Published on October 27th, 2015 | by Geraldine Malone0
Supergirl – Friend or Foe to Feminism
Did the new Supergirl show set the women’s movement back? Did it inch it forward? A little from column A, a little from column B?
“Scared but good scared like that moment before you kiss someone for the first time,” that’s how Kara Zor-El described remembering how to fly.
Welcome to the world of Supergirl, where Superman’s cousin heavy handedly shows the viewer that even a ‘girl’ can save the world.
The new show on CBS is clearly trying to tap into the market of women and young girls in the exploding and popular superhero genre where men lead the stories and adventures in shows like Gotham, The Flash, and Daredevil. The show is actually executive produced by Greg Berlanti from The Flash and Arrow but also by two women, Ali Adler and Sarah Schechter. In the promos and press leading up to Supergirl’s official premiere on Monday excited fans were continuously reminded that the gender parity went into the writer’s room too.
I’m all for more opportunities for women on and off screen, particularly in roles historically held by men, but as a feminist and comic book fan watching this show I just wanted to scream at the television, “I get it!”
The Supergirl story starts with brave 12-year-old Kara (played by Glee alumni Melissa Benoist) being shipped off to earth to take care of her baby cousin Kal-El as her planet (and parents) explode in the background. But the plan gets a twist when the explosion pushes Kara’s spaceship into the cheezily named ‘Phantom Zone’ where time doesn’t pass and the young girl doesn’t age. ‘Somehow’ she gets out of the zone and finally lands on Earth to find that the baby she was supposed to watch out for has already grown into a man and revealed himself to the world as Superman. The ever watchful relative, Superman decides to cart poor Kara off to a random family in California (played by former Supergirl Helen Slater and former Superman Dean Cain) to be raised alongside their own teenage daughter, Alex.
“My cousin, he didn’t need my protection. I didn’t have a mission anymore. Even though I had all the same powers as him, I decided the best thing I could do was fit in,” Kara narrates to the audience as we flash to her all grown up and living in the big city.
Likely tapping into the success among the desired demographic of the movie Devil Wears Prada, Kara is the overworked and underappreciated assistant to demanding boss Cat Grant played by Calista Flockhart of Ally McBeal fame. It’s an online and print media empire based out of National City (yes, that’s the city’s real name).
The first crisis that Kara runs into is that her boss doesn’t appreciate her, her work buddy is stuck in the friend zone, and she has a date but nothing to wear. What will a superhero ever do? She also meets the mysterious award winning photographer James Olsen who was friends with Superman at the Daily Planet. Here we really see that somewhere along the lines, CBS didn’t get the rights to actually say Superman because Kal-El is only ever referred to as “he,” “cousin,” “friend in blue,” and the like.
The audience watches as, with an undeniable chipper attitude (possibly picked up on the Glee set), Kara bonds with her sister and talks about how she wanted to help the world and is special but, like the eternal crisis of any 20-something, she just can’t figure out what she’s supposed to do. Hint: use your super powers.
Her chance finally comes up when the plane her sister is on to Geneva loses its engine and starts to fall into National City. With surprisingly great special effects, Kara jumps into action, literally, and flies the plane safely into the city’s river. She’s invigorated and filled with purpose, still excessively chipper, and the montage into making her costume starts on cue.
That’s when, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer terms, the ‘big bad’ is introduced to the show and Kara teams up with her sister who happens to work for the DEO, the Department of Extra-Normal Operations, a CIA operation for aliens. The effects in the fight scenes are pretty good and there’s certainly room for story lines to develop when it comes to the group of aliens Kara’s set to battle through the season, but it’s hard to focus on with a graceless dialogue so fixated on battling the usual gender stereotypes that the story itself falls by the wayside.
One rant by Kara’s boss comes after the media mogul uses the name “Supergirl” in a headline. Kara protests, “doesn’t that make us anti feminist?”
“What do you think is so bad about girl?” Cat Grant responds. “I’m a girl and your boss and powerful and rich and hot and smart. So if you perceive Supergirl as anything less than excellent is the real problem you?”
In another hackneyed reach out to the girl power audience, Alex argues to her CIA, I mean DEO boss, that Supergirl was sent here to help us but when he protests that Kara isn’t strong enough, she says, “why because she’s a girl? That’s exactly what we were counting on.” Kara then pretends to succumb to the bad guy’s strength, but oh snap, it’s just to get him close enough to defeat him.
A Guardian review of the show said, “It’s fun, fast-moving, generally good-natured and shattering the glass ceiling in a single bound.” But is it really?
Hiring an equal amount of women for the writing room and as executive producers is certainly a positive change from the norm. Having women in the roles clearly left open for character development while men are on the sidelines to make quips or shoot longing glances is also a positive change. But having a dialogue that doesn’t ask the viewer to think for even one second about Supergirl in any deeper sense then “she’s a girl WITH super powers” is an absolute travesty. Give the audience credit that we can recognize those other positive changes without sacrificing what could be an interesting development of a female through her own lens. Think Orphan Black.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the Superman or the Supergirl comics (the nearly omnipotent powers and country values just don’t do it for me) but I had some high hopes that the giant hole waiting to be filled by a well developed female superhero might at least get closer to being addressed by Supergirl.
After the trailer for the show was released earlier this summer many people complained that it looked too girly. Then the uproar became, what’s wrong with being girly (the show took that to heart)? There is nothing wrong with a feminine character who is also strong, a smart character who also giggles at a guy she likes, or a driven character who does a little dance when she sees herself on TV for the first time. What there is something wrong with is a one-dimensional character who relies on a few bumbling traits and the dreams of little girls to see a female superhero without actually earning their praise. Supergirl doesn’t have to give up her femininity to be one of the boys who share the screen in the costumes but she does have to have some depth.
In the comics, Living Between Wednesdays blogger Rachelle Goguen points to Action Comics #252 for Supergirl’s debut. Superman welcomes his cousin to earth by dropping her off in an orphanage and telling her to hide her powers. He also makes her wear a wig, because his super sneaky glasses wouldn’t do it I guess. Imagine that as an origin story for Supergirl in the show. I know some people are over the obsession with dark stories in comic book shows (Gotham, Daredevil, the upcoming Jessica Jones) but the dimensions would be boundless for her character if her first taste of Earth was being abandoned in an orphanage. She would be an interesting parallel to her squeaky clean cousin, Superman.
What if instead of saying she just wanted to fit in as the reason she didn’t use her powers, the show actually showed us why she felt that pressure. As a viewer I don’t know the motivation behind any of her actions and so they seem heartless and boring.
I look to female superheroes that I’d love to see on the screen like Alan Moore’s Promethea, some of the versions of She-Hulk’s Jennifer Walters, most of the women in Fables, Kate Kane and Barbara Gordon from Batman, or any of the women from Rat Queens. All of them are very different and some embrace their femininity, while others don’t, because just like real women they are diverse. But one thing they have in common is that they have multiple dimensions of their personality and that they deal with issues, although more extreme, which real women tackle, including misogyny, disrespect, work-life balance, purpose, stereotypes, ethics, safety, and love. Supergirl, so far, deals with being super and a girl, that’s it.