Supergirl: The show we need, but with a heroine that could be so much more…

CBS Supergirl - With a costume that's actually pretty great!

CBS Supergirl – With a costume that’s actually pretty great!

The new Supergirl trailer dropped and colour me unimpressed. It is wonderful that a superhero show unabashedly starring a girl is coming out. Hopefully, she’ll bring in plenty of new, female fans to the genre. On the other hand, at least according to the trailer, we’re not getting anything particularly new or transgressive. Supergirl, despite having amazing powers, is every other young, female character on TV right now. She’s “safe” and I wanted something so much more.

I’ve been a fan of the superhero genre for a long time. I read actual comic books, have a pull list at my local store, and can argue canon with the best of them. I am also at the front of the pack calling for more female superheroes. There are so many amazing superhero men that have crossed the comic boundaries and reached mainstream, but very few female characters that have achieved the same success. So Supergirl is important in that respect. Other than Agent Carter, superhero shows are dominated by male protagonists, and let’s not even talk about the abysmal representation of female characters on movie screens at the moment. Supergirl fills an achingly empty niche, one that many want to see filled, and hopefully she’s the first of many powerful women whose stories we get to watch unfold.

Why exactly am I so displeased, then? The Supergirl trailer introduces us to Kara Danvers as the personal assistant to a media mogul that is essentially a rip-off of Miranda Priestly from the Devil Wears Prada. She’s the “everygirl” we see in a lot of media aimed towards young women today: plucky, struggling to become an adult, and totally relatable. Except for the fact that she’s not. Kara is a caricature of young adulthood that so many young female characters are lately. Take off her glasses and business dress and she’s suddenly gorgeous. Admire her massive, professionally decorated apartment that no actual “real life” young adult could possibly afford. Be jealous of the handsome young man she works with and will probably eventually realise is her perfect match even though he’s bland, socially inept, and a bit of a jerk. Giggle at her “adorkable” nature, goofy enough to be cute, but not enough to threaten her mainstream popularity or appeal to men. She’s represents a particular vision of wish fulfillment that women are told over and over that they should both want and be even though many women don’t have much interest in this type of life.[1]

Kara also has a lot of feelings. A good portion of the trailer was dedicated to seeing her be conflicted and upset about whether she is good enough to be a superhero. Whether she deserves to be what she is trying to be. These are very stereotypical female emotions that pop up in almost all women-focused media. It is true that women are generally allowed more room to express their inner thoughts and conflicts, but we’re not all uniformly weepy, despite what television might suggest. TV for women doesn’t have to be an endless parade of single, white women navigating a very narrow slice of possibilities, not because these “girly” shows are bad, but because that’s all we get to have and we deserve more than one-note representation.

The trailer easily passes the Bechdel test, but this is a bare minimum threshold for women-friendly media. Having two female characters talk about something other than a dude isn’t a guarantee that one is watching the most feminist show ever, particularly if the show is still indulging in stereotyping and tired tropes about women. For Supergirl, Kara’s sister is wonderfully supportive, but how many times do we see male superheroes have a tearful, ice cream eating moment where they doubt their capabilities as their brother calls to them lovingly through a door? This is really a definitively female media expression, and one we’ve seen over and over again. For once, I’d love to see a female character express her worries without the baggage of sweatpants, clutching pillows, and tears glimmering at the corners of her eyes. I want to see a supportive sister take her superhero sibling to a mixed martial arts class, be the one to help plan out her superhero outfit (instead of the bland, but oh so male love interest that starts with hot pants), and remind her ridiculously overpowered sister that she has enough power to blow up half the damn planet and should stop caring what the big, bad governmental dudes do. I want women who aren’t being the most stoic, masculine fighters ever, but are still allowed to be more nuanced and complex than “I’m a girl! Woo!” I want to see female characters on TV that actually reflect the realities I see among my friends. We get sad and eat ice cream sometimes, but that’s not our automatic response to life being hard. Also, can female characters try something else for a career other than a personal assistant? Let’s have firefighters, accountants, retail workers, chefs, and computer programmers! Not every woman wears pencil skirts and chiffon blouses to work. We’ve seen the office girl fetching coffee a million times. Let’s get some diversification going and try something new!

There are other parts of the trailer that bothered me, like the completely unnecessary and distasteful lesbian joke, as well as the uncomfortable and ill-thought out commentary on the use of “girl”[2]. But my main issue is that Supergirl looks like your average CW show (on CBS) with a protagonist who just so happens to have laser vision. We’ve already got a tonne of shows about the less-than-confident, but very privileged young woman making her way in the world and I had hoped to see something different from this title. Something that would have also gotten away from the hard-edged, kick-ass female fighter with no additional characterisation either. A female character that feels like someone I might actually knowif I knew anyone who could punch people into outer space that is. A show that wouldn’t make crappy jokes about marginalised people because maybe those people actually exist on the show. A show that realises that female comic book fans have been around for a long time, and you don’t need to trick us into watching a show by making it look as similar to every other “girl” show on television. Keep the upbeat and happy atmosphere, CBC, but ditch the stale rom-com heroine that I can already easily find.[3]

What we’ve seen so far is just a trailer, and it is possible that the show will be great or grow into something awesome (after all, they decided to take a risk and make Jimmy Olsen a black man). On the other hand, given the treatment of women on television, I find my optimism dimmed. I hope the show succeeds because I desperately want more superheroines to watch and if this show fails it will inevitably be explained as women not wanting female superheroes, but I really hope that one day we have a character who isn’t as safe and trope-laden as what I saw in that trailer. Until then, I’ll stick with my comics like Ms. Marvel, Saga, Rat Queens, and Batgirl and many others that showcase a much wider array of women superheroes that don’t assume women want the same stories over and over again.

Footnotes (because my academic is leaking out)

[1] If you do, that’s great! You have the rest of women-focused TV to satisfy these feels, but it’s not surprising that there are lots of women saying that they want something different.

[2] You can’t just dismiss the anti-feminist connotations of the use of the word “girl” for women in the superhero genre with a sentence about empowerment. Kara is not a teenager in this universe. Superman and Batman started their hero careers in their 20s as well and they never had to start as boys. Kara brings up a good point when she questions why she isn’t being called a woman, and simply saying that we should still view her as exceptional as a girl does little to subvert the sexism that makes us think of her as one. It’s a lazy retort to a criticism that the writers know that they are going to get, and only embeds these issues further by suggesting we don’t talk about them.

[3] Does anyone remember how much fun Supergirl was on the animated Superman and Justice League shows? She was cheerful, goofy, and delightfully free of angst without feeling so painfully constructed to appeal to what producers think is the average female viewer. Great female characters do exist already, and we don’t have to accept mediocre additions as the only thing available. I will admit, however, that the CBS Supergirl has a way better uniform.

Dear Men: Fuck You

Dear men:

Fuck you. All of you. I have had enough of your gender. Yes, your entire gender. Yes, even the men in my life that I love. If you identify as a man, I just want you to go away to a place where I don’t have to interact with you for a very long time. Or at least until tomorrow when I’ve caught my breath and no longer feel so much fury at all the terrible things that you do.

Up here in Canada, it recently came out that a very popular radio show host, Jian Ghomeshi, sexually abused women for years. The news broke when Ghomeshi penned an open letter on Facebook after being fired from the CBC, framing the situation as one of being discriminated against for the consensual sexual activities he liked to partake in. However, what followed was a media storm revealing that there were many women claiming to have been abused by him, going back decades.

The media conversations about this event have been mostly positive in terms of promoting gender equality and combatting sexism. The newspapers are filled with stories about rape myths, the problems women encounter when reporting their assaults, and the methods men use to diminish their crimes. However, despite all of the amazing reporting that is going on, I have been witness to so many terrible debates and arguments that I am ready to explode, and that is why I am done with men.

The Ghomeshi debate has been a popular topic on Facebook, and this is where my patience started to wear thin. For every repost of a great article, there are dozens of ignorant and hurtful comments that tried to reframe the entire Ghomeshi situation to be about men. After reading abhorrent comment number 659,432, I decided I was done. I just couldn’t take another iteration of any of the following complaints. (If this was a drinking game, my liver would have been declared dead by now.) Thus, dearest men, if you say any of these things, please stop. Please go away.

  1. Declare that men are raped too! Argue that feminists don’t care about this, and until they do, they are evil and worthless and everyone should hate them.
    1. If the subject of men advocating for themselves is brought up, state that feminists should do it or are preventing it from happening or men just can’t emasculate themselves in public this way.
    2. If someone mentions that feminists do work on male sexual assault, deny or ignore this claim. Or blame feminists again. (Because logical arguments aren’t winning arguments!)
  2. Emphasise the need to be OBJECTIVE (as defined by not believing them crazy women folk).
    1. Objectivity means finding the one sentence uttered by a victim that can be spun into supporting the idea that the rapist is actually an okay dude. And if someone doesn’t pay attention to that one sentence (that in context actually doesn’t support the idea that the rapist was an okay dude), then tell them they are using “Fox News” tactics, and are contributing to a biased and discriminatory conversation.
    2. Do not realise that your definition of objectivity means that the voice of one man must be weighed more heavily than the voices of ten victims because they have reasons to lie while he is just defending himself.
  3. Claim that this whole situation isn’t about rape. Rape requires penetration/force/maybe sometimes a hand/something else fundamentally incorrect.
    1. NOTE: Sexual assault in Canada is any unwanted sexual touching. No penetration is needed. Hell, there are times when genital contact is not needed. Sexual assault is a broad term encompassing a lot of terrible behaviour. The details about Ghomeshi’s behaviour fall squarely into sexual assault territory. Cite: Myself, a legal academic who specialises in sexual assault and finds herself repeating these words far too often lately.
  4. Ignore the women involved in any Ghomeshi conversation. Assure fellow male commentators that you respect their opinions even if they differ.
  5. Begin your comment by claiming that you are willing to be labelled a misogynist just so you can make sure that the conversation doesn’t become biased. You’ll totally take one for the team and withstand the feminist abuse.
  6. Make any mention of a “feminist-dominated” society. (As proven by the fact that the media is talking about a man who sexually assaulted and physically and emotionally abused the women in his life for over two decades without repercussions despite his behaviour being common knowledge).
  7. Blame women for not reporting their assaults as to not do so must mean that they are liars.
  8. Be enraged that all the articles you read are blaming all men for rape. #notallmen!!!
    1. Further argue that rape culture is ridiculous, and all men hate rape. Rape culture victimises men, and it’s all the fault of feminists!
  9. Contend that this whole situation was about people into alternative sexual practices who just didn’t talk things through enough. It wasn’t rape or abuse. It was just a mistake!
    1. Add to your argument by stating that “the government shouldn’t be involved in the bedrooms of the nation”, and pat yourself on the back for quoting someone famous. Even if the government isn’t involved in the conversation at all.
  10. Assert that everyone has the right to be presumed innocent, and fight against the unfair court of public opinion!
    1. Watch as all criminal law people in the vicinity start twitching uncontrollably, explaining once again that no one has a right to a presumption of innocence outside the criminal justice system, and how does that even make any sense, and besides, there is no standard of innocence, it’s only “not guilty”, and then distressed keening.

The above is not an exhaustive list of all the exhausting arguments I have seen/heard put forth in the past week regarding sexual assault and feminism. Neither are the comments exaggerated. Every single one of them was pulled from a conversation that I witnessed.

Now, before anyone says that I should just calm down and ignore all the douchebags, I want to assert that I can’t. I am not seeking out these comments. They are all over my Facebook feed. On Twitter. In real life conversations. I hear them on buses, in cafes, and really anywhere where at least two people can be talking about current events. The only way I can protect my ears, eyes, and heart from these odious comments would be to cut men out of my existence. Thus, this is why I am asking everyone who is male identifying to just disappear for a bit. For those men who do not suck, for all the male feminists and allies, consider this part of your responsibility to the cause. Sometimes being an activist sucks, but c’est la vie. You can use your time to teach feminism 101 to the others.

So, fuck men. Fuck you and your collective inability to be decent human beings. Sure, there are women who suck, and there are people on other, far flung parts of the gender spectrum who suck, but right now, there’s a plethora of male-identifying assholes who need to go away as they are taking up the most space and saying the worst things. There are plenty of unoccupied islands on this planet, go hang out on one of them for a bit until you’re ready to be something other than abjectly terrible. Or more likely, until my rage dies down and I can respond to your endless discrimination and cruelty with something other than a great desire to sob.

Fuck you, men of the world.


Maggie Gordon

Gender and the Supreme Court of Canada: Why Justice Nadon’s Appointment is a Blow to Gender Equality in Canada

Today, Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Justice Marc Nadon to the Supreme Court of Canada, and it is a sad day for gender equality. Some may argue that Justice Nadon was simply the most qualified applicant for the job, but the discussion about today’s appointment is not that simple. Canada’s top judges are all extremely intelligent and accomplished people. It is difficult to rank them according to a hierarchy of talent. Justice Nadon was a Quebec appointee, and there are currently two very knowledgeable and practiced women judges from this province that were expected to receive this appointment (one of them being Justice Marie-France Bich). And yet, somehow the very privileged white man is deemed the top candidate by another very privileged white man. This isn’t an issue of picking the absolute best candidate, but of gender inequality.


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Conversations about False Rape Allegations are Generally Full of Bullshit

Content Note: Discussion of sexual assault statistics and an empirical analysis of false rape allegations.

This week an article  popped up on CBC about MRA activists in Edmonton putting posters up encouraging women not to lie about sexual assault just because they regret having sex with someone. I posted it on my Facebook feed with a bunch of comments about my rage, and a few of my fellow feminist friends responded. We ended up discussing false rape allegation statistics and their lack of empirical accuracy when a male friend of mine decided to ask me the deceptively difficult question of what should a proper estimation of the rate of false accusations be? I gave a really long answer (for a Facebook post that is), and was asked to make it rebloggable. So here is my extended response (now complete with 50% more grammar!).

My short answer is that there is no answer. Simply put, there is not enough data for relevant statistical analysis that would give us any sort of accurate picture of false rape accusations. While there have been many studies conducted on this issue, they are essentially based on meaningless numbers. Many of them focus on data obtained from police stations and thus rely on unfounding rates. Unfounding means that the police have decided not to pursue a case, and they may have chosen this option for a variety of reasons other than just the belief that a false allegation has been made. In many situations, unfounding occurs because there was not enough evidence to support a court case. It is also not uncommon for sexist attitudes to influence unfounding rates. In one of my classes in law school, we compared unfounding statistics from across the province of Ontario, and it was quite shocking to see how the rates differed between jurisdictions. Unfounding rates in jurisdictions where police officers have special training in regards to sexual assault were significantly lower than in jurisdictions that do not have that sort of training (for example, Toronto versus most of the other Ontario areas), or jurisdictions that still use training that emphasises the false idea that most complainants lie (see everything written by Baeza and Turvey in the preceding link).

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Compulsory Heterosexuality Isn’t Cool, DC Comics

I have been a fan of the DC characters since I was a kid. Before Christopher Nolan got his hands on Batman, I watched the animated series and pretended to be a super hero myself. I started reading comics in high school, and I’ve followed some of the characters in all of their media incarnations for years. However, DC comics has a long history of problematic story-telling choices, and their comics often perpetuate all sorts of oppression. And, unfortunately, ever since the new 52 reboot, I find myself uninterested in buying basically any of the new DC series because of the constant marginalisation of minority characters (see the attempted killing off of the Green Lantern, John Stewart, one of the most recognisable Black super heroes in the DC line-up. And the retconning/rewriting of Oracle, Barbara Gordon/Batgirl’s super hero identity she took on after she became disabled. And the murder of Alan Scott’s boyfriend. And the redesign of Harley Quinn. And the list continues).

Harley Quinn Redesign

How do you update one of the most recognisable DC villains of all time? You change everything about her and subtract a good portion of her clothing. Skin tight body suits aren’t sexy enough, you see?

However, despite my continued disappointment, I keep tabs on the comics because I do truly love many of the characters, and if the books get better, I am ready to jump back on board. Editorial might be bad now, but there is hope, right? Regrettably, DC keeps stomping on my dreams of something better, and today’s rant involves some major changes to the book, Birds of Prey.

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The Princess Merida Protests: When Feminist Activism Neglects to Consider Anti-Racism Perspectives

So here I am, back after a two year hiatus with a blog post on Disney Princesses. This is perhaps a strange topic to re-engage a political scientist/lawyer, but there’s been a lot of brouhaha over the recent inclusion of Merida (from the movie Brave) into the princess line that has made me feel rather uncomfortable and disappointed.

To start, Disney has made heaps of money on films featuring princesses, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the company decided to create a merchandising campaign that featured all of these characters together. However, rather than focus on the traits that made these characters popular (such as Belle’s love of reading or Ariel’s curiosity), the line was centered on the idea of being a princess and achieving a happily ever after. The women of the line wear big, sparkling princess dresses and stand around passively smiling. They are not frequently shown as active individuals, but simply as examples of pretty women who have found their Prince Charmings. Obviously, such a construction of female role models can be subject to an absolute mountain of feminist critique.


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In Memory of Jack Layton

Today a great Canadian man was lost when Jack Layton passed away in the early hours of the morning. While not perfect, he dedicated his life to bringing justice and equality to Parliament Hill and to shaping Canada into a better nation. He died after leading the NDP to their largest Canadian victory, seeing them become the official opposition of our federal government and giving millions of Canadians hope for a more just Canada. He was a man who loved his country and loved people.

I send my heartfelt sympathies to his family and friends and wish them peace in the difficult days to come. I sincerely hope that Jack’s party will honour him by rising up and continuing their work to make Canada into a better, fairer, kinder nation.

According to the Ottawa Citizen, Jack signed all of his emails with a Tommy Douglas quote and I think we could all learn from the words that inspired him so: “Courage my friends, it’s never too late to build a better world.” To both Jack and Tommy, we hear you and we promise to pick up the torch. Rest in soft peace.

Update: Jack gave a letter to his wife, Olivia Chow, before passing. I have included some of his inspiring words below and you can find the entire letter here.

“And finally, to all Canadians: Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. In the months and years to come, New Democrats will put a compelling new alternative to you. My colleagues in our party are an impressive, committed team. Give them a careful hearing; consider the alternatives; and consider that we can be a better, fairer, more equal country by working together. Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done.
My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”

Thank you Jack, for everything.

Gestational Limits on Abortion in Canada: Disproving Anti-Choice Rhetoric

One of my least favourite anti-choice tactics is the claim that a newly born baby is only one day safe from being murdered by abortion. You see this idea pop up on bill boards and pamphlets all the time, particularly in Canada as we have no federal law regulating abortion. However, all this claim really shows is how misinformed and cruel the anti-choice side can be.

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In the Aftermath of Women’s World 2011

This past week I attended Women’s World 2011, an international conference on women’s issues held in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. In the weeks leading up to the event, I was really excited about the fact that I was going to join together with a large group of fellow feminists to talk about an assortment of important and often neglected issues. As the conference drew to a close, however, my thoughts did not settle on the benefits of sisterly bonding, but on how Women’s World needs to engage in some serious discussions on inclusion and oppression.

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Ottawa Slut Walk 2011: Reclaiming Our Sexuality

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussions of Rape and Sexual Assault

On January 24th, 2011, the Toronto Police were giving a presentation on campus safety at York when one of the officers, Constable Michael Sanguinetti, claimed that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”. Needless to say, many people were pissed. In my previous post, I spoke about Jane Doe’s rape and her case against the Toronto police, the events of which started in 1986. Part of the evidence that Jane Doe brought forward came from internal documentation showing that the police had been trying to address sexism within their ranks, particularly when dealing with sexual assault, since the 1970s. As we can see it is 2011 and the police are still operating on the idea that women are responsible, at least partially, for rape.

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