Why 'Supergirl' Matters

Ellie Wells ’18 / Emertainment Monthly Assistant Movies Editor

Supergirl in New 52. Image Credit: DC Comics

Linda Lee Danvers, better known as Supergirl or by her Kryptonian name of Kara Zor-El, flew into comic panels in 1959. She was a resident of Argo City, a piece of Krypton that managed to survive the blast, and Superman’s cousin, sent to earth when her home could no longer survive on his own.  As she had all of the powers of her cousin, she gained a matching costume and fought crime, sometimes alongside him, sometimes on her own, all the while maintaining her secret identity as a normal college student — attending class, going on dates.

After her memorable sacrifice in 1985’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” others have taken up her mantel, but she was eventually revived and made Supergirl once more. In the years since, she’s appeared in other media, but has remained relatively in the shadow of her cousin. A 1984 Supergirl feature film was a critical and commercial failure.

Pop culture is currently in the midst of a superhero craze, and yet there has been a noticeable lack of strong female characters on both the small and big screens—ones who are not just the love interests, but fighting crime themselves.  Hopefully that will change as Supergirl will receive her own TV show on CBS this fall. Starring Melissa Benoist as the title character, it is being spearheaded by Greg Berlanti in the vein of his massive successes with Arrow and The Flash.

The show doesn’t officially premiere until November, but there has already been a lot of buzz surrounding the upcoming show. The first official image of Benoist in costume was released on March 6th, and a trailer was released on May 13th. While there has been a lot of positive reaction to both the image and the trailer, there has been a lot of backlash. Detractors cite the trailer’s heavy use of romantic comedy cliches, which had only recently before been mocked by Scarlett Johansson on Saturday Night Live.

Supergirl’s death in Crisis on Infinite Earths. Image Credit DC Comics

And it is that backlash that speaks to a larger problem of diversity within fiction. Superman and Batman, arguably the two most iconic comic book superheroes, are also among the oldest, as they both debuted in the late thirties. The world was a very different place then, so, naturally, their original appearances are going to reflect that. Yet the characters have not only survived, but transcended into fixtures of popular culture, because they each evoked timeless sensibilities about what it means to be human.

While hopefully many of us can’t relate to losing our parents at such a young age — much less seeing them murdered in front of our very eyes — we understand Batman’s yearning for a different life that can never be. Clark Kent has the challenges, fears, and worries as any other human being, yet, as Superman, he is a manifestation of everything that is good. Beneath the excitement and the adventure of crime-fighting are two human beings that we admire and relate to. Of course, the same is true for any iconic superhero — it is the reason they are still so popular in the first place. Still, they are mainly men, which is merely a reflection of the times in which these characters were created. Men saved the day and went home to the girl. It’s 2015, and the world is a different place but the television shows and feature films that bring these characters to life are still plagued by shadows of the past.

Johansson’s Black Widow of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is seen as an attempt to break that mold, and considering her emotionally distant persona, it is of course ridiculous that her character would act the way she does in the SNL sketch. The point, of course, was that women are only defined by their sexuality, and that even a superheroine film would be a romantic comedy because Hollywood does not know how else to portray women.

And yet, Black Widow is not really a progressive character. She comes from good intentions, but sadly ends up adding fuel to the fire of an equally damaging idea — that female characters are only strong if they withhold their emotions, acting tough while they beat up the bad guys, and dispense one liners to show that they are just as smart as the men. Four films have featured the character prominently, and we hardly know anything about her other than that she is emotionally distant, flirtatious, and dresses in skin tight leather. The closest the character comes to any sort of depth comes in the form a painfully forced, cringe-worthy, semi one-sided romance with Bruce Banner. Essentially, she conforms to societal expectations of manhood while being inside the body of a hot, sexualized woman.

Melissa Benoist as Supergirl in the new CBS show, Supergirl. Photo Credit: CBS
Melissa Benoist as Supergirl in the new CBS show, Supergirl. Photo Credit: CBS

Which brings us back to Supergirl. It might be easy to dismiss her as a female copy of Superman, or a sign that Hollywood still does not know how to create compelling and three-dimensional female characters. Consider all of the male superheroes and supervillains that are the most familiar to us. They have all sorts of different backgrounds, interests, personalities and goals, and they endure with us for these reasons. They’re flawed, but they’re real; Peter Parker is shy and awkward in his everyday life, prone to everyday troubles, Professor X and Magneto struggle with the delicate balance of their love for each other and their conflicting ideals. Steve Rogers is a man out of his time, struggling to understand the very world he protects, and at the end of the day he has nothing to go back to.

Kara Zor-El has always been a bright, bubbly, and upbeat character, if not occasionally too naive for her own good. But that’s what makes her a compelling character. She may not have it all together. She may struggle beneath the shadow of her cousin as she fights crime and faces insecurities in her everyday life. She may get excited about what she’s going to wear on a date with a cute boy. She’s merely trying to make her way in the world like everyone else, which makes her no less of a powerful character, but into a real person living the life that many young women live in the 21st century.

This is how we need to reframe the conversation of diversity, and Supergirl seems to be a step in the right direction. We will certainly be watching, and we hope you will too.

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  1. “or a sign that Hollywood still does not know how to create compelling and three-dimensional female characters.” Agent Carter would like a word with you. Also, can’t we just appreciate the show on its own merits and not try to act like it’s all about gender and making superhero shows look like a United Colors of Benetton ad?

  2. I’m very excited to see how the Supergirl show plays out! I believe that anything people took to be some sort of romcom tone to the show was really playing into Kara’s parallels to Clark Kent. Both are pretty awkward and fumbling as people. And having Jeremy Jordan acting as the equivalent to her Lois Lane is something I am thrilled for! I do think that Black Widow is still progressive in her own way though. What is most important is introducing many kinds of women into film, not dismissing one kind as not being the right kind of powerful. I look forward to both of these women (and of course others like Agent Carter) becoming prominent within the Marvel universe.

  3. I think Maddie makes a really good point – Black Widow is one kind of powerful female and it’s great to see that slightly masculine but still obviously a girl personality come to the big screens. I find her really easy to relate to and I don’t think she’s all toughness and one liners – in Age of Ultron we see her as Aunt Nat and there’s definitely a more compassionate side there, as well as her interactions with her ‘best friend’ Hawkeye in general. I think rather than look at her relationship with Banner, consider how she is with her best friend.
    Your article has it right that it’s good to have a variety of female roles represented and while Supergirl has never interested me and I’d rather see Hawkgirl or Husk make it to the screens, it’s good to see a female superhero getting recognition.

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