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7 Ways 'The Flash' Challenges Traditional Masculinity

Superheroes do cry — and it doesn't make them weak.

We love "The Flash" for many reasons — its eternal optimism, those helicopter shots of Barry running lightning-fast through the streets of Central City, Joe West. But one of the elements we love most of all? The way "The Flash" subverts many of the traditional narratives society tells us about what it means to be a "strong" man — i.e. traditionally masculine.

Patriarchy tells boys and men that, to be strong, you must be tough, stay in control, and — whatever you do — never show your emotions. But "The Flash" doesn't make its male characters exist within this narrow gender identity. Instead, it lets its superhero cry. It lets its superhero rely on others. It lets its superhero be vulnerable. Most importantly, it treats these traditionally feminine characteristics as strengths, not weaknesses to be overcome.

Here are seven examples...

  1. Barry isn't afraid to cry.
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    Guys, Barry seemingly cries in almost every episode — and it's awesome. His tears aren't treated as something to be ashamed of. On the contrary. They are one of the aspects of his personality that makes him so darn heroic. He isn't afraid to feel things. He isn't afraid to be earnest about the fact that he cares and that caring can sometimes hurt. In a world that tells young men they should be stoic rather than emotional, every tear Barry Allen cries is a wonderful rebellion, an example of the strength it takes to show that you care.

  2. Probably because this guy taught him it's OK to be vulnerable.

    How could Barry have turned out less than amazing with a man like Joe West as an example? Joe is the person who taught Barry it's OK to be vulnerable. It's OK to be sad. In the season 2 premiere, we got a flashback to Barry's childhood. In it, we see an angry Barry refusing to open up months after the tragedy that left him in Joe's care. Joe tells Barry: "It's a good move. Being angry all the time. You miss your mom and dad and you wanna show them that you're strong. Being mad makes it easier. The tougher thing to do would be to let yourself feel." You hear that? The tougher thing to do. Sure, Joe West has protected Barry from all manner of both physical and emotional threats over the years, but his biggest victory? Protecting Barry Allen against the dangers of toxic masculinity.

  3. Actually, you should probably just re-watch this entire scene.

    Because after that heartwarming flashback to Baby!Barry days? Joe lays into Barry about acting like a self-sacrificial alpha male-type, telling him: "Guess what? You weren't the only person making decisions that day. All the rest of us were there, too ... It's on all of us, Barry. So stop with this hogging all the blame and regret." Which brings us to our next point...

  4. Team Flash works best together — even when Barry forgets it.

    One of the things that makes Barry so refreshing as a superhero is that he doesn't (usually) make unilateral decisions for the group and the city. He understands that Team Flash is a group of equals, even if its members don't all have superpowers, and respects them too much to just assume that he has the best idea or solution to the problem. On the occasions that he does go off and do the lone wolf thing, his friends (and the show) remind him that they resist the self-reliance-above-all-else tenant of traditional masculinity. In the season 2 premiere, Iris tells him: "Barry, everyone in this room cares about you, but we also care about this city. We all want to make a difference — and that means fighting metahumans and working with The Flash. You can't deny us that anymore." #TeamFlash

  5. Joe West is the caregiver in the West-Allen family.

    Sure, Iris' mom just walked back onto the scene and we cannot wait to find out more about her, but it's pretty cool to see "The Flash" depict Joe as the primary caregiver in the West-Allen family — a role that is usually portrayed as a woman's, and usually undervalued because of it. Joe is a great cop, but his true superpower on this show is as a single parent.

  6. Barry can easily admit when he's wrong.

    Who cares about manly pride when your best friend is crying because he revealed your secret identity to save his brother's life. One of Barry's quietly heroic moments in season 1? When he comforted an ashamed, crying Cisco and told him it was not his fault Captain Cold knows his identity: "I put you in that position. I'm the one who's sorry." Barry Allen isn't afraid to say he's sorry or admit when he's wrong, folks. You don't even have to needle him about it. Dude just has a high emotional intelligence that he uses for good, not evil.

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  8. Barry's "real" superpower is compassion.

    But for real. This is stated in an actual scene from this show. Barry is beating himself up about not having seen Wells' villainy, when Joe tells him: "You always wanna be the person who sees the best in people. I've been a cop for 25 years. All I can see are the flaws, the lies, the dark thoughts that people think I don't see. I wish I could be you. As fast as you are, that is your real power."

    "The Flash" depicts Barry’s ability to see the best in people not as an inherent trait, but as a choice.: i.e. you want to be this compassionate person vs. you are this compassionate person. Too often, goodness is portrayed as a trait you’re either born with or not. This depiction not only diminishes the strength of people who choose compassion, it also limits the potential to change from someone who doesn’t choose compassion to someone who does.

    Barry's true power comes from being able to empathize compassionately with people — even villains. His true heroism is in believing the best of everyone. Rather than seeing this as naiveté, or a weakness, "The Flash" knows it is a strength.