is and how supportive it is. Now it’s probably one of my favorite things to share and talk about. I think it’s a vulnerability that a lot of women do share, and it’s important to be vocal, and part of the power in it is not hiding it or being afraid to talk about it.

Richardson-Sellers: To me, it's less about shying away from [topics] and more about sharing the stage and making sure that everyone has the chance to share their voice. Issues that are very close to my heart are race and sexuality and gender. I think by making sure that people who are writing the articles are diverse, then we get a fair representation of each of those stories.

Patton: All of those topics have been, to some degree in some way, difficult for me to want to talk about. Caity and I especially, just in our friendship, her being a white woman and me being a black female, we have very different experiences in life and so when we would talk about certain issues like race and body image and pay equality, it was difficult to have those conversations just between the two of us. That’s what we want for Shethority: the conversations may be hard, but they have to be had.

Lotz: Race ... that’s a hard one to talk about. I asked Candice, "How can white women do better for black women in feminism?" Some of the stuff is hard because I’ll feel — I almost feel attacked. And that’s a harsh word for it, but I’m realizing all the ways in which I have been unaware of things. There’s still so many issues that I didn’t understand. Feminism has a long way to go in being more inclusive of all voices.We need to talk about things that are hard to talk about, and try to focus more on the fix than on the blame, so hopefully when white women read it, they’re inspired to do better and to help and don’t feel shut down.

Ashe: The wonderful thing about Shethority is that, yes, there may be these issues that we either are ignorant about or we want to know more about or we just don’t know how to talk about. Caity and I were having a conversation about the trans community a couple of days ago, about learning more about that just because we don’t know. It’s like, neither Caity nor I have a trans friend — now we’re all going to, hopefully, on Supergirl [with transgender activist Nicole Maines joining as TV's first trans superhero]. It’s so important to get the voice of somebody who is representing either that sexuality or that community or that religion, and we’re creating this open forum where the person who should be telling the story is telling the story.

Lotz: We got to connect at Comic-Con [with Maines] and she was so patient with me. I asked, "Is it OK for me to ask you some questions about things I don’t understand? And I apologize ahead of time if there are ignorant questions." She was so open about it. I think so many of us are afraid to ask questions because you don’t want to offend or seem ignorant, but if you’re genuine about it, it’s really a way to connect and bring everyone together.

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Since the launch of the #MeToo movement, have you felt or seen changes on set and within the industry or within the fandom? What does that look like?

Ashe: It does feel like the conversation is happening now in a great way. We unearthed a lot of really dark issues that have been going on in our industry for a long time, and my question is how do we fix it, and how do we keep the momentum going forward? I would love to see more male allies coming forward, not just for support but as change-makers, as people who are very actively part of the solution and not just condemning behavior.

Harkavy: I have absolutely [felt a shift since #MeToo]. On set, I feel protected in a way that I wasn’t before because everybody has an awareness of this thing that was unspoken, and now it’s not. Our old [Arrow] showrunners, male [Marc Guggenheim] and female [Wendy Mericle], were very feminist, very fair, and always carried the same energy that [new showrunner] Beth [Schwartz] carries — but there’s just an empowerment to having a woman be in charge. Jokes are not made that might have been made before.

Richardson-Sellers: We still have so far to go and this is literally just the tip of the iceberg. I hope that it's going to move things forward in a positive way whereby safe spaces are more respected, for women and minorities especially. We need more than a hashtag for people to explore their trauma. If that works, that's fantastic, but we need a safe space for everyone.

Have you seen a change within storylines and how you approach your character post-#MeToo?

Harkavy: Not necessarily, because our superheroes already defy that. Not only are they equal, but they’re strong, they’re capable. Dinah probably faced sexism or racism, but she’s just rising above it.

Patton: [The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements] have given me more confidence to go to the writers and the producers and say, "We need more agency for these characters." I love that Iris West is the love interest. I think we did a great job in casting a black woman as the love interest to this superhero, but now let’s give her a job. It’s important for the lead female character not only to have a job, but for that job to mean something to the overall story that we’re telling each week, so that we see her value on screen. That’s so important for the young girls who watch the show to understand, to not only seek out a partner in life, but have a passion in life.

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Another really important conversation for women to be having right now, in a way of empowering each other, is equal pay. Are women within the community having frank conversations about compensation?

Richardson-Sellers: It's so sad because so much is going on that we still don't know about. There is so much that is secret when pays are negotiated. You have no idea what your costars are making and therefore it's really hard for anyone to monitor that it's equal. Inclusion riders are extremely powerful objects. This is the time for people who do have the power in society to step up and stand up for those who don't. It's so tough because you don't want to threaten your job and be labeled as difficult, which is the common thing for women who speak out.

"The more that we don’t talk to each other, the more that we keep information away from each other, the harder it’s going to be for our fight to get equal pay."

Harkavy: In the past, I never would have dared discussed or asked — I wouldn’t have questioned it. I am more open about discussing it now, and wanting to know, and feeling like it is more an issue of fairness and right and wrong and morality. That’s a good way that I’ve shifted my perspective; it doesn’t need to be a big secret.

Patton: We discovered that we as women have been conditioned to not talk about money with each other. And it’s a scary conversation to have. We realized the more that we break down those fears and those barriers, the more movement we can make with pay equality. Even with our male counterparts, it’s so important to have these conversations. The more that we don’t talk to each other, the more that we keep information away from each other, the harder it’s going to be for our fight to get equal pay.

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Would you want to see an all-female Arrowverse crossover event?

Ashe: Yes!

Lotz: Yeah. I mean, we’re not trying to shut out men or be anti-men. Would that be fun? Yes, that would be really fun!

Ashe: On our own show, all of us separately have said to the writers, "Let’s have a girls’ episode." Not just for the sake of having a girls’ night, but just realizing that it’s kind of rare, actually, to be in a scene where it’s just women. What is that conversation between five [superhero] women when it’s not about a man? That would be exciting to me, so yeah, let’s freaking crossover it up!

Harkavy: Emily [Bett Rickards] and I asked [the new Arrow showrunner] Beth to have more scenes together this year. I love working with the women. My favorite thing is to kick butt with other women on our show.

Lotz: On our show, for the first time, we’re outnumbering the men. There are more women that are [series] regulars than men. It’s pretty cool.

Richardson-Sellers: On Legends, when I first joined the show, there were two female regulars and seven men. It was very clear that that was the power dynamic. Now this year there are five women and four men.

Patton: For so long our cast was just two women, [myself and Danielle Panabaker]. My question was always like, "When are we getting more women?" We’d go through another season and we’d add a male. And then the next season, we’d add another male. We’re going into Season 5, we just added two women of color [Jessica Parker Kennedy and Danielle Nicolet] on our show as series regulars, bringing our number of female regulars on the show up to four, which is amazing. I mean, if you would have said that to my 14-year-old self, there’s no way I would have believed you. We’re doing scenes now with three black women in a room, plus Jesse L. Martin, sometimes Keiynan Lonsdale who plays Wally West, my brother — there’s just so many more people of color on the show. And it’s just so much more reflective of the world that I live in everyday, which makes me really excited for where we’re headed in the next couple of seasons.

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Is there anything you wish you could change about the industry?

Richardson-Sellers: The main thing for me is positive, diverse representation. It's so important that we accurately reflect our society. Ideally, everyone would be in diverse spaces in their real life, in school, at home with family, walking down the streets, because exposure breeds tolerance and acceptance and understanding about other people and their differences. I just wish that studio heads would support diverse casts and storylines in all sense of the word, be that in body shape, sexuality, gender, LGBTQ+. Write those stories, cast those characters so we don't just have white, cis roles.

Harkavy: One thing that has always bothered me — and I do understand where it comes from to a certain extent — there’s this sort of pedestal that you’re put on in this industry as a performer. I think the crew guys deserve that praise 100 times more than we do. It’s important for actors specifically to come out and say, "Hey, we’re not special, we’re all the same," and treat others that way. I don’t think it’s healthy to think that just because you’re on screen you deserve some praise.

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What do you love about this industry and the fandom?

Patton: There’s so much humor and fun involved in fandoms. Fans for me are just fun. They give me a sense of humor in my life, even on the most stressful days at work, on set, working 14 hours, I can log onto my Twitter and have a really fun, funny banter with my fans.

Richardson-Sellers: I see fans helping each other, creating incredible friendships through meeting online and at conventions. The fact that we can create such a strong community through this shared love of telling stories is such a beautiful thing that should be embraced and enhanced and that's what Shethority is here to do, to accentuate that shared space and provide a platform for people to share their experiences.

Harkavy: The Shethority movement has been the best part of this job, really — the movement and the fans, and the way they connect to people. That surprised me, and it makes the job so much more important and meaningful. It’s a group of like-minded women who know that there are kids and little girls who are watching us, so ... it’s like, why end there on the show, when you can help people?

This roundtable has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Additional reporting by Olivia Truffaut-Wong.