Supergirl, Dalya’s Other Country, Crazy Ex-girlfriend, and more.
RATINGS: Watch it now
Queue it for later
Turn it on in the background Forget it
When it premiered in October 2015, Supergirl beat the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the DC Extended Universe to the punch by fronting a superhero story with a female character. In the intervening years, we’ve seen Wonder Woman smash records and Captain Marvel step into production, but the little Kryptonian who could is still the only woman fighting for justice on our television screens week after week. Yet, as the show closes in on its third season, it’s still struggling to juggle its brand of empowertising with actual substance.
Kara Danvers (Melissa Benoist) is a girl and that thinking permeates much of the first season. From Cat Grant (Calista Flockhart) naming Kara’s alter ego Supergirl to Kara’s pushback at what she sees as an infantilizing moniker, much is made of the fact that girls have power. Many of the show’s major characters are young women who are finding their own personal and professional strengths. Strong female bonds run through the show’s dna, manifesting in Kara’s relationships with the women around her, including Cat, her sister Alex Danvers (Chyler Leigh), and her nemesis-turnedfriend Lena Luthor (Katie Mcgrath).
The problem, as it often is when feminism finds its way onscreen, is that Supergirl largely excludes girls of color from its “empowering” narrative. The show’s feminism is flimsy, relying on the propensity of female characters to use violence with equally as much vigor and skill as men. In contrast to the recently canceled Agent Carter, which used items coded as traditionally feminine to fight the patriarchy, Supergirl simply has its female heroes defeat male villains in battle; it measures female strength by its ability to conform to ideas of traditional masculinity. But platitudes have their place, and girls of color deserve access to the same trite confidence boosters as everyone else. It would serve the show’s message of tolerance and inclusivity to introduce other female characters of color
so that Maggie Sawyer (Floriana Lima) doesn’t bear the weight alone. While Maggie played an integral role in bringing to life one of the most well-regarded coming-out stories, her Latinidad is never explored on any meaningful level. If there were other major women characters of color, that narrative hole might not have been as conspicuous.
But Supergirl has shown itself to be less than adept at handling racially charged narratives. While the show traffics in racial metaphors on a regular basis, it falters when dealing with them head on. Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) and James Olsen (Mehcad Brooks) are main characters portrayed by Black men, but Hank is an alien from Mars who chooses to present that way. As the second season tackles alien immigration as a not-very-subtle parallel to the ongoing debate over undocumented immigrants in the United States, there is ample opportunity to deal with race in a more direct way. Instead, the show relies on basic tropes of decency in the face of difference. Why not address the fact that the Phorians (a race of telekinetic aliens who present as Black) might be considered more menacing because of their Black skin and the established bigotry of human beings? Why not lean into the fact that life is easier to navigate for the aliens who are able to “pass” as human? Instead of delving deeper, Supergirl offered a belabored plotline about James connecting with a young Phorian boy over the similarity of their lives. The show banked on their shared skin color to do the heavy lifting instead of writing better arcs for them.
However, the show’s biggest disappointment has been sidelining James. After Cat’s exit in the second season, the photojournalist is named acting ceo of Catco, a media empire where Kara works as a reporter. But rather than running said empire, James sulks about being on the outside of the Department of Extranormal Operations (the fictional government agency where the rest of the main cast all works in some capacity), and eventually develops Guardian, his own superhero identity. Between this nonsensical plot and the abrupt end to his romance with Kara, there isn’t much more to expect from his character. It would be great to see James embrace his power as a journalist to speak truth to power instead of boxing himself into the narrow definition of “superhero” to which the show subscribes. Beating up poor people isn’t the only way to make a city safe, and Batman already exists in this universe.
In two seasons, Supergirl has done a lot of things right, but it’s made many missteps too. With a new season’s worth of stories to tell, we can only hope that it will be more cognizant of the way it co-opts the language of the oppressed to make a point about characters who would never be harassed or abused in the real world.
Supergirl’s feminism is flimsy, relying on the propensity of female characters to use violence with equally as much vigor and skill as men.
Below: Stills from Geeta’s Guide to Moving On.