Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Feminist Parallels, Pitfalls, and Possibilities of Supergirl

The first live-action TV show about a female superhero in a decade is, surprise surprise, largely about what it means to be the first female superhero. But is cultural commentary among Supergirl's superpowers?

Supergirl checks off a lot of feminist storytelling boxes. It passes the Bechdel Test; its female characters have agency and inner lives; and, of course, it is about a woman. Not that every show has to be about women, of course, but a female protagonist is, by her very existence, a woman whose story the show must care about.

But Supergirl isn't just a show about a girl. It's a show about being a girl, about the specific problems and pleasures that come with being female in a male-dominated field, whether that field is publishing or superhero-ing. The writing calls attention to gender constantly. The references are both subtle--Kara slightly stressing the word woman when calling Cat Grant "the most powerful woman in National City"--and overt--the villain of the week telling Kara that on his planet, "females bow before males." And on a show that's trying to balance a dozen different settings, tones, and scopes--family drama, romantic comedy, spy thriller, workplace intrigue--they're perhaps the sole unifying factor.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach. In fact, considering Supergirl's high-profile status as the first female-led entry in the current crop of super-shows, it may even be a smart tactic. Certainly, it's in keeping with superhero stories' tendencies to reflect the real-life cultural conversations around the property. (I.e., there are Avengers action figures both in real-life Walmarts and in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. storefronts, and comic book superheroes will occasionally comment on in-universe fanfiction.)

The problem is that Supergirl isn't particularly insightful in its feminist themes. Actually, scratch that. Supergirl goes beyond "not particularly insightful."  Supergirl is an 80s girl-power anthem about working women who can have it all. A waitress in a diner opines, "Can you believe it? A female hero! It's nice for my daughter to have someone like that to look up to." When Henshaw says that Kara isn't strong enough, Alex challenges him: "Why? Because she's a girl?" (Emphasis very much not mine.) Kara asks whether maybe it isn't a little demeaning to call a grown woman "Supergirl"; Cat Grant responds, essentially, "Girls are awesome! Girl power!"

Now, Supergirl is a pretty broad show across the board; it's leaning into the comic book vibe. So maybe it's not surprising that the pilot makes only a broad point about feminism. But while amped-up action scenes and jokes about capes and coincidentally on-message holograms are all in good fun, the surface-level feminism is just kind of eye-rolling. "Girls can be superheroes!" is not an interesting point to make. Of course girls can be superheroes, we're literally watching a show called Supergirl. The show seems to be justifying its existence, rather than genuinely engaging with what it means to be a female superhero.

And it's all the more disappointing because Supergirl has chances to say really interesting things about feminism all over the place, and it passes them all by. It's in the very premise: Kara is a superpowered individual who chooses to downplay her abilities in order to fit in. What's more relevant to current discussions of women in the workplace than that? But no thought is given to the gender dynamics at play there. Kara gets dubbed "Supergirl" and takes offense. Well, aren't we in the middle of a cultural tug-of-war over how we talk about--and talk down to--famous and accomplished women? But no, Cat's speech is the end of that. Girl Power. Hurrah. The most insightful thing that Supergirl has to say about being a woman is buried at the bottom of one of Cat's diatribes, never to be remarked upon again: "If you can't take credit when you do something well, you are gonna be at the bottom of the pile forever."

Supergirl has a lot going for it. Melissa Benoist and Mehcad Brooks are charming; most of the main characters are in-the-know right off the bat, eliminating the storytelling snafu that plagued Arrow and The Flash's first seasons; and it is truly incredibly refreshing to see a super-show about a woman. But I hope that the pilot represents the low point, rather than the high point, of Supergirl's discussions on feminism. I hope the show brings its glass-ceiling-breaking, women-in-the-workforce, ignore-imposter-syndrome undertones out into the light. I hope that Winn "You're a lesbian, that's why you're not into me!" Schott gets put in his place. I hope that some asshole National City mayoral candidate comments that Supergirl looks pretty hot, and Kara flips her shit. If Supergirl is going to be a show about being a girl, I hope it goes all in.

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