The new breed of female superheroes smashing TV barriers
Three decades after Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman ruled the airwaves — and more than a decade after Buffy The Vampire Slayer — female superheroes are finally back in a big way.
Almost 13 million Americans tuned in to watch Melissa Benoist smash through the superhero glass ceiling in late October in the bright and bubbly Supergirl. Rave reviews for Marvel’s darker and more twisted Jessica Jones on Netflix in late November helped confirm the trend.
But seriously, Supergirl? Isn’t the name itself, dreamt up in 1959, just a teensy bit demeaning for a strong 24year-old woman with superpowers?
Benoist — actually 27 and best known as Marley Rose on Glee — is more than happy to celebrate “girl” power.
“I think that ‘girl’ is no less powerful than ‘woman’ and, honestly, my take on it, really is that it doesn’t really matter her gender. I think it’s a show about someone persevering and fighting for hope and justice and what’s good.”
It’s about as diplomatic an answer as you could expect, considering we live in an age where brand recognition is all important and so the network was never likely to change the title. (The writers do playfully address the anachronistic name in the first episode.)
Supergirl last flew onto the public’s radar in the much derided 1984 movie starring Helen Slater, who makes an appearance in the TV version, in which she and Benoist are able to compare notes about how the character are portrayed then, and now.
Slater reveals she had been directed to embrace her “grace and femininity”.
“She spent a lot of time jumping on trampolines and taking ballet classes and really finessing the movement — but this version of Supergirl, and Kara as well, she’s really tough and she’s really strong,” Benoist says.
But rather like Jessica Jones, the new show’s creators haven’t been afraid to also embrace the character’s vulnerability, (although that’s pretty much the only similarity between the radically different superhero shows). Creator Greg Berlanti (also behind Arrow and The Flash) says he chose Benoist during a three-month audition process because her quirkiness and nerves when playing alter ego Kara made for a stronger switch to Supergirl.
Benoist recalls Berlanti saying: “It’s almost as if she’s the Annie Hall of superheroes.”
“And I really responded to that and it made me think, oh OK, there’s a kind of relatability and a nervousness and an awkward kind of sensibility to her that I guess I bring,” she says.
Popular culture’s newfound willingness to embrace female superheroes — new movie versions of Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel are also in the pipes — follow the success of female led films at the box office, including The Hunger Games franchise, which has taken more than $3 billion, not to mention Divergent, Mad Max and even Twilight.
Marvel has been the leading force behind female superheroes on the small screen — both from a gender studies and sheer quality perspective. Jessica Jones stars Krysten Ritter ( Breaking Bad) as a nightmare-plagued, harddrinking private detective who gave up being a superhero after villain Killgrave (David Tennant) used mind control to make her do terrible things.
Rachael Taylor, who plays Jones’s best friend Trish Walker (the character becomes superhero Hellcat in the comics), says the series can be seen as a metaphor.
“(Jessica) is very resistant and reluctant and she drinks too much and she’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the hands of some pretty profound psychological and physical abuse,” Taylor says. “The villain in our show is a mind controller, which is a really interesting allegory for violence against women, and psychological violence.”
Taylor, who experienced domestic violence during her relationship with Matthew Newton, says Jessica Jones may be a victim, but she’s one slowly realising the enormous strength she has within.
“Strength and vulnerability are two apples that fall from the same tree,” she says.
“I really like that, I felt it come off the page when I sat down to read (the pilot) … (it’s) about strength and vulnerability being two things that aren’t mutually exclusive. I thought, that’s a really cool way to further, and move the needle on how we see women, both on screen and off.” SUPERGIRL, FOX8, SUNDAY, 8.30PM JESSICA JONES, NETFLIX, STREAMING
“I think it’s a show about persevering and fighting for hope and justice”
Melissa Benoist is happy to embrace “girl”