(With special thanks to Daggerpen.)
When the people behind Arrow cast The Killing’s Bex Taylor-Klaus on a recurring basis as The Canary’s best friend and confidant Sin, comic book fans called foul. The comic book character that inspired Taylor-Klaus’s role, Dinah Lance’s adopted daughter, had been a woman of color, born and raised in a village in Asia. The TV character was not.
If recent events are any indication, it may appear that the producers heard the criticism, but did not listen.
The twentieth episode of the second season, “Seeing Red”, features a series of flashbacks in which it is revealed that Oliver was, at one time, slated to become a father. While we briefly meet the mother-to-be—played by Anna Hopkins—the focus of the subplot is on how this affects Moira, who, in order to “protect” her son, coerces the pregnant woman to lie to Oliver about a miscarriage and skip town, meaning that Oliver may have a child that he does not know about. While the story can easily stand on its own without additional development—it’s really not about the woman at all, but rather about Moira, as evidenced by the fact that the mother-to-be doesn’t get a name—the scene carries additional significance to people familiar with Green Arrow, who know that children Oliver Queen doesn’t know about form a very important of the comic book’s canon.
While the comic book version of Oliver had several of these children he did not initially know about, Connor Hawke, introduced in 1993, is the most important one, due to the fact that he eventually took over his father’s identity and book. It would be he who’d be foremost in the mind of any Green Arrow fan who watched the episode, which brings us to problem number one. The son of the white Oliver and the half-Black, half-Korean Sandra Hawke, Connor is one of the DC Universe’s most prominent multiracial characters . “Seeing Red”’s mother-to-be was not played by half-Black, half-Asian actress, or a Woman of Color of any sort.
If we go solely by the information given on the episode itself, there’s no way to know if the mother-to-be appearing in the episode was meant to be Sandra Hawke. The woman is given no qualities other than being pregnant and living in Central City, which would, in theory, make her any one of the women Oliver has impregnated in the comic books, or even a wholly original character. Absent any additional information—particularly, a name—proving that whitewashing occurred is impossible.
Problem two: Additional information exists.
“The last scene where he tells her that Sandra lost the baby. In the flashback, the ‘my beautiful boy’ line from the pilot. I mean, it’s a beautiful way that Marc wrote that in. And I already knew that when I read it. But it’s not until I was actually filming it did Stephen and I started to really feel the depth of that, because it takes you back to the pilot, the beginning of all this as actors, not only just the character stories but as actors, our developing of these characters, it takes you all the way back there.” — Susanna Thompson, TV Fanatic.com interview.
From this tidbid, one can conclude that there had been an understanding between the cast and crew that the woman in question was, indeed very specifically meant to be the show’s version of Sandra Hawke. What’s more, producers explain that the character that the subplot of Oliver’s secret baby wasn’t going to be a one-off, but rather will be developed next season. It raises a question: why, then, was the mother left unnamed? There’s little point, unless the idea is to create plausible deniability for themselves.
Names are important things in adaptations. Yes, Sara Lance’s surrogate sister would always bear a thematic resemblance to Sin the comic book character, but it’s the name that lets fans the character will be important, and gives them something to base their speculations on. Thanks to the name, the character has a leg up when it comes to appealing to viewers, and can be used to build hype in a way an non-comic book character can’t. However, it also makes proving that whitewashing occurred all too simple.
However, names are not altogether essential. If Arrow were to feature, for example, a Gotham City millionaire whose parents were killed in an alley when he was eight, you don’t need to call him Bruce Wayne for viewers to make the connection. Depending on the character, it is possible to bring in the hype without opening oneself to accusations of whitewashing. This, in fact, is what happened with Star Trek: Into Darkness. Everyone and their mother knew that the character that Benedict Cumberbatch had been hired to play was Khan before the film confirmed it when released, and this played a vital role in the film’s pre-release hype. However, because the producers remained coy about this fact until the last possible moment, it was impossible to condemn the whitewashing with the venom it deserved. “Stop whitewashing (maybe)” is a tough rallying cry to rally around, particularly since creators and apologists can rightfully say “you can’t say that for sure”. Indeed, this is what is now happening with Arrow. The whitewashing of the future Connor Hawke would normally be huge news, but for the fact that the show hasn’t actually confirmed he exists.
However, that same plausible deniability is what also allows Arrow‘s producers to fix things, if they so wished. Casting and filming for season three has not begun yet. The woman in “Seeing Red” could be recast for future appearances, as Sara Lance was, without difficulty. She could be revealed to not be Sandra Hawke after all, with a proper, biracial Sandra being introduced later on as another woman Moira bought off. However, in order for that to have any chance of happening, viewer reaction must be swift and loud and angry. They already know that what they’re doing is wrong—otherwise they wouldn’t bother to hide it—now they need to know that there will be consequences.
And yet, even if things are fixed, damage has been done. Arrow‘s record when it comes to race has been consistently spotty—lots of their characters of color end up dead or marginalized—and this does nothing to alleviate it. What’s more, if whitewashing is a sign of unexamined privilege, attempts to hide it indicate an unwillingness to actually examine it. Given that DC superheroes are supposed to stand for justice and that Green Arrow in particular, has popularly been considered the left’s superhero, seeing his show embrace regressive actions is particularly jarring.
Complaints about whitewashing can be sent to the CW’s feedback page.
(Note: This was originally meant to air the week after the episode aired. Logistic considerations prevented it from appearing until now.)