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.

Advertisements