Supergirl: Hero or The Devil Wears Lycra?

Our first look at Supergirl is here, and the reaction seems to have been decidedly mixed. On the one hand you have people who think it looks like fun, the special effects are pretty good, and the lead seems very appealing. On the other hand, a lot of people are disappointed or even angry that the show seems to be a light rom-com. Take a look at the trailer below and see for yourself. Then follow me below the fold for my thoughts.

I should state my biases upfront. I liked the trailer, and I’m going to watch the show. I don’t care about fidelity to comic books (one of the easiest ways to lose me in an argument is to say, “That’s not the way it is in the comics”). I only care if it’s good. Sometimes sticking with the comics is a good thing, but that’s because there is something good with the comics, not because comics are a text that one must reference slavishly.

I am also a man (and a pretty privileged one at that), and while I do my best to listen to arguments about sexism and male privilege, there’s no denying that I will have blinders on.

So all that being said, is there something to be upset about in the preview for Supergirl we’ve seen so far? My answer is maybe. It depends on what you were expecting.

You can find an example of the criticism in this Slate article by Laura Bradley. It hits all the notes that I’ve seen elsewhere: the show looks like a rom-com. It looks like the fake Black Widow trailer created by SNL. It reduces the main character to a female caricature who has to please her boss and worries about what to wear on a date.

When thinking about something like this, we have to consider the work in its cultural context instead of as an isolated piece. It’s not just that Supergirl is (in some people’s view) a girly, reductive caricature. It’s that way too many female characters in Hollywood are written that way and hardly any are written as strong, independent, and confident in their own right. So it’s not enough to say that this is just a part of the character and that there isn’t anything obviously sexist about her portrayal (in the show itself, nobody outwardly disparages her based on her gender). If she reinforces a stereotype instead of transcending it, that can be problematic, too.

With that said, how much of the complaints are really justified by what we’ve seen? Again, I think it depends on what you were expecting. Laura Bradley, for one, seems to have expected Supergirl to be powerful, dominant, and iconic much like her cousin. She sums it up in her closing sentence:

I want this show to work—and for that to happen, Supergirl needs to be more than some tropes with a cape thrown on top. She needs to be super.

It’s a nice line, but what exactly does that mean? I wonder if Bradley can actually describe to me what a being “super” specifically means. That she is powerful? Well, she does save an airliner, stop a speeding truck, and shrug off bullets fired by bank robbers. There are also glimpses of her fighting some kind of superpowered villain with a giant hammer (or maybe it was an axe) and helping the military out with something. She seems to have a strong moral code and derives satisfaction from doing good deeds. All in all, the demand that she be “super” seems kind of meaningless.

But Bradley does provide some specifics. She points to some aspects that are bothersome:

For the first half of the trailer, she’s a hapless caricature straight out of a rom-com—fetching coffee for her mean boss, getting tongue-tied around cute guys, worrying about what to wear on blind dates.

First things first: I don’t think Kara was getting tongue-tied around a cute guy. Bradley is presumably referring to the part where Kara meets James Olsen and requires several seconds and a few false starts before she manages to introduce herself. It is true that Olsen is tall, buff, and handsome, but there’s no evidence that Kara is attracted to him. The previous few scenes establish that he is a Pulitzer-Prize winning photographer, and that is what Kara is responding to.

The rest of what Bradley says is true, and it’s worth thinking about what that means for the character. Again, I think it comes down to expectations. Is there something wrong with being a meek, self-effacing assistant who fetches coffee? There is in the sense that it’s a very recognizable trope, but tropes are not always bad. Clark Kent as portrayed by Christopher Reeve is a meek, bumbling nerd who lets Lois Lane walk all over him. Of course, Clark Kent is a man and doesn’t have the same cultural baggage as a woman.

So then let’s talk about the blind date. Yes, she apparently has one at the beginning of the trailer (whether she ever actually goes on the date is unclear). It’s a little irksome that out of all the things the trailer could show us about this series, it spends precious seconds on her trying to pick out a wardrobe. On the other hand, it only happens once. And more notably, Kara isn’t portrayed as a loser with no romantic life. She doesn’t seem to be perturbed about her single status. It’s one aspect of her character.

These are just examples, though, and they don’t really express the overall theme of the problem that some people have with Supergirl on this show. For that, we could look to this paragraph from Bradley’s article:

Kara’s struggle to have it all isn’t entirely in line with the comics the show is based on. In the comics, Kara adopts a secret identity and does good super-deeds in secret while training with Superman to hone her powers. She eventually gets adopted, goes to high school, and begins openly operating as Supergirl after proving to Superman that she’s ready. After college, she has several different careers—and, yes, boyfriends—but her responsibilities as a superhero always come first. In other words, Supergirl from the comics was always kick-ass, whereas TV Supergirl is struggling to figure out who she is while also going on coffee runs.

First of all, it doesn’t matter to me what the comics were like and whether the TV series is faithful to them. Secondly, Bradley’s description of Kara’s story is accurate but incomplete. Throughout the decades, Kara Zor-El has had at least three significantly different origin stories and her characterization has varied just as much. At one point she was an eager, wide-eyed teenager, and at another she was more somber and confused about her identity. One version of Supergirl was actually dating her boss at work! And that’s setting aside the fact that unlike Superman who is always Clark Kent, there have been several different women who took the role of Supergirl.

The third point I want to make is that this TV series is clearly an origin story. Supergirl from the comics was always kick-ass? Literally always? Or do you think there was a time when she had to figure out her responsibilities for herself before she decided to become a hero and help people? Who’s to say the Supergirl in this show won’t grow into an incorruptible force for good the same way her cousin does?

What it seems to come down to is that Kara is a goof and socially awkward in a way that is traditionally associated with women who want to appear unthreatening to men. It’s a fair point, but it’s hard to know in this case whether it’s because she’s a woman. Two of the show’s producers are Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg who also created Arrow and The Flash on CW. They seem to have an affinity for writing their heroes as goofballs (see also Barry Allen and Ray Palmer).

It’s hard to know exactly what everybody wanted this show to be. In fact, I suspect that many people would give you many different answers. Some would say that they want her to be just like Superman with only a passing acknowledgement of the fact that she’s female. Some would want her to struggle with the biases and sexism inherent in being a woman despite the fact that she can lift a bus and shrug off bullets. Some would want her to take her role very seriously while others would want her to be having fun. It’s just not possible for any TV series to cater to all those expectations.

To me, at least, there’s no reason to think that the show will primarily focus on relationship drama and rom-com situations. It could turn out that way, but the trailer didn’t make me think that was where it was going. Meanwhile, there’s a lot I do like. Melissa Benoist is very likable. Her costume looks good without being sexualized (if she has to wear a skirt, it might as well be a long, loose one that she can move around in). And the show acknowledges that having superpowers can be a lot of fun. Kara’s grin when she realizes that she really is bulletproof is infectious.

I’ll give it a shot. And if you’re also going to watch it, I would suggest you try not to have preconceived notions about what it’s supposed to be and evaluate it for what it is.

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