I admit to never knowing, or caring to know, much about Supergirl. While I can talk pretty confidently about the story arcs and history of Batman or Superman or Wonder Woman or even to a lesser extent the Green Arrow, Flash, and the rest of the Justice League, I admit that most of my (mis)information about Supergirl comes from the 1984 Helen Slater movie. But despite all of this, I always had a soft spot for her, mainly because of the shared pronunciation, if not spelling, of names. In fact that was my social media post when watching the pilot, “Now that Supergirl is a tv show maybe now people will start saying my name right.” To which my snarky friends told me not to hold my breath. But as someone who has professors and work colleagues who still say my name wrong after years, I giggle every time Cat Grant says Care-uh or, in the last couple of episodes, Keer-uh instead of Car-uh. So I started out with a soft spot for Supergirl. And the rest of the pilot confirmed my feelings. The nod to the original Superman movie with the plane gave me tears of nostalgia. The “create a uniform/costume” montage scene with Winn was great. Having Helen Slater and Dean Cain play her parents is genius casting, much as The Flash did with John Wesley Shipp. (Although I admit they’ve misstepped with the odd let-him-out-of-jail-then-write-him-out-of-The-Flash’s plot move.) These casting moves, like having Mark Hamill reprise his Trickster role on The Flash, is a well-played move to cash in on our nostalgia for these characters and experiences. It’s using the cultural capital of our childhoods to good purpose.
So far, Supergirl is hitting all the right notes with that. But these are not the main conversations about the show. Instead the conversations are focusing on two related issues: the constant mentions (or as people have pointed out, the non-mentions) of Superman and the laundry list of ways that Supergirl is not a feminist superhero.
These are complicated issues and deserve to be addressed. I’ll start with saying that while I can see why people are making both arguments, I don’t agree with them. The issues of how women are portrayed on television are huge. It has really only been recently that female characters were seen as three dimensional, and fully fleshed, capable of carrying their own shows. Even so, the female characters often held up as feminist characters and role models continue to be problematic. The character of Shonda Rhimes comes to mind. While Meredith Grey, Olivia Pope, and Annalise Keating are all generally read as role models, these are still deeply flawed women who more often than not are defined by their relationships to men. They are rarely shown standing on their own. Again and again, when they get into trouble they turn to the often unhealthy relationships with men. Too often in television female characters are presented initially as strong but then are revealed to be dependent on, or defined by, their male relationships.
And this leads me to the first concern over Supergirl: the numerous references to Superman, a character who is never shown completely in the scenes or the storyline, but instead lurks on the edges. To me, rather than being a weakness of the show, this has been one of the strengths of the writing. Because Supergirl is haunted by Superman. Whether he is physically there or not, his presence is always on the peripheral. What Berlanti and his team have done is shown us that. Because Superman is the elephant in the room, otherwise. It’s an issue shows Arrow and The Flash have been able to sidestep because of their crossover capability, but the simple fact is if you’re going to have a superhero story set in a specific known universe, where we know other superheroes exist, at some point you have to explain why you’re not seeing them. Supergirl has smartly gotten this portion of the narrative out of the way, and while viewers were still complaining that they were fatigued by the mentions well into the third episode, “Fight or Flight,” I think they missed the numerous signposts that proved this was a turning point in Kara’s, and the show’s, narrative. Throughout the episode, various characters make mention of this being Kara’s story, that her story is just starting. And that’s true. Why is our expectation of this character, and this show, that she would emerge fully formed as a hero when we know Superman, Batman, and Green Arrow don’t. With male narratives the origin story is usually a huge selling point. So why are we as an audience willing to go along with the origin stories of the male heroes and not the female ones? Why isn’t it a natural narrative that Superman might need to save Kara when she is still figuring everything out? Knowing Superman is in this universe and knowing James Olsen is a shared connection, why wouldn’t Superman come and help? Cat Grant addresses this head on when she makes the comment during the interview about Supergirl having the same powers, that she’s heard this story before. And we have. We all know Superman’s story, whether it’s from our introduction through Christopher Reeve, comics, animated Superman and Justice League movies, Brandon Routh, or Henry Cavill. So what this show (through Cat Grant and others, standing in for us as an audience) asks is: How is Supergirl different from what we’ve already seen? What is Kara’s story? When I first began this review, I predicted “Fight or Flight” would act as a turning point, with less references to Superman; that having dealt with this issue the show would now pivot more to Kara and her experiences, which the show has. “Live Wire” only has one reference, towards the end of the episode, and that was in reference to Dr. Danvers, not Kara. And while “How Does She Do It?” had more references, they were in relation to James and how he has been defined and (in many ways) limited by his association with Superman, both in his personal and professional life.
The other main critique that I’ve seen is that Kara / Supergirl is too girly. Too silly. Not serious enough. Marketed to younger audiences. Not someone we as an audience can take seriously. The general consensus is that we’re ready for a feminist superhero, but we don’t want this one. I have a couple of issues with this. Do I think that the portrayal of women on television and in film continues to be problematic in 2015? Yes. Take one look at the costuming of Abbie in Sleepy Hollow and Lara Vega in Minority Report; both are strong, female characters, but you wouldn’t know if from their costuming, which seems to argue that what we should be focusing on is their chests rather than their intelligence or kick-assedness.
It’s easy to misstep with female character; things such as costuming can easily derail or counter the story you’re trying to tell. Creators and actors need to continue to push back against these types of representations. But here’s the thing: we don’t require our male actors to stand in as representative of their gender, so why do we expect this of our female characters? Do I think Melissa Benoist’s portrayal is feminist? Yes. She’s educated, she’s tough, and she stands up for herself. She’s working to figure out who she is. She relies on her friends but is not defined by the male characters. Is the show feminist? We have Cat Grant, a character we don’t like, but who controls her own company and is clearly a strong, female character who so far is not defined by anything other than herself. There are just as many scenes that focus on the sister relationship between Alex and Kara as there are between Kara and the male characters of Winn Schott and James Olsen. The fourth episode, “Live Wire,” centered on the relationships between women; Eliza’s relationship with her daughter Alex and foster daughter Kara and Cat’s mentor relationship with Leslie Willis. Other than focusing on these relationships though “Live Wire” also highlighted other feminist issues. At the beginning of the episode Cat calls Leslie to task for “going after a young girl, insulting her body, how she dresses, her sexuality” and her “adorkable” attitude. Once again Cat’s dialogue is directed at the audience; when she criticizes Leslie’s approach, her appeal to the lowest common denominator, the fact that she’d attack a woman that way, she’s talking to us. Cat says that “Supergirl is changing the conversation of National City,” and again, that’s a note pointed at us. Supergirl is changing the conversation, our conversation about what feminism is and what it looks like. The flip side, of course (as Cat points out towards the end of the episode), is that while Cat is willing to take credit for Supergirl, she also must own up to the ways in which her behavior, her encouragement, her lack of modeling, also created Live Wire. Cat, though, offers hope. Because she sees the error of her way, and by the end of the episode she adjusts, further proof that the conversation is changing. In “How Does She Do It?” there are two moments towards the end of the episode, the first when Cat criticizes her son Carter for liking Supergirl because she’s “pretty” and not for the things she does, and then when Kara asks Cat how she manages to do it all. In just a couple of sentences Cat, again, takes down a major discussion point of feminism, and there’s the title of the episode; whether or not it’s possible to do, and have, it all. Unsurprisingly, Cat’s flip answer is of course you can, but she then goes on to elaborate that it’s a little more complicated than that.
We have to let go of our concept that feminist figures have to look or act in a certain way. Not all feminist icons are Imperator Furios. And they shouldn’t be. The show brings this up as well, addressing criticisms of Supergirl’s feminism with Cat Grant’s speech in the pilot: I’m the hero. I stuck a label on the side of the girl. I branded her. She will forever be linked to CatCo, to the Tribune, to me. And what do you think is so bad about “girl”? Huh? 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, isn’t the real problem you?
The show also deals with criticisms of the show by conflating the idea “Kara is not feminist enough” with the fact that part of her problem is that she’s a millennial. When Cat Grant is interrogating Supergirl about her choices and who she is, Kara’s response is “Nobody ever asks my cousin these questions.” And it’s a comment directed at us the audience. Because we don’t ask those questions of Superman, Batman, the Green Arrow or the Flash. The writers are pointing out our bias. Why can’t we accept that we’re watching the narrative of a 24-year-old superhero who is figuring out who she is? A strong character, not oversexualized, who is making her own decisions?
In addition to cleverly handling these issues, there’s also a lot Supergirl is getting right that the above criticisms have overshadowed. The above-mentioned casting choices of previous Supergirl, Helen Slater, and Superman, Dean Cain, are great, and I look forward to seeing how the show uses them. The presentation and growth of Jimmy (James) Olsen so far has been great and serves as a great parallel for Kara’s story. Like Kara, James has to find his own path, who he is, if he’s not defined by Superman. I’m looking forward to watching more of Mehcad Brooks as Olsen. And though he’s goofier (but he’s supposed to be), I’m curious to see if they turn Winn Schott into the Toyman. I’m also loving the fan Easter eggs like the Superfriends reference in the pilot. Also a nice move was Hank Henshaw’s comment “I see you share your cousin’s appetite for wanton destruction, Miss Danvers,” which addresses one of fans’ and critics’ biggest problems with the film Man of Steel. The show, not just in the story, but promotionally speaking, is making all the right moves. Promotional materials focus on Kara as Supergirl. It would have been easy with names like Calista Flockhart and Mehcad Brooks, who are certainly more well known, to have the promotional materials feature an ensemble, to cash in on the names you have. But a search for Supergirl promotional materials makes it very clear whose story this is.
I for one am looking forward to seeing how it unfolds.
1 Technically “Live Wire” is the fifth (and Thanksgiving) episode, but it was moved up in the schedule because the fourth episode dealt with a terrorist plot that CBS did not want to run in light of the Paris attacks.