(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.