How Felicity Smoak Quietly Became A Superhero On ‘Arrow’ (And Why It Matters)

Arrow’s Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards) started out as most women do in the comic book world – as a side story. Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell) was the egotistical yet charming womanizer, a familiar superhero type. Felicity was the rambling computer nerd who was drawn to his mystery and cause. Their first meeting consisted of him chucking a bullet-ridden laptop on her desk before blaming a latte spill for the damage. The pair’s relationship would go on in that vein for a while: Oliver coming to her for help with his secret vigilante side job and Felicity using her STEM background to unknowingly put away some of the city’s worst criminals. Eventually, Felicity clued into Oliver’s double life and chose to join him and his partner, John Diggle (David Ramsey), in their quest to protect Starling City.

But over the seasons, Felicity morphed into something more than just Oliver’s techie sidekick – a played-out cliché in the superhero verse. The series molded her into a fully rounded character, one with agency and abilities that didn’t come courtesy of a cape.

The show that began as a bro-laden ode to everything a comic book TV series should be – fast cars, bulked up men, action, violence, and vigilantism – ended up giving us one of the most complex, realistic, and role-model worthy female superheroes on the small screen, and they didn’t have to dress her up in spandex to do it.

In the early days, Arrow placed Felicity on a kind of pedestal. While the show’s hero could reliably be found brooding in his knockoff Batcave over having to kill bad men, Felicity was his antithesis, a woman with brains and a bubbly personality. She infused humor and wit into the show but also seemed to sport a moral compass that never wavered. While Oliver and Diggle fueled the action, battling villains, infiltrating criminal networks, and littering Starling City with green arrows, Felicity stayed behind the scenes, guiding them by hacking into secure servers, breaching firewalls, and dismantling bombs.

Yet even early on she served as the show’s way of flipping the “geek gets girl” trope on its gender-confined head but more importantly, she was a female character of worth, one slowly developing her own story that didn’t solely hinge on being the love interest of the man saving the world. Though she nursed an affection for Oliver, she was refreshingly unconcerned with catering to him, often challenging him to abandon his black and white view of the dangerous criminals he pursued. And over the course of five seasons, Felicity helped Oliver, Diggle, and the team of vigilantes they would come to work with take down kingpins, mobsters, cyber terrorists, serial killers, super soldiers, and the League of Assassins, and she did it all without a hood or a mask.

For a series that began after the world discovered it loved watching billionaire playboys dress up in spandex to fight crime – thanks Batman, Iron Man, The Green Hornet – the decision to devote entire episodes and season-long storylines to the development of a supporting female character that was meant to last for just one season — Rickards has gone on the record, sharing that she initially auditioned for just one episode, but fan response kept getting her episode call backs — said a lot about the show and its commitment to an audience that didn’t originate from the comic book fandom.

Arrow was the CW’s way to draw in an older male crowd. The network’s bread and butter up until the show’s premiere had been teen romance and vampire drama. They wanted to age with their audience and widen their fan base and nothing does that quite like comic book heroes. The show’s second season midseason finale boasted the CW’s largest male viewership in the 18-34 age demographic, but despite drawing in legions of male DC fans, but the network’s demographics haven’t changed all that much: It’s still catering to a large female base. With the addition of fellow comic book fare like The Flash and Supergirl, the network discovered that the superhero genre had pull with young women too. That means we get to see more of Amell’s washboard abs on display as he climbs the salmon ladder, but we’re also getting characters like Felicity that might not have existed otherwise. A Jewish computer geek isn’t the traditional love interest, let alone superhero, but fan response to the character and her arc over the first three seasons meant Felicity slowly creeped into the spotlight.

In the season three installment “The Secret Origin of Felicity Smoak,” the show dedicated an entire episode to her back story. Raised by a single mom who worked as a cocktail waitress in Vegas, Felicity overcame setbacks and circumstance to go to college, graduate from MIT and work in a field dominated by men. She was reckless and impulsive, had a criminal for a father, and blamed herself for her ex-boyfriend’s supposed suicide.

The episode took what had been a hollow caricature of what a strong female lead should look like and made her deserving of the title. It gave her dimension and purpose: Felicity wasn’t relentlessly optimistic because her archetype was “bubbly blonde comedic relief;” she was hopeful because she had been through devastating situations and emerged better and wiser for them. After three seasons of watching Oliver struggle to accept his own flaws and responsibilities, to finally get a glimpse of the woman who offered him her unwavering support was a welcome change.

In seasons four and five, Arrow chose to expand the character further, having her face trial after trial while pursuing a romantic relationship with Oliver. Sure, that romance often hindered the storytelling — it also caused a legion of male fans to spew hate on the internet (there’s an actual “F*ck Felicity” forum on Reddit if you’d like to check it out) — but it did provide an opportunity for Felicity to gain more agency over her own storyline.

In the past two seasons, Felicity has been paralyzed, broken up with her fiancé, experienced great loss when her boyfriend was murdered, and failed to stop a nuclear bomb from exploding. None of these plotlines were handled particularly well — in fact, the way the writers chose to “solve” Felicity’s handicap in season four was downright offensive — but let’s pause for a moment to appreciate the fact that though Felicity suffered a major setback by being paralyzed, she still held onto her wit and enthusiasm for helping others; though she lost the love of her life, she still decided to stand by him, help him recreate a new Team Arrow and take down the man responsible for torturing him.

The show’s fifth season marks a return to what made Arrow great the first time around. New players have been introduced, a promising villain has caused problems for our hero, and romantic triangles aren’t sucking the life from otherwise intriguing premises. For her part, Felicity has morphed from the cheerful, dependable girl-next-door she was introduced as in season one to a woman hellbent on revenge, making questionable decisions to protect the people she cares about, and using her own talents to bring down the bad guys. In a way, she’s become what Oliver began as.

For some, this change in character might chafe. The comic books fans who want to see more of Oliver kicking ass and taking names see the amount of screen time devoted to a female character’s development as unnecessary. For them, Felicity pulls focus from the hero – it’s inconceivable that she might just be one — and if she isn’t fulfilling her role of being the beautiful blonde with a sassy mouth and short skirt, she’s unnecessary to the story. They don’t want the promise of more romantic entanglements, they want action.

For that other subset, the Olicity shippers, seeing Felicity go down such a dark path sparks fear. The chance for Felicity and Oliver to reconcile and resume their relationship is still very much alive and the farther Felicity strays from the woman we met in season one, the more distant that particular fantasy becomes – underground bunkers aside.

But it’s not romance or her skewed morality that’s the problem, it’s the idea that Felicity can only be one of two things: a love interest or a prop. In both cases, she only has value because of her relationship to a male character, Oliver. Instead, what the show is trying to do, what it’s been doing since the beginning, is giving us a layered character, a complex woman who can be right and wrong, lovable at times and easy to hate at others, filled with the desire to do good but doomed by the probability she’ll end up making the wrong decisions in order to accomplish her goal.

In that way, Felicity has become the most realistic (and relatable) superhero on the show. She’s not infused with metahuman abilities like Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) on The Flash. She doesn’t come from another planet like Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) on Supergirl, or drive a time machine like the team on Legends of Tomorrow. She can’t fight particularly well, shoot arrows worth a damn, or crawl through the streets at night in a cloaked get-up complete with an alter-ego, but she’s better for her perceived lack of powers.

As we’re treated to more and more comic book superheroes on the big and small screen, diversity matters, and not just in terms of race, gender, and sexual orientation of characters but in the value they bring to the table. Watching someone like the Green Arrow battle evil in the world with a team of supernaturally gifted friends, an arsenal of cool gadgets, and highly stylized martial arts skills, is fun. Watching Felicity risk and sacrifice for the greater good and those she loves, making a difference using her unique gifts — her wits, her tenacity, and her perseverance — is empowering, inspiring, and real. She’s what a superhero should be.