(This article first appeared at jwa.org.)
I admit, I am woefully late to the party on Supergirl. I tried the pilot episode when it came out last year and found it a little campy and contrived next to my usual superhero and science-fiction fare. And by the time I gave it another try, late in the season, most of the previous episodes weren’t available online anymore.
But to drum up enthusiasm for Season Two, Season One is finally available on Netflix, and bingeing it hasn’t just been a guilty pleasure, it’s pushed me to look at massive blind spots I still have in my assumptions about feminism and pop culture.
I wanted to talk about how the stories that get told change when the cast is predominantly female, but I can’t do that, because when I actually tally up the cast, it’s exactly 50/50, men/women. After pointing indignantly (and repeatedly) to statistics that people perceive women as dominating the conversation when they take up half the space, I’m embarrassed to realize I’ve fallen into the same trap.
Then I thought about the fact that the parental conflicts on Supergirl are with mothers rather than fathers. I’m on more solid ground here: there are about as many dads on the show as moms, but the dads tend to show up in one-shot episodes while the mothers play more integral, ongoing roles. Usually, television heroes seem to spring full-grown from nowhere, and if a parent does show up partway into the story line, it’s generally an estranged or disapproving dad. But over time, Supergirl has to work through her relationships with both her long-dead biological mother (who turns out to be more problematic than Supergirl’s childhood memories of her) and her still-living foster mom. Meanwhile, her boss, powerhouse media mogul Cat Grant, struggles to mother her two sons while locking horns with her own critical and success-driven mom. Having so many varied mother-child relationships on one show changes both the dynamics between the characters and the range of possibilities for what it means to be either a bad or a good-but-flawed mom.
Tying into the mother-daughter dynamic, one of the most important relationships of season one has been Cat Grant’s mentorship of both Supergirl and her mild-mannered alter ego, Kara Danvers. I’ve snarled for years about the trope that whenever you have a super-powerful heroine with a special destiny to change the world, she needs to have an older male mentor to keep her in check: think Buffy, or Alias. The most charitable interpretation I can think of is that (male) writers following the model of the Hero’s Journey know that all heroes need a mentor and, thanks to millennia of male-centric stories, imagine men in that role more easily than women. Here, finally, the heroine has a strong, smart woman to look up to, one who talks to her about dealing with power, anger, and even failure, all from a distinctly female perspective.
Which brings me to the realization of just how blind I’ve been. What I really wanted to talk about turns out to be how this show explores what it means to be a mother or a daughter, to struggle to figure out what you want to do with your life, how to be recognized for your worth, and how to define yourself despite pre-existing social expectations.
I wanted to say that Supergirl is ultimately about what it means to be a woman. But I’m realizing that I’ve always thought of Superman shows like Smallville or Lois and Clark as being about what it means to be human, not about what it means to be a man. Supergirl is also about what it means to be human, just examining that question through a female lens instead of a male one. And that’s a subtle but hugely important idea to normalize in popular culture. As the show switches networks from CBS to the CW, with all the upheaval that might entail, I am hoping Season Two (premiering Monday, October 10th) lives up to (and surpasses) the achievements of Season One.