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'Supergirl' Is the Feminist Hugbox We Deserve

By Riley Silverman | TV | October 10, 2016 |

By Riley Silverman | TV | October 10, 2016 |

I’m going to just say this up front right now, I was totally wrong. You see, last year I didn’t care at all about the Supergirl TV series. I was glad that it existed, because headlining female superheroes are fewer and further between in TV and movies than their word and picture counterparts. There’s some potential coming down the pike, the Wonder Woman movie, the addition of Wasp to the title for the Ant-Man sequel, and of course Brie Larson as Captain Marvel. Still, despite that, I didn’t watch it because while I won’t go so far as to say I *hate* Superman, because I don’t, I will say that in general, I don’t care about Superman. My interest in Superman reached its peak at around age 12-13, when Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman was on TV, and had pretty much completely faded by about season 2 of Smallville. I’m not here to badmouth Supes, I know he has fans who adore him and have valid reasons for that. But I didn’t watch Supergirl because I thought just because someone is a female version of a character I don’t like, doesn’t mean I’ll like her.

I was wrong.

I also didn’t care to watch Supergirl because I grew up in the ’80s and so when I think of Supergirl, I think of Helen Slater and Faye Dunaway. That does not encourage me to want to see more.

I was wrong.

Even when I started my late-in-the-game interest in the CW’s DC shows, especially The Flash, I didn’t think I needed to worry about Supergirl because she was on her own network, on seemingly her own unconnected universe (mostly true), and thus of no consequence to the rest of the Arrowverse. So I didn’t need to watch it.

I. Was. Wrong.

Recently the first season of the show appeared on Netflix, and feeling the drought between seasons of The Flash (and issues of SpiderGwen) I decided to just give her a shot. Within about a week, I’ve binge watched the entire series. I was so wrong. It’s fan-effing-tastic.

The separation of Supergirl from the Arrowverse despite sharing several creative heads, and mostly due to CBS not wanting to share the character with a rival network, may have actually been a blessing in disguise. Rather than incubate the show within the plot of Arrow the way The Flash was, or through a multiple episode crossover like Legends of Tomorrow, Kara Zor-El was able to come into her own, with a show developed specifically with her in mind and able to develop its own plot from scratch. As a result, the show isn’t tarnished by the grittiness of Arrow, and while it definitely still follows the slightly-formulaic format of those other shows, it manages to use it while still making the supporting characters feel fresh and fleshed out.

On the surface level, what Supergirl triumphs at the most is in succeeding at the very thing that has repeatedly been found lacking in the Man of Steel era Superman films. In a world where superhero films seem to want to become darker and more angsty, Supergirl bucks the trend with a series that at its core is about hope. While her powers are the same as Superman’s, Kara’s greatest strength is her sense of justice, in being the symbol for people to believe in. Despite being someone who doesn’t love Superman, I understand this element of the mythos, and definitely feel it’s lacking in the Snyder movies. The easiest and most common complaint about Superman is that he’s too powerful, that his invulnerability makes the stakes too low. Supergirl manages to solve that problem by giving Kara skin in the game, having her see the loss of her ability to inspire and be respected as something as devastating to her as a Kryptonite bullet. The show manages to maintain the line of this optimism, this joy, while still presenting real threats to Kara’s world, villains and disasters. It basically is a big thumbed nose at anyone who says Superman has to be made dark to remain relevant.

But that’s the stuff about the shown that anyone can enjoy. If you just want to watch some monster of the week type stuff with a fun, charismatic cast, with a blonde lady who can beat bad guys up but good, Supergirl delivers on that. In fact, my father even loves this show and he normally has zero interest in superheroes or sci-fi. Honestly discovering that he had a bunch of episodes of this DVR’d when I visited my parents should have been a clue that I might want to give it a shot too. What makes the show extra special to me is that it’s not just a superhero show about a girl superhero, it’s a superhero show *for* girls.

It’s not a superhero show for girls in that it reduces Kara’s struggles to shopping or dating. This was an early criticism of the pilot and a lingering one, that the show doesn’t take its hero as seriously as, say, Oliver Queen or Barry Allen, despite the fact that both of those shows also deal with a soap opera level of interpersonal relationships. This is a superhero show for girls because it regularly and unapologetically calls out the exact struggles that a female superhero would have to deal with. It knows these struggles because they’re the same ones that any powerful woman is hit with, or any woman for that matter.

The majority of this commentary comes in the form of Calista Flockhart’s Cat Grant. Grant at first seems like the stereotypical, Devil Wears Prada clone, ice queen of a female media empress. And to some degree, that’s true. But there is a deceptive level of humanity to the character, even from the very beginning. When Supergirl arrives on the scene of National City, Cat is immediately fixated on “owning” her via her media coverage, of having the Tribune and CatCo be the go-to source for your best Supergirl news. But it’s not just a sense of cynical cash-grabbing that drives Cat’s desire, it’s a feeling of inspiration, of being able to see immediately in Supergirl the power that her aforementioned symbolism of hope can actually mean for their city.

Cat regularly drops realities of life as a powerful woman both on Supergirl and her alter-ego, including this early one, “Every woman worth her salt knows that we have to work twice as hard as a man to be thought of as half as good.” Which goes right back to the earlier criticism of Supergirl itself, that the show which treated its hero with the same tone as the others in the writers’ bullpen was somehow softer or less serious about her. What makes it so important that Cat is the driving force of this commentary though is that by being a woman in power herself, she’s an example of how these issues can be overcome.

Furthermore, by taking the traditional ice queen character and giving her a degree of vulnerability, the show turns the archetype on its head. Cat is aware of the damage she’s done to her own life by living how she has, and she’s inspired to do better, but still stuck in some of her old ways because they’re comfortable and help her continue to operate. She’s not dancing between the poles of angel or demon, she’s a person struggling to be better when she could just rest on her fortunes and leave it at that.

It’s a shame that Flockhart’s role as a series regular is one of the casualties of the show moving from CBS to the CW, and thus from Los Angeles to Vancouver. There’s been discussion about the lack of Cat’s presence and the effect it’ll have on the story, power vacuums at CatCo and such, but hopefully as we head into season 2, which premieres tonight, the writers will find a way to keep the truthbombs dropping as well.