Seven Things Taking the Super Out of Supergirl

When we heard that Greg Berlanti was adding a female-led superhero show to his empire roster, we were excited. When we learned that the superhero show in question would be Supergirl, we were elated. The Superman mythos has been at the heart of DCTV since Smallville, and since the DC Extended Universe had only offered up Man of Steel at the time, we were interested to see how Berlanti would bring the Girl of Steel to the small screen.

Yet what started as an ode to feminism, led by the versatile Melissa Benoist in the role of Kara Danvers, has since been marred by onscreen ship wars and offscreen sexual harassment allegations. Not just that, but combined with the lack of intersectionality and the detours in Kara’s character development, there are quite a few things holding the show back. But it is still a story near and dear to our hearts, and one we wish to see reach its full potential. So without further ado, here are seven ways to put the “super” back in Supergirl.

1) Allow Me to (Re) Introduce Myself, My Name Is Kara Danvers

Continuing what seems to be an annoying occurrence in the Arrowverse this season, Supergirl has seen Kara become a supporting character on her own show. The Arrowverse does a lot of things right, but two things they do wrong include turning everyone into a vigilante and letting the main character become a footnote. Unfortunately, Kara is a victim of both. The season has seen her either cheerleading the other characters’ stories or pining for Mon-El while he has a wife. We’ll discuss why the latter is a problem later, but the former displaces Kara from the main narrative and robs her of a season arc. Mon-El, yet again, has an arc about becoming a hero, while Lena is the one holding the story together. She owns both CatCo and LCorp, Sam is her friend and she’s the only one who knows Reign’s identity, and unlike literally everyone else on the show, her romance is actually going somewhere.

Meanwhile, the people with emotional arcs this season seem to be Alex, going through her first big breakup, and Sam losing herself to a villainous alter-ego while trying to protect her daughter. Instead of leading their stories as, you know, the lead of the show, Kara is mirroring them. This creates less investment for the audience because the arc of the season isn’t about Kara and the people who support her fighting against a villain, it’s about a group of people fighting against a villain… and Kara just happens to be one of them. Due to the nature of her previous hero’s journey, we’re more connected to Kara – but if she has neither the emotional nor the heroic journey this season, we become so disconnected from the plot that it’s almost hard to believe the threat is imminent. Sure, Kara is sad about it and she’s the one fighting, but it feels distinctly like it’s everyone else’s problem more than hers.

This is a common problem on superhero shows, and a growing pain as they head into later seasons – the problem of how much to focus on other characters as they become more fleshed out and gain the narrative importance to carry a story. Supergirl is not an ensemble show, and it should stop trying to be. It is a show about Kara Danvers, her journey to being Supergirl, and the people in her life. Supporting characters should get their time to shine, yes, but not at the expense of the main character. Their arcs and growth should enhance the lead character’s narrative with their own, not take it over. There is no reason that Lena, Sam, Winn, Mon-El, J’onn, and James shouldn’t get an arc (in fact, an arc for those last two would be rather a novel idea), but Kara needs to be the centre of the story. And Supergirl has been treating her as just another passenger on the bus, instead of the woman saving it from crashing.


2) I’ll Take Women of Color for $500, Alex

Supergirl has often dismissively, and accurately, been called “SuperWhite” in fandom. Given that the show purports to be feminist, and stars an immigrant no less, it would make sense for fans to expect some intersectionality in said feminism. Instead, the first season totally lacked women of color in any major roles and contained no hints of representation for LGBTQ viewers. The second season took a few steps in the right direction with Alex’s coming out story, and the introduction of M’gann and a Latinx Maggie Sawyer. But there were just a few problems: M’gann was treated like garbage by the narrative and her supposed love interest J’onn, and Maggie wasn’t actually Latinx. Turns out Floriana Lima is one of the many Italian actresses who gets a tan and then goes for all the available Latinx roles like it’s her job. Which, thanks to shows like Supergirl, it is.  This might also be a good time to mention that the network missed out on a great chance for disability representation, because Lena Luthor is in a wheelchair in the comics – and since she isn’t a villain onscreen, casting a wheelchair user would have subverted the comic trope nicely.

Nevertheless, the landscape is looking rather different well into season 3, but not necessarily better. Maggie went from nondescript “non-white” person to full-on broken Spanish speaker before her departure, and now in her stead we have honorary brown person Amy Jackson as Saturn Girl. Because rather than cast an actual South Asian actress, they chose a white British actress famous for playing Indian roles with the help of makeup artists and ADR. Meanwhile, M’gann stayed on Mars and off our screens. Considering how much story there is to mine with alien allies, it’s surprising that Supergirl never thought to have Kara and M’gann bond – then again it’s clear they never thought about M’gann at all.

But what about the Worldkillers? Doesn’t that provide representation? Odette Annable gets a fully fleshed-out story as Sam and has audiences rooting for Reign’s redemption as much as for Supergirl’s victory, but though the actress is Colombian and Cuban, she is a white Latinx whose character doesn’t share her heritage. Purity is played by black actress Krys Marshall, but she’s already suffered a large number of indignities in her only episode which we will delve into below. And finally, Angela Zhou is Pestilence, but there’s no doubt she’ll be as overlooked as her predecessor.

Casting WOC in small, often villainous, roles to give the impression of diversity is an old trick that Supergirl should have moved beyond by now. Perhaps once Alex has fully healed from her broken engagement to Maggie, her next love interest can be a woman of color who gets a chance to grow on the show? Whatever path they choose, we hope the writers start doing for all women what they’ve so skillfully done for white ones: provide meaty roles filled with girl power and female friendships that have touched viewers worldwide.  


3) Searching for Storylines in all the Wrong Places

Supergirl’s white feminist lens is not only reflected in its casting, but also its storytelling. It’s not uncommon, while watching some of our favorite shows, to notice an episode has incorporated a “ripped from the headlines” story. Law and Order practically built an empire off exploring hot button issues and turning real life stories into an engaging hour of television. Within the Arrowverse, Supergirl in particular has tried to frame itself as a socially conscious show, touching  on topics from immigration to sexism to politics. However, the Supergirl writers often aim to be “edgy” but not too controversial, resulting a superficial attempt at “wokeness” that neither calls attention to whichever topic they’ve chosen nor provides any meaningful commentary on it.

Take, for instance, the fact that Kara Danvers is a woman, an alien, and an immigrant to Earth. In its three seasons, Supergirl writers have tackled discrimination against each of these aspects of identity using Kara as the “face.” She is the symbol of “Girl Power,” whether by proving Supergirl is just as powerful as Superman or fighting as Kara to be taken seriously as journalist, but the show’s overall lack of intersectionality makes one wonder if her feminism only comes in one shade. She argues with Lena over alien rights, and her words hit all the right notes: discrimination is bad, xenophobia is bad. However, Kara is also (white) human passing. In fact, most of the aliens that join the show as main or recurring guest stars are white human passing except J’onn. In the comics, animated series, and previous live-action versions, Martian Manhunter’s human appearance has typically been a Black man. His portrayer, David Harewood, has talked about J’onn’s decision to live on Earth as a Black man before in previous interviews, saying, “He chooses to be black… because he understands injustice… and, as one of the most powerful people on the planet, chooses to stand with those who are fighting injustice.” However, this is never explored on the show. Adding the viewpoints of aliens like J’onn who have experienced discrimination even before arriving to Earth, as well as aliens who experience discrimination now because they are not human passing, would add more emotional resonance.

Unfortunately, even when Supergirl tackles social issues straight on, they still wind up remarkably tone deaf. Case in point, there was an entire episode dedicated to social commentary about the mistreatment of Mexicans in America written and performed by non Latinx writers and actors, in a universe where the President is an alien and herself a victim of discrimination. Another episode had DEO agents arrest a Black woman at gunpoint and Alex becoming increasingly aggressive with her interrogation approach, all based solely off of a dream Kara had that Julia could be a World Killer. And let’s not forget the flippant reference to Flint’s water crisis with no follow up on how to actually help Flint residents.

Exploring hot button issues in shows should spark larger conversations toward affecting change. Either hire more diverse writers and take a critical approach to the social topics you choose, or stop using real life victims for social justice “cookies.”  


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