supergirl’s struggle for autonomy
Psylocke has been my favorite comic character ever since her appearance in the Uncanny X-Force series from 2010. With ninja-like combat skills and psychic powers, she proves again and again in a short twenty-five-issue series that she is tough as nails and unapologetic about her flaws. Yet her appearance in this year’s Age of Apocalypse amounts to enslavement by a patriarchal godlike figure in an anachronistic costume created for her by 1970s comic artists. Despite this, the film was still enjoyable, and I can always get my feminist fix through reading the comics in which she appears, but sometimes it’s nice to see your favorite female characters appear on the screen without being gift-wrapped for male consumption. Popular opinion here suggests TV shows are the panacea, with Jessica Jones, Supergirl, and Agent Carter marking the start of an era of strong superheroines on the small screen. After having seen all three of those shows, I find that there is generally something jarring about watching a supposedly feminist TV series, particularly in the case of Supergirl. While I watched the first season of Supergirl and enjoyed it, I feel that the show’s representation of women is more complicated than most reviews would lead one to believe.
Supergirl is now in its second season, and it focuses on Kara Zor-El, who is sent to Earth from Krypton as a teenager to protect her infant cousin Kal-El. However, by the time her craft arrives on earth, her cousin has already grown to adulthood and has adopted the role of Superman. After spending years hiding her powers and living as Kara Danvers, she eventually becomes National City’s protector. The first season focused on Kara’s gradual growth into her new role and struggle to juggle her two identities.
After a rocky first few episodes, the show settles into an enjoyable plot arc and undeniably shines at various points in its portrayal of women. Media mogul Cat Grant, Kara Danvers’ boss at her day job, gives the show its most refreshing take on feminism. Immensely successful in combating the “you can’t have it all” stereotype surrounding working women and arguably a bigger source of inspiration for young girls than Supergirl herself, Cat is not the stereotypical powerful woman who gives up her personality and has to be masculinized to succeed. Abrasive, unapologetic, and unfiltered, she consistently delivers the best lines on the show. While women’s relationships with each other in film are often clear-cut, Cat and Kara have a more complex surrogate mother-daughter, boss-subordinate, and mentor-mentee dynamic that alternates throughout each episode. While Kara is encouraged by her friends and family who are aware of her secret identity, it is really Cat who gives her reality checks and pushes her to be better, even though she does not share this knowledge. Many of her lines also offer candid and simple advice to working women in general, claiming “you don’t build a company like Catco by being a wallflower and not having an opinion and strong point of view.” The bond between Kara and her adopted sister Alex is just as complex, going far beyond the standard cute and constant affection featured on most shows. Supergirl’s most compelling villains are also women, including Kara’s Aunt Astra and her former rival at work, Siobhan Smythe.
Despite all of its strong supporting female characters, Supergirl is doomed to fall short of many feminist standards due to the main character’s back story. She first emerged as a character in 1958, literally springing from a magic totem as a companion and helper for Superman after being wished into existence by his sidekick. Although the TV series dates from almost sixty years after this first comic, its influence is still present in the constant comparisons between the show’s heroine to her already-established cousin, Superman. Throughout the show, Supergirl struggles to justify her own existence and live up to the expectations her male cousin has created. A recurring plot tension is whether her love interest James Olsen will call upon her, and not Superman, in moments of need. When James finally recognizes that she can accomplish the job just as well, it is treated as a major triumph for her development rather than an issue of geographic convenience: I, for one, would rather have Supergirl fly 20 blocks over to rescue me from a burning building than ask Superman to travel a distance of 200 miles from Metropolis. This reinforces the idea that Supergirl can only hope to achieve the same level of recognition as her cousin, damaging her ability to establish her own unique identity.
In fact, so much of the first season can be condensed to Supergirl proving herself just as good as her male counterpart, so much so that she lacks any of the personal flaws central to the development and depth of male superheros. Wolverine, for instance, would not be as compelling as a nonviolent man with a background of scientific experimentation; his drinking, gambling, and inability to forgive helps the contracts roll in for Hugh Jackman. The antihero is the character who captures our attention, and the one episode in which Supergirl is chemically induced to become an antihero ends with Kara in tears about how she will never repair her reputation. At the same time, the show’s first season spends a troublingly small amount of time asserting how a female superhero might be better equipped to handle dangerous situations than a man; Supergirl, like her cousin, largely prefers to fight force with force first and attempt mediation and manipulation later. Cat Grant encapsulates this central dilemma on the show. When asked why Supergirl hasn’t been branded Superwoman, she responds, “If you perceive ‘Supergirl’ as anything less than excellent, isn’t the real problem you?” A whole team of writers, editors, and producers thought Supergirl was good enough on her own. And yet, they failed to consider how their own artistic decisions fail to live up to that standard.
It is possible the show will improve on Supergirl’s representation in its second season, though as of now it seems to be set up for further disappointment. Cat Grant’s replacement with new boss Snapper Carr forces out one of the most productive relationships on the show and replaces it with the overplayed trope of the grumpy male boss underestimating the abilities of his pretty female employee. The death of Aunt Astra also leaves the show without a recurring female antagonist, and the decision to make Superman a recurring character threatens to draw attention away from its protagonist altogether. If Supergirl is to build on its first season, it can only do so through the lens of Kara discovering her unique strengths by working with her cousin, rather than becoming his shadow.
The genre of superhero TV shows only became mainstream around three years ago, and although women now make up 46% of self-identified comic fans, the assumption that male viewers will dominate the consumption of these programs restricts the production of many shows with a dominantly female perspective. Agent Carter, for instance, was cancelled after only two seasons and spectacular reviews because of low viewership. Unlike comics, which are usually produced over time and can alter issue by issue based off of public response, entire seasons of a show are shot at once. Companies are prevented by economic incentive to run experimental TV shows that are truly progressive in gender representation, making the industry by nature conservative rather than revolutionary. Second, the newer companies such as Image Comics that are breaking new ground in the genre do not have the resources to move to a television medium at all. While TV shows are still a less expensive media form than the blockbuster movie and therefore have been a breeding ground for some growth in representation of female superheroes on the screen, the feminism of these shows is currently over-hyped.
But the youth of the industry is also cause for hope. The first attempts to align comic superheroines with the ideology of the 1970s feminist movement ended largely in disaster, yet encouraged comic writers to place female heroines in positions of power and created a generation of younger, more powerful women like the aforementioned Psylocke. Conditions will likely improve with time. Season two of Supergirl may yet exceed our expectations, or at least provide some insight for future shows on what not to emulate.