The 1999 animated series Batman Beyond took place in Gotham’s dark cyberpunk future, where old age forced Bruce Wayne into retirement until he found cocky high school student Terry McGinnis to follow in his crime-fighting footsteps. It turns out that it’s a lot harder to keep your secret identity when you’ve got classes, a little brother, and a girlfriend than when your sole obligation is “billionaire playboy.” Soon, classmate Maxine Gibson figures out how Terry is spending his nights and demands to help. She tells Terry he can’t call her Robin, though, and he agrees—dubbing her Alfred instead.
It’s a bad joke, because Robin’s a public persona, and understanding who Alfred is would require her to know a lot more backstory on the original Batman. Worse still, it defines how Terry, and the series, treated her. Max was athletic and proved reasonably capable in a fight, but she was only ever called on for her skills as a hacker and video gamer, and occasionally for the even more demeaning tasks of babysitting and making up excuses to Terry’s girlfriend. I waited for her to don the mantle of Batgirl and start kicking ass—but that never happened. Instead she was consigned to tech support and occasional damsel in distress.
Today, Arrow has its own version of Max in the character of Felicity Smoak (Emily Bett Rickards), the super-smart and attractive IT girl who figures out the vigilante’s secret identity and winds up joining his inner circle. Like Max, she seems to have no motivation beyond making the hero’s life easier with her hacking skills, though that often involves getting in trouble with supervillains and needing some saving.
You’ll find similar tech-savvy women outside of shows based on D.C. properties: Skye (Chloe Bennet) in Marvel’s Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D., Claudia Donovan (Allison Scagliotti) in Warehouse 13, and even Willow (Alyson Hannigan) in the early seasons of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer fit the bill. The sexy female hacker isn’t just relegated to genre television. Criminal Minds’ Penelope Garcia (Kirstin Vangsness) plays the same role: useful behind a computer screen and able to provide a bit of plucky comic relief.
It’s as if writers feel that if they give women an interest in a male-dominated field, they’ve done enough to defy gender roles. Instead they’ve created an entirely new stereotype: women who are smart and competent but in an entirely nonthreatening way. They’re more plot devices than characters, with little development and few goals beyond helping the real heroes thrive.
That’s not to say that these shows don’t have their own strong female characters. One of the defining conflicts of Batman Beyond was between Wayne and former Batgirl Barbara Gordon, now serving as the city’s steely police commissioner. Arrow has badass women in the form of The Huntress (Jessica De Gouw) and Black Canary (previously Caity Lotz, now Katie Cassidy) much as Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has May and Buffy has its title character. Warehouse 13 is driven by an X-Files-style male-female pair of partners, where Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly) is often the more competent of the two.
But seeing that trope pop up again and again in otherwise good shows is part of what makes it so frustrating. Different shows play around with the formula, which can make the character better or worse. Skye and Claudia are both orphans desperate for a family, which explains why they’re so happy to use their skills as part of some greater good. Skye is constantly trying to stretch beyond her role as computer girl, which might be admirable if it didn’t regularly lead to her getting in trouble and relying on the rest of the team to bail her out.
Claudia is a competent field agent in her own right, but later seasons relegate her to a sort of mystical role that makes her time as hacker and gadgeteer seem empowering by comparison. She’s there to come up with solutions to problems that the writers can’t seem to solve, using some combination of technical know-how and mystical intuition. Her charming spunk and sarcasm are subsumed by tedious angst about her destiny, following in the footsteps of one of the show’s least interesting and least developed female characters.
Smoak might be the most depressing of the bunch. She has an unrequited crush on Oliver Queen (Stephen Amell), which he actually uses to turn her into bait for a supervillain. She is also inexplicably capable of performing complicated blood and chemical analysis, proof that the show views her more as a tool for uncovering plot and less as a legitimate character.
When Black Canary steps on her role as lab worker—providing an actual reason for having those skills in that she spent time working for a mad scientist—Felicity gets jealous that she’s not Queen’s “girl” anymore. Even if she can’t be romantically involved with him, she still lives for his approval. It’s hard not to wince at how stereotypically she’s treated when compared to Queen’s other sidekicks: John Diggle (David Ramsey), has an excellent, spin-off-worthy episode devoted to him. Roy Harper (Colton Haynes) has his own complex emotional arc. When Arrow devoted an episode to Smoak, it still focused on the only thing that seems to matter about her: her hacking skills.
Smoak is also constantly flustered when dealing with others, so she finds a bond with the equally geeky Barry Allen (Grant Gustin), who stopped by Arrow before becoming The Flash. When Barry leaves, Queen berates Felicity for being too distracted—pining for a guy who might actually like her—to provide him with her technical services.
Smoak’s crush on Allen also shows another recurring problem with these hacker characters: They’re used as fantasies for the shows’ target audience. Donovan is constantly falling for guys on the basis of them being nerdy. Common interests are certainly important for a good relationship, but here it just seems like pandering to geeky viewers who dream of hot girls falling for them when they talk about operating systems and exploits.
These types of characters can rise from this lowly state, though. Willow’s computer skills were all but forgotten after Buffy’s third season, when the show delved into exploring the character’s sexuality and magical abilities. She wound up being one of the most interesting, powerful, and scary characters on a show that had plenty of other characters who fit those three qualities.
Genre television often relies on characters with defined roles and urgent conflicts, which can take priority over further development of those characters. But these shows are watched not just by geeky guys who appreciate having an attractive, technically proficient girl to fantasize about, but by geeky girls looking for characters to empathize with. Showing that computer skills aren’t limited to men is a good start, but these female characters could use some real empowering to keep them from being relegated to tech support.