Posted by Jaime
Major caveat to this article: I’m not a woman. I don’t pretend to have an intrinsic understanding of what it means to be female in a culture that has prioritized men for…well, ever. But gender equality and justice on TV are important issues to me. These issues are particularly meaningful to me as I’m raising my son—I want him to grow up with a TV landscape with more strong women in it than I did—so I’m writing this post as someone who thinks that superhero TV can, and must, do better, especially when it comes to depicting women as protagonists and role models in the same way it does men.
News came out this week that CBS may have Supergirl on the chopping block for cancellation, and while that’s not a definitive answer on the show’s fate by a long shot, it is cause for concern for fans. Despite the sub-par pilot episode (which made her more Spice Girl than action hero), Supergirl has developed into a complex, rewarding show that also carries symbolism and meaning to its audience, and its cancellation would represent a real loss to the TV landscape.
Supergirl is a major step forward for how women are depicted in TV superhero culture. Sure, there are plenty of strong female characters out there, between Arrow, The Flash, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Agent Carter, but Supergirl is the only present-day powered female that’s a prime-time lead. That’s a big deal, and one that means that the renewal of Supergirl should be considered from a philosophical level as much as it should from a ratings or plot perspective.
There are SO many reasons why CBS should renew Supergirl, but let’s stick with the top five…
5. Because she’s more interesting and flawed than Superman.
Superman’s powers have always been the gold standard for the word “superhero,” but as many have noticed, he’s often the least interesting character in any of his stories. And that’s because good characters, characters that we as an audience care about, have flaws—one might even say good characters are their flaws—and Superman has no discernible flaws whatsoever.
Supergirl, on the other hand, has all of the cool stuff about her cousin, plus plenty of character flaws to boot: she cares what other people think of her; she has trouble standing up to authority; she is perpetually lonely as the only one of her kind (that isn’t evil, anyway); she doesn’t know how to maintain a love life. She’s made of steel, yet somehow, through her flaws, she becomes relatable. She’s an alien, but we get her.
(Batman v Superman just came out, but I haven’t seen it. So maybe Superman is less boring now. I kinda doubt it, but we’ll see.)
In Supergirl, we get to see a Kryptonian that we can care about and relate to. We get to see that life would always be a struggle, even if we had superpowers. So while DC hasn’t announced any plans for a Superman TV series, I can already tell you I would cancel that before giving Supergirl the axe.
4. Because of Cat Grant.
While the Supergirl/Cat Grant relationship started the year as the Dollar-Store version of The Devil Wears Prada, Ms. Grant has since developed into a thoughtful media mogul who continually surprises the audience.
All season long, Cat Grant has struggled with the different sides of forgiveness. We saw that in her relationship with her son, she desperately wants to be forgiven for years of neglect. At the same time, she has an extremely hard time forgiving Supergirl for not being perfect (and, ahem, for almost killing her once). In a show where she could serve as a one-dimensional surrogate for all media (like J. Jonah Jameson in Spider-Man, or Perry White in Superman), she’s instead a character dealing with the very real human problem of not wanting to forgive and seeking forgiveness at the same time.
We also keep getting hints that Cat Grant cares about Kara (Supergirl), but sees the need to push her by being hard on her. Instead of replacing her with Siobhan, she had them work together—which showed us that she’s challenging Kara, not punishing her. When Siobhan betrayed Kara, Ms. Grant stood up for her. And, of course, when she’s alone, Cat Grant knows exactly how to pronounce Kara’s name.
It’s exactly the development we want to see: a Darth Vader who is eventually making his way away from the dark side. TV needs more characters like her.
(And CBS: I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you that The Good Wife is ending this year. If you cancel Supergirl, both Cat Grant and Alicia Florrick disappear. There aren’t a lot of shows about career-driven single women, much less good ones. Renew the ones you can.)
3. Because Supergirl has the right blend of action, plot, and romance.
Like every superhero show, there are some key romances in Supergirl, but what’s important here is that the balance is spot-on—which is to say, the show is just as much about her battling the threat posed by escaped alien convicts as it is about her relationship with Jimmy Olsen.
More importantly, the romance-action-plot balance of Supergirl is pretty much equal to that found on the show’s male counterparts of The Flash and Arrow. That’s significant—where the writers could have chosen to make Supergirl a show driven primarily by emotion and romance, where they could have written a “comic book show for girls,” they instead wrote a comic book show that just so happens to have a female lead.
2. Because she brings Kryptonian canon to DCTV.
The DC universe has outstanding lore, and a lot of it rests in the Super-verse. While we can get our Bat-fix watching Gotham, Supergirl is the only show that has access to stuff like Bizarro, the Fortress of Solitude, and Martian Manhunter.
(Although, I have a confession: when I saw Supergirl entering Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, my first thought was, “How much solitude can a person get if their cousin can just drop by unannounced at any time?”)
Supergirl brings Kryptonian canon to DCTV, and that’s important to DC fans like myself. I, for one, can’t wait for Supergirl to go up against Brainiac, or Lex Luthor. The Super-verse is worth keeping on TV. And besides, I’m not exactly dying to watch Aquaman explore the ocean week after week.
1. Because she’s a more relevant role model than Agent Carter.
Look, I loves me some Agent Carter. Peggy Carter is a terrific mix of poise, strength, and bad-assery that no one comes close to in any superhero universe. She kicks ass in heels and she out-thinks everyone around her. She rolls her eyes every time someone underestimates her. But the entire premise of Agent Carter suffers from the “Mad Men Problem,” in that it depicts sexism and chauvinism as things of the past.
Because Agent Carter is set 70 years ago—and it’s positioned as the counterpart to Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.—the sexism that Peggy encounters seems almost quaint, and distant from our present day. In the same way that we collectively said “Can you believe that?” every time Don Draper patted a woman’s behind or made a derisive comment, so are we encouraged to say “I can’t believe workplaces were like that!” every time Agent Carter sees credit for her work being given to a man.
In addition, modern-day Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. in some ways puts itself in the position of being a testament to progress. The pairing of the two shows creates a narrative: “1940’s Marvel was full of chauvinists, but modern-day Marvel is a world where women are treated equally.” And this is unfortunate; it makes me wonder if Agent Carter makes people think that sexism in the workplace is a problem that’s been solved already (spoiler alert: it hasn’t), or if Marvel has diminished the character’s power as a role-model by placing her in a cultural context so far away from present day. Again, I’m a big fan of Agent Carter; I just sigh every time I realize she’s been placed in one of the least relatable or relevant places in the MCU.
Supergirl, on the other hand, is in a present-day urban setting, where women are still judged on how they look, and where their abilities are still questioned by their male counterparts. For the first half of the season, she was forced to prove her competence to her male boss, Hank Henshaw (who, even now, doesn’t hesitate to point out that she may be dangerous because her emotions might get in the way). She’s been challenged, insulted, and undermined by Maxwell Lord, who is constantly preaching against Supergirl because he is threatened by being dependent upon her.
(Seriously. Go back and watch all of the Maxwell Lord TV interviews, and replace the word ‘Supergirl’ with ‘a woman’ and you’ll be sore from cringing pretty quickly.)
Supergirl is a modern-day woman showing people that even a woman with the power to jump over buildings still gets treated by men the same way every other woman does. And by placing these challenges in front of Supergirl, the writers have created a situation that both acknowledges the sexism issues faced by many women today while simultaneously creating a character that’s able to rise above them…sometimes literally.
Supergirl isn’t about the “sexism from a distance” that Agent Carter is; Supergirl isn’t the polished, self-assured woman that Peggy Carter is. Supergirl is still learning to own her power, and I believe it’s important to have both kinds of strong women in superhero TV. (It’s worth noting here that this same older-badass-younger-apprentice dichotomy is present in May and Daisy on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., although Supergirl’s office environment is far more relatable than S.H.I.E.L.D.’s spy missions are, so they kinda fail on the relatability front.)
(Also, ABC: Please don’t cancel Agent Carter. It’s really good too. And also it’s not her fault that she was isolated from the rest of the MCU.)
In the end, I’m happy that modern comic-book TV features many more women today than it did when I was a kid in the 1980’s. I’m relieved that the comic universes on TV showcase a variety of role models, and that I live in a world where I can name five comic-based TV shows off the top of my head. But Supergirl is special, and a show that could easily be renewed based on the merit of its writing, acting, or direction—and at the same time, there’s a lot of cultural symbolism and meaning at stake here.
I’m hoping we won’t have to save Supergirl. I also take a lot of solace knowing that she’s strong enough to save herself.