Character Versus Narrative: Arrow’s Diggle

(spoilers for the CW’s Arrow ahead)

I’ve been watching and enjoying Arrow lately.  And one character, Green Arrow’s bodyguard / partner / sidekick John Diggle, has made me think a lot about the way characters are presented in-universe versus their actual role in the narrative.  Specifically, I started thinking about this in regard to race.

And getting mad.

In a lot of ways, I love how they present Diggle.  But then I look at that presentation from outside the show, and I hesitate:

How the show presents him: He’s black and Oliver Queen / Green Arrow’s not only white, but a white rich kid son of a billinaire whom Diggle is initially hired to protect . . . and this doesn’t go unmentioned.  Diggle’s sister-in-law specifically asks him about following a couple of rich white boys around, in a conversation that clearly places these people as central to their own lives, and not characters who look for white employers to attach themselves to.  Which I like!
Except: In the show, his character does work for the Queens, and he is a secondary, supporting character to the rich, white Oliver Queen, who is the protagonist of the show.

How the show presents him: He’s a military veteran who cares deeply about his country.  When Oliver compares the two of them, Diggle has nothing but contempt: he tells Oliver that no matter what happened when Oliver was shipwrecked, he’s NOT a soldier, and will NEVER know what it means to be one.
Except: Oliver’s the one who starts the social crusade first, and is portrayed as the one who figured out how to make a difference and from whom Diggle needed guidance to do the same.  After his initial resistance, Diggle joins Oliver on his crusade, implicitly granting credence to the idea that Oliver has found the right way to make the world better.

How the show presents him: Diggle explicitly tells Oliver when he joins him that he’s not there to be a sidekick.
Except: On the show, Oliver is, again, the protagonist, and Diggle is supporting, so his role in the show is as sidekick.  Oliver’s the one who founded the whole operation and has been the one spearheading the plans and dictating the way they operate.  He invites Diggle to join him like he’s favorably rewarding a good puppy, and shuts down his suggestions because this is “his” operation.  Also, Oliver’s the one who kills the man who murdered Diggle’s brother (without any acknowledgement thereof), taking a good chunk of Diggle’s agency away from one of his own storylines.

How the show presents him: Diggle emphasized again in the latest episode that he’s there to work with Oliver, not for him.
Except: Diggle doesn’t actually join Oliver for any of the action in the episode; Green Arrow always goes in alone.  Also, Diggle has to push and manipulate Oliver into taking the case, which Oliver only starts to care about after it intersects with his own goals . . . and only then does he become invested.  As always, the narrative does not punish Oliver for this behavior.

How the show presents him: Diggle served in Iraq, is a personal bodyguard, and can kick every type of motherlovin’ ass.
Except: Because he’s the hero, Oliver always has to be shown as being better at kicking ass.  Not only does Green Arrow get more amazing action sequences, but Oliver beats up Diggle every time they go head to head (before they team up, and later while sparring) with a physical superiority that borders on humiliating.

I feel like I see this a lot in media.  The female character is vocal about being able to take care of herself, but the narrative still puts her in a position from which she needs to be rescued.  The minority characters might be shown to be just as competent as the white characters, but they still somehow end up dying first.  The character of color calls the white lead out on being selfish and thinking the world is All About Him, but because he’s the lead, the show is All About Him.

Just look at the African-American Police Chief trope—in all of those shows, the black guy/gal has done better and advanced farther than the white protagonist in universe, but still isn’t allowed to be the hero.  Gah!

As much as I do want writers to make women and characters of color equal through characterization, it’s lip service when the plot and narrative still put those characters in second place to the white men.

16 thoughts on “Character Versus Narrative: Arrow’s Diggle

  1. These are really good points. You’re totally right about Oliver being the rich white boy on his super special quest who gets to be better than everyone. I definitely think that by having Diggle not be content to be that way within that they’re going to be raising him up. Because let’s face it, if rich pretty boy can learn to kick ass then an ex-soldier bodyguard can even quicker.

    • I really hope they get their act together and make Diggle a co-hero instead of a sidekick. But, you know, I’m not making bets on it or anything. 😦

  2. Yeah, I was not expecting a whole lot out of this series… a rich white guy out on a mission of vengeance? Yeah, gimmie something different.

    This is still disappointing… it would have been great had they done something different on it, subverted the minority as the sidekick trope like Bruce Lee did when he was Kato on The Green Hornet and just had Diggle be so utterly amazing and awesome.

    • Yeah, you pretty much summarized the show.

      To me the most frustrating part is that they keep having Diggle SAY he’s more than a sidekick, but not showing it! It’s the old “show don’t tell” thing and they are utterly failing at it . . .

      • Agreed! Thank you so much for articulating perfectly what I’ve been feeling about Diggle’s role on the show. I think he’s awesome and want him to be awesome, but I doubt the show will be brave enough to actually go out on a limb and suggest that perhaps the former military bodyguard with a very alive social conscience could be just as much of a hero as Our Hero.

        • God damn, it just came to me who Diggle reminds me of, from the description here.. he’s Jim Rhodes a.k.a. War Machine. Jim Rhodes was also a battle-hardened veteran of the Vietnam War who became friends with Tony Stark after saving his life. He was very much a sidekick for a good while, but he grew and developed into his own character who called Tony out on his BS.

          Methinks that’s not going to happen here… there’ll just be Diggle SAYING stuff, but not allowed to back it up.

        • That’s it! John Diggle needs his own show!

          Jim Rhodes was also a battle-hardened veteran of the Vietnam War

          And at least in the movie version, he was also an MIT grad. So he’s got the engineering chops as well!

          That’s kind of cool that he got his own hero storylines.

          • ohman, Kazei, you’re totally right. I didn’t even think of that parallel, but I absolutely agree with it. I’m gonna hold out hope for a bit longer that Arrow will let Diggle’s character live up to his potential, but… not too much hope.

            “John Diggle needs his own show” — I feel this way about so many ‘sidekick’ characters! For some reason they often tend to interest me a lot more than the main hero characters. (for example, I would be happy to watch a tv show entirely centred around BBC Sherlock’s Scotland Yarder characters.)

  3. This is something I’ve seen in other contexts – they repeatedly SAY something that is great, challenges tropes etc etc – but that’s not actually what we see. The best one I can think of is Teen Wolf when the menfolk INSIST the Argents are a Matriarchy – honest. Sure the women make no decisions, aren’t included in any planning and are nearly non-existent except for a teenager and a sacrifice – but it’s a MATRIARCHY DAMN IT!

  4. Excellent article. This was pretty much how I feel about Diggle – personally, I think he’s the most interesting character on the show, and good GOD I wish this show were more about him. I love that he calls Oliver out on his pretentious, obnoxious crap – but then the first episode after Diggle signs up to be the “co-hero”? He gets his ass handed to him in the opening scene by Ollie. Because a military-trained veteran soldier is NO MATCH for a rich white boy who spent two years on a deserted island? Yeah, right.

    The show has a higher-than-average number of POC characters than I usually see, which is nice, but every single one of them is adjunct to a white character and that’s a problem.

  5. An interesting article and observation. It makes me realize in my own writing that you can’t just give lip-service to subverting a trope, you actually should do it. Thing is, in the case of Arrow, I think this would have been a problem no matter what race you made Diggle, it just sticks out more in this case because this is the role the Black character always seems to get, yet the writers seem smart enough to know it, but still can’t get around it. Still, it isn’t near as bad as poor Francine from Alias. The writers had no clue what to do with her character, had her killed off, replaced by a duplicate — and still didn’t know what to do with her character!

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