How The CW’s DC Universe Became One of TV’s Most Inclusive

Greg Berlanti's DC comic book shows for The CW are building a universe where no one is excluded because of gender, race or sexuality...

This article contains spoilers for Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash and Legends Of Tomorrow. It originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

During last season’s The Flash/Supergirl crossover episode, Calista Flockhart’s Cat Grant sat before an assembly of actors from both shows and, disbelievingly, calls them the “attractive yet non-threatening, racially diverse cast of a CW show.” A great line — it’s especially funny now that we know Supergirl has made the jump to The CW after a season on parent network CBS — and one that points to a larger trend.

The CW, being a network aimed at younger people, has always made a moderate effort to include people who might not get a fair shout on other channels — but something bigger has happened with its growing roster of superhero shows. Starting with Arrow back in 2012 and followed by The Flash, Legends Of Tomorrow and Supergirl, The CW has quickly become one of the most inclusive places on television.

It’s no small matter either, with Greg Berlanti’s empire of superhero series more or less taking over the network across four separate nights (with a rumoured fifth in development) and monopolizing comic book television at the expense of bigger, more established channels.

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When The Flash first aired back in 2014, a lot was made of Barry’s relationship with his adoptive family. Joe and Iris (and later Wally, now a speedster in his own right) were cast as African-American despite being white in the comics, and many fans saw this decision reflected in Barry’s character from the first season.

By having Barry be raised within a black family, the show naturally added an extra layer of complexity to the hero’s familial connections. This is one of many instances in which diversity isn’t just present on these shows, but matters.

The team repeated their treatment of the West family when they cast Mehcad Brooks as James “Jimmy” Olsen — a traditionally white character — in Supergirl. Outside of this race-blind casting, and per Cat Grant’s comments, this is still one of the most racially-diverse collective casts around.

I was one of those people who cried the first time I watched the trailer for Supergirl‘s first season. It felt so good to finally have a superheroine on the screen, and one who was girly and feminine and bad-ass to boot. Kara is groundbreaking simply because she’s herself and she doesn’t apologise for it. Many saw her girlishness as weakness after that first trailer, and I’m thankful the series proved them wrong.

And the show has become one all about how women relate to each other, with everything else secondary to the relationships between Kara and her sister, Alex, her aunt, Astra, and her boss, Cat. There are love interests and soap opera drama (even a short-lived love triangle), but Supergirl rarely wavers from its original mission statement of exploring female characters separate from the guys who love them.

Ironically, Arrow, the show that started it all, has had the most trouble with representation over its four seasons. But, from the beginning, it was a show very much geared towards a traditionally male audience, and a shift towards romantic subplots in later years has seen pushback from that fanbase.

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At this point, every show in the Berlanti-verse now has a LGBT+ character, with more to come with the announcement that an existing character would be coming out next season.

When Sara Lance returned to Starling City in Arrow‘s second season, her sexuality was treated as a part of her character without ever defining her, and she became a great example of a bisexual character on television — arguably one of the most mistreated sections of the LGBT+ community on the small screen.

When ex-girlfriend Nyssa turned up, there was no big coming out scene and — following this revelation — Sara and Oliver’s rekindled relationship in season two wasn’t treated as anything out of the ordinary. Since then, Sara’s connection to Nyssa has been treated with the same importance as her connection to Oliver, even following her death at the beginning of season three.

When the character travelled over to Legends Of Tomorrow, there was a worry among a section of the audience that the transfer would change this treatment, with the character shown only to be interested in women for the bulk of the first season. But no, thankfully the budding friendship with Leonard Snart (himself played as pansexual, according to actor Wentworth Miller) came to a romantic conclusion in the show’s penultimate episode.

This shouldn’t be revolutionary, but sadly is. The universe’s gay and bisexual characters are rare in that they’re consistently shown to actually date or be in relationships. Arrow‘s Curtis and The Flash‘s Captain Singh are both married, and we get real glimpses of their home life. In Arrow‘s upcoming season, we’ve been promised marital drama for Curtis when he gets more involved with Oliver and his vigilantism.

And in 2017, CW Seed will debut an animated series for The Ray — the first gay superhero to lead a show — with the aim to fold him into the live-action universe a la Vixen.

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Behind the scenes, the production team is also making waves by hiring fifty per cent female or minority directors for the upcoming seasons. Speaking on his journey to get to that figure, Berlanti said:

When we started, you’d hear back a lot, ‘Well, they have to have either directed for the network or they have to have directed action.’ You’d say, ‘That’s a catch-22 because where did they get an opportunity to direct action?’ And they used to say, ‘Well, you can try one or two new directors out a year on a show.’

But when it’s a young show or you’re a new showrunner, you’re scared. We’ve been able to change that a bit, and hopefully we’ll have female directors across a lot of the DC superhero shows over the next couple of years who can go on and do superhero films and get other action jobs.

The push-back he received only demonstrates the need for shows like these — successful and popular enough to take some risks — to push for bigger change.

It’s also important to note that both Grant Gustin and Melissa Benoist made their television debuts on FOX show Glee, a series that — for all its faults — almost single-handedly (with a little help from Modern Family) changed the way studio bigwigs looked at what they could and couldn’t represent on television. In 2009, the most popular series in the world was suddenly putting queer characters, people of colour, and complex women center stage.

It didn’t instantly change the world, but I’m unsure these CW shows would be the same without Glee having existed. We likely wouldn’t have had Gustin or Benoist, for example, and I wonder whether the shows would be as relaxed about the showing the kind of organic, no-big-deal-representation they currently do. A musical theatre sensibility is baked into the shows from the start, adding a theatricality to things that fits superheroics and comics’ inherent campness like a glove. Along with the Glee alums, Jesse L. Martin, Jeremy Jordan, Laura Bernanti, Carlos Valdes and recurring guest-star Andy Mientus all have musical theatre backgrounds, and anyone with even a passing knowledge of John Barrowman knows how he likes to burst into song.

Fan service gets a bad rap when talking about any form of entertainment, but it seems Greg Berlanti didn’t get the memo. A certain faction of fans have been asking for a musical episode since The Flash began, and now we’re getting one. It’d be a shame to waste all of that talent, after all.

Of course things haven’t been perfect across the board, from the death of Sara in Arrow‘s third season (she got better) and a throwaway joke in the Supergirl pilot rubbing a lot of people up the wrong way.

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But despite some missteps, these are shows about outsiders first and foremost, and about how a sense of community can be built from such a feeling. Oliver, Barry, Kara and the cast of Legends Of Tomorrow all begin their respective shows isolated, either afraid of living up to their potential, disbelieving of their own abilities or adamant that remaining alone is the only way to survive.

These shows are taking the feeling that make certain comic book characters so appealing, and have translated it for a TV audience eager to see themselves more accurately depicted on-screen.

Whether you like the slightly nihilistic world of Arrow, the hopeful naivete of The Flash, the sunny feminism of Earth-Supergirl or the madcap adventures of Legends Of Tomorrow (or all of the above), you’re accepted. That’s the beautiful thing about what The CW and Warner Bros have created here. It’s a universe where no one is excluded. There’s a flavor (of ice cream) for everyone, and everyone’s invited to the party.