On -isms: Is Supergirl Feminist?

By | Thursday, October 29, 2015 Leave a Comment
I'm really not much of a TV watcher, but I have to admit that I was somewhat intrigued by the promotions for new Supergirl show. Not the ads themselves -- I don't think I actually saw any of the teasers anyway -- but mostly seeing Melissa Benoist in costume. Unlike certain presidential candidates, though, my interest was in her eyes and her expression and how she held herself. Whether she was shown standing, flying, or walking with a group of kids, I saw confidence, joy, and, most significantly, hope. That's something I haven't seen a superhero embody, in comics or in other media, in a long time.

I didn't see the show until yesterday, so I had the opportunity to catch some reactions. Not much, but I did see some people seemed quite thrilled with it and others who weren't. Those that weren't were generally citing issues in and around feminism, though I didn't focus on it closely enough to catch specifics. I tried to watch the show, keeping a particular eye out for that kind of thing though.

I ended up watching the pilot twice. Once as a "well, let's see what this is" and a second time with some commentary from Executive Producers Sarah Schechter and Ali Adler, and director Glen Winter.

I did very much like Benoist in the title role; I think she did a remarkable job and continued to radiate that joy and hope that I saw in the still shots. (The confidence, not so much, but that was obviously a deliberate part of her character arc in the pilot.) I also liked the directing overall; lots of nice camera-work and there were some scenes where they made good use of how the cameras rolled through/around the sets. Overall, the visual aesthetics of the show were very good.

There were a few things that did turn me off in general. The opening narration, for starters. It's a lazy, crap way to relay information to the viewer. It might work if you've got absolutely brilliant prose to be read, but as a rule, no. Second, could the character of Cat Grant be any less dimensional? I mean, I get the notion of providing an ongoing adversary for Supergirl that she can't punch, but geez, why not give her a black cape and hat, a pencil mustache, and a name like Horrible McBadperson?

My third problem was the physics. The effects were nice, and surprising for a TV show, but the physics for everything seemed very soft. When a character crashed on something, it never looked like there was any force behind it; stuff just kind of collapsed as the person gently laid down on it. That truck-ripping-in-half bit? It looked like it was opening up so Vartox can be tossed through the opening. Basically, I felt I was too aware that I was looking at the effects when it was a practical effect where someone might have the slightest chance of getting hurt.

Now, the feminist bit. There's the scene in there where Cat names Supergirl, and Kara goes off about "girl" being demeaning. In the commentary, Schechter, Adler, and Winter agreed that early on that it had to be addressed in the story. The didn't add much more than that, however.

It's not used much anymore, but in the 1990s the word "girls" sometimes got replaced with "grrrlz." I've always liked Trina Robbins' description where she said, "Grrrl combined that reclaimed word girl with a defiant growl..." And before that, in the 1970s, "women" was sometimes spelled "womyn" to emphasize a separateness and distinctness from "men." There are plenty of other variations on that type of theme -- where people deliberately try to subvert the demeaning stereotypes tied to a word by taking it as their own, albeit in sometimes modified form. You can see it most successfully recently in the transition of "geek" over the past decade and a bit.

So while the conversation in the show isn't really completed, I think the intent is to embrace the suffix "-girl" and portray it in such a powerful fashion that the connotations around it are changed. Cat Grant clearly embraces the term "girl" and the snippets I've seen of future episodes suggests Supergirl does as well. Whether or not the show is successful in fully reclaiming the word remains to be seen, naturally.

And while that's great if that's the intent -- and with two female EPs, it wouldn't surprise me -- the show does walk a fine line in its implementation. On the one hand, there's the conceits that Vardox is a chauvanist and they try to use that against him, the mothers being the more caring and nuturing of the parents while the fathers say literally nothing, the notion that despite being in a position of power Cat Grant is still superficial enough to buy a building with a private elevator so she doesn't have to smell someone else's cologne, James coming in to save Kara's job, the very fact that Supergirl is and will always be derivative of Superman... On the other hand, we have a Superman who wants to empower Supergirl to make her own way, a mother who was powerful enough to put away hundreds of aliens in the Phantom Zone, National City's top executive being a woman, and naturally Supergirl doing some pretty heroic stuff on her own. I think, ultimately, any given show could slide one way or the other without much difficulty, and that might depend on who happens to write or direct a particular episode.

I think the thing that strikes me as the most positive and most feminist aspect of the show is how much Benoist has embraced the role. She's already done any number of events in costume, and displayed that confidence, joy, and hope that I mentioned earlier. And young girls who see that will take some of that and it will become a part of who they are, and will grow up to be stronger, more confident, more successful women because of it.

The old Wonder Woman show had more than it's share of issues with promoting feminism. But the women who were young girls when it first came on saw a powerful hero they could try to emulate. Both in Wonder Woman and in star Lynda Carter. Whether Supergirl succeeds or not, whether it resorts to tired tropes of portraying women or presents them more positively, I think its biggest impact will be from Benoist herself. I can almost guarantee that, twenty or thirty years from now, Benoist will be showing up at conventions with a line of autograph seekers, all telling her that she inspired them to become great scientists and engineers and artists and lawyers and whatever else they didn't think they had the capability to do before they saw Benoist with a giant "S" on her chest.
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