When Supergirl moved to The CW last summer, everyone (myself included) went bananas speculating how the show would change on its new home. More crossovers with the DC TV universe were almost a given; the departure of Cat Grant was inevitable (Calista Flockhart said as much ahead of time, due to filming locations); but most of all, being on The CW meant the show would have more freedom to feel like an on-screen comic book—which was, after all, the key to the success of The Flash, Arrow, and DC’s Legends of Tomorrow. But there was one major change to Supergirl that no one predicted: The second season has seen our heroine go from being a superhero to being a progressive activist (or “Social Justice Warrior [SJW],” depending on how you feel about the term).
Before we dig into all of the ways Supergirl became DC TV’s de facto liberal warrior, a few caveats:
- There will be lots of spoilers ahead. Proceed with caution!
- If you’re against “liberal Hollywood,” values-driven TV, or you use the term “SJW” as an insult, you may want to stop reading.
OK? OK. So here’s how it’s gone down.
1. The Show Confronted Superman’s Male Privilege
Integrating Superman into the Supergirl universe has always been a complex topic: How do you keep a show focused on her, when the audience’s basis of understanding Supergirl is drawn from her cousin?
In some ways, there was no winning from the start (it was rigged!). When a power dynamic based on social privilege exists between two characters, it’s not uncommon for a TV show to reflect, and even validate, that disparity. For example, when Bill Cosby (I know, I know) first starred in I Spy in 1965, he was the first African American to have a starring role on primetime TV, itself a huge sign post of social change. However, as he and his white partner (Robert Culp) drove around solving crimes, Cosby was never once behind the wheel.
One perspective on that was that the driving dynamic was pretty insulting to the black community — why couldn’t Cosby drive? Did they not trust him with the keys? It felt odd to see him constantly dashing for the passenger seat. The trouble is, if Bill Cosby had been the driver every time, it would have put him in the role of chauffeur, Driving Miss Daisy-style, which also would have been insulting…and, you know, much worse.
Clearly, the right answer would have been to have Cosby and Culp take turns driving—that never happened—but my point is that the producers of I Spy were in a situation that invited criticism no matter what they did, so long as they had to choose who to feature behind the wheel. (Again, I have no idea why Cosby and Culp didn’t take turns.)
With Supergirl, there’s a similar catch-22: When Superman isn’t an active character in the show, he’s mentioned so frequently that Kara/Supergirl effectively has to live in his shadow. But if he were a regular feature, it would give the audience the idea that she couldn’t keep the show interesting on her own.
Oh, and that overshadowing thing? I meant it literally. This was one of Superman’s two appearances in season one:
Throughout season one, when Superman wasn’t gracing Kara with brief moments of benevolence, each of the other characters took turns referencing Superman, constantly measuring Kara’s success as a hero to her male counterpart. It eventually got old and embarrassing, and started to suggest that the producers were insecure about Supergirl’s ability to maintain the show as a solo hero.
Of course, the opposite would have been a problem, too. Bringing Superman in to his more-than-capable cousin’s show could have made his shadow permanent, and he likely would have upstaged her, diluting everything that’s enjoyable about watching Supergirl. So in a sense, there was no winning.
But here’s where it gets interesting. Season 2 launched with Superman playing an active role in the plot, and instead of upstaging Supergirl, the scripts were written to show us Superman’s privilege in focus. Check it out:
What’s important about this is Supergirl’s reaction to Superman being treated with more respect than she is:
“Haven’t I saved more of these people than you have?”
Rather than having the show focus on Supergirl being overshadowed from afar (ala season one) or having her not blink at being upstaged in person, the writers chose instead to use the chauvinism of other characters to illustrate the casual sexism that Kara has to deal with. The DEO troops are “honored to work with” Superman, and meanwhile, we’ve seen Kara risk her life for months for the DEO to little fanfare. The disparity is stark, and powerful.
This is fairly revolutionary for superhero TV—getting us to root for a hero whose job is made much, much harder because of male privilege—Peggy Carter notwithstanding.