Thoughts on the new CBS Supergirl show

I was super excited to watch the pilot for CBS’s Supergirl, so excited that I even cut short errands to watch it in time. In this post, I discuss the highs and lows of the pilot, my hopes for the future of the show, the “girl” thing, as well as representations of female superheroes and action stars in general.

*******Some mild spoilers do exist below*******

This show is absolutely a step in a positive direction for the media’s acceptance of female superheroes. It has a lighter feeling than most other DC shows right now, which is actually refreshing and will likely lead to it being more accessible to younger audiences. What I hope is that by keeping it lighter in tone, the writers won’t sacrifice character depth. So far, Kara is not very complex.

The Character:

Supergirl/Kara Zor-El is a character that has had many versions in the DC universe. The main connecting thread is her being Superman’s cousin. Usually, she has been used as a supporting character in various DC stories. Even when you find a trade volume of Supergirl comics, like the New 52 version, the thread is hard to follow because it is basically a pile of crossovers.

With that in mind, it is refreshing to see Kara get a story just about her, and a TV show at that. So, in order to really enjoy it, one must put aside any attachments to previous iterations of her character, both in story details and in personality. This goes for me big time since I am quite attached to the more serious and defiant versions of her character.

supergirl

So the pilot was over-packed with a ton of backstory, action, multiple characters, potential romances, accepting-rejecting-accepting “the call”, big fights and the Big Bad of the season being introduced. This was all very exciting and included many higher budget effects not seen in The Flash or Arrow. While I admire the complexity of it all, it left no real room for an actual exploration of Kara’s character. She spent the last 12 years on Earth, living with humans and not being a superhero (or even using any of her powers- why exactly? How could you not be tempted to fly when running late, or toast your bread with your eyes or at least save someone from a car wreck?) and now she gets inspired by a photo of her cousin who is so rude and busy “saving the world” to never drop her a line in person… even though he can fly. Later she hears her sister’s plane is about to blow up over the city and she is suddenly spurred to action.

My hopes are that her backstory, coming to the planet, hiding her powers, growing up, etc. will be explained as the show goes on. Basically, I am looking for some more depth than a dorky young woman with a crush trope. I’m not looking for it to become incredibly dark, we have the ever-brooding Arrow and the blood bath of Gotham for that. I would just like to see some meat to her story, separate from anything about her cousin.

This brings me to the next point….

Superman/Kal-El/Clark Kent:

So far it seems every interview with Melissa Benoist includes the interviewer asking questions about a possible appearance of Superman (or HIM), and pressing more about the issue even after Benoist explicitly says that the show is not about him. Get over it men, there can be a female superhero flying solo without the mentorship of a male hero!

The job:

I get the reasoning behind giving her a work situation much like Clark Kent, it is nostalgic. I only bring it up because I want to see more of her as herself and less a female version of the more famous man. I feel it would have made more sense for her to be in a tech company or doing something science-y, since she spent her formative years drenched in highly advanced alien tech. I almost complained about bringing in Jimmy, excuse me- JAMES, Olsen to be a bridge between the two and create familiarity, then I saw their fantastic chemistry and quickly cared no more.

The intentional (faux) feminism:

I will admit I had to re-watch that SNL Black Widow trailer again Monday night, especially because the original Supergirl trailer was pretty much exactly the same. I want to say that the show has stood above the rom-com style joke, but it will take a few more episodes to shake off that shadow, especially because of the faux-feminism speech on the word “girl” given by Kara’s wanna-be-Miranda Priestly boss Cat Grant.

Is it really feminist to try and twist the use of a diminutive title like “Supergirl” on a grown woman into a statement of empowerment? Like Caroline Siede pointed out, if we started calling Superman “Superboy” people would absolutely be weirded out. It is quite simple; we call adults women or men or adult, we call kids girl, boy, child, teenager, kid. Using “girl” for an adult woman is rooted in misogyny, (soft misogyny, but misogyny none-the-less) it would have been more graceful for the show to simply recognize that fact and move on. Perhaps by having someone name her “Supergirl” before realizing she is an adult… but then the name goes viral and sticks so there is no way to shift it. Add in some comedy of Kara often correcting people to ‘woman’ the way she has to correct people from “Kaira” to “Kahra” and the issue is over. The real reason the name stays is simply because it was the name given to her in the comics during a different time and it is trademarked and connected to a canon, so it can’t change (well, at least DC probably wouldn’t let it change. I actually see no reason why it couldn’t change to Superwoman. There is absolutely precedence for this in DC!) On the other hand, the Supergirl title would have made plenty of sense if they just started her out as a late teen. There are many creative ways they could have explained the use of the term on an adult woman that are not faux-feminism.

The Villains:

Heroes are as good as their villains. There is something special about the arch-nemesis relationship that drives many comics forward. Part of what makes Gotham so good is Robin Lord Taylor’s Penguin. Unfortunately, the canon of Supergirl doesn’t exactly have her own rogue’s gallery. The villain she fought in the pilot was mostly boring; a misogynist trying to enact vengeance against her mother. Her mother’s evil twin is introduced as the Big Bad, and we will see how this pans out. Comics-based shows do well on fandom, however, so I feel they will need to bring in at least one beloved DC villain to keep it going. It would also help to bring in another DC hero as a guest somewhere mid-season (Kate Spencer pleeeeeeeaaase?!).

manhunter

Ultimately, I am really glad that we finally got a network show with a female superhero lead. Jessica Jones is on its way on Netflix, but it waaay more adult in tone. It goes without saying though, where are the women of color? We got teased by the CW with Vixen in the animated format, but we have yet to see her appear on Arrow or the Flash. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is by far doing best in this genre for diversity, having the only superhero on the team as a mixed race women, and giving complicated and interesting stories to the characters of color in the cast (It helps that one of the showrunners happens to be a woman of color). Olsen is one step in this direction.

I like that it is light and funny. I like that she is not incredibly damaged or traumatized like many of our female heroes on the big and little screens alike, it creates a very optimistic feeling that is fun and relatable. Benoist is good at this tone. I didn’t feel like she really shined on Glee much, but that show was going downhill already by time she got on it! She has that easy-going, quick with a smile air that I believe is good for kids to have in their line-up. My hope is that just as many boys as girls watch this show and get inspired by it, and so far that seems to be true based on ratings.

Hopefully they will also bring in some more complexity and diversity in the supporting cast as well. I am absolutely happy for the choice of Mehcad Brooks for Jimmy, sorry… JAMES Olsen. (Cue the annoying racists bitching.) My only question is since when are over-worked photo-journalists so damn hot? The shift in character of Olsen is less about the skin color switch and more about the shift to a svelte hottie who seems to work out a lot and have perfect self-esteem. Not the adorkable Jimmy Olsen we have known (no dis to Aaron Ashmore!). Again, I’m not complaining. Comic book characters change, shift, grow, and completely transform. It is a part of the inherent nature of mainstream comics. This doesn’t mean we can’t have feelings over not seeing the version of a particular character that we identified with years ago and love so much, we just have to let go and allow this new character to take hold.

Raising the bar for photo-journalists everywhere.
Raising the bar for photo-journalists everywhere.

And speaking of Olsen…

Why is Olsen more buff than Kara?

Are there really no muscular actresses? We always get these beefed-out men for roles like Superman, but Kara is supposed to be just as strong… wouldn’t she at least have some muscles? This goes for the bulk of female superheroes on TV. It seems like we want them to be strong but not look strong. It has never made sense to me. You can often spot a stunt double for a female superhero because she will actually be buff, then there is a switch to a frontal shot and the muscles disappear. I saw this happen very clearly on Arrow last season.

I’m not interested in adding yet another impossible body type onto the demand that actresses be skinny, that isn’t the point. I want to see a diversity of bodies. The issue is that whenever we see Superman, the actor is expected to be muscular (likely with some additional prosthetic muscles under the suit) but a female superhero is expected to be perceived as equally strong, without looking strong. Are we really still that attached to the idea that feminine = dainty? I believe that Melinda May could kick my ass because I believe firmly that Ming-Na Wen could kick my ass. I don’t feel the same way about Melissa Benoist or Scarlet Johansson. I would much rather see our actresses prepping for a part like this with weight-training and a martial arts regimen than eating rabbit food to maintain a size 2-4. Here’s to a buff Wonder Woman some day!

I can crush you with my pinky.
I can crush you with my pinky.

Finally,

While I have criticisms of the pilot, I am optimistic for this show to develop, grow and surprise me. I look forward to Kara’s character development. One of the showrunners, Ali Adler, is a queer woman and I hope to see more diversity in the writing and directing credits as the show moves forward. It is fantastic to finally have this show.

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